Monday, November 28, 2005

Learning how to Learn - by Owen

Figuring out how things work is tricky. For simple things, not so hard. But for complicated things can be tough.

This is for many reasons, including a very important one: our school system is not (and never was) designed to teach this. If, somehow, we decide to make it part of the curriculum, then we're going to have to teach all the teachers how to do it first. Contrary to popular philosophies of education, you really do need to know what you are talking about to teach something...

Another reason it is tough is that a lot of us have been brainwashed into a very silly way of looking at the world. We have been taught an idea pulled straight out of some greek philosophers ass (he must have asked his donkey all his important questions). The idea is this: Truth is universal and transcendent. And: here's the catch. By sitting around and thinking hard enough, we can 'discover' this truth! No need for experiements. Thought alone will reveal the truth.

Now, few of us have heard this idea stated like this. But it is one of the central ideas that has carried imaginative philosophers in western (and many easterners share similar nonsensical ideas, and surely northerners too, maybe southerners... heck, people the whole world over!).

Because of this, the "great" thinkers in our Universities and Churches have created philosophies that are fundamentally divorced from empirical study. They are untouchable, because they do not require empirical observations! Observations are unnecessary, because the truth is transcendant. Of course! The trouble is, many of their fundamental ideas are turning out to be wrong...

Getting over problem number one means choosing to learn how to learn, even though you didn't learn it in school.

Getting over number two means giving up on the idea that you can somehow secretly "know" what's true and what's false. As it turns out, no one in the whole world can do this. We know this the same way we know the world is round. By exploring it! Researchers have studied and studied and studied people, looking really really really really really hard for anyone with a secret access to truth. And, no dice.

Nope, we require empirical observations, and sometimes a serious collaborative effort, to create useful knowledge. That is, we need to carefully observe the workings of the world, and sometimes we have to team up with others to compensate for the mistakes we commonly make on our own.

Luckily, the nutters who believe in transcendent truth have not represented the whole spectrum of human thinking. Because many thinkers recognized the imporotance of empirical study, research and knowledge have progressed over the centuries. In fact, no serious discipline of study has failed to incorporate empirical observations, in one way or another, into its system of knowledge. And all the great discoveries of the previous few centuries, the breakthroughs that have created life saving medicines, telephones and airplanes, all of these have come from empirical studies.

Thanks to these empiricists, who have come to be known as Scientists, human knowledge is rapidly advancing. We are learning about genetics, and neurology, about cancer and heart disease, about aerodynamics and atomic physics, and even about the way human brains create knowledge in the first place!

Yes, these are amazing times for the pursuit of knowledge.

We can finally leave age old superstitions behind, because we can actually discover and demonstrate the ways in which they mislead their adherents.

We can finally get past many of the stumbling blocks of religion and philosophy, and get on with creating belief systems that are actually grounded in reality instead of fantasy. This should help stop religious wars, and help progressive policy makers to shake ideological politicians and lobby groups out of their foolish ways...

Yes, exciting times...

And it all starts with each and every one of us doing everything we can to shake of the chains of superstition, to leave behind the burden of false beliefs, and to free up all that wasted time and effort:

Just think of all the good hearted people trying to:
- create world peace by meditating on crystals
- help poor people by kicking them off welfare
- fix the health care system by selling it off to pirates
- bring about social justice by throwing bricks through windows

Why, all that time and effort could actually be doing something useful!

a call for suggestions

i'm interested in formatting suggestions for my new web-publishing endeavor. i want to have posts short enough that they are readable in one sitting, but comprehensive enough to accomplish something.

i get the feeling my 'magical thinking' post may be a little long... comments?

i think making links between smaller units of writing may be the answer. anyway, if you've noticed anything in your online readings, or have any suggestions, i'd be grateful.

Watching the Brain at Work - by Brent

Reading the Scientific American and noted a post that I thought you would be interested in Owen.

They have created a technique called single-neuron functional imaging which allows scientists to watch brains while they are working in a live animal. They have recorded simultaneous activity of hundreds of neurons in the visual cortex of lab animals. The technique has the promise to allow creation of architectural maps of brain functions such as vision, movement and learning with single cell accuracy.

In the same post, a different set of researchers were able to determine what a person was looking at by decoding the activity among small groups of neurons. Which is pretty crazy... done properly we are talking about mind reading!!!

Anywhoo... stuff I thought you would be interested in!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Magical Thinking - by Owen

Kids ask a lot of questions.

If they get good answers (in their minds), then they quickly move on to the next questions, taking their newly learned information for granted.

If, for whatever reason, they don't get answers that satisfy them, they resort to what child psychologists call "magical thinking".

Magical thinking is when a kid decides that his sister grew from a seed planted in a "nursery" on top of the hospital, or that apples are made in an apple factory in the back of the grocery store, or that it rained because he did a rain dance, or that his grandmother got cancer because he (secretly) wondered if god was really REAL, and god got mad...

Magical thinking is what happens when there aren't clear answers to questions of how things work. Magical thinking is when supernatural answers are concocted for real world things that kids wonder about.

Magical thinking is often funny to grownups (like the nursery and the apple factory). Sometimes its sad (like the kid who think he killed his grandma). And sometimes it is very serious (like when under-educated teenagers think that they can have sex, and as long as they don't pray for a baby, then they won't get pregnant!).

The thing with Magical Thinking is that it is divorced from Reality. Magical answers do not refer to the actual workings of the real world, so, ironically, the answers have a certain stability. Imagining god as an invisible vengeful giant with super powers means that it is no surprise that you'll never see him (or her). Therefore, evidence is irrelevant! The rain dance might work sometimes and fail sometimes for lots of reasons. Perhaps you didn't dance hard enough this time... Better dance harder with more sincerity next time!

Something else about magical thinking: it's not confined to children. Many grownups have magical answers for things they don't really understand. The trouble with grownups is that they're much less likely to admit that their beliefs are silly, and take in new knowledge.

History is filled with magical stories invented by people who couldn't figure out what was going on in the world.

People believed that their cows got sick because the medicine woman must have cursed them.
They believed that the world was a big flat disk balancing on the back of a huge turtle.
OR that it was a big flat disk floating in nothingness, with a dome of heaven speckled with stars... (some people still believe this)
They believed that women had secret magical powers to produce babies.
Or that the world was a great big garden made for them to cultivate.
Or that epidemic diseases (or droughts, or hurricanes, or blizzards) were punishments from an angry god.
Or that Truth is transcendent and independent of human thought - we simply discover the abstract truth of the universe... (and, by the way, the other guys are wrong about it, we are the only ones who've got it right!)
Or that sitting around and thinking long enough and hard enough can give you the answers to any question (those silly greek philosophers).

Most modern people in industrialized nations like to think that they have left this kind of silliness behind them. But consider the following popular beliefs (maybe you believe some of these things, or know someone who does...):

-Aluminum pots caused alzheimer's disease (a rumour started by Jehovah's witnesses).
-You can't get pregnant the first time.
-You won't get a sexually transmitted infection if you know the person (but he's a friend of a friend! - or, but he said he didn't have anything!!).
-Deodorant gives you breast cancer.
-Natural medicines can't hurt you because they're natural.
-Extremely diluted potions of "medicine", if they're shaken up properly, get more powerful the more you dilute them (homeopathics).
-Pesticides don't harm humans, only bugs (and maybe birds, or maybe rats) - because humans are different from animals.
-Pesticides are safe for humans, because the government says so.
-Diseases are caused by imbalances in your energy field.
-You can lose weight by eating lots of meat and cheese and fat, as long as you don't eat carbs.
-God wants the Americans to win (popular among americans, at least).
-Doctors know it all, because they have Science on their side.
-Doctors don't know anything, because their intellects get in the way.
-Alternative medicine practitioners have deeper understanding of the human body because they are more spiritually advanced (more popular on the west coast...).
-Your good luck or bad luck today are determined by the movements of planets and stars (stars that were where we see them to be thousands of years ago, who'se light is just reaching the earth now...)
-A good attitude can keep you healthy.
-Praying for someone can make them get better.
-Eating more protein will make you stronger.
-Dying for the cause gets you straight into heaven (more popular in oppressed islamic countries with active fundamentalist organizations... but it has a certain appeal to a certain segment of the American public too).
...and on and on.

All of these beliefs are characterized by the following characteristics:

1) They do not refer to anything in the real world (observations made with the senses and confirmable by other human beings).
2) They are not backed up by facts (they do not fit into the system of knowledge generated through systematic observation and study).
3) They are not fleshed out in any detail (they are vague and abstract).
4) They are not believed by anyone who is educated in their subject matter (people who are professionally involved in actually knowing what is going on in that particular field).
5) They are believed by people who have not either a) never looked into it, or b) haven't learned how to research properly (which is most of us)

These particular beliefs are all imaginary answers to real world questions, each of which has actually been successfully answered!

The way out of magical thinking is exploration. Exploring the real world instead off sitting around and making up stories about it.

People found out the world was round, not flat, by sailing around it. Until they could sail around it, no one could be sure...

People found out that epidemics are caused by germs, not angry gods or nasty witches, by inventing microscopes and discovering germs. Until microscopes, no one could be sure...

People found out that the world is way way way older than humans, and that humans have only gardened for a really short while (hunting and gathering the rest of the time)... so the Earth was obviously not made to be a garden for humans (who didn't even exist when the earth came into being). Until paleontology... no one could be sure.

There are many other beliefs that aren't so easy to answer - that may not have been thoroughly investigated by professionals. These are harder to sort out, but it can still be done.

Nowadays, researchers are discovering many of the answers to really Big Questions that have been on the table for thousands of years! Many of the great philosophical questions are now being answered, one by one.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Interesting Quotables

"The truth will set you free, ...but first it will piss you off."

- Gloria Steinem

I have only one superstition. I touch all the bases when I hit a home run.

- Babe Ruth

A little "magical thinking":

[Bernie drives through a rainstorm] I know why it's raining. I coulda predicted it. It's raining because my fucking wipers are all fucked up. If my wipers were okay, the fucking sun would be shining, AT NIGHT.

-Bernie LaPlante:

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

On Memory - some questions and answers (by Owen)

"Human memory is designed to anticipate the future, not to recapitulate the past"

This posting follows the questions/comments posed to me by a friend. My answers/explanations follow.

what is the cognitive model of memory? Clearly the "human memory
is computer memory" metaphor is inadequate.

computer memory, like "library" memory etc. are inadequate models of memory because the presuppose a function for which there is no structure in the human brain. we have no memory chips, no shelves to store records of things to be retrieved later.

the replacement model is the "constructionist" model, that works as follows:

1. The human brain changes in response to experience by reinforcing neural connections related to the content of the experience. Concepts that are linked through experience become linked in the cognitive system. Example: cursing god's name and then getting in a car crash tends to make people cautious about insulting the Big Daddy again...

2. This structural change is Learning (conditionning that associates concepts with each other).

3. Learning about the relationships between things is the basis of the imaginative experience we call "memory". What we are really doing when we "remember" is building a plausible scenario in our imaginations based on our current knowledge. That is, remembering something is not accessing its record, stored somewhere in the brain and waiting for retrieval, but rather it is accessing current knowledge about relationships between things and creating an imaginary scenario that may be more or less vivid...

4. If connections are not actively reinforced (through experience or imagination) then they slowly fade over time. This is why "memory" is greater for recent events.

5. Repetitive events either reinforce the connections (slowly fading as usual between happenings) or cause more robust connections (i'm unclear on this so far).

6. Intense experiences (near death by bus) cause much stronger connections to be 'forged' between concepts in the brain, therefore creating a more permanent association. It may or may not be permanent, but it is clearly stronger and longer lasting.

In the textbook Cognitive Psychology, the overwhelming superiority of the constructionist model over the "record-keeping" model is laid out. Guenther (author of the chapter on models for memory) summarizes dozens of experiments designed to highlight the influence of changes in knowledge on experienced memories. The evidence is clear: new knowledge alters how we construct memories of past experiences.

The reason I ask is that I've noticed that people who get things done
have a very good memory for certain items:
-what they have asked others to do
-what others have asked them to do
-details about other people's lives that are of importance to them (i.e.
an interest in skiing or a sick child)

Experiments summarized in the book reveal that, confirming your observation, our memories are better for some things than others. They also reveal that the things we remember better have, surprise surprise, to do with things for which our knowledge is greater. This makes no sense from a record-keeping theory, but obviously follows from the constructionist model. The famous memory superheroes of the last century - people with "photographic" memories etc. turn out not to have photographic memories at all. In fact, even those with incredible memory for visual detail (eidetic imagers) report that it fades over time...

"Eidetic imagers report that, after viewing a picture, they see an image of the picture localized in front of them and that the visual details disappear part by part. While they remember many more visual details of a picture than would the ordinary person, often the accuracy of their reports is far from perfect".

Furthermore, the great rememberers (stage performers etc.) report that they use mnemonic techniques related to the realms of learning at which they excel. They associate new information with information that they already have a good grasp of.

The following is almost word for word from the book:

S. V. Shereshevksii was a famous memory show off who could remember lists of arbitrary and randomly presented words, 15 years later! He reported that he formed vivid and detailed images of every stimulus he was asked to remember and often associated the images iwth images of familiear locations, like Gorky Street in Moscow. He would later retrieve the words from memory by taking a mental "walk," noticing the images associated with the landmarks. This mnemonic technique is called the method of loci, and can be used effectively by anyone trying to memorize a list of stimuli. Techniques like the this improve memory because they make the information more distinctive, and because they associate the distinctive images with well learned knowledge/imagery.

Furthermore, making sense/meaning of the stimuli is critical. Chess masters are much better at remembering the locations of pieces on a chess board than the average college student - but only if the pieces are in positions that have followed the rules of chess. If they are in an arrangement that couldn't happen, that makes no "sense" then their memory for chess piece locations is no better than anyone else!

So, I'm interested in finding out how to build my memory in these areas.
There are numerous folk theories of memory and how to improve it.
Yet, the strange thing is I had a great memory in school for learning
all sorts of math, science and engineering mumbo-jumbo -- how is it that
my memory works far better for somethings than others?

So, as I said above the accuracy of your memory-reconstructions will naturally be better for things that:

a) you have greater knowledge/understanding
/interest in.
b) you are able to make distinctive by making it vivid in your imagination (picturing the sick child, the caring parent, the relatives, the drama etc.)
c) you use mnemonic techniques to relate new knowledge to established knowledge (in whatever ways your understranding/leaning system is strong).

Guenther recommends:

- Look for themes and patterns that organize the material you are trying to learn (so that you'll reconstruct it better later).
- Relate the material to things you already know (things that are vividly known for you, images, places, people, laws of physics).
- Do the learning in a way that mimics the conditions in which you will need to remember it (if it is essays you'll have to write about it, practise by writing essays).

Recommended book: Searching for Memory by Schacter (1996).

By the way, it is thrilling reading, this stuff. It has radically changed the way I think about my own life experience and memory reconstructions, but also helps me incorporate things people report to me much more sensibly...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On Metaphors - by Owen

Here's my thought of the day:

1. Each of us relies on our senses to navigate the world we live in. We walk around by feeling the ground under our feet, seeing the curb in the sidewalk and adjusting our step so we don't trip, unconsciously responding to tiny bones in our ears to tell us if we are losing our balance or not...

To drink a cup of coffee: we see the coffee cup in front of us, unconsciously estimate how much it weighs, pick it up, and bring it to our mouths, hopefully avoid burning ourselves by estimating the temperature before we drink it, and control how fast we pour and swallow so that we don't spill it all over our nice new dress shirts...

We rely on the taste of foods to tell us whether or not they are safe or nutritious.

Over and over throughout the day, we touch, taste, feel, smell, hear the things around us.

2. With all this stimulation, we build a "picture" of the world around us - its people, places, objects etc. In our early years, we 'learn' that buses are loud and big and dangerous, that cats purr, that dogs are sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile, that children are helpless and parents defend them (usually) and scores of other kinds of basic things. We learn how heavy things are, how sharp they are, what they taste like, and so on. We learn how different kinds of living things interact with one another.

All of this learning is based on identifying objects (including living objects), learning things about the objects, and seeing how they interact with other objects.

This kind of learning we share with all the animate creatures of the world. Some are better than others (dolphins are smarter than beetles), but we all share it this basic way of being.

Something we humans do on top of this is that we use language and abstract thinking to understand things we CAN'T actually sense. When we do this, we do it by imagining it in terms of things we can see, touch, taste, smell, hear... We do it based on the accumulated knowledge we have about the world around us, and the people, creatures, and objects that fill it.

Example: when we talk about bacteria in the human body, we say that some of them are "invaders" that attack the body, and that our immune system "defends" us... Nowadays, we also talk about "good" bacteria that "help" us, and others that are harmless... All these ideas are based on interpersonal metaphors - metaphors about relationships between human beings. And they are compelling ones for people who grow up watching movies about wars and invasions and soldiers and police etc, so they "work" to some extent. That is, they help people to understand some of the relationship dynamics of invisible creatures in and on our bodies and in the environment around us.

On the other hand, these metaphors also lead people astray, and cause them to do absurd things that are harmful to themselves and the people around them. For example, people unnecessarily use anti-bacterial soaps (believing that it is better to kill bacteria then risk invasion) that wash down the drains and into drinking water supplies, agricultural food chains, rivers and streams (into fish) and ultimately the ocean... ultimately coming back to haunt us in the form of increased antibiotic 'resistance' (another war metaphor) and toxic reactions to the antibiotics themselves!

The point of all this is that most of us are unaware that we are using metaphors to understand many of the things in our lives - instead we function as though our metaphors are reality, and act accordingly. We try to do what we would do if we actually had invaders in our homes - fight them off, kill them, call in the soldiers etc. etc.

Once we realize that ALL understanding of invisible things is based on metaphors, it can open us up to being cautious about using metaphors too loosely. It can allow us to consider alternative metaphors - even when they are less emotionally/viscerally compelling - if they actually match reality better.

A metaphor about metaphors:
When you are aware that someone is spreading gossip, rather than objectively describing reality, then you can consider that there may be other sides to the story. This consideration might help you to interact better with people implicated by the gossip - instead of making enemies unnecessarily...