When Good Thinking Goes Bad: How Your Brain Can Have a Mind of Its Own
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Predictably, just a few years after the dawn of computer technology in the s, the brain was said to operate like a computer, with the role of physical hardware played by the brain itself and our thoughts serving as software. Miller proposed that the mental world could be studied rigorously using concepts from information theory, computation and linguistics. Although he acknowledged that little was actually known about the role the brain played in human reasoning and memory, he drew parallel after parallel between the components of the computing machines of the day and the components of the human brain.
Propelled by subsequent advances in both computer technology and brain research, an ambitious multidisciplinary effort to understand human intelligence gradually developed, firmly rooted in the idea that humans are, like computers, information processors. This effort now involves thousands of researchers, consumes billions of dollars in funding, and has generated a vast literature consisting of both technical and mainstream articles and books.
The information processing IP metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point — either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.
They saw the problem. It encumbers our thinking with language and ideas that are so powerful we have trouble thinking around them. The faulty logic of the IP metaphor is easy enough to state. It is based on a faulty syllogism — one with two reasonable premises and a faulty conclusion. Reasonable premise 1: all computers are capable of behaving intelligently.
Reasonable premise 2: all computers are information processors. Faulty conclusion: all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors. Setting aside the formal language, the idea that humans must be information processors just because computers are information processors is just plain silly, and when, some day, the IP metaphor is finally abandoned, it will almost certainly be seen that way by historians, just as we now view the hydraulic and mechanical metaphors to be silly. If the IP metaphor is so silly, why is it so sticky?
What is stopping us from brushing it aside, just as we might brush aside a branch that was blocking our path? Is there a way to understand human intelligence without leaning on a flimsy intellectual crutch? And what price have we paid for leaning so heavily on this particular crutch for so long? The IP metaphor, after all, has been guiding the writing and thinking of a large number of researchers in multiple fields for decades. At what cost? When the student has finished, I cover the drawing with a sheet of paper, remove a dollar bill from my wallet, tape it to the board, and ask the student to repeat the task.
When he or she is done, I remove the cover from the first drawing, and the class comments on the differences. Because you might never have seen a demonstration like this, or because you might have trouble imagining the outcome, I have asked Jinny Hyun, one of the student interns at the institute where I conduct my research, to make the two drawings. Jinny was as surprised by the outcome as you probably are, but it is typical.
As you can see, the drawing made in the absence of the dollar bill is horrible compared with the drawing made from an exemplar, even though Jinny has seen a dollar bill thousands of times. What is the problem? Obviously not, and a thousand years of neuroscience will never locate a representation of a dollar bill stored inside the human brain for the simple reason that it is not there to be found. The idea that memories are stored in individual neurons is preposterous: how and where is the memory stored in the cell?
A wealth of brain studies tells us, in fact, that multiple and sometimes large areas of the brain are often involved in even the most mundane memory tasks. When strong emotions are involved, millions of neurons can become more active. The idea, advanced by several scientists, that specific memories are somehow stored in individual neurons is preposterous; if anything, that assertion just pushes the problem of memory to an even more challenging level: how and where, after all, is the memory stored in the cell? So what is occurring when Jinny draws the dollar bill in its absence?
If Jinny had never seen a dollar bill before, her first drawing would probably have not resembled the second drawing at all. Having seen dollar bills before, she was changed in some way.
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Specifically, her brain was changed in a way that allowed her to visualise a dollar bill — that is, to re-experience seeing a dollar bill, at least to some extent. The difference between the two diagrams reminds us that visualising something that is, seeing something in its absence is far less accurate than seeing something in its presence. Perhaps you will object to this demonstration.
Had she done so, you might argue, she could presumably have drawn the second image without the bill being present. She has simply become better prepared to draw it accurately, just as, through practice, a pianist becomes more skilled in playing a concerto without somehow inhaling a copy of the sheet music.
As we navigate through the world, we are changed by a variety of experiences. Of special note are experiences of three types: 1 we observe what is happening around us other people behaving, sounds of music, instructions directed at us, words on pages, images on screens ; 2 we are exposed to the pairing of unimportant stimuli such as sirens with important stimuli such as the appearance of police cars ; 3 we are punished or rewarded for behaving in certain ways.
We become more effective in our lives if we change in ways that are consistent with these experiences — if we can now recite a poem or sing a song, if we are able to follow the instructions we are given, if we respond to the unimportant stimuli more like we do to the important stimuli, if we refrain from behaving in ways that were punished, if we behave more frequently in ways that were rewarded.
Misleading headlines notwithstanding, no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions.
We simply sing or recite — no retrieval necessary. A few years ago, I asked the neuroscientist Eric Kandel of Columbia University — winner of a Nobel Prize for identifying some of the chemical changes that take place in the neuronal synapses of the Aplysia a marine snail after it learns something — how long he thought it would take us to understand how human memory works. A few cognitive scientists — notably Anthony Chemero of the University of Cincinnati, the author of Radical Embodied Cognitive Science — now completely reject the view that the human brain works like a computer.
The mainstream view is that we, like computers, make sense of the world by performing computations on mental representations of it, but Chemero and others describe another way of understanding intelligent behaviour — as a direct interaction between organisms and their world. This might sound complicated, but it is actually incredibly simple, and completely free of computations, representations and algorithms. Two determined psychology professors at Leeds Beckett University in the UK — Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka — include the baseball example among many others that can be looked at simply and sensibly outside the IP framework.
One prediction — made by the futurist Kurzweil, the physicist Stephen Hawking and the neuroscientist Randal Koene, among others — is that, because human consciousness is supposedly like computer software, it will soon be possible to download human minds to a computer, in the circuits of which we will become immensely powerful intellectually and, quite possibly, immortal.
This concept drove the plot of the dystopian movie Transcendence starring Johnny Depp as the Kurzweil-like scientist whose mind was downloaded to the internet — with disastrous results for humanity. Fortunately, because the IP metaphor is not even slightly valid, we will never have to worry about a human mind going amok in cyberspace; alas, we will also never achieve immortality through downloading. Those changes, whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences.
This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering , no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more.
What is the negativity bias
This is inspirational, I suppose, because it means that each of us is truly unique, not just in our genetic makeup, but even in the way our brains change over time. It is also depressing, because it makes the task of the neuroscientist daunting almost beyond imagination. For any given experience, orderly change could involve a thousand neurons, a million neurons or even the entire brain, with the pattern of change different in every brain. This is perhaps the most egregious way in which the IP metaphor has distorted our thinking about human functioning. Whereas computers do store exact copies of data — copies that can persist unchanged for long periods of time, even if the power has been turned off — the brain maintains our intellect only as long as it remains alive.
The empty brain
There is no on-off switch. Either the brain keeps functioning, or we disappear. You are focused entirely on the tiger, the fear it creates, and how you can get away from it. In other words, negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts. At that same moment, you might have the option to climb a tree, pick up a leaf, or grab a stick — but your brain ignores all of those options because they seem irrelevant when a tiger is standing in front of you. The problem is that your brain is still programmed to respond to negative emotions in the same way — by shutting off the outside world and limiting the options you see around you.
For example, when you're in a fight with someone, your anger and emotion might consume you to the point where you can't think about anything else.
Or, when you are stressed out about everything you have to get done today, you may find it hard to actually start anything because you're paralyzed by how long your to—do list has become. In each case, your brain closes off from the outside world and focuses on the negative emotions of fear, anger, and stress — just like it did with the tiger. Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you.
It's your survival instinct. Now, let's compare this to what positive emotions do to your brain. This is where Barbara Fredrickson returns to the story.
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Fredrickson tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain by setting up a little experiment. During this experiment, she divided her research subjects into 5 groups and showed each group different film clips. The first two groups were shown clips that created positive emotions. Group 1 saw images that created feelings of joy.
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Group 2 saw images that created feelings of contentment. Group 3 was the control group. They saw images that were neutral and produced no significant emotion. The last two groups were shown clips that created negative emotions. Group 4 saw images that created feelings of fear. Group 5 saw images that created feelings of anger. Afterward, each participant was asked to imagine themselves in a situation where similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do.
Participants who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses.