When you get right down to it, from an engineering perspective, the design of the human mind (and for the matter the human body) is a bit of mess.
Take, for instance, human memory, and the trouble we often have in remembering even the most basic facts -- where did we put our keys? Where did we park our car? Because our brains so often blur our memories together. Human eyewitness testimony is often no match for even a low-rent survelllance camera, and memory can fail even in life-or-death circumstances. (6% of all skydiving fatalities, for instance, are from divers that forgot to pull their ripcords),
Our troubles with memory in turn lead to an unending litany of problems that the psychologist Timothy Wilson collectively refers to as "mental contamination", in which irrelevant information frequently, ranging from the physical attractiveness of political candidates to random numbers on a roulette wheel, subconsciously cloud human judgments. If an ugly child throws an ice-filled snowballs, for instance, we judge that child to be delinquent, but when an especially attractive child does the same thing, we excuse him, saying he's just "having a bad day." A study published earlier this month showed that people's moral judgments are more severe when made in a disgusting, soiled pizza-box filled office than when in an office that is neat as a pin; another, which appeared just last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that voters are more likely to favor school policies if the balloting takes place in a school than if it takes place in an apartment building. We may aspire, as Aristotle thought, to be "the rational animal", but in reality the flotsam and jetsam of barely conscious memory frequently intercedes.
At this point, 30 years after the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and his late collaborator Amos Tversky started documenting a rash of fallacies in human reasoning, the idea that the human mind would be "perfect in His image" is as outdated (and narcissistic) as the idea that the solar system would revolve around the planet earth.
Imperfections riddle the body as well; the human spine supports 70% of our body weight with a single column, where four might have distributed the load better (greatly reducing the incidence of debilitating back pain), and the human retina is effectively installed backwards, with its array of outgoing neural fibers coming out of the front rather than the back, saddling us with an entirely needless blindspot.
The only theory that can really make sense of these needless imperfections is Darwin's theory of natural selection, which holds that humans (and all other life forms) evolve through a blind process known as descent-with-modification, in which new life forms represent random modifications of earlier life forms -- with no central overseer to guide the process. Such a random process can, over time, lead populations of creatures to become more adapted to their environment, but it is also vulnerable to getting stuck, in the sort of good-enough-but-not-perfect solutions that mathematicians call local maxima.
A local maximum is like a moderately high peak in a rugged mountain range that is filled with other peaks, some of which are considerably higher; a peak at the top of the treeline, when there are plenty of snow-capped peaks that loom considerably higher. The process of natural selection is vulnerable to such limits for two reasons: it is blind, and it generally takes only small steps; as such, it can easily get stuck on low-lying peaks that are impressive but well short of the highest possible mountaintop, designs that are "good enough for government work" but far from perfect.
Darwin gives a natural explanation that indicates poorly-designed features should be common in biology. The theory of intelligent design, in contrast, has a serious problem explaining such phenomena: an intelligent designer that could perceive the whole landscape could just pick us up and move us to higher ground. That this has never happened is clear testament both to the wisdom of the theory of natural selection and the implausibility of intelligent design.
The problem with the Lousiana law is not just that it seeks to mix church and state, a situation that the Constitution's framers rightly sought to avoid, but that it is predicated on the assumption that creationists have a reasonable theory with which to counter evolution with - where in truth they simply don't.
-- Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology at New York University, is the author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.
[This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post]
It’s hard to see how procrastination per se could be adaptive. The costs are often considerable, the benefits miniscule, and it wastes all the mental effort people put into making plans in the first place. Studies have shown that students who routinely procrastinate consistently get lower grades; businesses that miss deadlines due to the procrastination of their employees can lose millions of dollars. Yet many human beings can’t help themselves, and an article that just appeared in Slate suggests that procrastination may be a cross-cultural universal.
Why, when so little good comes of procrastinating, do people persist in doing it so much?
The problem, of course, is not that we put things off, per se; if we have to buy groceries and do our taxes, we literally can’t do both at the same time. But often we postpone the things that need to get done in favor of things—like watching television or playing video games— that most decidedly don’t. Procrastination is a sign of our inner kluge for the simple reason that it shows how our top-level goals (spend more time with the children, finish that novel) are routinely undermined by goals with considerably less priority. (If, that is, getting caught up on Desperate Housewives can be counted as a “goal” at all.)
People need their down time and I don’t begrudge them that, but procrastination does highlight a fundamental glitch in our cognitive “design”: the gap between the machinery that sets our goals (off-line) and the machinery that chooses (on-line, in the moment) which goals to follow.
The things we procrastinate the most on are tasks that meet two conditions: we don’t enjoy doing them and we don’t have to do them now; given half a chance we put off the aversive and savor the fun, often without really considering the ultimate costs. Procrastination is the bastard step-child of future-discounting (that tendency to devalue the future in relation to the present) and the use of pleasure as a quick-and-dirty compass.
We zone out, we chicken out, we deceive. To be human is to fight a life-long, uphill battle for self-control. Why? Because evolution left us clever enough to set reasonable goals, but without the willpower to see them through.
[The text of this blog entry is adapted from Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind]
"kluge style" is taking over the streets. Clumsily constructed outfits of ratty and half-broken pieces are the look of the moment among haute bourgeois urban fashion hounds.
My favorite part refers to an informal survey on violinist.com, according to which
36 percent of participants said they had left their violins somewhere by accident. Of the 93 who said where they'd left the instruments, 18 percent said in classrooms; 16 percent in restaurants; 12 percent in cars; 12 percent in practice rooms; 9 percent on trains; and 2 percent in the bathroom. Three percent said in taxis.
Makes me feel slightly better about the iPod I left last week in Midway airport....
The trouble with neurons, as scientists from Cambridge University write in the new issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, is that the channels don’t always do what they’re supposed to. The channels are continually wobbling and twitching, and sometimes they open up a little earlier than they should, splitting a single wave in two. Sometimes they open late, or not at all. These delinquent channels can make a short, sharp wave blur into a longer, weaker one. Channels sometimes open up when there is no wave, creating an entirely false spike.
As a result, as Zimmer puts it
much of the brain's organization is dedicated to fighting noise. One way to fight it is to calculate the average of several signals. When we hear a sound, hair-like structures on neurons in our ears wiggle. Their wiggling creates a pattern of voltage spikes, which the neuron then passes on to 10 to 30 other neurons. All of those neurons then carry the same signal toward the brain, where they can be compared. Each neuron degrades the signal in a uniquely random way, and by averaging all of their signals together, the brain can cancel out some of the noise.....To [further] compensate for noise, our brains send out continuously updated commands to correct for previous ones.Impressive? Absolutely. Our brains unconsciously carry out sophisticated calculations that engineers are trying to mimic to build better computers and communication systems. And yet all of this complex math serves a paradoxical purpose: to make up for the mistakes built into our very biology.
I had a brain-kluge moment this last week. I had just been issued a new medical card from work (they just changed insurance providers.) I carefully thought to myself "I need this—don't lose it." The next day I took my new card into the pharmacy to fill a prescription and explained that they needed to enter the new information, etc. They took my card to do whatever they need to do to put it into their system. When I returned, and they handed me my Rx, I distinctly remember the pharmacist saying "your card is in the bag." On the way out of the pharmacy, a homeless man approached me asking for money. I was distracted by him and explaining I didn't have any change etc. as I walked the half a block home and he followed me. While doing so, I reached into the bag, took out the medication, and threw the bag away.Three days later (today) I realized I must've thrown the card away in the bag. Even though I had been specifically prioritizing the location of the card in the bag just 90 seconds earlier, the presence of the homeless man had somehow erased that from my mind and replaced it with other worries, enabling me to completely forget about what I'd been focusing on just minutes earlier.Now, tomorrow, I guess I've gotta call H.R. and ask for them to facilitate me getting another medical card reissued, even though they JUST issued it. I had the damn thing in my possession for less than 48 hours.
Interruption is, of course, the royal road to bollocksing human memory.
Comedian/writer/autobiographer/all-around-genius Steve Martin wrote a wonderful piece along these lines a few years ago, in his pastime for the "over-50 set":
Here’s a way [you] can easily kill a good half-hour:
— Place your car keys in your right hand.
— With your left hand, call a friend and confirm a lunch or dinner date.
— Hang up the phone.
— Now look for your car keys.
Palm Pilots help me remember phone numbers and appointments, but every time lose my keys or walk into the bedroom and forget why I went there in the first-place, I wish I could order a brain implant....
Kluges may be common in the human mind, but they sure as heck are not unique to the human mind, or even the human species. Instead, you can find pockets of biological inelegance wherever you look.
PZ Myers of the fabulous science blog Pharyngula has a great example in this month's Seed Magazine: the formation of the basic body plan of a fruit fly.
Fruit flies, as you may know, are one of the so-called model organisms that biologists most often study, prized for their simple diets and fast breeding times. (I always think of the title of that Errol Morris film, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.)
If you look at the larva of a growing fruit fly, what you see is a set of alternating stripes; the question that biologists are interested in is: where do the stripes come from? As Myers notes, there are lots of ways one could imagine doing this, many of them elegant, but nature stumbled on an incredibly inelegant way of making stripes: one at a time, each using a different combinations of genes.
As Myers puts it
Life is a collection of kludges taped together by chance and filtered by selection for functionality; it all works magnificently well, but if you look under the hood you are simultaneously appalled by the sheer inelegance of the molecular gemisch and impressed with the accumulation of complexity.
The complexity of [developmental biology] isn't a product of design at all, and it's the antithesis of what human designers would consider good planning or an elegant algorithm. It is, however, exactly what you'd expect as the result of cobbling together fortuitous accidents, stringing together helpful scraps into an outcome that may not be pretty, but it works.
If you'd like to find out more about the sometimes clumsy way in which nature assembles its organisms, have a look at Myers' article, or if you are mathematically inclined, take a look at Ian Stewart's Life's Other Secret: The New Mathematics of the Living Word.
Kluge alert! Yesterday,
The New York Times
described a fascinating but little-known study by
Elizabeth Newton. According to the Times report
Why? People mistake what they know for what other people know. Psychologists call this “curse of knowledge“. Another powerful illustration of this phenomenon comes from the lab of University of Chicago psychologist Boaz Keysar, who asked undergraduates to read aloud a bunch of ambiguous sentences — and then guess whether they’d made themselves clear. Almost everybody overestimated their own effectiveness, even when they were fully aware that the sentences were in principle ambiguous.
“[Newton] gave one set of people, called “tappers,” a list of commonly known songs from which to choose. Their task was to rap their knuckles on a tabletop to the rhythm of the chosen tune as they thought about it in their heads. A second set of people, called “listeners,”were asked to name the songs.
Before the experiment began, the tappers were asked how often they believed that the listeners would name the songs correctly. On average, tappers expected listeners to get it right about half the time. In the end, however, listeners guessed only 3 of 120 songs tapped out, or 2.5 percent.”
Spotted last summer: Grad student bolts air-conditioner onto car to beat heat
Clumsy and inelegant -- but it gets the job done!