MIND

A SELF WORTH HAVING

[6.30.03]

Introduction

Nicholas Humphrey is a research psychologist whose interests are wide ranging: He studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda; was the first to demonstrate the existence of "blindsight" after brain damage in monkeys; and is the only scientist ever to edit the literary journal Granta. Thirty years ago he breathed life into the newly developing field of evolutionary psychology with his theory about "the social function of intellect." His more recent ideas concern the nature of phenomenal consciousness.

Unlike Daniel C. Dennett, who sees the role of philosophers as disabusing people of their "primitive" ideas about the nature of consciousness, Humphrey believes that we should take these primitive intuitions at face value. If people say that the problem is what it "feels like" to be conscious, then the problem is indeed to explain "feeling." Humphrey and Dennett are a pair of bookends. Humphrey has been described as a "romantic scientist", who believes in the heuristic value of stories that go beyond the limits of established facts. But he would probably not agree that there is a hard and fast line between facts and stories. "I'm me," he says. "I'm living an embodied existence, in the thick moment of the conscious present. I'm trying to work out why."

—JB

SMART HEURISTICS: GERD GIGERENZER

Topic: 

  • MIND
http://vimeo.com/79460535

"What interests me is the question of how humans learn to live with uncertainty. Before the scientific revolution determinism was a strong ideal. Religion brought about a denial of uncertainty, and many people knew that their kin or their race was exactly the one that God had favored. They also thought they were entitled to get rid of competing ideas and the people that propagated them. How does a society change from this condition into one in which we understand that there is this fundamental uncertainty?

SMART HEURISTICS

[3.29.03]

What interests me is the question of how humans learn to live with uncertainty. Before the scientific revolution determinism was a strong ideal. Religion brought about a denial of uncertainty, and many people knew that their kin or their race was exactly the one that God had favored. They also thought they were entitled to get rid of competing ideas and the people that propagated them. How does a society change from this condition into one in which we understand that there is this fundamental uncertainty? How do we avoid the illusion of certainty to produce the understanding that everything, whether it be a medical test or deciding on the best cure for a particular kind of cancer, has a fundamental element of uncertainty?

video

Introduction by John Brockman

"Isn’t more information always better?" asks Gerd Gigerenzer. "Why else would bestsellers on how to make good decisions tell us to consider all pieces of information, weigh them carefully, and compute the optimal choice, preferably with the aid of a fancy statistical software package? In economics, Nobel prizes are regularly awarded for work that assumes that people make decisions as if they had perfect information and could compute the optimal solution for the problem at hand. But how do real people make good decisions under the usual conditions of little time and scarce information? Consider how players catch a ball—in baseball, cricket, or soccer. It may seem that they would have to solve complex differential equations in their heads to predict the trajectory of the ball. In fact, players use a simple heuristic. When a ball comes in high, the player fixates the ball and starts running. The heuristic is to adjust the running speed so that the angle of gaze remains constant —that is, the angle between the eye and the ball. The player can ignore all the information necessary to compute the trajectory, such as the ball’s initial velocity, distance, and angle, and just focus on one piece of information, the angle of gaze."

Gigerenzer provides an alternative to the view of the mind as a cognitive optimizer, and also to its mirror image, the mind as a cognitive miser. The fact that people ignore information has been often mistaken as a form of irrationality, and shelves are filled with books that explain how people routinely commit cognitive fallacies. In seven years of research, he, and his research team at Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, have worked out what he believes is a viable alternative: the study of fast and frugal decision-making, that is, the study of smart heuristics people actually use to make good decisions. In order to make good decisions in an uncertain world, one sometimes has to ignore information. The art is knowing what one doesn’t have to know. 

Gigerenzer's work is of importance to people interested in how the human mind actually solves problems. In this regard his work is influential to psychologists, economists, philosophers, and animal biologists, among others. It is also of interest to people who design smart systems to solve problems; he provides illustrations on how one can construct fast and frugal strategies for coronary care unit decisions, personnel selection, and stock picking. 

"My work will, I hope, change the way people think about human rationality", he says. "Human rationality cannot be understood, I argue, by the ideals of omniscience and optimization. In an uncertain world, there is no optimal solution known for most interesting and urgent problems. When human behavior fails to meet these Olympian expectations, many psychologists conclude that the mind is doomed to irrationality. These are the two dominant views today, and neither extreme of hyper-rationality or irrationality captures the essence of human reasoning. My aim is not so much to criticize the status quo, but rather to provide a viable alternative."

— JB

GERD GIGERENZER is Director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and former Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. He won the AAAS Prize for the best article in the behavioral sciences. He is the author of Calculated Risks: How To Know When Numbers Deceive You, the German translation of which won the Scientific Book of the Year Prize in 2002. He has also published two academic books on heuristics, Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (with Peter Todd & The ABC Research Group) and Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox (with Reinhard Selten, a Nobel laureate in economics).

Gerd Gigernezer 's Edge Bio Page


A BIOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING OF HUMAN NATURE

Topic: 

  • MIND
http://vimeo.com/79453623

"The main question is: "Why are empirical questions about how the mind works so weighted down with political and moral and emotional baggage? Why do people believe that there are dangerous implications to the idea that the mind is a product of the brain, that the brain is organized in part by the genome, and that the genome was shaped by natural selection?" This idea has been met with demonstrations, denunciations, picketings, and comparisons to Nazism, both from the right and from the left.

A BIOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING OF HUMAN NATURE

[9.8.02]

The main question is: "Why are empirical questions about how the mind works so weighted down with political and moral and emotional baggage? Why do people believe that there are dangerous implications to the idea that the mind is a product of the brain, that the brain is organized in part by the genome, and that the genome was shaped by natural selection?" This idea has been met with demonstrations, denunciations, picketings, and comparisons to Nazism, both from the right and from the left. And these reactions affect both the day-to-day conduct of science and the public appreciation of the science. By exploring the political and moral colorings of discoveries about what makes us tick, we can have a more honest science and a less fearful intellectual milieu.

Introduction

Every few years a book is published that commands our attention and causes us to consider questions that challenge our basic assumptions about ourselves. This month marks the publication of such a book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by MIT research psychologist Steven Pinker.

Pinker is a unifier, someone who ties a lot of big ideas together. He has studied visual cognition and language acquisition in the laboratory, and was one of the first to develop computational models of how children learn the words and grammar of their first language. He has merged Chomskyan ideas about an innate language faculty with the Darwinian theory of adaptation and natural selection. Pinker also wrote one of the most influential critiques of neural-network models of the mind.

His book The Language Instinct discussed all aspects of language in a unified, Darwinian framework, and in How the Mind Works he did the same for the rest of the mind, explaining "what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life."

In The Blank Slate, he notes "that there is a quasi-religious theory of human nature that is prevalent among pundits and intellectuals, which includes both empirical assumptions about how the mind works and a set of values that people hang on those assumptions. The theory has three parts".

One is the doctrine of "the blank slate": that we have no inherent talents or temperaments, because the mind is shaped completely by the environment§parenting, culture, and society. 

"The second is "the noble savage": that evil motives are not inherent to people but come from corrupting social institutions. 

The third is "the ghost in the machine", that the most important part of us is somehow independent of our biology, so that our ability to have experiences and make choices can't be explained by our physiological makeup and evolutionary history.

These three ideas are increasingly being challenged by the sciences of the mind, brain, genes, and evolution," he says, "but they are held as much for their moral and political uplift as for any empirical rationale. People think that these doctrines are preferable on moral grounds and that the alternative is forbidden territory that we should avoid at all costs".

—JB

STEVEN PINKER, research psychologist, is Peter de Florez Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the MIT; director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT; author of Language Learnability and Language Development: Learnability and Cognition; The Language Instinct; How the Mind Works; Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

His research on visual cognition and on the psychology of language has received the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences and two prizes from the American Psychological Association. He has also received awards for his graduate teaching at MIT and for his undergraduate teaching at MIT, two prizes for general achievement, an honorary doctorate, and five awards for his popular science books.

Pinker is a fellow of several scholarly societies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is an associate editor of Cognition and serves on many professional panels, including the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and the Scientific Advisory Panel of an 8-hour NOVA television series on evolution. He also writes frequently in the popular press, including The New York Times, Time, Slate, and The New Yorker.

Steven Pinker's Edge Bio Page


WHAT SHAPE ARE A GERMAN SHEPHERD'S EARS?

Topic: 

  • MIND
http://vimeo.com/79451242

"There is a gigantic project yet to be done that will have the effect of rooting psychology in natural science. Once this is accomplished, you'll be able to go from phenomenology. . . to information processing. . . to the brain. . . down through the workings of the neurons, including the biochemistry, all the way to the biophysics and the way that genes are up-regulated and down-regulated."

WHAT SHAPE ARE A GERMAN SHEPHERD'S EARS?

[7.13.02]

There is a gigantic project yet to be done that will have the effect of rooting psychology in natural science. Once this is accomplished, you'll be able to go from phenomenology. . . to information processing. . . to the brain. . . down through the workings of the neurons, including the biochemistry, all the way to the biophysics and the way that genes are up-regulated and down-regulated.

This is going to happen; I have no doubt at all. When it does we’re going to have a much better understanding of human nature than is otherwise going to be possible.

Introduction by John Brockman

When Stephen Kosslyn received tenure at Harvard, none of his colleagues in the Psychology Department had scholarly interests that overlapped with his, since most people were doing mathematical psychology. Prior to Harvard, during his time at Johns Hopkins, Kosslyn had become very interested in the brain and computation, which was the beginning of cognitive neuroscience. There weren't too many people thinking about such matters at that point.

Over time, many of his senior colleagues in the Psychology Department at Harvard retired or left, so he found myself in the position of being chair of several search committees, where he could nudge the program in a direction that, he believes, turned out to be a very good idea. Kosslyn chaired the committee that hired Dan Schachter, Patrick Cavanaugh, Ken Nakayama, and Alfonso Caramazza. "I tried to get Pinker, but failed on that one… for now," he says. "Most recently I chaired the committee that brought in Susan Carey and Liz Spelke. The department's gotten strong now. It's got a cohesive, underlying theme, which means that there is the potential for interaction."

The Department is currently oriented towards cognitive neuroscience. "Right now," according to Kosslyn, "it’s not very computational, which is a weakness. Computation is the language of information processing, not English, French, or any other natural language because there’s no reason to expect the kinds of concepts and distinctions captured in natural language to be appropriate for characterizing what's going on in the brain. It's different than the objects we encounter in our daily lives. Although we don't have the right version of a computational language yet—one that’s tailored for this particular machine rather than a Von Neumann machine—computation is clearly going to be the language."

— JB

STEPHEN M. KOSSLYN, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has published over 200 papers on the nature of visual mental imagery. He has received numerous honors, including the National Academy of Sciences Initiatives in Research Award and the Prix Jean-Louis Signoret, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Society of Experimental Psychologists. His books include Image and Mind; Ghosts in the Mind's Machine; Elements of Graph Design; Wet Mind: The New Cognitive Neuroscience; Image and Brain: The Resolution of the Imagery Debate; and Psychology: The Brain, the Person, the World.

Kosslyn is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has served on several National Research Council committees to advise the government on new technologies. He is also co-founder of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Stephen M. Kosslyn's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Zenon Pylyshyn responds.

HOW DOES THE BRAIN GENERATE COMPUTATION?

Topic: 

  • MIND
http://vimeo.com/79412658

"For humans, Chomsky's insights into the computational mechanisms underlying language really revolutionized the field, even though not all would agree with the approach he has taken. Nonetheless, the fact that he pointed to the universality of many linguistic features, and the poverty of the input for the child acquiring language, suggested that an innate computational mechanism must be at play. This insight revolutionized the field of linguistics, and set much of the cognitive sciences in motion.

HOW DOES THE BRAIN GENERATE COMPUTATION?

[12.2.01]

"For humans, Chomsky's insights into the computational mechanisms underlying language really revolutionized the field, even though not all would agree with the approach he has taken. Nonetheless, the fact that he pointed to the universality of many linguistic features, and the poverty of the input for the child acquiring language, suggested that an innate computational mechanism must be at play. This insight revolutionized the field of linguistics, and set much of the cognitive sciences in motion. That's a verbal claim, and as Chomsky himself would quickly recognize, we really don't know how the brain generates such computation."

 

MARC D. HAUSER, a cognitive neuroscientist, is a professor in the departments of Psychology and the Program in Neurosciences at Harvard, where he is also a fellow of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Program. He is the author of The Evolution of Communication, The Design of Animal Communication (with M. Konishi), and Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think.

[Click here for Marc D. Hauser's Edge Bio page]


 

THE COMPUTATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Topic: 

  • MIND
http://vimeo.com/79415322

"There are going to be things that meet those conditions that are not interestingly computational by anybody's standards, and there are things that are going to fail to meet the standards, which nevertheless you see are significantly like the things that you want to consider computational. So how do you deal with that? By ignoring it, by ignoring the issue of definition, that's my suggestion. Same as with life! You don't want to argue about whether viruses are alive or not; in some ways they're alive, in some ways they're not. Some processes are obviously computational.

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