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November 20, 2013

[liveblog][2b2k] David Eagleman on the brain as networks

I’m at re comm 13, an odd conference in Kitzbühel, Austria: 2.5 days of talks to 140 real estate executives, but the talks are about anything except real estate. David Eagleman, a neural scientist at Baylor, and a well-known author, is giving a talk. (Last night we had one of those compressed conversations that I can’t wait to be able to continue.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

How do we know your thinking is in your brain? If you damage your finger, you don’t change, but damage to your brain can change basic facets of your life. “The brain is the densest representation of who you are.” We’re the only species trying to figure out our own progamming language. We’ve discovered the most complicated device in the universe: our own brains. Ten billion neurons. Every single neuron contains the entire human genome and thousands of protens doing complicated computations. Each neuron is is connected to tens of thousands of its neighbors, meaning there are 100s of trillions of connections. These numbers “bankrupt the language.”

Almost all of the operations of the brain are happening at a level invisible to us. Taking a drink of water requires a “lightning storm” of acvitity at the neural level. This leads us to a concept of the unconscious. The conscious part of you is the smallest bit of what’s happening in the brain. It’s like a stowaway on a transatlantic journey that’s taking credit for the entire trip. When you think of something, your brain’s been working on it for hours or days. “It wasn’t really you that thought of it.”

About the unconscious: Psychologists gave photos of women to men and asked them to evaluate how attractive they are. Some of the photos were the same women, but with dilated eyes. The men rated them as being more attractive but none of them noticed the dilation. Dilated eyes are a sign of sexual readiness in women. Men made their choices with no idea of why.

More examples: In the US, if your name is Dennis or Denise, you’re more likely to become a dentist. These dentists have a conscious narrative about why they became dentists that misses the trick their brain has played on them. Likewise, people are statistically more likely to marry someone whose first name begins with the same first letter as theirs. And, i you are holding a warm mug of coffee, you’ll describe the relationship with your mother as warmer than if you’re holding an iced cup. There is an enormous gap between what you’re doing and what your conscious mind is doing.

“We should be thankful for that gap.” There’s so much going on under the hood, that we need to be shielded from the details. The conscious mind gets in trouble when it starts paying attention to what it’s doing. E.g., try signing your name with both hands in opposite directions simultaneously: it’s easy until you think about it. Likewise, if you now think about how you steer when making a lane change, you’re likely to enact it wrong. (You actually turn left and then turn right to an equal measure.)

Know thyself, sure. But neuroscience teaches us that you are many things. The brain is not a computer with a single output. It has many networks that are always competing. The brain is like a parliament that debates an action. When deciding between two sodas, one network might care about the price, another about the experience, another about the social aspect (cool or lame), etc. They battle. David looks at three of those networks:

1. How does the brain make decisions about valuation? E.g., people will walk 10 mins to save 10 € on a 20 € pen but not on a 557 € suit. Also, we have trouble making comparisons of worth among disparate items unless they are in a shared context. E.g., Williams Sonoma had a bread baking machine for $275 that did not sell. Once they added a second one for $370, it started selling. In real estate, if a customer is trying to decide between two homes, one modern and one traditional, if you want them to buy the modern one, show them another modern one. That gives them the context by which they can decide to buy it.

Everything is associated with everything else in the brain. (It’s an associative network.) Coffee used to be $0.50. When Starbucks started, they had to unanchor it from the old model so they made the coffee houses arty and renamed the sizes. Having lost the context for comparison, the price of Starbucks coffee began to seem reasonable.

2. Emotional experience is a big part of decision making. If you’re in a bad-smelling room, you’ll make harsher moral decisions. The trolley dilemma: 5 people have been tied to the tracks. A trolley is approaching rapidly. You can switch the trolley to a track with only one person tied to it. Everyone would switch the trolley. But now instead, you can push a fat man onto the trolley to stop the car. Few would. In the second scenario, touching someone engages the emotional system. The first scenario is just a math problem. The logic and emotional systems are always fighting it out. The Greeks viewed the self as someone steering a chariot drawn by the white horse of reason and the black horse of passion. [From Plato’s Phaedrus]

3. A lot of the machinery of the brain deals with other brains. We use the same circuitry to think about people andor corporations. When a company betrays us, our brain responds the way it would if a friend betrayed us. Traditional economics says customer interactions are short-term but the brain takes a much longer-range view. Breaches of trust travel fast. (David plays “United Breaks Guitars.”) Smart companies use social media that make you believe that the company is your friend.

The battle among these three networks drives decisions. “Know thyselves.”

This is unsettling. The self is not at the center. It’s like when Galileo repositioned us in the universe. This seemed like a dethroning of man. The upside is that we’ve discovered the Cosmos is much bigger, more subtle, and more magnificent than we thought. As we sail into the inner cosmos of the brain, the brain is much subtle and magnificent than we ever considered.

“We’ve found the most wondrous thing in the universe, and it’s us.”

Q: Won’t this let us be manipulated?

A: Neural science is just catching up with what advertisers have known for 100 years.

Q: What about free will?

A: My labs and others have done experiments, and there’s no single experiment in neuroscience that proves that we do or do not have free will. But if we have free will, it’s a very small player in the system. We have genetics and experiences, and they make brains very different from one another. I argue for a legal system that recognizes a difference between people who may have committed the same crime. There are many different types of brains.

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March 13, 2013

[2b2k] Events are not the facts

The Tunisian newspaper Tunis Afrique Presse ran a story on the four priorities announced by that country’s new prime minister. It’s a straightforward story, and it is told in a factual, straightforward way.

But now I want to understand it. I know that some of the people involved in the revolution were disappointed that the new government was so Islamist. I know a moderate politician was assassinated there recently, which has destabalized the coalition government. But that’s about it for me. (I’m an American.) So, I read the four priorities of the new prime minister in the Tunisian article, and they seem positive from my point of view. But are they? Perhaps they are disappointing, or fail to address some key point, or are code for repressive policies. I don’t have enough context to know.

So, I go to Google and find a BBC article that fills in much of the context that I need. For example, I didn’t know the country has both a president and a prime minister. I couldn’t have told you anything at all about the coalition government, other than that it’s led by an Islamist party. To understand, we have to be just far enough away.

But what I really needed came from an “analysis” by Jim Muir embedded in the BBC article. Muir’s first paragraph says:

There was little in the announcement from Prime Minister-designate Ali Larayedh to inspire Ennahda’s [the ruling party] many critics to drop their opposition to the Islamist-led establishment in Tunisia.

Aha! Now I understand!

Of course, I’m assuming that Muir and I share some basic values, and that he’s attempting to give a sincere and honest assessment. I assume that based on cues: It’s the BBC, it’s marked as “analysis” and not “opinion,” the rhetoric isn’t obviously skewed away from my own views. To understand we need to have a lot in common with the person we’re learning from. I would thus be foolish to seek out, say, a Jihadist as my first source, although it might be quite interesting to read such a source as a second source.

We are right to learn what happened from people with whom we share values and assumptions because that way we don’t have to initially dig through a whole bunch of stuff that is either wrong from our point of view or incomprehensible to that point of view. But there’s also another reason:

I want to know what happened. But what happened in Tunisia was not that some personage uttered some words. What happened was that the Islamist party failed to forge a coalition that is likely to bring that country stability. In the same way, what happened last November was not the aggregated sum of factual accounts of how people marked X’s on ballots, and was not even the county-by-county vote tallies. If you started to tell me all of that, I’d be shouting until blue in the face, “But who won the election????” because that’s what happened. Events happen, and events have meaning, which means they only show up from a point of view. Events at the level of knowledge are not a mere recital of facts.

Newspapers for a long time have realized that much of their continuing value comes from the analyses they provide, not just the reportage. But the newspapers’ culture still tends in the other direction. And if you’re not sure that’s right, ask yourself why the analysis was a sidebar to the reportage, instead of the other way around.

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