As a matter of fact, humans are not that badly constructed. Admittedly we have some design glitches, but on the average it’s not bad at all.

Something that keeps surprising me is the speed with which we take in information from the outside. Take our ‘video input channel’. We’re being bombarded by incoming photons, but we’re able to filter the relevant information within a split second. And not only that, we manage to link chunks of information that are actually related, even though the chunks may be of a very different kind.

In a flash we reconstruct from billions of bits the vision of a picture frame, we recognize at once the lady on the picture, smiling mysteriously, and we know it is the Mona Lisa.

Now Mona Lisa happens to be rather a well known picture, so recognizing it may not seem to big an effort. But imagine the zillions of pictures kept in store inside us, that we can match with all the stuff coming in, all within that split second. Now that’s what I call an efficient search routine!

But what I find even more surprising is that we can recognize things that we don’t know. An example. I happened to be in the train from Utrecht to The Hague, sitting with my back facing one end of the carriage. Now the end walls of Dutch train carriages usually are used for art, ranging from small drawings to top-to-floor pictures. When I rose to leave the train I saw this piece of art, which was of the top-to-floor kind. It was something fancyful, with ropes and little things flying about. And without thinking I knew at once: this is Theo van den Boogaard.

How did I know? Theo van den Boogaard is primarily known from his comic books, not from this kind of art—not with me, that is. It was something in the lines, the use of colours. I was right, of course, but isn’t it amazing?

And the beauty of it all is that it works with different senses, too. Another example. Not so long ago my good friend Reinier played me a cd of someone I didn’t know. I’d never heard this thing before. But there was one track that immediately triggered my brain: this was something by Andy Partridge, member of XTC.

Now XTC is a band I do know, but this track was unknown to me. How did I know? It was something jumpy in the music, the melody, I don’t know what. All I knew was it was composed by Partridge. Again I was right, but isn’t it amazing?

Apparently we’re not only able to compare incoming information with known facts, we’re also able to compare what might be termed the ‘first derivative’ of information. Not only information can be compared, but also underlying patterns governing that information.

Clearly this is not an unfailing algorithm. We all know the feeling of knowing that we know the answer, but being unable to actually find it. And the system is influenced by environment as well. I once heard an art historian who said that the Van Meegeren paintings, easily passing for genuine Vermeer in the fourties, would now be uncovered without much ado. Not only do they breathe the Vermeer pattern, they also flash about a ‘fourties’ pattern. This pattern went unnoticed in the fourties, drenched as it was in the all-about fourties pattern. But we all know the feeling from historical movies. A realistic film like Braveheart may well be outdated in about two decades. We’ll recognize the pattern: those haircuts, typically nineties!


This text was previously published in the Vakidioot, volume 6 (1996/97)

© Roelof Ruules