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Dean Buonomano on ‘Brain Bugs’ - Cognitive Flaws That ‘Shape Our Lives’


                                          “Brain (Left)” and “Brain (Right)” ©Don Stewart

"Simply put, our brain is inherently well suited for some tasks, but ill suited for others. Unfortunately, the brain’s weaknesses include recognizing which tasks are which, so for the most part we remain ignorantly blissful of the extent to which our lives are governed by the brain’s bugs.”

"Like a parent that carefully filters the information her child is exposed to, the brain edits and censors much of the information it feeds to the conscious mind. In the same fashion that your brain likely edited out the extra "the" from the previous sentence, we are generally blissfully unaware of the arbitrary and irrational factors that govern our decisions and behaviors."

Dean Buonomano, Brain Bugs. How the brain’s flaws shape our lives, W.W. Norton, 2011

Memory errors

"One type of memory error that we make, a memory bug, is really a product of the fact that in human memory, there’s no distinct process or distinction between storage and retrieval.

So when a computer or a DVD writes something down, it has one laser that’s used to store the memory, and it has another laser to retrieve the memory, and those are very distinct processes.

Now, in human memory, the distinction between storage and retrieval is not very clear. (…)

This should be seen as a consequence of the fact that memory is written down as we experience it. It’s being continuously updated. And the synapses that undergo changes in strength - so as you alluded to earlier, one of the ways the brain writes does information is by making new synapses, making new connections or strengthening new ones or weakening old ones.

And that process uses these synapses that get strengthened, but the retrieval also uses those same synapses. So that can strengthen that pathway. (…)

The perception of time

When we think of the perception of time, most people think of the subjective sense of time: How long have they been listening to this program, how long are they stuck in traffic? And the brain seems to have multiple different mechanisms, and that’s one thing that we’ve learned about how the brain tells time is that unlike the clocks on our wrist that can be used to tell a few milliseconds or months and years, the brain has very fundamentally different mechanisms for telling very short periods of time and very long periods of time.

And that’s a consequence of the evolutionary process, that it came up with redundant solutions and different solutions depending upon the adaptive needs of different animals.

And it turns out that we don’t seem to have a very precise clock. Time is very much distorted when we are anticipating what’s about to happen, when we’re nervous, when we’re stressed and when we have high-adrenaline moments. Our internal clock is not that accurate. (…)

We are living in a time and place we didn’t evolve to live in

"And humans suffer some of the same consequences of living in a time and place we didn’t evolve to live in. (…) And by peering into the brain, we can learn a lot about whywe are good at some things and why we are not very good at others."

"The brain is an incomprehensibly complex biological computer, responsible for every action we have taken and every decision, thought, and feeling we’ve ever had. This is probably a concept that most people do not find comforting. Indeed, the fact that the mind emerges from the brain is something not all brains have come to accept. But our reticence to acknowledge that our humanity derives solely from the physical brain should not come as a surprise. The brain was not designed to understand itself anymore than a calculator was designed to surf the Web.Dean Buonomano, Brain Bugs. How the brain’s flaws shape our lives, W.W. Norton, 2011

Our neuro-operating system, if you will, the set of rules were endowed in our genes that provide instructions on how to build the brain, what it should come preloaded with, the innate biases we should have, and most animals have innate biases to fear predator with big sharp teeth and to fear poisonous spiders and poisonous snakes. Because those innate fears increase survival. And you don’t want to have to learn to fear snakes because you might not have a second chance. So we still carry that genetic baggage within our neuro-operating system.

It’s safe to say that it’s outdated. We currently live in a world in which in the United States, probably few people a year die or suffer severe consequences due to snake bites. But every year 44,000 people die of car accidents. So in the same way that evolution did not prepare say skunks to cope with the dangers of automobiles, evolution did not prepare humans to face the dangers of many of the things that surround us in our modern life, including automobiles, or an excess fluid for example of that we deal with problems due to obesity and too much cholesterol are all things that now have very dramatic effects on our lives, and we weren’t prepared for those things by the evolutionary process. (…)

A lots of our decisions are the product of two different systems interacting within the brain. And very loosely speaking, you can think of one of these as the automatic system, which is very unconscious and associative and emotional; and people can think of this as intuition. And then we have the reflective system, which is effortful, requires knowledge and careful deliberation. And people can get a quick feel for these two systems in operation with the following examples. The old trick question: what do cows drink? The part of your brain that just thought of milk was the automatic system. And then the reflective system comes in and says wait a minute. That’s wrong. The answer is water.

Similarly, if I asked: I’m going to throw four coins up in the air what’s the probability that two of them will be heads and two of them will be tail? Now, part of the brain that’s just thinking of well, it sounds like it should be 50 percent, because I said half the coins tails, half the coins heads. That’s again basically the automatic system. It would take the reflective system, some serious reflection, to work out the math and come up with an answer of six-sixteenths.

Now, in most cases we reach happy balances between both of these systems. And clearly, when we are understanding each other’s speech and making rapid decisions, the automatic system provides great balance as to what the proper answer is. But when we need to engage our reflective system and ask questions, such as the probability question that I just asked, sometimes we are misled because we trust the automatic system too much and the reflective system doesn’t really get through in some situations. And this can lead us, in the case for example, of the temporal discounting situation where I asked if you want $100 today or $120 in the future. So the automatic system, which is biased by immediate gratification, might get the edge in that situation.”

Dean Buonomano, professor in the departments of neurobiology and psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles and an investigator at UCLA’s Brain Research Institute, 'Brain Bugs': Cognitive Flaws That 'Shape Our Lives', NPR, July 14, 2011

See also:

A risk-perception: What You Don’t Know Can Kill You
David Eagleman on how we constructs reality, time perception, and The Secret Lives of the Brain
Iain McGilchrist on The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
Daniel Kahneman on the riddle of experience vs. memory
Daniel Kahneman: The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking
Timothy D. Wilson on The Social Psychological Narrative: ‘It’s not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world’
Mind & Brain tag on Lapidarium