Day 040 - Think the same way with the investment principle

Submitted by Sam on 30 June, 2011 - 00:47

It is extremely difficult to challenge long-held beliefs. The modular, additive mechanism of mind proposed by Minsky offers a compelling argument as to why this is the case, through what he describes as “the investment principle”. This is the tendency for humans to approach new situations and unfamiliar problems using modes of thinking that they have learned perform well in other scenarios, rather than try to confront novel environments with entirely novel ways of thinking. This tendency arises because our oldest ideas have an unfair advantage over ideas which arrive later – we have invested more in them by layering dependent skills on top of them. Older ideas will therefore have a greater number of skills (or ways of thinking, beliefs, conceptions) reliant on them than newer ideas, which will have to compete against this large mass of skills in order to become established as beneficial modes of thinking.

Whilst this pattern of thinking minimizes the amount of energy that the brain uses by providing it with strategies which work most of the time, thereby preventing the constant reformulation of policies for dealing with the world, the investment principle does however place certain constraints on how open-minded one can ever really be when confronted with entirely new events. Through the hierarchical layering of agents relying on other agents creating interdependent skill-sets and thought-pathways, we come to apply patterns of past experience to present and future behaviours, reinforcing our longest-held beliefs by continuing to invest time and energy in them, galvanising them by mobilizing them in novel situations, even if they are not adequately equipped to deal with them.

Evolution provides clear illustrations of how this process of investment can become enslaving to development. Once the pattern of centralizing neural networks in an organism's head became evolutionarily beneficial, a delicate network of anatomical dependencies became established around this structure that could not be drastically disturbed by random mutation without a high chance of deleterious side-effects. Whilst parcelling the brain into the head is excellent for most organisms, some could perhaps be better served by a brain placed in a different location – woodpeckers, for example. So many fundamental structures have based themselves around the generally reliable and generally efficient principle of “brain goes in the head” that some organisms are stuck with sub-optimal anatomies.

As a generalizing tool, the investment principle works most of the time, but it is critical that we are aware of its effects. As our brains mature, and as our patterns of thought become more and more entrenched, it becomes harder and harder to dislodge them even in the face of highly compelling new ideas. An awareness of the investment principle can help understand why it is so difficult to challenge working beliefs, and perhaps facilitate introspective change.

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