Endless Curiosity

November 7, 2009

Belief: The Familiarity Effect

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 7:56 am

We tend to believe that what is familiar is good. From Kluge, page 48:

Another study, replicated in at least 12 different languages, showed that people have a surprising attachment to the letters found in their own names, preferring words that contain those letters to words that don’t.


November 5, 2009

Belief: Anchoring

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 8:39 am

Try this:

Add 400 to the last three digits of your cell phone number. When you are done, answer the following question: in what year did Attila the Hun’s rampage through Europe finally come to an end?


November 4, 2009

Carnage Often Ensues

Filed under: Life, Psychology, The Brain — Alec @ 8:38 am

Have you ever been in a situation where you or someone else seems to behave completely irrationally, making mountains out of molehills, logic and facts thrown to the winds? Sorry, of course you would never behave like this, but perhaps someone you know? Or if not, you only have to look at the political scene to see lots of such behavior. Here’s Kluge, page 156.

What occasionally allows normal people to spiral out of control is a witch’s brew of cognitive kluges: (1) the clumsy apparatus of self-control (which in the heat of the moment all too often gives the upper hand to our reflexive system); (2) the lunacy of confirmation bial (which convinces us that we are always right, or nearly so); (3) its evil twin, motivated reasoning (which leads us to protect our beliefs, even those beliefs that are dubious); and (4) the contextually driven nature of memory (such that when we’re angry at someone, we tend to remember other things about them that have made us angry in the past). In short, this leaves “hot” systems dominating cool reason; carnage often ensues.

October 28, 2009

Half the population is below average intelligence

Filed under: Psychology, The Brain — Alec @ 10:32 pm

Whenever I come across some action or belief that seems really dumb, I console myself with the thought that half the population is below average* intelligence. Of course, it might be me that is being dumb by not recognizing the brilliance of that action or belief, but I prefer to think otherwise 🙂


October 27, 2009

Beliefs: The Halo Effect

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 7:50 am

We tend to ascribe good qualities to things we find attractive, and bad qualities to things we find unattractive. The former is the Halo Effect; the latter Gary Marcus terms the Pitchfork Effect. For example, we tend to think that good looking teachers are better teachers, we vote for people who look physically more competent, we buy things advertised by attractive people. And “study after study has shown that attractive people get better breaks in job interviews, promotions, admissions interviews, and so on.”


October 25, 2009

Beliefs: The Focusing Illusion

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 12:12 pm

As I said in yesterday’s post, I’ll give examples of the way our brains lead us astray with respect to our beliefs. Hopefully, dear reader, you will start to get an idea of how untrustworthy your beliefs are, and will be more able to question them. To get started, here’s an example of the Focusing Illusion, the way that we can make decisions based on information that is planted on us; i.e., an example of how easily we can be manipulated. Perhaps by politicians? This is from Kluge, page 44.


October 24, 2009


Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 8:41 am

Belief is a fascinating thing. We believe things that to others are incomprehensible. We believe things with no evidence. We continue to believe things even when the facts say that we are wrong. The problem is that our brains have an old primitive part which works quickly and largely unconsciously, and a new, deliberative part that is slower and takes more effort to use.


October 20, 2009

Our Idiosyncratic Memories

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 8:02 am

Gary Marcus believes that our memory is the single factor most responsible for human cognitive idiosyncracy. And he gives plenty of examples. One interesting fact is that we are not very good at noticing even fairly large changes in the background of a photo we’ve seen. We apparently remember the gist of things, but not the details. Marcus refers to an amazing video called Person Swap that shows someone asking directions then swapping with someone else, and the person giving directions doesn’t even notice.

Memory and Context

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 7:48 am

The thing about context is that it is always with us – even when it’s not really relevant to what we are trying to remember. Carr’s experiments with rats, for instance, has a parallel with humans in a remarkable experiment with scuba divers. The divers were asked to memorize a list of words while underwater. Like the rats that needed electric light to perform well, the scuba divers were better at remembering the words they studied underwater when the were tested underwater (relative to being tested on land) – a fact that strikes this landlubber as truly amazing. Just about every time we remember anything, context looms in the background.

Kluge, page 24

October 11, 2009

Our messy lives

Filed under: Life, Psychology, The Brain — Alec @ 6:45 am

There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that’s already three things, and there are a lot more. — Peter Altenberg

I read that lovely quote in Clive James’ monumental Cultural Amnesia, and I liked it because it ties in so nicely with the paragraph from The Accidental Mind in my previous post, and it illustrates how messy life can be. After all, with a kludgy, cobbled-together brain, why would we think that life would be logical and easy? Anyone who has actually lived a life knows that it is messy and that we spend much of our time wading through the shades of gray, rarely finding clear answers and right ways to do things. Or, as Mencken said, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem-neat, plausible, and wrong.

October 10, 2009

Overview of the Brain

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 7:46 am

This paragraph from page 3 of The Accidental Mind is a good overview of our brain and why it is so fascinating.

The brain is not elegantly designed by any means: it is a cobbled-together mess, which, amazingly, and in spite of its shortcomings, manages to perform a number of very impressive functions. But while its overall function is impressive, its design is not. More important, the quirky, inefficient, and bizarre plan of the brain and its constituent parts is fundamental to our human experience. The particular texture of our feelings, perceptions, and actions is derived, in large part, from the fact that the brain is not an optimized, generic problem-solving machine, but rather a weird agglomeration of ad hoc solutions that have accumulated throughout millions of years of evolutionary history.

About the Brain

Filed under: The Brain — Alec @ 7:38 am

Our brains fascinate me: the way they work, and the ways we use (and abuse) them and the ways they use us. So I’m going to post snippets about interesting (to me) aspects of the brain. When these snippets come from a book, I’ll give the book name and page number.

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