2009 12 07
Recently read: Pink Brain, Blue Brain

Posted by in: Books, children, Psychology

Lise Eliot. Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It

Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain is about gender differences and their causes. The main outlines of the book can be summarized fairly quickly: Much popular journalism about gender differences is really awful. Journalists often present the conclusions of poorly designed studies about gender differences as fact; misrepresent good studies; or represent good studies well, but without noting the existence of conflicting evidence in the scientific literature. Eliot, a professor of neuroscience, is able to pick her way through this terrain in a surer way. She examines the biological roots of the predispositions that do tend to differ in males and females, pausing frequently to discuss the scientific evidence supporting her claims. The differences are sometimes real. But Eliot argues that they’re often much smaller than you would think on the basis of popular reporting.

Small original differences, however, can lead to large gaps at the end of a process of development, partly because of the influence of culture, and partly because real innate dispositions, even weak ones, shape behaviour. The remarkable plasticity of the developing brain means that spending a lot of time engaged in certain kinds of activities shapes further development along the same lines. A slight predisposition to engage in games that are especially effective at developing a facility with spatial concepts, for example, can have a big influence on performance in math class years later.

Boys and girls can be disadvantaged in different ways by this, since it leads many individuals of each sex to under-develop important cognitive and emotional skills at a time in their lives when their brains are most able to absorb new skills. The good news, however, is that parents and teachers can intervene in all sorts of ways to correct for this. Eliot’s eminently sensible goal is adults who have a decent blend of traits that are stereotypical for each sex: assertiveness, empathy, etc. Her book has good practical advice about this, and an interesting, readable discussion of the science underpinning those recommendations.

Comments Off

2009 07 28
Ev Psych in the mainstream media

It’s really refreshing to read a piece so sceptical of evolutionary psychology in the mainstream media.

(My own take on the subject from a few years ago is here.)

Comments Off

2009 02 03
Recently read: Talent is Overrated

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Geoff Colvin. Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

Some people suck at what they do; others are good; a few are great. What explains the difference? People often answer this question by pointing to talent, the raw natural gift that some people seem to have which gives them the edge over others, whether the field is mathematics or golf. But talent, says Geoff Colvin, Senior Editor at Large for Fortune Magazine, is overrated. According to Colvin, the success of high achievers is more or less the result of many years—typically a minimum of around 10 years, full time—of deliberate practice in a field. Deliberate practice does not consist in simply performing the relevant activity. Rather,

[i]t is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

Playing tennis to improve your game doesn’t count as deliberate practice. Taking your game apart, identifying weaknesses, systematically drilling yourself in the weak areas—that is deliberate practice. It’s difficult to spend more than four hours a day on deliberate practice, and the limit explains why it can be so hard to catch up to high achievers who have started earlier than us in some field. But it’s oodles of deliberate practice that makes people great at what they do, along with all the conditions that make deliberate practice possible (luck, encouragement, financial support, etc., which Colvin mention in passing and then mostly ignores). In an interesting discussion, Colvin surveys a range of possible responses and counterarguments to his position, attempting to rob talent of most of its explanatory value when it comes to success and achievement.

If all this sounds too obvious to bother setting down in a book, just think for a moment about how often raw talent is offered as an explanation for differences in human achievement. If this is misguided, as I suspect, there’s value in pointing it out, and in getting into the details of the debate about the role of raw talent, especially in fields like music or sports where we’re inclined to put a lot of emphasis on it.

If all this sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because you’ve already been exposed, in one way or another, to the work of Anders Ericsson. Ericsson’s seminal paper (with Krampe and Tesch-Römer), “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” (Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993), pp. 363-406) for example, sets all this out very clearly in about 40 pages. Colvin graciously acknowledges his deep debt to Ericsson’s work throughout the book, and notes in the acknowledgments that Ericsson even met with him several times while he was writing it. Colvin says that without Ericsson his book could not have been written, and I can only concur. Even so, I was struck reading through Ericsson’s paper how closely Colvin has stuck to him, right down to his use of Francis Galston as a foil, and a great many of the examples. As for which you should spend you time on, Colvin’s summary of Ericsson is certainly easier going; Ericsson’s account is written in dry academic prose and only accessible from a decent library, but gives you all you need and more in far fewer pages than Colvin’s account. Take your pick.

Alas, as soon as Colvin leaves Ericsson behind you start to see why he was so reluctant to do so. The rest of the book consists mainly of not-terribly-adventurous and/or appealing suggestions for designing organizations to allow greater opportunities for deliberate practice and a series of oddly menacing pep talks intended to inspire us to greatness.

Pulling together the threads, the pep talk goes something like this: Greatness is possible, of course, because it’s mainly a matter of deliberate practice, which is in our control, as opposed to talent, which is not. (Set aside as inconvenient for the purpose of pep talks that the conditions which allow for deliberate practice are frequently not within our control. Also set aside that, according to Colvin’s own theory, we’re bound to be way behind people who had a head start on us in racking up hours of deliberate practice.) It’s a good thing greatness is possible, because it’s also increasingly necessary. A dark undercurrent of anxiety courses through this book just beneath the sunny can-do attitude shimmering on the surface: “We can do it! (And we’d fucking better.)” Globalization has unleashed hoards of hungry workers around the world to nip at our heels. The world is picking up speed; everyone is getting better and better. “If you think your job isn’t exportable, you may be right—but think about it hard before you relax.” For the rest of us, “[t]he costs of being less than truly world class are growing.”

And it’s not just globalization that is putting intense competitive pressure on individuals and people to reach new heights. What’s going on is part of a deeper trend in the world economy. To see this, Colvin explains in a passage that really deserves to be quoted at length,

we need to take a step back. How many offers of credit cards do you get in the mail every day? Do your kids get them? how about your pet? . . . It’s happening because the world’s financial institutions are awash in money. They literally have more than they know what to do with, and they’re saying: Take some, please!

Those financial institutions aren’t alone. Companies of all kinds have far more money than they need. The cash held by U.S. companies is hitting all-time records. Companies are using some of this money to buy back their own stock at record rates. When a company does this, it’s saying to its investors: We don’t have any good ideas for what to do with this, so here—maybe you do.

These are all manifestations of a much larger phenomenon. For roughly five hundred years—from the explosion of commerce and wealth that accompanied the Renaissance until the late twentieth century—the scarce resource in business was financial capital. If you had it, you had the means to create more wealth, and if you didn’t, you didn’t. That world is now gone. Today, in a change that is historically quite sudden, financial capital is abundant. The scarce resource is no longer money. It’s human ability.

(Talent is Overrated was published in 2008. I saw it prominently featured on the prime display tables at the front of the Union Square Barnes and Noble in late December. In a nice bit of comic timing, it had to share a table with Michael Lewis’ Panic, which is, in part, about the massive and terrifying global credit crunch we’re now going through.)

But there’s good news here too: because deliberate practice tends not to be very much fun, you’ll be competing with a lot of people who won’t be able to keep it up.

As for our kids, while starting to train the next generation of business leaders for success at an early age might not sound appealing to some of us, “other societies may not hesitate,” to follow the wisdom contained in books like Talent is Overrated, so

[i]f governments or family in some of these countries decide to focus on turning out managers who are whizzes at age twenty-one and will just keep getting better, we will have to confront that reality and perhaps think again about our own views.

Indeed we might.

Colvin has himself an interesting theme here, and when he’s in Ericsson’s hands, he sometimes manages to bring it to life. Unfortunately, the book’s good qualities are often eclipsed by its more annoying ones. Although many of the examples in the book are drawn from sports and music, Talent is Overrated seems to be targeted very much at the managerial class. If managers read the book and come away with a new commitment to developing human talent in their organizations, so much the better. As for the rest of us, ymmv.

Comments Off

2008 12 17
“Freak show”

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Yesterday, in my brief write-up of Oliver Sacks’ book An Anthropologist on Mars, I wrote that Sacks is clearly interested in putting on more than a “freak show.” On a hunch, I just looked over at Sacks’ Wikipedia page, and sure enough, exactly this criticism turns out to have been made of Sacks.

Wikipedia also points to a paper by Thomas Couser called “The Case of Oliver Sacks: The ethics of neuroanthropology,” which is available here (pdf). It’s a sensitive and nuanced look at these criticisms and possible responses to them.

In Anthropologist, the only moment of discomfort I registered was in Sacks’ discussion of the private “sexy” drawings of the autistic artist, Stephen Wiltshire. These are private drawings that Wiltshire made, and which were discovered by his friend and mentor by accident. So they, and their existence, were clearly private. And Wiltshire is not just named in Sacks’ account, he has appeared on television on more than one occasion in connection with his artistic activities. Moreover, the inclusion of this information seemed to me unnecessary to the case (Sacks had a full enough sketch already of Wiltshire’s relations with the opposite sex), and so struck me as gratuitous as well as invasive.

In the rest of the book, however, I was struck by a real respect on Sacks’ part for his subjects, and in particular by his willingness to reconsider the conventional boundaries between pathology and the normal. That’s a reconsideration that seems to me of obvious relevance to the question of respect that Sacks’ critics raise.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 12 16
Recently read: An Anthropologist on Mars

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Oliver Sacks. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales

Some of the greatest insights into the normal functioning of the human mind have come from the investigation of strange and unusual breakdowns and disruptions in normal functioning. Take, for example, the phenomenon of blindsight. Someone afflicted by blindsight will experience herself as blind, and claim not to be able to see anything in front of her, but if forced to guess about the identity of an object in her visual field, will be able to more or less accurately identify it. (People with blindsight don’t always get it right. But they get it right more than could be explained by chance.) Blindsight hints at features of visual processing that might have taken much longer to unravel if we confined our attention to normal cases of visual perception. It suggests, among other things, that visual processing takes place along multiple paths; that those paths are not just distinct, but separable; that some of them are not available to conscious reflection.

Oliver Sacks has done more than anyone else to bring discussion of odd neurological edge cases into public awareness. It’s easy to imagine a parallel universe with an equally successful but much crappier version of Sacks. The cases he discusses are so strange, and so intrinsically interesting, that a much lesser writer could make them good enough to do quite well for himself. Luckily, we live in a universe in which our Sacks is interested in more than putting on a freak show. His case studies are historically and philosophically informed meditations that circle around a problem, often not content to simply slap labels or jump to quick conclusions.

And so in An Anthropologist on Mars Sacks uses disorders of various kinds to explore themes of much more general interest. In his first essay, for example, Sacks uses the case of a painter suddenly struck with complete colourblindness to explore the complex relationship between different aspects of visual perception, as well as the possibilities for regeneration and renewal in a person when a faculty absolutely central to self-identity is suddenly and irreversibly crippled.

Sacks tells us in the preface that his essays in the collection are unified by a theme:

These are tales of survival, survival under altered, sometimes radically altered, conditions—survival made possible by the wonderful (but sometimes dangerous) powers of reconstruction and adaptation we have. In earlier books I wrote of the ‘preservation’ of self, and (more rarely) of the ‘loss’ of self, in neurological disorders. I have to [sic?] come to think these terms too simple—and that there is neither loss nor preservation of identity in such situations, but, rather, its adaption, even its transmutation, given a radically altered brain and ‘reality.’

This seems to me a much better description of some of the cases discussed in the book than others. It fits very well Sacks’ discussion of the painter mentioned above, or his discussion of Temple Grandin, an autistic professor of Animal Science (whose book is on my reading list). But it was hard for me to see how an essay (“The Last Hippie”) about a brain damaged man with a severe memory disorder fit this theme.

This collection of essays is a bit dated – it was published in 1995. But it’s been on the shelf for ages, and I’ve only now gotten around to it. I’m looking forward to Sacks’ Musicophilia.

Comments Off

2008 12 09
Recently read: Emotional Awareness

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

The Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman. Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion

This book presents a series of dialogues between the well-known psychologist and researcher of facial expressions, Paul Ekman, and the Dalai Lama. I’m not sure how deeply they really manage to get into their topic, or whether this book was very helpful in allowing me to “overcome obstacles to psychological balance and compassion,” but the discussions are interesting nonetheless. It’s clear that a lot of care has gone into this book, as it contains not only dialogues but well-written guest-authored sidebars throughout containing further explanations about particular issues.

Comments Off

2008 12 09
Recently read: In Search of Memory

Eric R. Kandel. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind

Eric Kandel’s family was forced to flee Austria in 1938 when Hitler’s Germany absorbed the country (with the enthusiastic consent of many Austrians). He wound up in Brooklyn, in my current neighbourhood. Indeed, for a few weeks he attended PS. 217, the school across the street from my apartment building, and less than 30 metres from the chair I was sitting in when I came across this fact (accounting for vertical displacement, since we’re on the sixth floor).

From Brooklyn, he went to Harvard and studied German literature. While there, he became entranced with psychoanalysis —all the rage in the 1950s — and determined to enter medical school in order to pursue a career as a psychoanalyst. But an interest in basic research in neurology gradually took over, and he ended up studying the biological bases of the very same phenomena that drew him originally to psychoanalysis: memory, consciousness, pathologies of the mind, and the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious.

For much of his career, Kandel’s approach has been what he terms “reductionist.” In order to study a phenomenon like memory, he chose a very simple organism with large neurons and simple, discernible patterns of learning and memory. Kandel’s star organism was Aplysia, a sort of very large sea snail. Kandel’s choice was disapproved of by some researchers who worried that a snail was too far removed from a human to shed any light on the formation of memories in the latter. But the choice turned out to be inspired. For it turns out that nature is, in some ways, deeply conservative. A successful technique once hit on is often elaborated upon without being completely abandoned. We are, in some limited but crucial respects, not so far from snails. And so Aplysia ended up teaching Kandel, and the rest of us, quite a bit about the biological roots of memory in humans as well as snails. He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his work.

This is the fascinating and circuitous route traced by Kandel’s memoir, In Search of Memory: from Austria to Brooklyn to Harvard to psychoanalysis to neurobiology to snails and then back to humans and on to the Nobel Prize. It’s a wonderful read, filled with lucid and engaging accounts of the development of modern brain science. As is fitting for the memoir of a life consumed by a passion for science, much of the book is taken up with accounts of Kandel’s work. But there are moments of humanity sprinkled throughout, and Kandel is a fine writer when he tackles non-scientific issues. Of particular interest are his reflections on Vienna, the city he was forced to leave, the terrible toll that German and Austrian Nazis inflicted on the Jewish community of Austria and thereby on their own culture, and the conflicted, uncertain, and incomplete attempts by Austrians since then to come to terms with their treatment of Austria’s Jewish population. Highly recommended.

Comments Off

2008 12 01
Recently read

Posted by in: Books, Food, History, Psychology, Race

Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an ethically and scientifically informed meditation on food, the modern food chain, and the ways in which the latter has distorted our relationship with the former. Pollan provides a fascinating overview of the highly dysfunctional system of agricultural subsidies that spur the overproduction of corn and a few other staples, and traces the effects of the corn glut through the rest of the food economy. He then explores alternatives to the modern agricultural system, beginning with mainstream organic farming, and moving on to much more radical departures from the mainstream. I thought that the passages on the killing and eating of animals were especially thoughtful.

E.R. Chamberlin. The Bad Popes

I’m not in a position to judge the reliability of the book, but I can say that it has a few entertaining moments, if Popes behaving badly is your thing. In style and tone, this book reminded me a bit, for better or worse, of John Julius Norwich‘s books.

Douglas A. Blackmon. Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

If the North won the American Civil War, the South surely won the reconstruction. In the years following the Civil War, African Americans did not find themselves suddenly free to enjoy the fruits of the victory over their slave holders. Rather, whites developed a system that permitted them to hold blacks down with the threat of terrible violence, and which allowed them to make use of their forced labour under conditions that were, very often, worse than those endured by many slaves under the old regime of slavery.

Here’s how the system worked, as explained in considerable detail by Douglas A. Blackmon in his Slavery By Another Name: blacks would be arrested on bogus or trumped up charges. These often included “vagrancy,” an all-purpose charge to which any unemployed black man (in an era of massive unemployment) was vulnerable. Sometimes the charge was even forgotten by the time the victim had been brought to court. It hardly mattered. A sheriff or local judge could always be found to find the victim guilty, regardless of the merits of the case — especially because he could expect to profit himself from the proceedings. The victim was then assessed a fine, along with fees associated with the costs of the proceedings. Unable to pay, the victim would be coerced into signing an agreement to work off the sum in the service of a white who would pay in his stead. Entirely deprived of rights, blacks could then be locked up, beaten, tortured, fed next to nothing, traded, sold, and worked under conditions that accounted for the extremely high mortality rates among prisoners.

Every aspect of this twisted system is sickening. Arrest rates rose and fell according to the labour required in an area. The constant threat of arrest served as a reliable way of keeping blacks who weren’t prisoners in line. Any African American not directly under the protection of a white was vulnerable to arrest on trumped up charges. This power also helped perpetuate the widespread rape of African American women by white men. This is the bleak picture of American American life in this period that emerges from Blackmon’s account. If there is one figure that captures all this in a book filled with anecdotes, figures and arguments, it is surely this: that between the years 1877 and 1966 in the state of Georgia, only one white man was found guilty of murdering a black man.

The system also helped wealthier whites to crush attempts to unionize their industries. It’s hardly surprising that these attempts failed when management could always resort of cut-rate prisoner labour in the face of a threat to strike.

Blackmon makes a very strong case that this era of American history is best described as the Era of Neoslavery. It wasn’t until the second World War had begun that the Federal Government moved to begin enforcing laws in the South that it had long chosen to ignore.

This is a superb book, as angry as it is methodical. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand U.S. history. But because Blackmon does such a good job reflecting on the consequences of that history, it’s also essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the present.

Susan Blackmore. Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction

The title says it all. It was indeed very short, and the length of the text made it impossible for the author to do anything more than introduce a few topics in the study of consciousness. But as introductions go, this one struck me as pretty good: clear, readable, and interesting. Lots of good stuff on everything from the latest in philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and more.

Comments Off

2008 08 20
Recently read: “Emotions Revealed”

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Paul Ekman. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life

Paul Ekman is well-known for his work on facial expressions and emotion. You may remember him from such popularizing articles as this Malcolm Gladwell piece, back in 2002. Emotions Revealed does cover Ekman’s main area of research, facial expressions, but it also contains quite a bit on emotions in general. Ekman singles out for special attention sadness, anger, surprise, fear, disgust, contempt and a number of enjoyable emotions.

I had rather a mixed impression of this book. There are long stretches of the book in which Ekman discusses a particular emotion, or how to deal appropriately with a particular emotion, that struck me as rather banal. This passage on irritability illustrates the point, although irritability is, as Ekman points out, a mood rather than an emotion:

Everyone has a harder time controlling their anger when they are in an irritable mood. When we are irritable, we become angry about matters that would bother us if we weren’t irritable. We are looking for an opportunity to become angry. When we are irritable, something that might have just annoyed us makes us angrier, while something that made us just moderately angry makes us furious. Anger felt in an irritable mood lasts longer and is harder to manage. No one knows how to get out of a mood; sometimes indulging in activities we really enjoy, but not always. My advice is to avoid people when you are feeling irritable, if you can recognize that you are in an irritable mood. Often that isn’t obvious until we have the first angry outburst, then realize it happened because we are feeling irritable.

If you found that informative and helpful, then by all means, run and get yourself a copy of the book, since there’s a whole lot more like it. As for me, I hope it won’t look like bragging if I claim that I already knew to avoid people when I’m feeling irritable. (To be fair, some of the discussions are better on this point than others. I thought the survey of enjoyable emotions was interesting enough.)

Anyway, it’s when Ekman turns his attention to facial expressions that the book becomes really informative and interesting. You get lots of photographs of faces, with detailed discussions of the sometimes very subtle differences in expression that display emotion. These discussions were enough to keep me interested in reading more of Ekman’s work in the future.

Comments Off

2008 08 10
Recently read: “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior”

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman. Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

Sway takes its place among a number of similar books now on the market which popularize recent psychological research on human irrationality (much of which goes back to the pioneering work of Kahneman and Tversky). It’s a short, breezy, but entertaining survey of the literature, written by a team of brothers, one a psychologist and the other an organizational expert. The goal here is clearly to popularize, and I suspect at times the dumbing-down has gone a bit too far, but I nevertheless found the book a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

One rather central point that puzzled me had to do with the authors’ understanding of the main term in their inquiry, “irrationality.” It might be that they explained at some point what they mean by this incredibly slippery term, and I just missed it. But at different points in the book the term seemed to me to mean quite different things.

Here is one sort of irrationality discussed by the authors: It is well documented that we have a tendency to strongly bias original impressions, and to discount evidence relevant to a reconsideration of our original impression. For example, draft pick order seems to play an outsized role in play time granted to professional basketball players, when much more sensible metrics are available for judging their performance which actually seem to cut against decisions made on the basis of draft pick order. Now, suppose you could sit down a coach and explain this to him. You might be able to show that the coach’s own goals are not well served by the way he makes use of the available evidence, and you could demonstrate that his decision-making process falls into well-known patterns of suboptimal decision-making. And the coach might smack his forehead and say, “I’ve been irrational!”

Now consider a very different case, which supposedly also illustrates “irrationality.” Take two people, hand one of them $10, and explain the rules of the following game: The two are not to communicate in any way; they are strangers; they will not be playing this game again. The player holding the $10 bill gets to make a single proposal to the other player about how to divide the money. If the other player accepts the division of money, the two part with the proposed shares; if the other player rejects the division, neither player gets anything.

It is an interesting fact that most people offered less than $5 reject the offer, preferring to walk away with nothing. (Actually, it is another interesting fact that individuals from different cultures apparently make very different choices when playing this game.) Some economists and psychologists have argued that the choice is irrational, and Brafman and Brafman follow them in the description. If you’re offered $3, the thinking goes, you might as well take it, since $3 is more than $0. It appears that people really don’t like being shafted, and it matters enough to them to punish the other player that in order to impose the punishment they’re willing to forfeit what they might have otherwise gained.

But notice that if this is irrational, it’s clearly a different kind of irrationality from the one mentioned above. The kind of irrationality mentioned above involves an agent’s improper use of evidence to achieve the agent’s own goals. And once pointed out, it’s the kind of mental habit that we might resolve to avoid in the future. But I don’t see how additional evidence or explanation could get people to reconsider walking away from $3. The fact is, they don’t like unfairness; it matters to them, as well as money; and in some cases, it matters to them more than money. The preference for fairness is built into their own preference structure, and the preference for money is just one more preference within that preference structure alongside others. Indeed this is why the decision doesn’t strike me as necessarily irrational: walking away from the $3 may well maximize the agent’s carefully considered and properly weighted preferences.

I should say that the subtitle of the book, suggesting that the pull of the irrational is irresistible, is unduly pessimistic. In an epilogue, the authors quite reasonably point out that awareness of the different ways in which we fail to be fully rational might help us to make better decisions. This seems to be true. Indeed, it’s at least half the appeal of books like Sway.

Howls of outrage (14)

2008 08 06
Recently read: Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

“Flow” is Csikszentmihalyi’s term for the mental state accompanying sustained, concentrated, pleasant activity. Think of some activity you enjoy very much, which requires the sort of involvement that lets the time slip by unnoticed. Some people find this in games or hobbies; some in exercise; some in work. “Flow” a useful term, since it helps to identify a mental state that is, all things being equal, highly desirable. All other things are not always equal, since as Csikszentmihalyi notices, experiencing flow is not a sufficient condition for an objectively worthwhile activity. A Nazi might experience flow carrying out his duties, but the activities are no better for all that. Still, flow seems to be the subjective side of objectively valuable activities, and, as such, an extremely important part of a good human life.

Csikszentmihalyi surveys a number of activities, and finds common features of flow activities. His description of the conditions for flow during physical exercise, for example, is easy to generalize to many other activities:

The essential steps in the process are: (a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; (b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; (c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making diner and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and (e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.

Csikszentmihalyi is apparently responsible for introducing the notion of flow into modern psychology. And more power to him for that. Unfortunately, he’s a crappy writer, prone to limp epigrams, irrelevant digressions, and he has an annoying habit of sprinkling his favourite little quotations through his prose. His historical and philosophical digressions seem to me pretty thin, as well as unhelpful. More actual advice about achieving flow, and much less about everything else, would have been very welcome to this weary reader. While I’m sympathetic to the author’s claim that the subject is a difficult one to generalize about, and that each reader needs to discover things for herself, I have recently come to believe that there is much more in the way of useful concrete advice to be given in this area. But more on that some other time.

Verdict: Not recommended. Better to just read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Howls of outrage (2)

2008 07 23
Hey you, I know you

Posted by in: Psychology


In a report titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,” which appears online in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier, homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.


A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 04 04
Couldn’t help posting this

Posted by in: Psychology

It’s making the rounds, so perhaps you’ve already seen this?

The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have found that people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task.

As far as I’m concerned, the freakiest part of the article is this:

What limits willpower? Some have suggested that it is blood sugar, which brain cells use as their main energy source and cannot do without for even a few minutes. Most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations over the course of a day, but planning and self-control are sensitive to such small changes. Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control. People who drink a glass of lemonade between completing one task requiring self-control and beginning a second one perform equally well on both tasks, while people who drink sugarless diet lemonade make more errors on the second task than on the first. Foods that persistently elevate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, might enhance willpower for longer periods.

Howls of outrage (2)

2008 02 14
And entirely by coincidence, parts of my brain associated with annoyance are currently showing heightened activity

I share a pet peeve with this dude:

As of this entry, I’m starting my own watch-dog column: newspapers which write inane articles espousing mind/brain duality. The latest offender is, coincidentally, The New York Times, which ran a disappointing article a few days ago called “My Cortex Made Me Buy It.” It describes a recent study in which people sampled “cheap” and “expensive” wines (actually the exact same wines, just marked with different prices).
When they sampled the wines with lower prices, however, the subjects not only liked them less, their brains registered less pleasure from the experience.

It’s important to consider what the alternative was: that subjects reported liking the cheaper wines less, but their brains reported the same amount of pleasure. What would that mean? One possibility is that the participants were lying: they liked both wines the same, but said they liked the more expensive ones more in order to look cultured.

There’s another possibility. Dan Gilbert, who studies happiness, usually does so by simply asking people if they are happy. He doesn’t worry much about people lying. He could use a physiological measure (like a brain scan, as was done in the above study), but he points out that the reason we think a particular part of the brain is related to happiness is because it correlates with people’s self-reports of being happy. Using the brain scan is completely circular. Under this logic, if the brain scans fail to show more pleasure when drinking the expensive wine, it could be because the relevant areas of the brain have been misidentified.

A final alternative possibility is that the participants’ immaterial souls liked the expensive wine better, but their brains didn’t register a difference.

The Times piece discussed none of this.

(See original for links).

Comments Off

2005 10 26
I have left-handed ears

Posted by in: Psychology

Figures, since I’m (more or less) left-handed. What about you?

Comments Off