Wyle E Coyote teaches us how our brains work

Work cartoons, kids & coyotes: how both your minds see data…

Stick Trader cartoon

A complex dataset expressed with stick men


Take a look at the picture above.

This demonstrates how your mind works.  Not just yours, but humans in general.  What it shows is the relationship between your rational mind and your unconscious mind.  It’s not obvious, because neither your reason or your unconscious are easy to spot, we just experience them as our ‘thoughts’.  But in fact, they are two very different beasts, and they see two very different things when they look at an image.

This cartoon was sent to me by a friend who works in financial data reporting.  It describes the complexity of new trade regulations.  It also explores the broader impact of those regulations on the operations of financial institutions.  It conveys a complex story of data, company processes, regulation, politics… it is a densely packed piece of communications data.  When I told him that, he said “it’s a cartoon”.  Which, of course, it is.  But “a cartoon” is, cognitively speaking, like saying  “a car”.  The sum of the parts is a simple proposition, easy to recognise, but it’s a very complex thing under the skin.


3 yr old image

A less complex data set… (unless you’re 3)

The image above is a picture of a lion, drawn by my 3 year old son.  You’d be forgiven for not recognising it.  That’s because at the age of 3, a child doesn’t have a fully developed rational mind, or unconscious.  Both are still developing.  So what we see as a bit of a vague squiggle, he sees as a lion.  It’s so obviously a lion to him that when I asked “what’s that?” he looked at me like I was an idiot and said “it’s a lion daddy” – conveying the impression that he couldn’t understand why I had to ask in the first place.


When you compare these two images, you start to see how your mind works.  Here’s three simple points to help explain it:


  1. The cartoon was created by an adult.  The lion by a 3 year old.  The difference between the two is achieved by the unconscious processing of critical decoding information.  You see, the cartoon obeys the laws of the physical world.  The characters, although stick men, explain the parts of the physical universe they apply to (they have arms and legs, eyes, mouths, floors, walls, tables, gravity, objects etc.).  They approximate reality.  That’s because when we decide to draw something to convey information, we unconsciously choose to frame that information (the subject of the cartoon) within another set of information (the physical nature of reality).  We include a set of instructions to help the viewer decode the meaning in the message.

  3. The child’s drawing of a lion expresses the concept of a lion, devoid of the cartoon’s physical accuracy.  It’s sort of got a head, a mane, a shape which indicates the formation of an unconscious framework of physical reality, but they aren’t developed to a point of recognition unless you know what it’s supposed to be.  This also illustrates how a 3 year old hasn’t developed what psychologists call a ‘theory of mind’ – i.e. The realisation that other humans don’t know what they mean without bundling into their communication some kind of decoding structure – an explaination. Or to put it another way, the child doesn’t realise their own thoughts aren’t knowable to others or self-explanatory without framing them within another set of data that helps others decode the meaning.

  5.  We can’t help unconsciously adding the means to decode our visual communications into an image. We can only convey reality by replicating it.  If those were blobs, not stick men, on a background of wiggly lines, without speech bubbles, we couldn’t understand the data properly. That’s why people react differently to abstract art.  Most people see an abstract form and say “it reminds me of… x/y/z” – that’s our rational mind speaking, explaining how our unconscious mind is trying to decode the information using physical reality as a reference point.

  7.  It’s also why artists like Picasso are so engaging, because they layer enough information to decode an image, but leave enough information out to make the decoding process an interesting cognitive puzzle.  We say “that woman has an eye on the side of her head” – representing an internal dialogue between different parts of our mind.  Our unconscious has done it’s work and recognises a female human, but then our rational mind analyses the detail and attempts to explain the errors in what our unconscious minds expected to see – or, to put it another way, explain the missing data.

  9. If we didn’t add the decoding information, the image won’t work.  For example, if you kept the words for the cartoon, but represented the people as blobs of colour against a background of random wiggly lines, it wouldn’t work any more.  The emotional context (the frustrated relationship between the two characters) would be lost.  Without a face to convey frustration or irritation, we could have no idea what the context of the conversation was, and therefore, where the humour originates.  The joke would be lost.  We might still learn from the words, but without context.  It’s similar to the difference between reading a script and watching a movie – at least, it would be, were it not for the fact our unconscious minds know how to decode a script, and know how to decode a movie, so in both cases we can understand the emotions and context of each.  However, break the rules of our unconscious decoding of reality, and you’re actually confusing your unconscious mind, which in turn, makes the same words harder to understand than if they were written as dialogue.



Compare these examples, which makes more sense?

Example of dialogue

Example 1: Our brains understand dialogue because we present the words with a key to decode it – punctuation and formatting


example of breaking the image rules

Example 2: breaking the rules means the sense in the words and pictures is lost, it becomes abstract


How this relationship gives us a clear lesson in how all communication is part conscious, part unconscious


Wyle E Coyote teaches us how our brains work

We get the joke, we don’t need the words to give this image meaning

Here’s a picture of Wyle. E. Coyote, master of the visual gag, about to fall after running over a cliff.  This is a joke that gets used a lot in cartoons, and it never stops being funny.  The reason why it’s funny explains how your conscious and unconscious minds relate to each other all the time, but are completely unaware of one another at the same time.  It also shows how we can change the decoding information in an image to play tricks on different parts of our brain. This deliberate change to the decoding rules explains where laugher comes from.

  1. We don’t notice gravity.  We don’t notice physics much at all, unless we’re trying to measure a physical properly like weight or speed.  But it’s there all the time and your unconscious mind expects it.  So when Wyle. E. Coyote runs off a cliff, we expect him to fall because that’s what happens when you run over a cliff.  He would, in reality, run over the cliff and start falling immediately.  But when he doesn’t, our unconscious mind gets tricked, and it doesn’t know how to respond.  This element of what you see in the picture is a joke aimed directly at your unconscious mind, it’s an unconscious joke for your unconscious, we don’t need to add a sign saying “look, this isn’t what happens in real life and therefore you didn’t expect it”.  It’s part of the joke, but you’re not supposed to recognise it on a conscious level.

  3.  We also know that, logically, things fall when they run off cliffs.  So when Wyle. E. Coyote doesn’t fall, our rational brains are tricked too.  We, like the character on the screen, then experience a moment of realisation that defines our logic, that says action = reaction.  It’s a logical punchline to the joke.  It’s a joke for our rational mind that says “you can work out what is about to happen next, but you weren’t expecting what just happened to happen, so maybe something you can’t predict will happen next”.  It’s a logical puzzle, a problem to solve, and our rational minds love puzzles.  It’s a curveball for your logic, and your logic doesn’t know how to respond.

  5.  Then when he falls, our unconscious minds get the joke.  The trick is explained.  Our sense of reality is confirmed.  It’s a cartoon, and cartoons can bend reality.  This is a relief, if it didn’t happen, we couldn’t understand the joke because it would belong to a world where gravity didn’t exist, and we can’t relate to that.  But we can relate to a world where gravity don’t exist until you look down.  If our rules of reality weren’t confirmed like this, the whole scene would become an abstract image, not a humorous narrative.  It would cease to be a cartoon.  It would stop being funny and become art.

  7.  Our rational minds know falling off a cliff is a bad thing.  We don’t want to fall off a cliff, because we’ll hurt ourselves or die.  So when our poor coyote buddy realises he’s about to fall to his doom, and shows us he had realised this and is therefore anticipating a negative experience, it is a rational joke for our rational minds.  It explains, logically, how you were tricked.  And then our sense of reality is confirmed again.  It’s saying “I am thinking what you are thinking” – which may not sound funny, our our rational minds take pleasure from solving puzzles and predicting outcomes.  We enjoy being right.  Also, because he is the bad guy, the butt of the Roadrunner jokes, we’re also expecting something bad to happen to him, so we are confirmed in our prediction that he would come unstuck.  Our anticipation is rewarded.

  9. If he caught the Roadrunner and ripped it apart in a feeding frenzy, it wouldn’t be funny any more, it would be realistic.  It would cease to be a cartoon (funny) and become an animation (drawn exploration of reality).

  11.  At the same time, our conscious and unconscious minds become aware of each other.  We recognise that something that we couldn’t relate to has just happened, deliberately, to trick our sense of reality and our logical processes.  That interferes with our brain functions.  It makes us aware that we can be tricked.  Our brains don’t like that.  It’s a malfunction.  We try NOT to be tricked.  If our brains let us be tricked like this in real life, we couldn’t have survived to become the dominant species on the planet.  Our ability to learn and analyse, predict and avoid getting tricked, underpins the functioning of society.  It’s an evolutionary imperative.


So we laugh about it.

Laughter is an evolutionary response, an involuntary physical reaction that alerts us and others to a specific kind of behaviour. A glitch.  Something that we don’t want to happen as the norm.  Something that interferes with the business of survival.  Wildebeest do the same.  When a member of the herd falls over, the others laugh at it.  That’s because falling over is bad for a Wildebeest, it means you get eaten, it’s a primal instinct to avoid getting eaten.  As a result, Wildebeest laugh at others who fall, because in a herd, someone who falls can get others eaten.  It’s a survival instinct.

Fortunately for humans, we’ve evolved to a stage where we can enjoy laughing as a pastime, but the soul of slapstick comedy has a very serious side, just like for the Wildebeest.  It’s a social mechanism to define behaviours that are detrimental to the group’s survival.


One brain, two minds.

Where all this leaves us is simple.  We’re in two minds, all the time, about everything, even if we seldom realise it.  One mind (your conscious) makes choices using logic, the other (your unconscious) makes choices by processing information through learned behaviour.  The existence of both, and the separation of both, is essential.

Consider this.  If walking was a set of conscious decisions, each step would take minutes of working out what to move, how to shift your weight and counterbalance your momentum with your other limbs.  Fortunately, we do it without thinking about it as adults. Otherwise we’d be like babies attempting to make their first steps, all the time.

We can also walk and chew gum at the same time.  Or walk and send and email, whilst crossing a busy road and keeping an eye out for muggers.  We can multitask, because our brains can separate out the things we need to make conscious decisions about (like what to say in an email) from the things that are repetitive (walking) or precautionary (being aware of hazards).  Without two minds to handle all that information, we wouldn’t be able to do any of that.

It’s how our brains work using neural networks.  Certain tasks, like walking, once learned and repeated about 1000 times, form a hard set of connections in your brain, a neural network that automatically processes certain information in a certain way.  A bit like a toolbox, where you know that you use a spanner on nuts and bolts and a screwdriver for screws.  You don’t need to look at every screw or every nut and work out which tool is right for it, you’ve got a box of objects designed to work on each one.

We also have thinking tools, like counting, language, writing, which are automatic options to perform certain kinds of task on different kinds of data.

We also construct more advanced thinking tools, like shopping, fashion, manners, lifestyle, ethics, philosophy, science, all pre-defined methods of handling more complex choices and tasks.

All of these things stem from our neural networking brains, and rely on our separation of conscious and unconscious minds to work.

Which means, at the end of the day, it’s only our conscious minds that think they’re being spoken to, or getting the joke, or making choices.  We’re not aware of all the things our unconscious minds are doing, behind the scenes, to enable our rational, conscious self to think that way.

You may look at a large image, but that is only a small part of seeing the big picture.