Neurofeedback, something I’ve been interested in for a long time, is making its way into the mainstream in the form of videogames:
“Neuroeconomics combines neuroscience, economics, and psychology to study how people make decisions. It looks at the role of the brain when we evaluate decisions, categorize risks and rewards, and interact with each other.”
From Wikipedia. This is right up my alley.
“[Neuroeconomics] measures brain activity while experimental subjects make decisions. Because the brains of all animals are “economic,” that is, they have limited resources to achieve necessary goals, neuroeconomics experiments are not limited to studies of human beings, but have also employed apes, monkeys, and rodents.”
Magic and the Brain: Teller Reveals the Neuroscience of Illusion suggests that stage magic may provide insights into the working of the human mind.
And watch the embedded video of Teller showing the seven basic techniques of stage illusion - it’s awesome.
Lookism: the tendency for attractive people to get better treatment from others in nearly all aspects of life.
“People who possess loads of information in a particular field have historically been in hot demand and able the charge high fees for access to their stuffed, fact-filled brains. This was because the facts used to be difficult to access. Not any more. In an era where information about seemingly anything is only a mouse click away, just possessing information alone is hardly the differentiator it used to be. What is more important today than ever before is the ability to synthesize the facts and give them context and perspective.”
From Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds
In the Middle Ages, “intelligence” meant memory. Knowledge was scarce, owing to the difficulty of transmitting and storing it (very few were literate, and the printing press did not exist). So anyone who could store a lot of information in their heads tended to excel at cognitive tasks.
In the era of Google Is My Brain, technology does our remembering for us. (This was true, though somewhat less so, with printed books and widespread literacy in the past century or two.) No one is impressed by a good memory, because it’s essentially a useless skill. In fact our culture seems to favor those who have poor memories but are smart in a more modern modern way - e.g. the absent-minded professor.
In modern times, what we mean by “intelligence” is reflected in the IQ test: analysis, application of previously-gained knowledge to current situations, and fast learning. Those who score well on IQ tests tend to thrive in the modern world.
Memory was replaced by technology: so why not the skills we currently call “intelligence”? This may not happen immediately, but it seems possible or even likely that such technology will exist in the coming decades or centuries. If technology can analyze, apply knowledge, or learn in a manner that is better or faster than humans, we’ll stop caring about our own innate ability to do so.
What will be the most valuable mental skill when that happens? Leadership and charisma? Empathy? Creativity? Perhaps it will be something we don’t even have a word yet, because it’s a skill that will only make sense in tandem with a certain technology. (For example: googling is an incredibly useful skill today, but would have been purposeless prior to search engines.)
I find it amusing to speculate on what such a world would be like, and on what it would mean if most of the mental facilities I’ve cultivated for so many years were no longer valuable.
“Mediterranean squid have a very high brain-mass-to-body-mass ratio (this correlates with various indicators of intelligence in mammals). They been observed to solve mechanical problems (how to extract the tasty food fish from the corked bottle) by examining their environment, thinking for a while, then acting quickly and correctly. Octopi and squid appear to communicate within groups using color flashes made with chromatophores in their skins; nobody know what they’re communicating, exactly, but the potential bandwidth of that channel is extremely high.”
From Animal Imagination by Eric Raymond
“Even though we claim to be in charge of our destinies, most of our behavior is governed by a cauldron of of motives and emotions of which we are barely conscious. Your conscious life, in short, is nothing more than an elaborate post-hoc rationalization of things you do for other reasons.”
From V.S. Ramachandran’s “A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness”
This reminds me of something I read once, though I don’t remember where, about the “narrator” aspect of the human mind. This is the part of your consciousness that is continually telling the story of of your life in language. When you decide to take a break at work, for example, the voice of the narrator speaks in your mind: “I guess I’ll get up for a break now, I’ve been working hard for a while and I’d like to stretch my legs.” Or when you select an item off the shelf at the groccery store: “I got this once before and it was pretty good. The price is reasonable too. Ok yeah, I’ll get it.” etc.
Each of us likes to think that the narrator is the core of our being, the part of us that makes the decisions. But it isn’t. The narrator is an explanation of our decisions after they have already been made. The decentralized actors which compose the mind cause decisions to bubble up as an emergent property from below.
So pay attention next time you make a small decision. It’s not the narrator in charge: the explanation always comes after the decision has been made. The narrator just watches, and then forms an explanation for what it sees.
Recent discoveries in the realm of empathy (”mirror neurons” is the new catch-phrase) reveal just how deeply we are affected by the mental states of those around us. This article uses that evidence to support the argument that we should therefore make efforts to surround ourselves with people who we want to be like.
“Spend time with a nervous, anxious person and physiological monitoring would most likely show you mimicking the anxiety and nervousness, in ways that affect your brain and body in a concrete, measurable way. Find yourself in a room full of pissed off people and feel the smile slide right off your face. [..] The behavior of others we’re around is nearly irresistible.
When we’re consciously aware and diligent, we can fight this. But the stress of maintaining that conscious struggle against an unconscious, ancient process is a non-stop stressful drain on our mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth. [..]
Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:
‘If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion.’”
The growth of scientific knowledge during the past few centuries is staggering. Today we know more about galaxies which existed billions of years ago than people in the 17th century knew about the plants growing in their own back yards. Despite all of this, one subject remains shrouded in mystery: the mind of man.
This is the final frontier of human knowledge, but surprisingly few attempts have been made to explain the sentience of life on earth. Most study on the topic has fallen under one of two banners: neurology, which examines the mind’s underlying machinery (the brain); or psychology, the very general study of the human behavior produced by the mind.
Neurology, though by all means a very important area of research, can’t (at present anyway) provide an answer to the big questions like “What makes us sentient?” or “Why do we laugh?” because it studies the mind at such a low level. Trying to understand human behavior by studying neurons is like trying to understand traffic patterns in Los Angeles by studying fuel injectors.
Psychology treats the brain and body as a black box, where only the inputs and outputs are considered. Its purpose is to help people understand and manage their emotions, especially in the context of achieving their life goals. Clearly this is useful as well, but it is no better at answering the big “Why?” questions than neurology.
To me, the most interesting potential knowledge lies in the middle ground between these two. Memory, emotion, language, attention, pattern recognition - in a word, consciousness. This middle ground is so unexplored that there isn’t even really a name for it, although cognitive science is pretty close.
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