Tag Archives: jonah-lehrer

How We Read

What we know about how we learn to read and how our abil­ity to read developed is fas­cin­at­ing, and in a review of a book that looks at exactly this — Stan­islas Dehaene’s Read­ing in the Brain — Jonah Lehr­er offers us a won­der­ful teas­er on exactly that: the hows of reading, from a neur­os­cience per­spect­ive.

The intro­duc­tion:

Right now, your mind is per­form­ing an aston­ish­ing feat. Photons are boun­cing off these black squiggles and lines – the let­ters in this sen­tence – and col­lid­ing with a thin wall of flesh at the back of your eye­ball. The photons con­tain just enough energy to activ­ate sens­ory neur­ons, each of which is respons­ible for a par­tic­u­lar plot of visu­al space on the page. The end res­ult is that, as you stare at the let­ters, they become more than mere marks on a page. You’ve begun to read.

See­ing the let­ters, of course, is just the start of the read­ing pro­cess. […] The real won­der is what hap­pens next. Although our eyes are focused on the let­ters, we quickly learn to ignore them. Instead, we per­ceive whole words, chunks of mean­ing. […] In fact, once we become pro­fi­cient at read­ing, the pre­cise shape of the let­ters – not to men­tion the arbit­rar­i­ness of the spelling – doesn’t even mat­ter, which is why we read word, WORD, and WoRd the same way.

Later in the review, Lehrer’s descrip­tion of what it is like to suf­fer from pure alex­ia reads like some­thing taken dir­ectly from Oliv­er Sacks’ essen­tial and eye-open­ing book The Man Who Mis­took His Wife for a Hat.

via Mind Hacks

Anchoring Our Beliefs

The psy­cho­lo­gic­al prin­ciple of anchor­ing is most com­monly dis­cussed in terms of our irra­tion­al decision mak­ing when pur­chas­ing items. How­ever, Jonah Lehr­er stresses that anchor­ing is more wide-ran­ging than this and is in fact “a fun­da­ment­al flaw of human decision mak­ing”.

As such, Lehr­er believes that anchor­ing also effects our beliefs, such that our first reac­tion to an event ‘anchors’ our sub­sequent thoughts and decisions, even in light of more accur­ate evid­ence.

Con­sider the ash cloud: After the cloud began drift­ing south, into the crowded air­space of West­ern Europe, offi­cials did the prudent thing and can­celed all flights. They wanted to avoid a repeat of the near crash of a Boe­ing 747 in 1989. […]

Giv­en the lim­ited amount of inform­a­tion, anchor­ing to this pre­vi­ous event (and try­ing to avoid a worst case scen­ario) was the only reas­on­able reac­tion. The prob­lems began, how­ever, when these ini­tial beliefs about the risk of the ash cloud proved res­ist­ant to sub­sequent updates. […]

My point is abso­lutely not that the ash cloud wasn’t dan­ger­ous, or that the avi­ation agen­cies were wrong to can­cel thou­sands of flights, at least ini­tially. […] Instead, I think we simply need to be more aware that our ini­tial beliefs about a crisis – those opin­ions that are most shrouded in ignor­ance and uncer­tainty – will exert an irra­tion­al influ­ence on our sub­sequent actions, even after we have more (and more reli­able) inform­a­tion. The end res­ult is a kind of epi­stem­ic stub­born­ness, in which we’re irra­tion­ally anchored to an out­moded assump­tion.

The same thing happened with the BP oil spill.

Sleep for Creativity

Dreams are not “mean­ing­less nar­rat­ives” but are “layered with sig­ni­fic­ance and sub­stance”, laments insom­ni­ac Jonah Lehr­er as he con­siders the import­ance of dream­ing for cre­ativ­ity:

A group of stu­dents was giv­en a tedi­ous task that involved trans­form­ing a long list of num­ber strings into a new set of num­ber strings. This required the sub­jects to apply a painstak­ing set of algorithms. How­ever, […] there was an eleg­ant short­cut, which could only be uncovered if the sub­jects saw the subtle links between the dif­fer­ent num­ber sets. When left to their own devices, less than 25 per­cent of people found the short­cut, even when giv­en sev­er­al hours to mull over the task. How­ever, when [the research­er, Jan Born,] allowed people to sleep between exper­i­ment­al tri­als, they sud­denly became much more clev­er: 59 per­cent of all par­ti­cipants were able to find the short­cut. Born argues that deep sleep and dream­ing “set the stage for the emer­gence of insight” by allow­ing us to men­tally rep­res­ent old ideas in new ways.

So that’s anoth­er good reas­on to sleep well.

Before look­ing at how sleep is “an essen­tial com­pon­ent of cre­ativ­ity”, Lehr­er also describes this fas­cin­at­ing study: a selec­tion of rodents spent their day run­ning around a cir­cu­lar track, hav­ing their brain activ­ity mon­itored. Once the anim­als fell asleep, the research­ers noted that the brain activ­ity dis­played was identic­al to that dis­played while they were actu­ally run­ning around the track (i.e. they were dream­ing about run­ning). On fur­ther exam­in­a­tion, the research­ers then dis­covered that they could also pre­dict pre­cisely where on the track the rodents were at any giv­en point in their dream.

Art and the Brain

Jonah Lehr­er, a neur­os­cient­ist and writer I’ve men­tioned many times, has a won­der­ful art­icle in Psy­cho­logy Today that looks at the field of neuroaes­thet­ics and how the brain inter­prets art.

All the adject­ives we use to describe art-vague words like “beauty” and “elegance”-should, in the­ory, have neur­al cor­rel­ates. Accord­ing to these sci­ent­ists, there is noth­ing inher­ently mys­ter­i­ous about art. Its visu­al tricks can be decoded. Neuroaes­thet­i­cians hope to reveal “the uni­ver­sal laws” of paint­ing and sculp­ture, to find the under­ly­ing prin­ciples shared by every great work of visu­al art.

In the art­icle Lehr­er pro­poses The 10 Great Prin­ciples of Great Art and in the accom­pa­ny­ing inter­view he chal­lenges the sup­pos­i­tion that neuroaes­thet­ics will “unweave the rain­bow” of great art.

    Related: Dr Shock takes a brief look at the rela­tion­ship between archi­tec­ture and neur­os­cience.

    via Mind Hacks

    Traffic Psychology and The Commuters Paradox

    There aren’t many people, I believe, who are able to drive and who are not inter­ested in traffic dynam­ics. Jonah Lehr­er, in a recent column for Seed, takes a brief look at traffic psy­cho­logy; includ­ing ‘the com­muters para­dox’ and the ‘crit­ic­al dens­ity’.

    They found that, when people are choos­ing where to live, they con­sist­ently under­es­tim­ate the pain of a long com­mute. This leads people to mis­takenly believe that the McMan­sion in the sub­urbs, with its extra bed­room and sprawl­ing lawn, will make them hap­pi­er, even though it might force them to drive an addi­tion­al forty-five minutes to work. It turns out, how­ever, that traffic is tor­ture, and the big house isn’t worth it. Accord­ing to the cal­cu­la­tions of Frey and Stutzer, a per­son with a one-hour com­mute has to earn 40 per­cent more money to be as sat­is­fied with life as someone who walks to the office.

    Appar­ently, the reas­on we dis­like com­mutes so much is because “the flow of traffic is inher­ently unpredictable”–once on the roads we are at the mercy of the traffic all around us.

    For more inform­a­tion on this top­ic, Wil­li­am Beaty’s Traffic Waves site is full of inter­est­ing the­or­ies and obser­va­tions on traffic ‘phys­ics’. Lehr­er sug­gests Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic–a book I’ve seen recom­men­ded many times.