Erroneous Brain Heuristics

January 14, 2009

The following is in response to several comments I received about communities of practice (CoP) mentioned in an earlier blog. My perspective on CoP is no more positive than those reflected in the comments I received. I certainly agree that formal CoP have been less than successful, but failure of the method to achieve an intended goal shouldn’t undermine our efforts to foster the development of healthy learning communities. I guess I’d have to say that Etienne Wenger reminded me that CoP, whether formal or informal, are ultimately in service to learning. There’s no doubt formal CoP have become just as “debased” as KM to use a commenter’s characterization, but we have to look beyond that. What really resonated for me from Wenger’s presentation is the role of identity in the process of learning and how identity intersects with community, practice and the meaning we make of the process. He also mentioned what he sees as the undervalued role of those that serve as liaisons between CoP; they’re not appreciated by either community, but critical to cross pollination.

Speaking of being reminded of past perspectives, I recently heard a short science report on National Public Radio, the modest U.S. version of the BBC. The story was about erroneous human visual perception and the value of challenging line judge calls in the game of tennis. I recalled John McEnroe, the famous or infamous U.S. tennis player who obnoxiously challenged every close call. Turns out he was probably right to challenge.

According to David Whitney, a University of California at Davis scientist, judges really can’t tell whether a ball close to the line is in or out and that inability is embedded in the human brain. The brain’s visual system to locate objects faces a lot of challenges. It has to rely on heuristics (tricks to fill in the blanks) to predict object trajectories which apparently produce a slight error when a bounce is introduced. You can find the short story at the link below so I won’t go into all the details, but apparently McEnroe was correct to challenge the accuracy of the judge’s call—the odds were in his favor.

This is a great example of the pattern matching basis of human intelligence. Because of McEnroe’s combative behavior I recall always being disgusted with his protests and unsportsmanlike conduct, and therefore assumed his protests were bogus; and as it turns out, line judges make a lot of assumptions of their own based on erroneous interpretation of patterns and faulty brain processing. Perhaps it might make sense for some one to prepare a handy catalog of suspicious human pattern matching behavior. I suspect that might be a very big catalog.

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