# Why is it difficult to copy edit your own work?

When I was writing my PhD thesis, as with anyone else it involved multiple drats going back and forth. As far I am concerned writing is never a linear process. At times one cannot even write a single line in a day, and at other times you may finish a couple of sections in a a few hours. Writing is difficult as it involves third level thinking (Dix 2006). You may have several ideas with you, you can also explicate while talking to others. But when it comes to writing it down we find it is not easy. But when we are in the”zone” the writing task becomes a natural thing. Your creative juices flow, the elusive ideas seem to express themselves in words. I usually experience such zone when l am at the end of the world task. The disparate looking ideas are bound together in a coherent whole. The feeling is close to an epiphany of a strange kind. You lose track of time and experience oneness with your work, as of the concrete form of ideas is a physical extension of your self. The feeling can be deeply satisfying to see your ideas on a concrete form. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “flow” to describe such an experience.

I experience the similar thing while reading a book. There are times when even reading a couple of sentences feels like a chore. While at other times when I am in the flow a hundred pages are finished in a couple of hours. The result send effortless. Words just seen to read themselves or to you. Of course it also depends on the kind of book one is reading. Technical books will take a longer to read.

When you are reading easily, you actually don’t read the entire words, letter by letter. Rather there is some sort of guess work or pre-processing that happens. Typically by looking at the starting letter and the end letter and also estimating the size of the word, we can actually guess the word before we can read it correctly. That is our cognitive system can fill in the gaps when we are dealing with familiar information. This makes the reading fast for experienced learners. A full use is made is of the repertoire of words that we know, and also rules of grammar. We expect certain words to follow certain words. And at times our system will fill in the gaps by itself when it finds some. This way the reading becomes effortless and we can make name out of it easily. Such fast refund comes with experience and knowing the language. When your children have difficulty in reading they have both problems. Their prediction system is not strong so they have to read each word and each letter in the word individually and only then they are angle to make sense. This then boils to be able to recognise the symbols as quickly as possible.

But how do we recognise the symbols that we see? There are several theories that attempt to explain our recognition of the symbols. The template theory posits that there are as many templates in our long term memory as many symbols we can detect. But this assumption of the theory puts severe demand on the long term memory and also on the processes which would the pattern recognition. A simple example which puts the template theory into spot is that we can recognise a letter in its various forms. The sheer number of fonts and handwriting, some of it bordering on illegible, we can recognise with little efforts lots severe strain on the template theory. The fact that we can also recognise the shape of fonts we have never seen before also poses a challenge.

The feature theory on the other hand posits that the long term memory has a set of features of the symbols which are essential in the symbol. For example, to recognise letter “w”, the feature set might include two lines slanting to the left and two lines slanting to right such as \ / \ /. This as soon as our sensory register gets this input of such lines we immediately pre process such input to a “w”. The feature theory posits three steps in pattern recognition which are collectively called as Analysis-by-Synthesis. In this process the pattern is broken down into its features, then these features are matched with LTM and finally a decision about the pattern is taken. Thus with this theory we require much less number of items in our long term memory. The analysis-by-synthesis is completely driven by the data that impinges on the sensory organs.

Some of the challenges that this theory faces include ambiguity of how we deal with ambiguity in recognition of the patterns especially when the data is similar. In particular it does not answer our ability to consider importance of context in which the patterns appear and the sensory data itself is not good enough discriminator. In many cases turns out that we rely on other knowledge and information also to make sense of the patterns, in which case the feature theory alone cannot provide good explanations. For example, consider the Greek letter $\Delta$. Though we can identify it as such, the meaning it conveys can be heavily dependent on the context. We take three such examples.

• If it is seen in a sentence in Greek it will be interpreted as a sound “de” Το Δελχί είναι η πρωτεύουσα της Ινδίας (Delhi is India’s capital.).
• Now if the same letter $\Delta$ is seen in a mathematical context such as $\Delta ABC \cong \Delta PQR$, it represents a triangle and the sentence is read as “Triangle ABC is congruent to triangle PQR”.
• Finally, if the symbol $\Delta$ appears in a physics formula, lets say $\Delta E = E_{2} – E_{1}$, it represents a difference in the two values of $E$.

Or consider the two sentences below

In the first sentence we will probably read it as “The number of participants was 190 (one hundred and ninety)” while in the second sentence we would read it as “I go there often”. Note here that the visual pattern is the same in both the sentences. Yet the context of the sentence makes all the difference in how we interpret the pattern. From such experiences we must conclude that context affects the pattern recognition by activating some conceptual information from LTM or pre-synthesising the pattern. Thus our cognitive system adds more information based on the contexts to the perceptual data to make sense of the patterns and context establishes what to expect in the incoming patterns.

Now this adaptive feature of the our cognitive system can be very useful and allows us to be much faster than just being dependent on the perceptual information. But at times it can be maladaptive also. This notion brings us back to the title of this post. As I completed my first draft of the thesis, and gave it for comments, I discovered to my extreme horror and embarrassment that it was full of elementary grammatical mistakes. In the flow of writing down my ideas, I chose to just go with them. Though I did review what I had written, I did not find any obvious faults in it. This is something that you might have also experienced. It is difficult to see “obvious” break in ideas or abrupt endings in your own writing, and this of course also includes “trivial” grammar rules of punctuation and articles as such.  But when you are proof-reading work of someone else both “obvious” and  “trivial” errors are markedly visible. I can say this as I have copy-edited and proof-read several long and short works, where I did found out the very same errors in other works which I could not in my own work. Thankfully, in my thesis most of the issues were of “trivial” grammar and no “obvious” conceptual or fundamental issues were pointed. I then furiously began correcting the “trivial” grammar issues in my work.

Why is this so? Seen in the framework of analysis-by-synthesis model, we know what we have written or wanted to write and our pre-synthesising cognitive system fills in the obvious gaps and creates the required and expected patterns contextually where they are found missing. We tend to “skip” over our writing as we read it in a flow, with background and context of why the text was written and what it wants to say. All the “obvious” and  “trivial” errors and gaps are ironed out with the additional contextual information that we have about our own work. So we have to be extra-careful while proof-reading our own work. When we are reading work written by someone else, all this background information is not available to us, hence pre-synthesising of patterns happens at a lower level. This leads us to find “obvious” and  “trivial” errors and gaps much easily.

I found out that though I can do a good job of proof-reading other persons work on a computer (using the record changes/comments on a word processor) , for proof-reading my own work I usually take a printout and work on it with a pen. The concrete form of my work perhaps helps me in minimising the pre-synthesising that happens.  I usually take red ink for proof-reading, perhaps reminiscing of how teachers in schools grade assignments.

References

Chapter 2 Hunt, R. R., & Ellis, H. C. (1999). Fundamentals of cognitive psychology. McGraw-Hill.

A. Dix (2006). writing as third order experience Interfaces, 68, pp. 19-20. Autumn 2006.

# The psychology of perception of time in elevators

As a technology, elevators were mandatory for having high rise apartments. You really don’t want to climb up 35 flights of stairs to just get home. My experience with elevators (or lifts as they are more commonly called in India) has been rather strange at times and continues to be so. And I am pretty sure, this is something most people also experience. If you look at it with scrutiny, it is not a strange experience per se, but I found it fascinating nonetheless. As the title of the post suggests, it is about how we perceive the passage of time when we are in an elevator. Now, typically, they would take less than a minute, sometimes perhaps 10-20 seconds to traverse the required distance. Now, here I am considering typical apartment buildings which I have lived in. Not the skyscrapers with 100s of floors. The lift takes about 12 seconds, as timed using a stopwatch to reach my floor if there are no other stops. Of course, if there are stops on intervening floors when people get in or get out, this is longer. So this is the minimum possible time for the lift to take this floor, both ways. That is from my floor to the ground floor and from the ground floor to my floor.

The distance between the ground floor and my floor is constant. The lift and its motor produce the same acceleration and hence same terminal velocity, and the time taken is the same (as measured with a chronometer). I used a quantum-temporal-displacement-chronometer to be sure about time measurement. So our experience of this short travel should also be the same. But this is far from the case. Traveling in the lift gives a variety of experiences. But most strongly it affects how we perceive the passage of time during this short journey. Sometimes it is as if the ground floor is touched as soon as you press the 0 button on the control panel, while at other times it seems time itself has slowed down and it is taking centuries to cover that trivial distance. You may look at the panel displaying the current floor several times during these few seconds and yet it somehow feels lift is moving too slowly. And at times when you are not looking at the panel, and are lost in your thoughts, it chimes to indicate the ground floor has arrived. And you are surprised that it took such a short time. So what kind of blackmagicfuckery is this you wonder? That we subjectively experience something entirely different in terms of time perception is nothing new, but in the case of an elevator, it is so much striking and a part of everyday experience.

I have concocted explanations for the two cases one in which we deem the lift going too slowly and one in which we perceive it be too fast. In the first case, when we perceive the lift to be too slow, we are perhaps not thinking about anything else. Our entire cognitive apparatus and sense organs (eyes and ears) are solely focussed on getting to the destination. Hence, we tend to only look at the floors numbers on the display panel again and again. Expecting it to change often, and our expectation time, the way our neurons are firing is much faster than the real-time. The anticipation is that it should go faster whereas it is going at its own pre-determined pace. Hence, there is a cognitive dissonance that we experience as lift going too slowly. This is even more pronounced if we are in a hurry to get somewhere or are already late. I have seen people press the buttons on the control panel again and again in the hope that it will get them there faster, but it doesn’t work that way. Objectively measured the lift will take the pre-determined time to reach its destination. You are only subjectively experiencing that it is taking longer. Perhaps two persons in the same lift will have a  completely different perception of time depending upon their mental states.

Now coming to the other case, in which we experience the time to be too short, perhaps our cognitive system is already too loaded. This is when before entering the lift we are deep in a thought chain that we are processing. In such a scenario, we expect the lift to just take us to the destination once we press the button. Our schema for the elevator is activated, we don’t have to do any cognitive processing once we press the button. The schema, as an automated response shaped by our experiences with elevators and induction, works seamlessly when not interfered with, assuming that the elevator is behaving in its normal manner. I have had experience of an elevator which could close the door as you were trying to enter. It was almost as if the elevator waited like a predator to catch its pray. Some logic circuits in this elevator were fried, and it won’t let you off you when it caught your leg. Or the elevator might itself have a severe case of fear of heights (vertigo?), as told in HHGTG and would not want to travel to heights. But these being extreme cases, most elevators are domesticated and docile, doing the deed they are designed to do depositing and delivering cargo to destinations, despite the draconian ways in which some travellers might treat them.

Coming back to the explanation for the former case, perhaps due to no cognitive load we are trying to screw with the automated schema. We are just running the simulation of the schema for elevators in our minds, and confusing it with the real world out there. Hence there is a cognitive dissonance. We are expecting something in the mind, while we are seeing something in reality. I have also tried this experiment sometimes when this happens. I close my eyes and mentally calculate the amount of time that might have passed and try to predict the floor that I might have reached. I open my eyes to check if I have guessed correctly but most of the times I am incorrect in the guess.

When we have company in the lift, the temporal experience can be altered and can be subjective as well. If you are with a person whom you find attractive or admire, you might feel that the time taken was perhaps too short. On the other hand, if it is somebody whom you find disgusting or un-attractive, the same journey might seem like a lifetime or a life sentence. In this case, perhaps the cognitive system has become completely Epicurean (when it is not?) in its approach and wants to maximise the good times and minimise the not-so-good ones.

But this does not end the discussion of the elevators. Experiments in elevators provide some useful insights in fundamental physics. This is related to the concepts of frames of reference and the so-called equivalence principle. Elevators are used in Gedanken experiments for thinking about the equivalence principle, which later gave rise to the general theory of relativity.

Apple falling inside a box that rests on the Earth. Indistinguishable motion when the appl is inside an accelerated box in outer space.

The equivalence principle states that to an observer in a freely falling elevator the laws of physics are the same as in the inertial frames of special relativity (at least in the  immediate neighbourhood of the centre of the elevator). The effects due to the accelerated motion and to the gravitational forces exactly cancel. An observer sitting in an enclosed elevator cannot, if he observes apparent gravitational forces, tell what portion of these correspond to acceleration and what portion to actual gravitational forces. He will detect no forces at all unless other forces (i.e., other than gravitational forces) act on the elevator. In particular, the postulated principle of equivalence requires that the ratio of the inertial and gravitational masses be M_i/M_g = 1. The “weightlessness” of a man in orbit in a satellite is a consequence of the equivalence principle. Pursuit of the mathematical consequences of the  principle of equivalence leads to the general theory of relativity.. –
From Kittel Mechanics – Berkeley Physics Course Volume 1

Another fundamental aspect of physics which uses elevators is the notion of inertial and non-inertial frames of reference. An inertial frame of reference is one in which the particle experiences no acceleration (either transitional or rotational).

Our ability to say whether or not a particular reference frame is an inertial frame will depend in a strict sense upon the precision with which we can detect the effects of a small acceleration of the frame. In a practical sense, a reference frame in which no acceleration is observed for a particle believed to be free of any force and constraint is taken to be an inertial frame.

Now an elevator moving with a constant downward acceleration will be no different than the gravity that we experience on the surface of the Earth. No dynamical experiments conducted inside the elevator will ever tell us whether the elevator is moving with constant acceleration or it is stationary at the surface of the Earth. To know what is the actual case we have to go and perform experiments / take observations outside the lift.

Thus the humble lift or elevator has more to offer to you than just taking you from point A to point B in your daily routine.