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.