Monthly Archives: December 2008

Legends in their Own Minds

superheroVillains beware! The homegrown superhero movement is scoring big ink in the latest Rolling Stone in an article entitled, The Legend of Master Legend.  The piece is about the curious assembly of costume donning folks calling themselves ‘real life superheroes’, and claiming legitimacy via the World Superhero Registry, a wide-reaching attempt to put an umbrella over all of these would-be crime fighters in masks and spandex. 

While silly funny, it’s difficult to tell to what extent some of these people take their persona projections seriously or are just hamming it up for grins.  Here’s a snippet from the Rolling Stone article:

Like other real life super-heroes, Master Legend is not an orphan from a distant dying sun or the mutated product of a gamma-ray experiment gone awry. He is not an eccentric billionaire moonlighting as a crime fighter. He is, as he puts it, “just a man hellbent on battling evil.” Although Master Legend was one of the first to call himself a Real Life Superhero, in recent years a growing network of similarly homespun caped crusaders has emerged across the country. Some were inspired by 9/11. If malevolent individuals can threaten the world, the argument goes, why can’t other individuals step up to save it? “What is Osama bin Laden if not a supervillain, off in his cave, scheming to destroy us?”

There’s an element of cosplay in this (minus the anime fantasy) , but maybe also a sort of genuine hero idealism…and probably some good old fashion delusion. Reminds me of the Ben Stiller movie, Mystery Men.  Behold, The Waffler…


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Object Lessons in Leaves

leaf20pileOver the weekend I was raking leaves in my yard and enlisted the services of my sons, both of whom are under age 10, to assist with bagging.  Five minutes into the task, it occurred to me that there must be an object lesson in this monotony somewhere, but off the top of my head all I could manage was, “This may seem boring, but it’s important.”

That sucked and I knew it.  My forever-questioning eight year old underlined how badly it sucked by asking, “Why is it important?” to which I gave a reply as anemic as my first statement. “Because, if we don’t rake these leaves up now, tomorrow there will be even more on top of them.”  Both looked at me with customary “so what?” stares.

So I continued raking up piles, and while trying to curb the kids’ instinct to jump into every pile (no matter how shallow), I was also instructing them not to leave a pile before they finished bagging all of it.  After reminding them of this five times, it dawned on me — this was the lesson I was searching for. I quickly worked out a modestly confident way of stating the message and came up with something like, “Always finish the pile you’re working on before moving on to the next.”

Yeah. Good. I can work with that. On this lesson I could hook a few extras about the importance of completing your projects and the satisfaction of having finished a job.  In a handful of minutes I’d worked out a platform from which to wax fatherly to my children for the next hour.

In addition to ensuring that my kids really, really wanted to get the job done as soon as possible, this day-in-the-life interlude also sparked some thinking on my part about just how far this lesson could be pushed.  It certainly feels right to me, and I think at a practical level in my sons’ young lives it’s a useful lesson to learn. But later in life, when the mantra of multi-tasking drowns out the simple wisdom of finishing every project, I wonder if it will hold up.

More to the point, should it hold up?  Are we a society that values finishing our work, or working on as many things as possible, finished or not?  While few modern maxims are repeated as often as that of multi-tasking, particularly in the workplace, it’s debatable how effective a practice it is, or if we’re really ever doing it at all.

As this article reports, we never really focus on more than one thing–it’s a virtual impossibility; rather, we’ve become good at rapidly switching between tasks.  Due to the human phenomena of mental interference, our brains have difficulty managing focus between two even extremely minimal tasks. We’re simply not wired that way.

This study adds to the argument by showing that the difference between learning while distracted–i.e. while multitasking–and learning while undistracted is more critical than we think.  From an Ars Technica commentary on the study:

The authors set test subjects to performing a learning task within a device that imaged active areas of the brain. In some cases, the subjects were allowed to learn unhindered, but in others the subjects were also asked to keep a count of a series of tones that were played in the background. Learning the task unhindered caused the hippocampus to fire up, indicating a flexible memory was being formed. But if there was a distraction, the activity shifted to the striatum, indicating that only a habit memory could be formed under these conditions. These differences correlated with later test results on the same or similar tasks-those who learned without distraction were able to apply their knowledge to related problems with a significantly higher success rate.

So if you have to learn something that you’ll need to think through to apply later on, zero out the distractions.  The flip side of this is, if you’re learning something that you only need to go through the motions to apply later on, being undistracted is probably not so important.

Inspired by these musings, and with fresh questions in mind, I am turning my attention to the work being done at the University of Michigan in Dr. Daniel Weismann’s Attention and Cognitive Control Lab, one of the epicenters of learning about our brain’s ability to control the focus of our attention.  More on that another time.

For now, I feel good about my breezy fall day object lesson: focus on your pile and finish it before moving onto the next. It’s pithy enough, and opens the door for even more commonplace wisdom to emerge.  There are, after all, always more leaves.

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Weekly Noggin Raisers #2

intelligenza_test1Neuroanthropology has my top post of the week on the Flynn effect and intelligence – an exceptional, in-depth piece

Mind Hacks and Dr. Shock both handily took on the debatable concept of Internet addiction

Ars Psychiatrica expands the same addiction debate to include food and sex

Neuroskeptic posted one of my favorite reads of the week entitled We Are Really Sorry, But Your Soul is Still Dead

Rationally Speaking has a good piece on why machines are poor metaphors for organisms

The Situationist posted an intriguing article about research on oppositional beliefs in God and science

BPS Research Digest tells us that our personality may affect the age we live to

Michael Nielsen reviews Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and discusses the 10,000 hour rule of expertise

Ionian Enchantment provided an excellent tip about where to find Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel as an MP3

Skepticality has an interview with the creators of the TV series Numb3rs about the challenges of incorporating actual science into a TV show

NeuroLogica takes apart the intellectual dishonesty of  “new creationism” and neuroscience denial

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Free Market Mind Madness

fmm1Scientific American Mind has a terrific short interview with Peter Ubel, professor of psychology and medicine at the University of Michigan.  Ubel has a book set to come out soon called Free Market Madness, described as an investigation of  irrational tics that lead people to overbid on eBay, eat too much ice cream and take out mortgages they can’t afford. Jonah Lehrer, editor of SciAm Mind and the blog The Frontal Cortex conducted the interview.

From the interview:


LEHRER: Your new book, Free Market Madness, argues that conventional economics, which assumes that humans are rational agents acting in  their own self-interest, is deeply naive and scientifically  unrealistic. Instead, you describe a brain brimming with biases and flaws. Do you think these flaws are responsible for the latest economic turmoil? If so, how?

UBEL: Irrationality is responsible for the economic mess we find ourselves in right now.  Irrationality plus greed, of course, and a substantial dose of ignorance.

Let’s start with ignorance. I’m sad to say that many Americans have a difficult time with even simple math—around a third of American adults cannot calculate 10 percent of 1,000. People who struggle with concepts such as percents have an extremely difficult time with more complicated ideas, such as compounding of savings and, very relevant to our current crisis, adjustable rate mortgages.

To make matters worse, most of us are hard-wired for optimism. Ask us how we rate as drivers, and the vast majority of us are convinced we are above average, even those of us who have gotten into multiple car accidents. As a result of our unrealistic optimism, we are convinced that our incomes will rise fast enough to keep up with our outsized mortgage, or that our adjustable rate won’t rise, or that our house’s value will indefinitely outpace inflation.

We are social beings, too, and frequently judge our own decisions by seeing what other people are doing. If my neighbor added on a new kitchen through a home equity loan, I might assume that is a good idea for me, even if a more rational weighing of my finances would suggest otherwise.

Even savvy financiers can get caught up in irrational impulses. If a competitor’s firm makes huge profits on risky loans, it is easy for me to push aside my fears about such risks: if he took those risks and was rewarded, maybe I overestimated the risks!

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The Past Won’t Forget Us

waltz1Only rarely does a film come around that explores the volatile force of memory so compellingly that it leaves us simply stunned.  Waltz with Bashir appears to be such a film.  From Very Short List

For decades, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman had no specific memories of his involvement in the 1982 Lebanon War. But when the long-suppressed images did come back, they returned in a flash – and formed the basis of the stunning animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (opening in L.A. and New York City next week, and nationally in 2009).

Much of the film’s action is based on Folman’s interviews with Israeli veterans, and the bloody reenactments and audio verité soundtrack are more thought-provoking – and horrific – than the talking heads in conventional documentaries, or the faked combat scenes in Hollywood productions. It all builds to the massacre of Palestinian civilans – by Christian Phalangist militiamen – at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982. Haunted by his memories of the camps, Folman chooses to end the film with actual video footage of the horrific aftermath. But whatever the medium, Waltz with Bashir devastates.

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This Mouse is Smarter than Your Monkey

Have you heard of ‘mouse agility’?  I had not, until I came across the video below and the mouse agility website that mightymousedescribes in detail the process of training mice to accomplish Olympian feats.  From the site:

Sometimes it’s useful to apply a target stick instead of your hand, e.g. for teaching the mouse to spin or to slalom between your fingers. And least a target stick is convenient for highly aggressive rodents, such as natal rats!  Once your mouse understands this very simple trick, it will follow your hand (or the target stick) in all directions to nudge it (but remember that mice are short-sighted!), so you can most easily guide it through the agility course. Then you can gradually take away your hand, so your mouse has to concentrate more and more on the course than on your hand / the target stick and has to memorize it. The obstacles themselves don’t have to be introduced to the mouse in particular, cause certainly mice are able to balance, jump, climb etc. by nature, so they just have to learn the right order.  

But seriously, how is this really done?  Mouse pheromones?  Essence of cheese?

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Older Brains, Happier Brains

Age is an issue of mind over matter.  If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.  ~Mark Twain

According to a new study at Duke University, older brains are better at filtering out negative memories than younger photo-neuronbrains.  When presented with neutral, positive and negative images, participants on the older side of the spectrum (which in the study was defined as older than 55) remembered significantly fewer negative images than young and middle-aged participants (20-39 and 40-55 years old, respectively). 

Which brings up the question – is this merely a consequence of getting older, or an adaptive change?  It seems implausible that it’s just about getting older, since the older participants recalled roughly the same number of positive images as the other groups.  If age were the cause, we should see a decrease in memory across the board.  But the significant difference was squarely in the negative image category, suggesting an adaptive change to serve a purpose (or purposes) in the older mind.  From the USA Today article:

The brain scans showed that young adults have stronger connections between the emotional and memory-storing parts of the brain as they viewed the negative photos; emotion promotes better memory, Cabeza (neuroscientist at Duke Univeristy) says.  When the elderly viewed the unpleasant images, they had a much stronger link between the emotional part of the brain and the frontal cortex, which does more abstract thinking. It’s as though their brains dilute the emotional punch of an unpleasant view, which makes it less likely to be remembered, Cabeza says. “There’s a difference in how older adults process emotions. They may be suppressing negative emotions to maintain emotional well-being,” he suggests.

What’s interesting to me about this is, first, the results fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which has it that people typically become grumpier, more cynical and certainly not more positive with age. To the extreme contrary, it seems that the older brain adjusts in a remarkable way to become more positive in its outlook.  It’s as if the older brain rewires to short circuit negativity, drain some of its energy, resulting in less emotional impact and consequently less memory impact.

Second, the study results remind me of the words of Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness, the philosopher’s attempt (successful in my opinion) to connect with a broader audience late in his life.  His intention was to communicate in brief, palatable form the causes of unhappiness and happiness, and distill the collected wisdom of his many years into a message directing his readers to the latter.  Russell, possessing a decidedly older brain (and an estimable one at that) would, I think, immediately relate to the results of this study. From the first chapter of the book:

In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired, and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire – such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge about something or other – as essentially unattainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself – no doubt justly – a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to centre my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.

It’s the “Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies” sentiment that resonates most. I think only with the adaptive ability of decreasing emphasis on the negative and diluting the memories of feeling badly about oneself could Russell come to this conclusion.  This may be one of the gold nuggets at the heart of wisdom-with-age — that an adaptive brain finds a way to maneuver beyond some of its inherent pitfalls to reach a sense of well-being and fulfillment that dwelling on bad memories just can’t provide.

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