Sunday, August 18, 2013

Brain Bugs: a book review

When Dean Buonomano named his book Brain Bugs he associated the human mind with computer glitches, an unfortunate irony because one of the first points of the book was how different real thinking is from computation.  The subtitle is “How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives;" this book is an excellent companion to Dan Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise, and Steve Pinker’s How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought.  

I was once tricked briefly by a robotic “salesperson” on my home phone.  I thought I was talking to a human being but it was just a clever recording with pauses.  And who hasn’t been playful with the iphone’s Siri?  But while people can be nearly tricked into thinking a computer is human, the opposite is far from true.  It’s embarrassing how easy it would be to write a test to determine if something were truly a computer -- just ask me what 18 is raised to the power of 12.  Computers are excellent at digital calculation where we – through evolution – are masters at recognizing patterns; our brilliance is sensing the whole from the parts.  As Buonomano puts it, the organic brain is like a new computer containing both hardware and an operating system.  We’re all wired with the same drives and emotions. But since our bodies had to survive in a shifting environment the operating system emphasized the ability to learn.  “The result is not a fixed balance, but a set of rules that allowed nurture to modulate our nature.” (p 15)

The book’s core question is this: “to what extent is the neural operating system established by evolution well-tuned for the digital, predator-free, sugar-abundant, special effects-filled, antiobiotic-laden, media saturated, densely populated world we have managed to build for ourselves.”  The answer is “Not very well.”   We have false memories, weak numerical skills, a distorted sense of time, large blind spots, we are predisposed to certain fears, our opinions are easily manipulated and we are inclined to be satisfied with supernatural explanations. We can thank our genes for that, genes groomed when our world was very different -- and so were we;  most of the time we were a different species altogether.

When it’s supported with research (and this book is quite well footnoted), I really like a simple explanation with reach: one that explains a lot of things.  The mind, he said, is basically comprised of a network of associations.  When I think “dog” I easily recall my dog, cats, dogfood, doghair, the beach,, the vacuum, my first dog, her vet, my youth, and so on.  Some links are well connected and fire frequently, others have looser connections, and many are more or less out there on their own.  Buonomano's analogy is the Internet where it’s easy to map the connectivity of any node. If you search for “Chicago USA” you get 169m hits; “La Paz Bolivia” returns 3.1m and “Iringa Tanzania” returns just 151k.   This is not just an analogy, it is basically how the brain is strung – the neurons (nodes) store information and whenever they fire together the synapses associating them get a little stronger.   “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  Interestingly, the “read” operations and the “write” operations both strengthen the association so as you commit something to memory OR as you recall it, the associations become more fixed.

Look to advertisers or politicians for good examples of how this works.  A devious candidate may hurt a relatively unknown opponent with sheer fabrications:  A headline: “Is Mark Peters corrupt?” will tie corruption (and all its nasty connotations) with Peters in our synapses.  We may not even know this is happening.  Years ago a Bush campaign ad was discovered with a nearly-subliminal word “rats” flashed across his opponent’s picture.

There’s a whole lot in the memory chapter.  People remember that someone is a baker more easily than they will remember that their name is Baker – more images and connections simply come to mind with the occupation than the surname.  

Those who can recall strings of 1,000 numbers rely heavily on associations.  One elaborate system assigns a person, an action, and an object to each number 1 – 1,000 to take advantage of pattern separation.  “George Carlin swimming” is very different from “Martha Washington’s doberman.” The numbers 235,694 and 749,209 just feel a lot more similar. 

There is adrenaline-induced flashbulb memories, like a good scare can do.  There is drug-induced memory loss during the important period of consolidation.  Memories are often overwritten, so a witness may confidently identify the "best choice" from a lineup of innocent people, or might be influenced by suggestive questioning.  And we have no “memory delete” module; no effortful “forgetting.”  Yet, oddly, there is some evidence that activating an old memory can actually make it vulnerable to erasure or overwriting because the read/write operations are so closely associated.

There is a chapter on errors about our sense of body.  Minds are housed in the brain, so it’s interesting that we each have a sense of body as me.  Controlling the body is necessary to reproduce, but why is there body consciousness?  “Evolution has not only ensured that the brain has access to the information from our peripheral devices, but that it endowed us with conscious awareness of these devices.  As you lay awake in the dark your brain does not simply verbally report the position of your left arm it goes all out and generates a sense of ownership by projecting the feeling of your arm into the extracranial world.” (93)  We’ve all heard of the mind recreating a limb which has been amputated but, in a sense, all our limbs are phantom.

There is an auditory corollary in the ringing many people hear when they start to lose their hearing for the same pitch; it’s a phantom sound.  Neurologically, the body is laid out in the brain such that adjacent body parts correspond to adjacent brain parts, so when there is a deficit adjacent neighbor neurons and synapses can patch it over.

An excellent chapter on time discussed how we perceive and measure time, how we relate to sequence and delay, and how temporal discounting causes us to make poor choices between short and long term consequences.  We don’t have a sense of time like we do, say, temperature.  We know how hot feels, but how does 4 years feel?  Actually, it depends.  Time seems shorter when we are paying close attention to something, and may change in felt duration depending on whether it is in the future present or past.  For example a hectic day may just fly by, but then looking back it seemed like a long one, judging by how much occurred. 

A weird one, for me, was that when we observe something noisy in the distance the brain actually slows down the visual signal so it matches the sound, which travels more slowly.  Studies verify this, I’m told.

There’s more about time than I have time for and the next chapter, on fear, had a fascinating bit:  Some fears are innate; goslings fear hawks, humans fear angry faces.  Some are learned; we fear losing our jobs.  Others are something in between.   I’d known that chimpanzees are not innately afraid of snakes (babies will play with them), but by watching the reactions of other chimps they can easily catch a lifelong terror of them.  They can’t do the same for, say, rabbits or flowers.   The author speculates (with some support) that humans may have a similar predisposition to fear strangers -- not particular strangers, but those which we are taught to fear early on.  We’re born fearing strangers, we just need to have them pointed out to us.  I just find that depressing.   It’s not all bad though, because by creating an “other,” we create an “us,” and those within one’s own smaller community primates were able to benefit from mutual reciprocal altruism.  It was a very clever solution when we lived amongst murderous marauders. 

The chapter on unreasonable reasoning delves into the same territory Dan Kahneman covered: framing, anchoring, overconfidence, loss aversion, the availability bias, conjunction fallacy: all good stuff.  And then there is the problem of emotions.  Since the amygdala has more connections heading to the cortical area than the other way around, emotions (amygdala) easily overwhelm reason (cortex), leading to all sorts of irrational decisions.

Here is a fun little demonstration of our poor grasp of probabilities:  In Let’s Make a Deal, Monty Hall presented contestants with three rooms, one held a large prize and two had a goat.  The contestants were asked to choose a door, after which Hall opened one of the others, revealing a goat, and then he offered to let the contestant switch or hold.   Some switched, some held; why would switching even matter?  Many people had trouble figuring that out, even though a world cruise or new home was at stake.  As Buonomano put it “we are inept at making probability judgments.”
(answer: always, always switch).
His chapter on Advertising recounted how De Beers turned the flagging diamond industry around with the slogan “diamonds are forever,” thereby creating an expensive engagement essential.  And by associating them with personal, unending love, De Beers guaranteed a continued demand for NEW diamonds.  Very clever.   So by associating a product with something we already value, advertisers build the synapse connections, they take advantage of our natural tendency to imitate peers and those of higher status, and they activate our mirror neurons so we actually feel successful, like in the ad.  Advertisers use loss aversion with free trials, and the “money illusion” to make something appear more valuable by charging more.   So a sweater selling for $30 as “half off” makes it look like a great deal on a better sweater.  But it’s just a $30 sweater.

Another clever trick is using a “decoy,” a product that is much like another but just a little worse.  It could be less somehow, or may be overpriced.  Either way, the decoy will drive up sales for the other one.  For example, an overpriced shrimp dish on the menu will get more people to buy the regular shrimp meal.  If there are two identical cars on the lot except one comes with remote ignition, it will sell better than if the other car wasn’t there.  That’s pathetic, but it’s nice to know why it happens.  First, while it’s so difficult to compare apples and oranges that it can lead to terminal indecision, it’s easy to compare a bruised apple to a good one.  Clear choice, problem solved.  Second, “apple” becomes a more salient idea altogether; after all, you’ve just seen two of them, and only one orange.

The chapter on superstition, and the conclusion were shorter, thinner, a little disappointing, but I’d already  gotten well enough to be satisfied. 

Read this book, if you dare!
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