Videos by topic: MIND

Aerodynamics For Cognition


It's very clear that in order to make progress in understanding some of the most challenging and important things about intelligence, studying the best example we have of an intelligent system is a way to do that. Often, people who argue against that make the analogy that if we were trying to understand how to build jet airplanes, then starting with birds is not necessarily a good way to do that.                                 

That analogy is pretty telling. The thing that's critical to both making jet airplanes work and making birds fly is the structure of the underlying problem that they're solving. That problem is keeping an object airborne, and the structure of that problem is constrained by aerodynamics. By studying how birds fly and the structure of their wings, you can learn something important about aerodynamics. And what you learn about aerodynamics is equally relevant to then being able to make jet engines.                                 

The kind of work that I do is focused on trying to identify the equivalent of aerodynamics for cognition. What are the real abstract mathematical principles that constrain intelligence? What can we learn about those principles by studying human beings? 

TOM GRIFFITHS is a professor of psychology and cognitive science and director of the Computational Cognitive Science Lab and the Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He is co-author (with Brian Christian) of Algorithms to Live By. Tom Griffiths's Edge Bio page

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Learning By Thinking


Sometimes you think you understand something, and when you try to explain it to somebody else, you realize that maybe you gained some new insight that you didn't have before. Maybe you realize you didn't understand it as well as you thought you did. What I think is interesting about this process is that it’s a process of learning by thinking. When you're explaining to yourself or to somebody else without them providing feedback, insofar as you gain new insight or understanding, it isn't driven by that new information that they've provided. In some way, you've rearranged what was already in your head in order to get new insight.

The process of trying to explain to yourself is a lot like a thought experiment in science. For the most part, the way that science progresses is by going out, conducting experiments, getting new empirical data, and so on. But occasionally in the history of science, there've been these important episodes—Galileo, Einstein, and so on—where somebody will get some genuinely new insight from engaging in a thought experiment. 

TANIA LOMBROZO is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. She is a contributor to Psychology Today and the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. Tania Lombrozo's Edge Bio page


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The Function of Reason


Contrary to the standard view of reason as a capacity that enhances the individual in his or her cognitive capacities—the standard image is of Rodin’s "Thinker," thinking on his own and discovering new ideas—what we say now is that the basic functions of reason are social. They have to do with the fact that we interact with each other’s bodies and with each other’s minds. And to interact with other’s minds is to be able to represent a representation that others have, and to have them represent our representations, and also to act on the representation of others and, in some cases, let others act on our own representations.

The kind of achievements that are often cited as the proof that reason is so superior, like scientific achievements, are not achievements of individual minds, not achievements of individual reason, they are collective achievements—typically a product of social interaction over generations. They are social, cultural products, where many minds had to interact in complex ways and progressively explore a lot of directions on which they hit not because some were more reasonable than others, but because some were luckier than others in what they hit. And then they used their reason to defend what they hit by luck. Reason is a remarkable cognitive capacity, as are so many cognitive capacities in human and animals, but it’s not a superpower.

DAN SPERBER is a Paris-based social and cognitive scientist. He holds an emeritus research professorship at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris, and he is currently at Central European University, Budapest. He is the creator, with Deirdre Wilson, of "Relevance Theory." Dan Sperber's Edge Bio Page

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Deontology Or Trustworthiness?


Daniel Kahneman:   The benefit that people get from taking a deontological position is that they look more trustworthy. Let's look at the other side of this. If I take a consequentialist position, it means that you can't trust me because, under some circumstances, I might decide to break the rule in my interaction with you. I was puzzled when I was looking at this. What is the essence of what is going on here? Is it deontology or trustworthiness? It doesn't seem to be the same to say we are wired to like people who take a deontological position, or we are wired to like people who are trustworthy. Which of these two is it?

Molly Crockett:   What the work suggests is that we infer how trustworthy someone is going to be by observing the kinds of judgments and decisions that they make. If I'm interacting with you, I can't get inside your head. I don't know what your utility function looks like. But I can infer what that utility function is by the things that you say and do.

This is one of the most important things that we do as humans. I've become increasingly interested in how we build mental models of other people's preferences and beliefs and how we make inferences about what those are, based on observables. We infer how trustworthy someone is going to be based on their condemnation of wrongdoing and their advocating a hard-and-fast morality over one that's more flexible.

MOLLY CROCKETT is an associate professor of experimental psychology, fellow of Jesus College, and distinguished research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, University of Oxford. Molly Crockett's Edge Bio Page

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics (2002), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013). He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page


Misunderstanding Positive Emotion


We know in the physical ecosystem that biodiversity is healthy and important. People can buy into that. We know that biodiversity fosters resistance to pathogens and invasive species. When you explain to someone that the human mind may not be so different, that it's important to have a diverse array of emotions—joy, sadness, love, admiration, guilt—and that these are all important pieces of our internal human emotional ecosystem, people can understand that. People appreciate that diversity is important, that maybe it's some sort of spice of mental life.

When you frame it that way, people are more readily able to not put such a premium on positive emotions and, in some situations, try to foster other kinds of experiences if they think it's part of a more diverse psychological life and repertoire. Framing it less as pushing positive emotions down, but as letting all emotions grow and thrive. They're all important sources of information for us and we have them for a reason. We have evolutionary goals; people can understand that. That's one way we've been thinking about trying to frame this. You don't just want to grow one kind of plant in your garden, you want to have a diverse array. 

JUNE GRUBER is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and director of the Positive Emotion and Psychopathology LaboratoryJune Gruber's Edge Bio Page

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The Social Construction of Stories

How Narratives Can Get in the Way of Being Happier

I went for dinner with a friend who spent the whole of the evening complaining about her job, her boss, her colleagues, and her commute. Everything about her day-to-day experiences was miserable. Then, at the end of dinner, she said, "I love where I work." That's quite common. She was working for an organization where she'd always wanted to work, her parents were proud, her friends were jealous. How could she not be happy when she thought about the story of how happy she was where she was working? Her experiences—day-to-day and moment-to-moment—were telling her something quite different.                                  

I'm interested in where these narratives come from, particularly those narratives that sometimes get in the way of us being happier. There's been a lot of psychological research on how stories are helpful for us; for example, in the case of experiencing adversity or trauma. If we look for explanation and reason through narrative, it helps us cope with the adverse consequences. There's been a lot of work on that. I'm interested more in the social constructions of the stories, in the things that evolution, society, our parents, or historical accident tell us about the lives that we ought to be leading, and in particular, how they might sometimes get in the way of us experiencing better lives.

PAUL DOLAN is a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of Happiness by DesignPaul Dolan's Edge Bio Page

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A Characteristic Difference

When Experimental Philosophy Meets Psychology

DANIEL KAHNEMAN:  We're at the nub of the question. You come from philosophy, so there are certain things that are of interest to you. You want to convey two things at once: that the question is exciting, and that you have something new to say about it. It is true that I, as a psychologist, would come to the same question and conclude that it's an impossible question. Those are two impossible questions, and I certainly would not expect people to answer them in any way that is coherent.                                  

My first assumption, coming to it as a psychologist, is that there is no coherence. You agree with me that there is no coherence. What makes it exciting from the point of view of philosophy is that there is no coherence. Whereas, as a psychologist, I take it for granted that there is no coherence, so it's less exciting. That could be one of the differences.               

JOSHUA KNOBE:  That's really helpful. The thing we showed is not just that it is incoherent but along which dimension it is incoherent. It seems like there was evidence already that there's something pulling us towards one side and something pulling us to the other side, and we want to know which thing is pulling us towards one side or the other. We suggested that it's this difference between abstract thinking and concrete thinking.... 

JOSHUA KNOBE is an experimental philosopher and professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale University. Joshua Knobe's Edge Bio Page

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics (2002), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013). He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page

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How the Brain Is Computing the Mind


The history of science has shown us that you need the tools first. Then you get the data. Then you can make the theory. Then you can achieve understanding.

ED BOYDEN is a professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at the MIT Media Lab and the MIT McGovern Institute. He leads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group. Ed Boyden's Edge Bio Page 

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The Crusade Against Multiple Regression Analysis


A huge range of science projects are done with these multiple regression things. The results are often somewhere between meaningless and quite damaging. ...                             

I hope that in the future, if I’m successful in communicating with people about this, that there’ll be a kind of upfront warning in New York Times articles: These data are based on multiple regression analysis. This would be a sign that you probably shouldn’t read the article because you’re quite likely to get non-information or misinformation.

RICHARD NISBETT is a professor of psychology and co-director of the Culture and Cognition Program at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking; and The Geography of Thought. Richard Nisbett's Edge Bio Page


Molly Crockett: "The Neuroscience of Moral Decision Making"

HeadCon '14

Imagine we could develop a precise drug that amplifies people's aversion to harming others; on this drug you won't hurt a fly, everyone taking it becomes like Buddhist monks. Who should take this drug? Only convicted criminals—people who have committed violent crimes? Should we put it in the water supply? These are normative questions. These are questions about what should be done. I feel grossly unprepared to answer these questions with the training that I have, but these are important conversations to have between disciplines. Psychologists and neuroscientists need to be talking to philosophers about this. These are conversations that we need to have because we don't want to get to the point where we have the technology but haven't had this conversation, because then terrible things could happen.

MOLLY CROCKETT is Associate Professor, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford; Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging. Molly Crockett's Edge Bio Page