Has part of the answer to The Frame Problem been found?

As is described in What is the Frame Problem?, the frame problem in cognitive science refers to the problem that cognitive agents necessarily solve each moment: pay attention to what is relevant in a given situation and ignore the rest. While of course we’re not always perfect at this task, not attending to valuable info while attending to irrelevant info, we’re pretty good at it. A group of cognitive scientists may have identified one of the components to the solution of the frame problem.

In a BBC article entitled Brain ‘irrelevance filter’ found, evidence is presented that the basal ganglia is critically involved in directing people’s attention away from irrelevant information. The study was conducted by Dr. Torkel Klingberg and colleague Fiona McNab, and is published in Nature Neuroscience.

It was found that people who are good at remembering things, even with distractions, have more activity in the basal ganglia. It is argued that this research could help explain why some people are better at remembering things than others, and could also aid in the understanding of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Here is a brief description of the study and its findings:

The volunteers were asked to perform a computer-based task that required them to respond to target visual images, with or without distractions.

A noise informed subjects when an upcoming visual display would contain irrelevant distracters along with the targets.

When this cue occurred, neural activity increased in the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex before the visual display appeared, suggesting the brain was preparing to “filter out” the upcoming distracters.

Also, greater activity in a specific part of the basal ganglia – the globus pallidus – correlated with less unnecessary storage in another part of the brain, the posterior parietal cortex, which is sensitive to the amount of information held in memory.

A question that interests me regarding this research is how extremely creative and insightful people would perform on this sort of task, and how would their basal ganglia function? Creative and insightful people are believed to engage in relatively enriched divergent thinking due to viewing situations more broadly, considering less obvious perspectives and interpretations. Their irrelevance filter may be slightly less rejecting than those of most other people. Another group that demonstrates a proposed underactivity of irrelevance filtering is a subset of psychotic patients. It is argued that one of the reasons why certain people may have paranoia and hallucinations is because they draw illusory connections by over-interpreting irrelevant information.

Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto argues that a key difference between these two groups is IQ. Highly creative people tend to demonstrate less latent inhibition (or, ignoring of irrelevant information) and higher IQs. Taking in more information means the cognitive system has more information to deal with. If one has a particularly efficient cognitive system, as evinced by a high IQ, then they may be able to make good use of the rich information base (e.g., through creative works of art, intellectual insights, etc.). But if one’s cognitive capacities are overwhelmed by the information received, psychotic delusions and paranoia may be a consequence.

Another question is why do some people have episodes of genius and psychosis in alternation? A relatively common psychological condition in creative geniuses is bipolar, or manic-depression. In some cases, e.g., John Nash, there is fullblown paranoid delusional schizophrenia. Perhaps his IQ was high enough to draw highly insightful connections but not high enough to distinguish genuine insight from delusion. Or perhaps irrelevance filtering and/or metacognitive awareness (i.e., attention and critical analysis of one’s own thinking) varies in a cyclical sense, so that sometimes one can be more vulnerable to delusion.

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