Sunday, November 29, 2009

Notes from 'Kluge: The haphazard construction of the human mind'

I make notes from most books I read, fiction, and non-fiction. Most of it is stored in some chaotic manner in my hard drive and I have often found it cumbersome when I wished to trace a particular quotation, dialogue or trivia I know I've recorded in one of several word files titled 'Random notes 1/2/3/...n.doc' Also, usually my notes are not thorough because somewhere along the way I either lose continuity in my reading and forget to take notes when I resume after several days, or I get too involved in the book and say to hell with notes. Sometimes also, the books are too big and there's too much to write down (non-fiction) so I just give up. This book, the one mentioned in the title, is not too big and I have been very systematic in taking down notes, so I thought I'd store it online on my blog, from where I find it is easier to retrieve information compared to my hard drive. Also, I wished to share it with my blog readers to get feedback. I hope it is sufficiently well-documented that a blog reader can follow the tid bits and, hopefully, appreciate them like I did. Please let me know if the notes make for very chaotic reading for someone who hasn't read the book. In that case, I'll just create another blog to store these notes. (Note: The book isn't esoteric in the least bit so if its still not clear, then it must only be due to the fragmented nature of my notes than the contents of the book.)



If people had good source memory, they would have spotted the ruse. Instead, most subjects knew they had seen a particular name before, but they had no idea where. Recognizing a name like Sebastian Weisdorf for the name of a bona fide celebrity whom they just couldn't place. The same thing happens, with bigger stakes, when voters forget whether they heard some political rumor on Letterman or read it in the New York Times.

Take, for exapmle, the truly sad study in which people were shown pictures of one of two children, the child, let's call him Junior, had just thrown a snowball, with a rock inside it, at another child; the test subjects were then asked to interpret the boy's behavior. People who saw the unattractive picture characterized Junior as a thug, perhaps headed to reform school; those whon the more attractive picture delivered judgments that were rather more mild, suggesting, for example, that Junior was merely "having a bad day." Study after study has shown that attractive people get better breaks in job interviews, promotions, admissions interviews, and so on, each one an illustration of how aesthetics creates noise in the channel of belief....And, in a particularly shocking recent study, children of ages 3 to 5 gave higher ratings to foods like carrots, milk, and apple juice if they came in McDonald's packaging.

Studies show that in virtually any collaborative enterprise, from taking care of a household to writing academic papers with colleagues, the sum of each individual's perceived contribution exceeds the total amount of work done....Realizing the limits of our own data sampling might make us all a lot more generous.

As a rough guide, our thinking can be divided into two streams, one that is fast, automatic and largely unconscious, and another that is slow, deliberate, and judicious.

Although many emotions (such as fear) are arguably reflexive, emotions like schadenfreude - the delight one can take in a rival's pain - are not.

When we are stressed, tired, or distracted, our deliberative system tends to be the first thing to go, leaving us at the mercy of our lower-tech reflexive system - just when we might need our deliberative system the most.

While all normal human beings acquire language, the ability to use formal logic to acquire and reason about beliefs may be more of a cultural product than an evolutionary one, something made possible by evolution but not guaranteed by it.
Formal reason seems to be present, if at all, primarily in literate cultures but difficult to discern in preliterate ones.
The russian psychologist alexander luria went to the mountains of central asia in the late 1930s and asked the indigenous people to consider the logic of syllogisms like this one: "In a certain town in Siberia all bears are white. Your neighbor went to that town and he saw a bear. What color was that bear?"
His respondents just didn't get it; a typical response would be, in essence, "how should i know? Why doesn't the professor go ask the neighbor himself?" Further studies later in the twentieth century confirmed this pattern...This does not mean people in those societies cannot learn formal logic - in general, at least the children can - but it does show that acquiring an abstract logic is not a natural, automatic phenomenon in the way that acquiring language is.

'Prisoner's dilemma....the catch in this particular study was that before people began to play the game, they sat in a waiting room where an ostensibly unrelated news broadcast was playing in the background. Some subjects hear prosocial news (about a clergyman donating a kidney to a needy patient); others, by contrast, heard a broadcast about a clergyman committing murder. What happened? You guessed it: people who heard about the good clergyman were a lot more cooperative than those who heard about the bad clergyman.'

..."the attraction of the visceral." It is one thing to turn down chocolate cheesecake in the abstract, another when the waiter brings in the desert cart. College students who are asked whether they'd risk wasting 30 minutes in exchange for a chance to win all the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies they could eat are more likely to say yes if they actually see (and smell) the cookies than if they are merely told about them.
Hunger, however, is nothing compared to lust. A follow-up study exposed young men to either a written or a (more visceral) filmed scenario depicting a couple who had met earlier in the evening and are now discussing the possibility of (imminently) having sex. Both are in favor, but neither party has a condom, and there is no store nearby. The woman reports that she is taking a contraceptive pill and is disease-free; she leaves it up to the man to decide whether to proceed, unprotected. Subjects were then asked to rate their own probability of having unprotected sex if the were in the male character's shoes. Guess which group of men - reader or video watchers - was more likely to throw caution to the wind? (Undergraduate men are also apparently able to persuade themselves that the their risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease goes down precisely as the attractiveness of their potential partner goes up.)

Kill one save 5 by hitting a switch, kill one save 5 by pushing one person off the trolley. Most people say yes to former, no to latter, even though in both cases, 5 lives saved to one lost. Possible reason: Something more visceral about latter.

One historical example of how visceral feelings affect moral choice is the unofficial truce called by British and German soldiers during Christmas 1914, early in World War I. The original intention was to resume battle afterward, but the soldiers got to know one another during the truce; some even shared a Christmas meal. In so doing, they shifted from conceptualizing one another as enemies to seeing each other as flesh-and-blood individuals. The consequence was that after the Christmas truce, the soldiers were no longer able to kill one another. As the former president Jimmy Carter put it in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture (2002), "In order for us human beings to commit ourselves personally to the inhumanity of war, we find it necessary to dehumanize our opponents."

fabrique de Nimes (originally made in Nimes, France) -> denim -> now in France as les blue jeans

According to legend, the first machine translation program was given the sentence "The flesh is weak, but the spirit is willing." The translation(into Russian) was then translated back into English yielding, "The meat is spoiled, but the vodka is good."

Similar findings...apply even in our attitudes toward other people: the more we need them, the more we like them.

To be sure, evolutionary psychologists have tried to find adaptive value in at least one of these variations (homosexuality), but none of the explanation are particularly compelling. (There is, for example, the "gay uncle" hypothesis, according to which homosexuality persists in the population because gay people often invest considerable resources in the offspring of their siblings. The trouble is there's no evidence that all that good uncle-ing (for relatives that are only one-eighth genetically related) offsets the direct cost of failing to reproduces. Other popular adaptationist accounts of homosexuality include the Sneaky Male theory (favored by Richard Dawkins) and the Spare Uncle theory, by which an uncle who stays home from hunt can fill in for a dad who doesn't make it home) A more reasonable accounting, in my view, is that homosexuality is just like any other variation on sexuality, an instance of a pleasure systme that was only broadly tuned (toward intimacy and contact) rather than narrowly focused (on procreation) by evolution, co-opted for a function other than the one to which it was strictly adapted. Through a mixture of genetics and experience, people can come to associate all manner of different things with pleasure, and proceed on that basis.

My note: A little web research suggests "Explanations buried in Pleistocene history are always less convincing where reproduction, rather than survival, is at stake."

Something similar happens in our eternal quest for control. Study after study has shown that a sense of control makes people feel happy. One classic study, for example, put people in a position of listening to a series of sudden and unpredictable noises, played at excruciatingly random intervals. Some subjects were led to believe that they could do something about it - press a button to stop the noise - but others were told that they were powerless. The empowered subjects were less stressed and more happy - even though they hardly even actually pressed the button. (Elevator "door close" buttons work on a similar principle.)

Gilbert(Daniel Todd) has another favorite example: children. Although most people anticipate that having children will increase their net happiness, studies show that people with children are actually less happy on average than those without. Although the highs ("Daddy I wuv you") may be spectacular, on a moment-by-moment basis, most of the time spent taking care of children is just plain work. "Objective" studies that ask people to rate how happy they are at random moments rank raising children - a task with clear adaptive advantage - somewhere between housework and television, well below sex and movies. Luckily, from the perspective of perpetuating the species, people tend to remember the intermittent high points better than the daily grind of diapers and chauffeur duty. paraphrase Mark Twain, dissecting our own happiness may be like dissecting frogs: both tend to die in the process.

The psychologist Melvyn Lerner, for example, identified what he called a "Belief in a Just World"; it feels better to live in a world that seems just than one that seems unjust. Taken to its extreme, that belief can lead people to do things that are downright deplorable, such as blaming innocent victims. Rape victims, for example, are sometimes perceived as if they are to blame, or "had it coming."...Blaming victims may allow us to cling to the happy notion that the world is just, but its moral costs are often considerable.

People committed to eating in a healthful way are, for example, more likely to turn to junk if something else is on their mind. Laboratory studies show that as the demands on the brain, so-called cognitive load, increase, the ancestral system continues business as usual - while the more modern deliberative system gets left behind...When mentally (or emotionally) taxed, we become more prone to stereotyping, more egocentric, and more vulnerable to the pernicious effects of anchoring.

Procrastination is, in short, the bastard child of future discounting (that tendency to devalue the future in relation to the present) and the use of pleasure as a quick-and-dirty compass.

DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, third edition) listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. Has been changed in DSM-IV.

The classic example of a physical disorder with a clear corresponding benefit is sickle cell anaemia. Having two copies of the gene is harmful, but having a single copy of he gene alongside a normal copy can significantly reduce one's chance of contracting malaria. In environments where malaria has been widespread (such as sub-Saharan Africa), the benefits outweigh the potential costs. And, accordingly, copies of such genes are fare more widespread among people whose ancestors lived in parts of the world where malaria was prevalent.
But while some physical disorder do demonstrably bring about offsetting benefits, most probably don't...There are few, if any, concrete illustrations of offsetting advantages in mental illness...
It's true that many disorders have at least some compensation, but the reasoning is often backward. The fact that some disorders have some redeeming features doesn't mean that those features offset the costs, nor does it necessarily explain why those disorders evolved in the first place...
At the very least, it seems plausible that some disorders (or symptoms) may appear not as direct adaptations, but simply from inadequate "design" or outright failure....especially those that are extremely rare extremely rare, may result from little more than "genetic noise", random mutations that convey no advantage whatsoever.
Even if we set aside possibilities like sheer genetic noise, it is a fallacy to assume that if a mental illness persists in a population, it must convey an advantage. The bitter reality is that evolution doesn't "care" about our inner lives, only results. So long as people with disorders reproduce at reasonably high rates, deleterious genetic variants can and do persist in the species, without regard to the fact that they leave their bearers in considerable emotional pain.

Addiction can arise when short-term benefits appear subjectively enormous (as with heroin, often described as being better than sex), when long-term benefits appear subjectively small (to people otherwise depressed, who see themselves as having little to live for), or when the brain fails to properly compute the ration between the two.

Depressives...often distort their perception of reality by fixating on the negative aspects of their lives - losses, mistakes, missed opportunities, and so forth - leading to what I call a "ruminative cycle", one of the most common symptoms of depression. An early, well-publicized set of reports suggested that depressives are more realistic than happy people, but today a more considered view is that depressives are disordered in part because they place undue focus on negative things, often creating a downward spiral that is difficult to escape.

Man a schizophrenic, for example, has come to belive that he is Jesus and has then constructed a whole world around that notion, presumably "enabled" in part by the twin forces of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. The psychiatrist Milton Rokeach once brought together three such patients, each of whom believed himself to be the Son of the HOly Father. Rokeach's initial hope was that the three would recognize the inconsistency in their beliefs and each in turn would be dissuaded from his own delusions. Instead, the three patients simply became agitated. Each worked harder to preserve his own delusions; each developed a different set of rationalizations.

I don't mean to say that depression (or any disorder) is mpurely a byproduct of limitations in our abilities to objectively evaluate data...Most common mental disorders seem to depend on a genetic component, shaped by evolution - but also on environmental causes that are not well understood. If one identical twin has, say, schizophrenia, the other one is considerably more likely than average to also have it, but the concordance percentage is only about 50%.

...Darwin, who started his legendary work 'The Descent of Man' with a list of a dozen "useless, or nearly useless" features - body hair, wisdom teeth, the vestigial tail bone known as the coccyx. Such quirks of nature were essential to Darwin's argument.

Few theories are as well supported by evidence as the theory of evolution, yet a large portion of the general public refuses to accept it. To any scientist familiar with the facts - ranging from those garnered through the painstaking day-to-day studies of evolution in the contemporary Galapagos Islands (described in Jonathan Weiner's wonderful book 'The beak of the Finch') to the details of molecular change emerging from the raft of recently completed genomes - this coninued resistance to evolution seems absurd. Since so much of it seems to come from people who have trouble accepting the notion that well-organized structure could have emerged without forethought, scientists often feel compelled to emphasize evolution's high points - the cases of well-organized structure that emerged through sheer chance.
Such emphasis has led to a great understanding of how a blind process like evolution can produce systems of tremendous beauty - but at the expense of an equally impassioned exploration of the illuminating power of imperfection. While there is nothing inherently wrong in examining nature's greatest hits, one can't possibly get a balanced and complete picture by looking only at the highlights.
The value of imperfections extends far beyond simple balance, however. Scientifically, every kluge contains a clue to our is no exaggeration to say that the history of evolution is a history of overlaid technologies, and kluges help expose the seams.
Every kluge also underscores what is fundamentally wrong-headed about creationsim: the presumption that we are the product of an all-seeing entity. Creationsists may hold on tto the bitter end, but imperfection (unlike perfection) beggars the imagination. It's one thing to imagine an all-knowing engineer designing a perfect eyeball, another to imagine that engineer slacking off and building a half-baked spine.

naturalistic fallacy - confusing what is natural with what is good.

Scientific reasoning is not something most people pick up naturally or automatically.
And, for that matter, we are not born knowing much about the inner operation of our brain and mind, least of all about our cognitive vulnerabilities. Scientists didn't even determine with certainty that the brain was the source of htinking until the seventeenth century. (Aristotle, for one, thought the purpose of the brain was to cool the blood, inferring this backward from the fact that large-brain humans were less "hot-blooded" than other creatures.)

...Studies in teaching so-called critical thinking show increasingly promising results, with lasting effects that can make a difference. Among the most impressive is a recent study founded on a curriculum known as "Philosophy for Children", which, as its name suggsts, revolves around getting children to think about - and discuss -- philosophy. Not Plato and Aristotle, mind you, but stories wirtten for children that are explicitly aimed at engaging children in philosophical issues. The central book in the curriculum, Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery, begins with a section in which the eponymous Harry is asked to write an essay called "the most interesting thin in the world." Harry...chooses to write on his thinking: "To me, the most interesting thing in the whole world is thinking. I know that lots of other things are also very important and wonderful, like electricity, and magnetism, and gravitation. But although we understand them, they can't understand us. So thinking must be something must be something very special."
Kids of agest 10-12 who were exposed to a version of this curriculum for 16 months, for just an hour a week, showed significant gains in verbal intelligence, nonverbal intelligence, self-confidence, and independence.
Harry Stottlemeier's essay - and the "Philosophy for Children" curriculum- is really an example of what psychologist call metacognition, or knowing about knowing. Bu asking children to reflect on how they know what they know, we may significantly enhance their understanding of the world.

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