Leave quibbling of every kind to lawyers pleading at the bar for the life of a culprit; in society and conversation it is invariably out of place, unless when Laughter is going his merry round. At all other times it is a proof of bad breeding….
Cheerfulness, unaffected cheerfulness, a sincere desire to please and be pleased, unchecked by any efforts to shine, are the qualities you must bring with you into society, if you wish to succeed in conversation. … a light and airy equanimity of temper,—that spirit which never rises to boisterousness, and never sinks to immovable dullness; that moves gracefully from “grave to gay, from serious to serene,” and by mere manner gives proof of a feeling heart and generous mind.
Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness, 1866. I read etiquette handbooks at an impressionable age, and ever since have had a vision of society and proper behavior that is out of step with the modern age. (via Brain Pickings)
The brains of two rats on different continents have been made to act in tandem. When the first, in Brazil, uses its whiskers to choose between two stimuli, an implant records its brain activity and signals to a similar device in the brain of a rat in the United States. The US rat then usually makes the same choice on the same task.
Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, says that this system allows one rat to use the senses of another, incorporating information from its far-away partner into its own representation of the world. “It’s not telepathy. It’s not the Borg,” he says. “But we created a new central nervous system made of two brains.”
Nicolelis says that the work, published today in Scientific Reports, is the first step towards constructing an organic computer that uses networks of linked animal brains to solve tasks. But other scientists who work on neural implants are skeptical.
Play in our species serves many valuable purposes. It is a means by which children develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral capacities. It is a means of creating and preserving friendships. It also provides a state of mind that, in adults as well as children, is uniquely suited for high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all sorts of creative endeavors….
[P]lay is not neatly defined in terms of some single identifying characteristic. Rather, it is defined in terms of a confluence of several characteristics. People before me who have studied and written about play have, among them, described quite a few such characteristics; but they can all be boiled down, I think, to the following five: (1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed; (2) Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; (3) Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; (4) Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and (5) Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind….
Because play involves conscious control of one’s own behavior, with attention to process and rules, it requires an active, alert mind. Players do not just passively absorb information from the environment, or reflexively respond to stimuli, or behave automatically in accordance with habit. Moreover, because play is not a response to external demands or immediate strong biological needs, the person at play is relatively free from the strong drives and emotions that are experienced as pressure or stress. And because the player’s attention is focused on process more than outcome, the player’s mind is not distracted by fear of failure. So, the mind at play is active and alert, but not stressed. The mental state of play is what some researchers call “flow.” Attention is attuned to the activity itself, and there is reduced consciousness of self and time. The mind is wrapped up in the ideas, rules, and actions of the game.
This point about the mental state of play is very important for understanding play’s value as a mode of learning and creative production. The alert but unstressed condition of the playful mind is precisely the condition that has been shown repeatedly, in many psychological experiments, to be ideal for creativity and the learning of new skills. Such experiments are normally not described as experiments on play, but it is no stretch to interpret them as that. What the experiments show is that strong pressure to perform well (which induces a non-playful state) improves performance on tasks that are mentally easy or habitual for the person, but worsens performance on tasks that require creativity, or conscious decision making, or the learning of new skills. In contrast, anything that is done to reduce the person’s concern with outcome and to increase the person’s enjoyment of the task for its own sake—that is, anything that increases playfulness—has the opposite effect.
Strong pressure to perform well inhibits creativity and learning by focusing attention strongly and narrowly on the goal, thereby reducing the ability to focus on means. In the pressured state, one tends to fall back on instinctive or well-learned ways of doing things. That way of responding to pressure is adaptive in many emergency situations. When a tiger is chasing you, you use whatever means you have already learned for getting away or hiding; that is not a good time to experiment with new ways. Experts in any realm can usually perform well in the pressured state because they can call on their well-learned, habitual modes of responding and don’t need to learn anything new or act creatively. Their attention can focus on producing the best possible outcome using the repertoire of actions that are already second nature to them.
In “Spontaneous flocking in human groups,” a paper published in the January issue of Behavioral Sciences, Boos and colleagues describe an attempt to isolate underlying flocking mechanisms hinted at by the large-scale behaviors sometimes seen in crowds.
Her team designed an experiment in which test subjects were allowed to move within a virtual space, but with the identities of other people completely hidden. Other people were literally seen as black dots.
Despite the impossibility of exchanging information or social cues, people in the experiment drifted towards each other in predictable, mathematically regular ways. These are hints, said Boos, of the fundamental forces of spatial attraction that exist between people….
“We see collective behavior in many aspects of human society,” said Couzin. “If you observe a crowd from above, you see that pedestrians spontaneously form lanes, following the slipstream of others. There’s lots of patterns that arise from local interactions that we’re not aware of.”
According to Joseph Henrich and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia, most undergraduates are WEIRD. Those who teach them might well agree. But Dr Henrich did not intend the term as an insult when he popularised it in a paper published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2010. Instead, he was proposing an acronym: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic.
One reason these things matter is that undergraduates are also psychology’s laboratory rats. Incentivised by rewards, in the form of money or course credits, they will do the human equivalents of running mazes and pressing the levers in Skinner boxes until the cows come home.
Which is both a blessing and a problem. It is a blessing because it provides psychologists with an endless supply of willing subjects. And it is a problem because those subjects are WEIRD, and thus not representative of humanity as a whole. Indeed, as Dr Henrich found from his analysis of leading psychology journals, a random American undergraduate is about 4,000 times more likely than an average human being to be the subject of such a study. Drawing general conclusions about the behaviour of Homo sapiens from the results of these studies is risky.
This state of affairs, though, may be coming to an end. The main reasons undergraduates have been favoured in the past are that they are cheap, and easy for academics to recruit. But a new source of supply is now emerging: crowdsourcing.
As a child, were you constantly reminded by teachers to stop daydreaming?
Well, psychological research is beginning to reveal that daydreaming is a strong indicator of an active and well-equipped brain. Tell that to your third-grade teacher [first-grade, in my case — HR].
A new study, published in Psychological Science by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, suggests that a wandering mind correlates with higher degrees of what is referred to as working memory. Cognitive scientists define this type of memory as the brain’s ability to retain and recall information in the face of distractions….
“What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing,” said Jonathan Smallwood in a press release. In other words, daydreamers’ minds wander because they have too much extra capacity to merely concentrate on the task at hand. These results, the researchers believe, point to the fact that the mental processes underlying daydreaming may be quite similar to those of the brain’s working memory system. Previously, working memory had been correlated with measures of intelligence, such as IQ score. But this study shows how working memory is also closely tied to our tendency to think beyond our immediate surroundings at any given time.
Primates apart, few mammals employ tools. Sea otters use rocks to smash clams open, dolphins wrap sponges around their noses to protect themselves while they forage on the seabed, elephants swat insects with branches and humpback whales exhale curtains of bubbles to trap schools of fish. Until now, these four examples had been thought the extent of the non-primate mammalian tool-users club. But a study just published in Animal Cognition, by Volker Deecke of the University of St Andrews, in Britain, has added a fifth and rather surprising one. That epitome of rugged wildness, the grizzly bear, seems to be the only species other than humans to have invented the comb.
Dr Deecke made this discovery while studying grizzly-bear behaviour from a small boat in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, on July 22nd 2010. After a period of play-fighting with another bear and a short bout of feeding on a beached whale carcass, a bear of between three and five years of age, sex unknown, waded into the shallows of the bay. Once there, it picked up a fist-sized rock and carefully rotated it for about a minute before dropping it back into the water. Moments later, it picked up another, of similar size, and again rotated it. This time, rather than discarding the stone, it held it against its muzzle and started to rub. Using its left paw to press the rock against its skin and its right paw to support the rock’s weight, the bear rubbed away at its muzzle and face for roughly a minute before dropping the stone back into the water. Then it grabbed a third stone of the same size, rotated it and rubbed its face, muzzle and neck for a further two minutes before discarding it. This done, it spent two minutes grooming its right paw with its teeth before returning to the whale carcass.
“Bees are to hives as neurons are to brains,” says Jeffrey Schall, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University. Neurons use some of the same tricks honeybees use to come to decisions. A single visual neuron is like a single scout. It reports about a tiny patch of what we see, just as a scout dances for a single site. Different neurons may give us conflicting ideas about what we’re actually seeing, but we have to quickly choose between the alternatives. That red blob seen from the corner of your eye may be a stop sign, or it may be a car barreling down the street.
To make the right choice, our neurons hold a competition, and different coalitions recruit more neurons to their interpretation of reality, much as scouts recruit more bees.
Our brains need a way to avoid stalemates. Like the decaying dances of honeybees, a coalition starts to get weaker if it doesn’t get a continual supply of signals from the eyes. As a result, it doesn’t get locked early into the wrong choice. Just as honeybees use a quorum, our brain waits until one coalition hits a threshold and then makes a decision.
Seeley thinks that this convergence between bees and brains can teach people a lot about how to make decisions in groups. “Living in groups, there’s a wisdom to finding a way for members to make better decisions collectively than as individuals,” he said.
Recently Seeley was talking at the Naval War College. He explained the radical differences in how swarms and captain-dominated ships make decisions. “They realize that information is very distributed across the ship,” Seeley said. “Does it make sense to have power so concentrated? Sometimes you need a fast decision, but there’s a trade-off between fast versus accurate.”
In his experience, Seeley says, New England town hall meetings are the closest human grouping to honeybee swarms. “There are some differences, but there are also some fundamental similarities,” he said. Like scouts, individual citizens are allowed to share different ideas with the entire meeting. Other citizens can judge for themselves the merit of their ideas, and they can speak up themselves. “When it’s working properly, good ideas rise up and bad ones sink down,” says Seeley.
Groups work well, he argues, if the power of leaders is minimized. A group of people can propose many different ideas—the more the better, in fact. But those ideas will only lead to a good decision if listeners take the time to judge their merits for themselves, just as scouts go to check out potential homes for themselves.
Groups also do well if they’re flexible, ensuring that good ideas don’t lose out simply because they come late in the discussion. And rather than try to debate an issue until everyone in a group agrees, Seeley advises using a honeybee-style quorum. Otherwise the debate will drag on.
One of the strengths of honeybees is that they share the same goal: finding a new home. People who come together in a democracy, however, may have competing interests. Seeley advises that people should be made to feel that they are part of the decision-making group, so that their debates don’t become about destroying the enemy, but about finding a solution for everyone. “That sense of belonging can be nurtured,” Seeley said. The more we fashion our democracies after honeybees, Seeley argues, the better off we’ll be.
Let your better self rest assured: Dearly held values truly are sacred, and not merely cost-benefit analyses masquerading as nobel intent, concludes a new study on the neurobiology of moral decision-making. Such values are conceived differently, and occur in very different parts of the brain, than utilitarian decisions.
“Why do people do what they do?” said neuroscientist Greg Berns of Emory University. “Asked if they’d kill an innocent human being, most people would say no, but there can be two very different ways of coming to that answer. You could say it would hurt their family, that it would be bad because of the consequences. Or you could take the Ten Commandments view: You just don’t do it. It’s not even a question of going beyond.”
When test subjects agreed to sell out, their brains displayed common signatures of activity in regions previously linked to calculating utility. When they refused, activity was concentrated in other parts of their brains: the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is known to be involved in processing and understanding abstract rules, and the right temporoparietal junction, which has been implicated in moral judgement.
In short, when people didn’t sell out their principles, it wasn’t because the price wasn’t right. It just seemed wrong. “There’s one bucket of things that are utilitarian, and another bucket of categorical things,” Berns said. “If it’s a sacred value to you, then you can’t even conceive of it in a cost-benefit framework.”
Those with prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, can see perfectly well, but their brains are unable to piece together the information needed to understand that a collection of features represents an individual’s face. The condition is a neurological mystery, but new research has shed light on this strange malady.
One of the keys to understanding face recognition, it seems, is understanding how the brain comes to recognize voices. Some scientists had believed that faces and voices, the two main ways people recognize one another, were processed separately by the brain. Indeed, a condition parallel to prosopagnosia, called phonagnosia, similarly leaves a person unable to distinguish a familiar voice from an unfamiliar one.
But by testing for these two conditions simultaneously, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany recently found evidence that face and voice recognition may be linked in a novel person-recognition system.
[I’m terrible at facial recognition without ridiculous levels of repetition, but I key on voices very easily. Once, I identified an acquaintance across a crowded airport because I heard her voice through the tumult. I couldn’t have picked her out of a police line up, though.]
Aaron Dignan: How to Use Games to Excel at Life and Work
I want to roll around in this talk and never come out. Play as experiential learning! Objectives, skills, outcomes! Real-time feedback! Banish the boredom forever.
As an erstwhile game designer of a sort (a specialized, niche occupation), I recognize so many of these forces. Not only on the play of a game, but in how the design phases progress and the reason I keep coming back for more, glad of the new work.
Note to self: share with the office.
Digging deeper in a South African cave that had already yielded surprises from the Middle Stone Age, archaeologists have uncovered a 100,000-year-old workshop holding the tools and ingredients with which early modern humans apparently mixed some of the first known paint.
These cave artisans had stones for pounding and grinding colorful dirt enriched with a kind of iron oxide to a powder, known as ocher. This was blended with the binding fat of mammal-bone marrow and a dash of charcoal. Traces of ocher were left on the tools, and samples of the reddish compound were collected in large abalone shells, where the paint was liquefied, stirred and scooped out with a bone spatula….
The discovery dials back the date when the modern Homo sapiens population was known to have started using paint. Previously, no workshop older than 60,000 years had come to light, and the earliest cave and rock art began appearing about 40,000 years ago.
Cities are our greatest invention, not because of the scale of their infrastructure or their placement along key trade routes, but because they enable human beings to combine and recombine their talents and ideas in new ways. With their breadth of skills, dense social networks, and physical spaces for interactions, great cities and metro areas push people together and increase the kinetic energy between them.
As highly skilled people concentrate in these places, the rate of innovation accelerates, new businesses are created, and productivity—and, ultimately, pay—grows. Wages generally increase with city size, as opportunities for specialization and interaction multiply….
Jobs requiring physical skill cluster in small and medium-size metro areas—industrial centers where land for factories is relatively inexpensive. Jobs featuring analytic skill are sparse in these places, and heavily concentrated in larger metro areas—indicating the rising benefits of having high numbers of well-educated, highly intelligent people working close together. And jobs requiring the highest level of social skill are the most concentrated in the very largest metro areas—where, combined with the high prevalence of analytic skill, they underpin faster rates of innovation and growth.
Highly developed social skills are different from mere sociability. They include persuasion, social perceptiveness, the capacity to bring the right people together on a project, the ability to help develop other people, and a keen sense of empathy. These are quintessential leadership skills needed to innovate, mobilize resources, build effective organizations, and launch new firms. They are highly complementary to analytic skills—and indeed, the very highest-paying jobs (and the most robust economies) usually require exceptional skill in both realms. Nonetheless, social skills seem to grow ever more essential as local economies grow larger and more complex. In this sense, cities are like brains: their growth and development require the growth and development of an increasingly dense web of synaptic connections.