Friday’s cognitive curiosities: a trip to the book shop in the age of unenlightenment

My first curiosity is an essay from the Financial Times. I have mixed feelings about the FT. It’s pretty impossible for a paper like that to be neutral, but the FT doesn’t even try. I am constantly disappointed with its sneaky political undercurrent. At the same time, I cannot find a news outlet that would be as well presented and lack the dogma. Anyway, the essay is titled The age of unenlightenment, written by Robert Armstrong.

The author is thinking of why it seems that we are getting dumber.

the age of unenlightment robert armstrong
Spring is in the air, finally. West Pier, Dún Laoghaire Harbour

I used to think that older generations always denounce younger ones because it is a kind of tradition. However, given that the human brain is indeed getting smaller (and chances are we aren’t getting smarter), maybe there is some merit to their nagging?

A book by Sloman and Fernbach entitled The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone offers clever demonstrations of how much we take for granted, and how little we actually understand. An example: try drawing a picture of a bicycle, with the chain, all the bits of the frame, and the pedals all in the correct place. It is not so easy. In an experimental setting, half of people set this task fail it. If that’s too basic, explain how a flush toilet works. Easy? Well, unless you described how a trapway creates a siphoning effect, you got it wrong.

Granted, I am trained as a doctor, however I knew 80% of the basics about how the body functions before I went in to college. It never fails to impress me that most people haven’t a clue about how their body works, but they really think they do. Women endlessly discuss what’s good for their skin, but seem to miss the crucial detail that virtually non of the miracle co-enzymes and ultra-proteins in their creams get absorbed past the epithelium. Guys in the gym would authoritatively discuss the benefits of “fast carbs” immediately after a gym session and how to prevent “knots” forming in muscle tissue, but ask them about insulin or myosin – and they haven’t a clue. And I don’t mean they don’t know the terms, but they just don’t understand the basics. A much more florid and familiar example is of people who love talking about geopolitics. They rarely know where the “enemy” actually is on the map.

Robert Armstrong continues:
Technology has encouraged us to confuse access to information with knowledge. Education treats teachers as customer-service professionals rather than people who know things that students don’t, and offers students inflated grades, meaningless credentials and a false sense of their own wisdom. Journalists are encouraged to give their audiences what they want, rather than telling them what they need to know.

I agree with all of the above. There is a sense in the above lines that it was different in another time. I sincerely doubt that it was. However, I do feel that the rate at which raw information is becoming available is rising. Still, as few people know what to do with it as back in the proverbial day. It seems Mr Armstong’s conclusion is that the books he has read on the matter (listed below) focus more on the problem than on proposing solutions. Frankly, I’ve never read a book that was any good that proposed solutions. Observing what’s going on in plain sight and asking the right questions is usually more than enough. Here are the books:

  • The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, Macmillan
  • The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols, Oxford University Press
  • #republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, by Cass Sunstein, Princeton University Press
The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli review
A fine Friday afternoon in Dublin

While we are speaking about books, I’ve been into the book shop and looked over the newest books in the psychology section. I sat in Hodges and Figgis’ leather chair and flicked through a few books. I always do that before I decide to read a book: I’ve bought too many “recommended” books that turned out to be either poor quality (as in, I couldn’t even finish them) or insidiously venomous making me wish I hadn’t come across them at all. In any case, I tend to really engage with the books I read, so there is a courtship ritual before I commit to reading the entire work. It went like this:

  • The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

“The Art of Thinking Clearly by world-class thinker and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli is an eye-opening look at human psychology and reasoning — essential reading for anyone who wants to avoid “cognitive errors” and make better choices in all aspects of their lives.”

Mmm, it’s a very practical rewrite of Daniel Kahneman’s and Nassim Taleb’s thoughts. I would have thought that the former were practical enough. The back of the book featured praise by Sam Harris. I found Harris interesting initially but soon was uncannily repelled from his lopsided philosophy. I would be more careful in my choice of allies than Mr Dobelli. Could be a light read for someone unfamiliar with cognitive biases, but if you have any respect for your little grey cells, go straight to Kahneman. My (binary) rating for this book is: Nay.

Mindset : Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck review
The sun setting over Howth
  • Mindset : Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck

“After decades of research, world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., discovered a simple but groundbreaking idea: the power of mindset. In this brilliant book, she shows how success in school, work, sports, the arts, and almost every area of human endeavor can be dramatically influenced by how we think about our talents and abilities. People with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with agrowth mindset—those who believe that abilities can be developed”

Psychology classics retold – and not in a very compelling way. Nay.

  • Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom

“We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, argues Yale researcher Paul Bloom. In Against Empathy, Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty. We are at our best when we are smart enough not to rely on it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion.”

I thought there was some merit in this book, but Daniel Goleman said a lot of the same stuff better. It may seem that he proposes the opposite to what this book is about, but that’s only an illusion. Perhaps, given the denigration of the intellectual and analytical approaches in the media, this books attempts to restore the balance and say that a quest for empathy isn’t going to solve our problems? It’s a nay from me, though the tone of the book is pleasantly contrarian.

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom review
Hopefully, I will find a yay in my next book shop trip

P.S. If you want to see some beautiful nature photos and are interested in travel, my friend Charis blogs about the island I was recently on – Cyprus. I was there with her for some of the trips she describes. I will write more about my escapade to the Eastern Mediterranean at some stage.

Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

A weekly trail mix of thought-provoking essays and research.

1. I Asked a Psychopath How to Stop Caring About Rejection

From Vice

This brilliant article summarises the feelings of a psychopath with insight. I think is a valuable approach as instead of demonising people with psychopathy, it is better to understand:

  • With rejection, I always ask myself “why did this happen?” I never ask “why am I not worthy?” When I get rejected I feel bad for like negative-two seconds. It’s just, oh how do I fix it?
  • Everything for me is a percentage. For example if I think something’s against me at about 20:1, I’ll put in 20 different proposals or versions to make sure I get what I want. Doing that trains your expectations too. If your chances are 20:1 and you only put in one attempt, then you can’t get upset if it doesn’t work.

2. New research finds that dopamine is involved in human bonding

From Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

“We found that social affiliation is a potent stimulator of dopamine,” says Barrett. “This link implies that strong social relationships have the potential to improve your outcome if you have a disease, such as depression, where dopamine is compromised. We already know that people deal with illness better when they have a strong social network. What our study suggests is that caring for others, not just receiving caring, may have the ability to increase your dopamine levels.”

3. The reasons behind right- and left-handedness revealed

From eLife

Epigenetic factors appear to be at the root of it, reflecting environmental influences. Those influences might, for example, lead to enzymes bonding methyl groups to the DNA, which in turn would affect and minimise the reading of genes. As this occurs to a different extent in the left and the right spinal cord, there is a difference to the activity of genes on both sides.

Unlike other forms of caregiving, the act of mothers singing to infants is a universal behaviour that seemingly withstands the test of time.

4. Infant brains engage through song

From University of Miami

“High cognitive scores during infant-directed singing suggested that engagement through song is just as effective as book reading or toy play in maintaining infant attention, and far more effective than listening to recorded music.”

“Mothers around the world sing to their infants in remarkably similar ways, and infants prefer these specialised songs. The tempo and key certainly don’t need to be perfect or professional for mothers and infants to interact through song. In fact, infants may be drawn to the personalised tempo and pitch of their mother, which encourage them to direct their gaze toward and ultimately communicate through this gaze.”

5. Use it or lose it: how the brain chooses what memories to store

From eLife

“This goes some way to answering the long-standing question of whether the formation of generalised memory is simply a result of the brain’s network ‘forgetting’ incidental features,” Morrissey explains. “On the contrary, we show that groups of neurons develop coding to store shared information from different experiences while, seemingly independently, losing selectivity for irrelevant details.”

Have a lovely weekend everyone!


Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

A weekly trail mix of thought-provoking essays and research.

1. The madness of mindfulness

From The Financial Times

Lately, there’s been more and more of a backlash against mindfulness. It’s only natural given the rate it is growing at and the unscrupulous many who try to earn some cash riding this wave and promising mindfulness as the true path to the moon and the stars.

An understandably overwhelmed mother standing amidst Lego pieces gets a push notification on her phone that it is time to be mindful. This seems to have been the straw that broke the camels back. She goes on a rant about the appful pursuit of happiness. Caustically, she remarks on the passive aggressive nature of the simplicity of the mindfulness proposition and the real-life difficulties of its application. Of course, the article isn’t about mindfulness, it is about the cult of commoditised mindfulness and its many apps. It is quite overwhelming indeed – if you are the kind easily gets swayed by trends.

2. Time will show – and only time

From N.N. Taleb

N.N. Taleb, the closest thing we have to a popular philosopher today, brings some seemingly obvious, yet profound, insights:

…Actors gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted, say one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy Effect. The Lindy effect is one of the most useful, robust, and universal heuristics I know…

Being reviewed or assessed by others matters if and only if one is subjected to the judgment by future –not just present — others

Academia can become a ritualistic publishing game

3. Music works the same way as heroin

From Nature Scientific Reports

Music’s universality and its ability to deeply affect emotions suggest an evolutionary origin. The research shows that endogenous opioids are critical to experiencing both positive and negative emotions in music, and that music uses the same reward pathways as food, drug and sexual pleasure. Our findings add to the growing body of evidence for the evolutionary biological substrates of music.

4. The internet and our brains are more similar than we think

From Neural Computation

The Internet relies on not being overloaded in order to work. The solution involves controlling information flow such that routes are neither clogged nor underutilised. To accomplish this, the Internet employs an algorithm called “additive increase, multiplicative decrease” (AIMD) in which your computer sends a packet of data and then listens for an acknowledgement from the receiver. If the packet is promptly acknowledged, the network is not overloaded and your data can be transmitted through the network at a higher rate. With each successive successful packet, your computer knows it’s safe to increase its speed by one unit, which is the additive increase part. This process is quite similar to our brain’s long term potentiation, i.e. memory formation. But if an acknowledgement is delayed or lost your computer knows that there is congestion and slows down by a large amount, such as by half, which is the multiplicative decrease part. This is called long-term depression (nothing to do with clinical depression).

5. The “bouba-kiki”effect: words sound sharp or soft on a subconscious level

From Psychological Science

The “bouba-kiki” effect, originally reported over 85 years ago and replicated many times since, shows that people consistently pair the soft-sounding nonsense word “bouba” with soft-looking, round shapes and they typically pair the sharp-sounding nonsense word “kiki” with spiky-looking, angular shapes.One may argue this is good old onomatopoeia, however, the researchers did a series of curious visual experiments showing people the nonsense word in a congruent (bouba-circle) or non-congruent (bouba-angular) shape. The images were shown in one eye, while the other eye was shown flashy distracting images. The congruent pair was noticed first, indicating that participants perceived and processed the relationship between word and shape before they were consciously aware of the stimuli.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

1. Thinking Fast and Slow: 2 different networks

From eLife

University of Oxford researchers studied the speed/accuracy trade-off involved in making decisions. They explored the networks that determine how quickly we choose an option, and how much information we need to make that choice. These findings indicate that distinct neural mechanisms determine whether a decision will be made in haste or with caution. They found that participants made much faster decisions when the task was easier and when asked for a quick decision. As expected, study participants made significantly more errors during tests where they spent more time making a decision and were instructed to focus on accuracy.

2. Are some people born depressed?

From The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Alterations in the normal development of the functional connectivity within the amygdala have been associated with atypical emotional processes and psychopathology. This study examined term and preterm neonates who were then followed up at 2 years of age. Most interestingly, the researchers noted that various connection patterns between the amygdala and other structures – like the insula, involved in consciousness and emotion, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which plays roles in planning and decision making – affect the risk of early symptoms related to depression and anxiety.

3. AI to decode conversation tone to help people with social anxiety and ASD

From MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)

The system captures audio data and text transcripts to analyse the speaker’s tone, pitch, energy, and vocabulary. It’s not ready for widespread use, but the algorithms are training as this is written.

4. You pop that gum one more time…

From Current Biology

While nobody really likes repetitive sounds like chewing or pen clicking, some people are known to get particularly distressed by them. It’s called misophobia. This study reveals that this is due to a physical difference in the myelination of the grey matter of ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).

5. A seminal paper on mindfulness in medicine


I am currently talking to one of the medical mindfulness pioneers, Prof Ronald Epstein. Now a professor, then a third-year Harvard medical student, he was moved by the experience of watching an surgeon fail to notice that his 18-year-old patient’s kidney had turned blue. This set Epstein on a path of studying what makes doctors present and how it benefits their practice. He argues that as a link between relationship-centered care and evidence-based medicine, mindfulness should be considered a characteristic of good clinical practice.

cognitive curiosities top 5 this week

Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

Here are my top picks from the neuroscience-mindfulness spectrum for this week.

1. We judge our previous decisions based on new information

From The Journal of Neuroscience

Thinking about thinking (known as metacognition) is hugely important for adaptation, however, little is known about it. The results of this study demonstrate that the information used to make the initial decision differs from the information that is used in metacognitive judgments.

2. Obesity is linked to memory problems

From The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology

Obesity could play a part in the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease. It appears that the relationship is a two-way street: being overweight or obese impacts memory function, then the memories of eating experiences change and thus affect future eating behavioural patterns.

3. There is little or no diagnostic specificity in the fMRI results for mental illness

From Human Brain Mapping

It appears that individuals with mental illness – regardless of the diagnosis – have abnormalities in their limbic system responses to various tasks. The limbic system is associated with emotion.

Put simply, the fMRI of a depressed person isn’t different to the fMRI of a person with a (seemingly) completely different disorder schizophrenia.

This could be a reflection on insufficient sample sizes. It could also be a reflection on the worry of going into an MRI scanner. A number of studies emerged recently showing that we’re possibly misinterpreting the findings of fMRI.

neuroscience mindfulness latest news
From Addressing Reverse Inference in Psychiatric Neuroimaging: Meta-Analyses of Task Related Brain Activation in Common Mental Disorders

4. Fat shaming is associated with poor health outcomes

From Obesity

Individuals suffering from obesity who self-stigmatise may be at an increased cardiometabolic risk. Physiological and psychological mechanisms linking weight bias internalisation and metabolic syndrome warrant further research.

One of the researchers commented:

“There is a common misconception that stigma might help motivate individuals with obesity to lose weight and improve their health,” Pearl said. “We are finding it has quite the opposite effect.

When people feel shamed because of their weight, they are more likely to avoid exercise and consume more calories to cope with this stress.”

5. Thinking loops lead to emotional loops

From Tara Brach

Tara Brach humorously talks about the relationship between biases, emotion, beliefs and thinking. Emotions can subside in 90 seconds unless we generate cycles of thinking that re-trigger and reinforce them.

Have a great weekend everyone.

neuroscience mindfulness news