Tag Archives: Brain

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

28 Dec

After following Jonah’s very readable blog for a while I decided I had to read his book. His blog introduced the latest neuroscience and psychological research in a very clear and digestible form.

That Lehrer has been embroiled in controversy for recycling his own work, and using unreferenced quotes from others is well known, however that of course does not detract from the message of his book in any way.

It’s an easy read, that is not too in depth and covers a lot of ideas about how the mind works that I’ve read before. While it’s not as incisive and informative as his blog, it is still useful, and reinforced ideas in a practical way.

He starts by describing how we use intuition (the examples of a quarterback & chess were used). Calculating faster than a computer, we are able to subconsciously make a good decision, if we have trained ourselves enough. We’ll “feel” that something is right without knowing why, or even needing to know.

However it’s important to know when we can use this intuition: if it’s an area you know well, where you have experience, then let the intuition lead. However if the decision is in a area in which you have had little practice, then don’t rely on your subconscious – think it through consciously.

Our subconscious training can be tripped up. Choking is well known, especially in sports, for example golf. If someone who is expert in an area consciously tries to figure out the technicality of what they’re doing, say understanding the position of their shoulder or the angle of their elbow, then they can easily lose the ability to fluidly use their body. Rather they must think in more general terms, such as a smooth golf swing.

There’s another way we can decide whether it’s best to use our intuition or our conscious mind to figure something out: if some problem has about 5 variables then we should use our conscious mind (the frontal cortex), however if there are a lot more variables, we should soak them all in, focus on something completely unrelated for a few minutes, then come back and make a decision – in that case the subconscious is good at sorting through the key facts.

He points out that the brain is an advanced pattern matching machine. This is very powerful when we want to figure out how things work, or make quick decisions, but it can lead to problems – recognising a face in clouds is a simple example. Also superstitions, seeing ghosts, etc. are faults with the system.

He talks about how morals are subconscious and are justified post-hoc, and are often not often logical.

He covers what Pinker would call the functional mind, i.e. that different bits of the brain will argue with each other, and once they’ve made a decision, present the result to the conscious part of the brain. He advises becoming aware of the argument, and embracing uncertainty until a good decision is found.

To be honest, having read a lot of stuff in this subject area I found this a really basic book, but if you are new to reading about neuroscience and how the mind works, it’s an easy-to-read introduction that you could get through in a few quick hours.

The best conclusion from this book is that we can understand how we work, use our inbuilt skills when they are appropriate, and train ourselves to make better decisions.


Why We Believe What We Believe – Andrew Newberg

2 Nov

I’ve read a lot of good books describing how the mind works and this one is near the top of the list.

Andrew Newberg describes – with fascinating examples and studies – how we create our view of reality. Or to put it another way: our beliefs. This isn’t just about religion, though that is discussed in detail, but about how we create, adapt and persist our belief system and how that then shapes our perception of the world.

There’s some fascinating developmental stuff in there, such as how babies up to a certain age don’t believe an object exists when it’s outside of their perception.

He shows how a baby has twice as many neurons than an adult but way fewer connections. And in fact puts a positive light on the fact we lose brain cells as we age: we make too many connections as we grow, and pare away the ones that are not useful, resulting in a brain that can function better.

He discusses stages of belief such as how a child doesn’t have a moral dimension at first, understanding the difference between good and bad, i.e. as their actions affect them, but not between right and wrong, i.e. how their actions affect others – this is learnt roughly between the ages of 6 and 10, significantly influenced by the stories they are told, through which they learn to empathise.

Amusingly telling parents some of these things can result in an irrational response – “my baby recognises me”, “my baby is good and thoughtful”. But then we don’t like having our beliefs challenged, which is something he comes onto later in the book, discussing cognitive biases and how to become aware of the influences our beliefs have on our perceptions and corollary beliefs. This is also a good example of how we project our beliefs and way of thinking onto others, with an anthropomorphic bent,  a bias to which we are particularly prone.

So our view of the world is not a passive observation. We filter and process information according to our beliefs, which are acquired through nature, nurture and so on, and we actively create our view of reality.

His discussion of transcendent states is just brilliant. He covers nuns in prayer, Buddhists in meditation, Pentecostals speaking in tongues and an atheist meditating on God. These all bring excellent insights into how we can change our view of reality, suspend some of our belief systems, and become more open to, and aware of, other possibilities.

In Buddhist meditations, for example, we see an increase of activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the part that “monitor[s] our ability to stay attentive and alert, helping us to focus on a task… and in planning and executing a task”. Most interestingly there is a diminution of activity in the parietal lobes, those areas responsible for self image, and perception of space and time. That means that people do – in their perception – transcend their bodies, space and time and are able to be “in the moment”. Great insights can come from this mind state, as well as increased peace and well-being. Also these practices can reinforce a person’s view of the world as any things experienced in that state are usually used to confirm ones belief system, and if you think on a belief for long enough it becomes real.

Speaking in tongues (glossolalia) has a rather different effect: there is decreased activity in the frontal lobes and a “surrender of conscious will” (practitioners talk of a surrender of control to God). It therefore allows the person to think in new and creative ways, to see things from a different perspective, and is a useful mind-state in changing beliefs, in transforming oneself. Interestingly, glossolaliacs have an increased activity in the parietal lobes implying they have a greater sense of personal self, although as they tended not to practise for as long as the meditators, this may change if they practise more.

Newberg talks of these transcendent experiences as giving a feeling of oneness with the universe, or a connectedness with everything. With this will come a sense of peacefulness, and clarity of purpose. This was described by the atheist who meditated.

One of his closing comments is a challenge to which I continue to aspire:

Becoming a better believer is a difficult task to undertake, for re-wiring the brain requires patience and time. But if we succeed, to some small degree, then we will be better able to recognize our limitations, as well as our strengths. For this reason, I hold the deepest respect for those people who have had the courage to question and challenge their beliefs, for these are the individuals who have enriched our world through their creativity and willingness to grow.

The Body Has a Mind of Its Own by Matthew and Sandra Blakeslee

12 Jun

When I first saw the title of this book I thought it might be fluffy new age nonsense, but this is an insightful book, backed up with empirical evidence about how the brain and body work together.

It describes how the body and mind communicate, and how the different kinds of nerves work. For example, I didn’t know about proprioception so it was fascinating to learn that we have nerves in our joints and muscles that let us know the positions of our body parts in relation to others.

The book describes how the brain has different bits that are mapped to different parts of the body. You can see bits of the brain light up under fMRI scanners and the like, when people think about moving, or actually move, certain body parts.

It moves on to describe how tools, vehicles, bikes, etc. are incorporated into your body map, and as far as your brain is concerned, become a part of you. Ever notice how you duck when you drive under a bridge? And working the other way around, you can morph your body map to represent something in a virtual world, such as when playing a computer game. I’m sure you’ll have noticed when you’re moving a computer character with a controller you still try to help it along by moving your body.

It covers brain injuries, and missing limbs; of course the wonderful work of Vilayanur Ramachandran comes into play here. We see body maps getting muddled up and causing pro-sportsmen or musicians to forget how to do what they do, and ways around these problems using the theories in this area.

It shows how training doesn’t need to be physical; once you have a baseline of physical training, simply visualising your physical endeavour will make you better: from darts, to playing a musical instrument.

It also very interestingly describes why people have out-of-body experiences or see auras due to funny body maps that people have. Although people don’t really have such experiences, they perceive them due to body map issues.

Finally it looks at mirror neurons – the bits of your brain involved in empathy (though it’s worth noting that the existence of these is not universally accepted). It shows that when you watch others move, the same bits of the brain light up when you move, right up to the pre-motor cortex. It also dips its toe into the interesting waters of the boundary between you and others when you start to experience their emotions and feelings.

A well written and interesting read that gives a new perspective on how your mind and body work together.

8 May

Does the internet rewire your brain? Well, yeah, but so does having a cup of tea.

Mind Hacks

My column for BBC Future from a few days ago. The original is here. Mindhacks.com readers will have heard most of this before, thanks to Vaughan’s coverage of the Baroness and her fellow travellers.

Being online does change your brain, but so does making a cup of tea. A better question to ask is what parts of the brain are regular internet users using.

This modern age has brought with it a new set of worries. As well as watching our weight and worrying about our souls, we now have to worry about our brain fitness too – if you believe the headlines. Is instant messaging eroding the attention centres of our brains? Are Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools preventing you from forming normal human bonds? And don’t forget email – apparently it releases the same addictive neurochemicals as crack cocaine!

Plenty of folk have been…

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On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee

13 Mar

A book with many fascinating insights into how the mind works, sadly flawed with some brash assumptions and glossing over important issues.

So his aim is to correctly understand how the mind works – he says most other people have got it wrong, and no one has a grand theory of how the mind works like he does. Ahem, yes, bit grandiose and martyr-like. The book is that, i.e. a grand theory of how the mind works. It’s the first part of his work. The second will be to figure out how to truly put this algorithm to work inside a machine. He says that while the AI industry has come up with some great applications, they missed the point as they started implementing AI before they fully understood the intelligent brain they were aiming to base it on.

I laud his aims – he made his money building personal gadgets (he designed the Palm Pilot) and is now spending his gains on his intelligence institute.

In summary, he is a long way from his grand claim of a complete understanding of the way “intelligence” works, but what he has produced is a good step in the right direction towards increasing our understanding.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first:

On p41 he makes the big, big assumption that only neocortex houses intelligence. This is pretty brash, given how we’re still learning about how the mind works and so much other stuff I’ve read shows how all the parts of the mind influence the others. That said, he hadn’t defined intelligence at that point.

And to say on p43 that the mind is produced only by the brain period is also bold given all the research about body-mind, and the nervous system around the body which many think has a lot more to play in the makeup of the mind than we intuitively assume. It has been argued that the mind wouldn’t function without the body, c.f. the feedback stuff he mentions. And this seems to be an unnecessary assumption.

And to his excellent paradigm for understanding how the mind works:

He posits that the mind can take any input – we have sight, hearing, etc. and learn to process it. It works the same for each: it takes in data over a period of time. Sight is not a snapshot – the eye has three “saccades” every second; it takes in a little part of the field of vision each time and builds up a picture over time. Similarly and more intuitively with hearing – we process a series of sounds over time. It wouldn’t make any sense if we simply had a snapshot of sound at a point in time. And so with touch – if you wake up touching something you can’t figure out what it is until you’ve moved along it, i.e. a sequence of touch input over time.

Then the cortex is made of 6 layers of neurons, each layer holding data that are an abstraction of the data in the lower layer. So for example when you hear music the lowest layer will register the notes, the next layer will put those notes into riffs, and so on. Or when you’re reading you’ll get letters at the lowest level, morphemes at the next, then words at the third, then phrases, and so on until you have more abstract understanding at the top.

When we’re learning something new, say reading, the simple part, i.e. the letters will go right to the top layer and we’ll be aware of that. As we learn, the letter bit goes down to a layer of which we’re not aware, and we can think more of the words, and as we get a bit more adept the meanings are all we need to consider at the top layer, and so on. So as we practise something, it gets so that we need to consider less of the details, which means we’ll only be conscious of the highest, i.e. most abstract layer.

Unless of course there’s an “error”. Only errors filters up the chain, say if you are walking into your house, the way you always do, but you suddenly notice that a floorboard is loose – that will shoot up the layers until the higher layers become aware of it. Otherwise all the actions are pretty autonomous.

So the abstraction process is what the brain excels at, and something I’ve always intuitively thought the brain did too, so good to see someone else confirming the theory.

Now given his system for how the mind works, the final chapter on applying this algorithm to all walks of life is most inspiring. The idea of this algorithm’s ability to learn given any input is powerful indeed. So just plug it into a camera and a car, for example, and it would use that same algorithm to figure out driving. And once we spend the time training one system we can simply copy it and refine it. It would truly revolutionise our world.

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