Friday, September 28, 2012

This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman

This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking
edited by John Brockman


Editor John Brockman posed the question "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" Leading scientists, psychologists, writers and general advanced "thinkers" responded with the short answers that make up This Will Make You Smarter, and the result is indeed thought-provoking, but not always interesting.

However, the most interesting portion, to me, is that this was published before the self-plagiarizing/Bob Dylan quote fabrication scandal of Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer's contribution to this book, "Control Your Spotlight," has to do with a study conducted with small children. The children were in a room with a bowl of marshmallows and told that if they could wait a short period of time alone, they could have more than one to eat. The study looked at impulse control, mainly, and the children who were better able to resist taking a marshmallow early were the ones who put their attention elsewhere. Some kids sang songs, others covered their eyes, etc. But what I find rather amusing is this bit from Lehrer:

Willpower is really about properly diverting the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory. It's about realizing that if we're thinking about the marshmallow, we're going to eat it, which is why we need to look away.

So, am I to understand that he gambled on the working memory of Bob Dylan fans, and hoped that they were looking at other things when he made up those quotes? That's a pretty big gamble, that spotlight "control." He didn't have the smarts suggested in David G. Myers' contributing essay, "Self-Serving Bias:"

Being mindful of self-serving bias beckons us not to false modesty but to a humility that affirms our genuine talents and virtues and likewise those of others.

In other words, work with what you've got, and work it well. Don't be a self-serving jerk who tries to make his book better with fake quotes. Also, never underestimate a music super-fan’s skills.

Apart from that cross-publishing tidbit, Smarter does provide some important things to consider, though it seems to me that, in some cases, it's less about adding to the cognitive toolkit and more about remembering that tool is there in the first place. We need to try and keep our mental space more organized so that we know what we have to work with.

"The mismatch in the allocation of attention between thinking about a life condition and actually living it is the cause of the focusing illusion," Daniel Kahneman writes. We end up paying attention to what most directly affects us, sometimes at the expense of noticing new information. Or perhaps we think we know what it is like to live with a certain condition, but unless we are actually afflicted with it, it is impossible to truly know its reality.

Take Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), for example: Properly explaining to people what it feels like to have it often feels like a losing game, especially since my symptoms can vary in severity. As a result, I often get reactions like, "Can't you just have an energy drink to get you through the day?" or "Ugh, yeah, I get really tired too," as though everyday life stuff qualified everyone for the illness. No, this is a chronic condition, bearing similarity to lupus or Lyme disease, that affects my lymphatic, immune, muscle and neurological systems. It's not getting a few nights' bad sleep.

The other problem is the condition is so mysterious to even the people who study it that they don't even agree on what to name it. "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome" sounds like something college students with bad habits get. "Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome" (CFIDS) is a little more accurate, but doesn't really roll off the tongue. And the more scientific "Myalgic Encephalopathy" (ME)? Christ, that's cruel for a person with brain fog to remember.

Beyond that, there's this problem:

Too often in science we operate under the principle that 'to name it is to tame it,' or so we think. One of the easiest mistakes is to believe that labeling something has somehow or other added an explanation or understanding of it. Worse than that, we use it all the time when we're teaching, leading students to believe that a phenomenon named is a phenomenon known. It's what I and others have called the nominal fallacy.
--Stuart Firestein, "The Name Game"

So while deciding what to name a condition or its most accurate definition are certainly valid pursuits, that doesn't exactly help the people living with it. How do we best manage symptoms? Have we developed a program to do so? And what of the research towards causes and cures?

And speaking of brain fog, I was interested in this book primarily because I wondered if I could pick up any ideas on how to combat it. The best way I can describe brain fog is that it's a mixture of an inability to concentrate and the feeling you get when you're about to say something and then suddenly, those words evaporate. Or, it's more often existing in a state where you can't find your sunglasses and you search and search, only to discover that they're on top of your head. On the really bad days, you're already wearing them.

I combat my brain fog with vitamins and by keeping my brain in frequent use. I have to hold onto my critical thinking skills. Reading and writing is what I do. How can I maintain that?

[S]udden bursts of insight — the Aha! or Eureka! moment — come when brain activity abruptly shifts its focus. The almost ecstatic sense that makes us cry, "I see!" appears to come when the brain is able to shunt aside immediate or familiar visual inputs.
--Jason Zewig, "Structured Serendipity"


I think this is why I sometimes have better luck handwriting something and then typing it onto the computer because I get a better sense of what I'm trying to say. Also, sometimes staring at a blank screen produces a blank mind, whereas a blank page appears rife with possibility.

(The trouble, then, is my hand muscles and joints fatiguing after writing by hand too much, but that's a problem outside of this book.)

Lots of ideas in Smarter echo each other to where it can make for a repetitive reading experience, and some of it is bogged in heavy scientific terms that may be alienating to the "regular" reader. I've taken a number of science courses over the years and managed to hang onto a good chunk of that information, so I caught most of it, but anything that had to do with ratios, probability and straight up math had me skimming. Sorry, that particular portion of my cognitive toolkit is not very cooperative.

The idea that science can be impenetrable is another subject brought up in the book. What science needs, several essays suggest, is a good PR person. "Here, in easy to understand words, is why [this] is so important," etc. Somewhat understandably, scientists become exasperated with the willful stupidity of some people, or they don't understand why something so obvious to them might not be obvious to others, and that turns the research inward. The most productive scientist in the world could be merrily chugging away, but that progress does not help the world — i.e. make it smarter — if no one outside of industry journals knows about it.

Smarter might be preaching to the choir a bit, but the choir can always use a well-reasoned reminder. This isn't a book I'd recommend to everyone as a whole, but perhaps portions of it will resonate with most people.

Besides, if science teaches us anything, it's that speaking in absolutes can be very dangerous.


Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by Harper Perennial. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

#50

This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

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