Shortcuts (Repost)

These are reposts of a series I did years ago on mental shortcuts.

Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Pexels.com

We humans laud our superiority over the rest of the world. We even claim to be better than other humans. The chief attribute we compare is intelligence.

An interest of mine regarding Psychology in college was failures of the mind. Phineas Gage suffered a brain injury that drastically changed his behavior. That was really cool! Yet, that and other cases are relatively rare. More universally, the brain works much more nuanced than most people give credit. I think much of the problems of society tie back to how the brain works and maybe even societal attempts at glossing over the limitations.

Rather than one really long post, I am going to break these up into several. And much of this has been bumping around in my head for months, but I took a few hours to lay it all down.

  1. Illusions
  2. Labeling
  3. Math
  4. Multitasking
  5. Rules

For going on a decade, I have called these Cheating. Rather than taking in all the information, completely processing it, and strategically acting upon it, our brains selectively attend to a small portion, throws out even more, and acts upon incomplete information. Most of the time it works. Much of the time it doesn’t and we have no idea so we just think it works. Every once in a while we get burned by our brains not following the rules we expect them to follow. So to make this more palatable, I am going to try calling these Shortcuts.

Shortcuts: Illusions (repost)

These are reposts of a series I did years ago on mental shortcuts.

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking > 5. Rules)

Photo by Michel Berube on Pexels.com

We like to think only those things we experience exist. Or even can experience. What about those things we can experience that do not or never did exist? That is what illusions are. They are cases where we trick the brain into believing something happened that did not. Or tricking the brain into thinking is experiencing reality when it is missing crucially important.

Michael Bach has a nice optical illusions page to demonstrate how easily our eyes are tricked. Every sense we have can be tricked. The food industry has worked wonders in devising how to trick our senses of smell and taste. When you feel something crawling on you and look to see nothing, that is your sense of touch going haywire.

Illusions can also be dangerous. Eyewitness testimony is the worst evidence we use in the legal system. Witnesses rarely capture and retain all the details. And how they are interviewed can allow them to fill in these gaps with other evidence and skew their results to confirm that same evidence. Say the police pick up a suspect and present that photo with others to a witness. The witness picks the photo of the suspect and later out of a line up. If the suspect actually only resembles the culprit, then these two steps confirm for the witness (and the police) the suspect’s guilt even though the witness saw someone else. We attend to similarities when searching and ignore the differences. And we will go with the closest option given choices.

Inattentional blindness also falls into my illusions category. Paying too much attention to something means we have no idea about what else is happening. The train operator on his cell phone not noticing the curve for which he needed to slow down and derailed. Multitasking while operating a vehicle is dangerous because of this.

Of course, everything we experience is really the interpretation of signals to the brain. One of my favorite experiments was people wore goggles that inverted the image so everything appeared upside down. The brain just adapts to the error and interprets the picture to the desired orientation. Do not like what you see? The brain can solve that problem. Another favorite experiment was ending phantom pain in missing limbs by using mirrors to make the limb appear to exist again.

My favorite metaphor for how the brain works is Object-Oriented Programming. Different parts of the brain perform different functions. The functions adapt (are reprogrammed or reconfigured) based on the needed interpretation of the data. Of course, the adaptations are not always 100% correct. Nor do they always adapt in time not to avoid errors.

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking > 5. Rules)

Pre-Theory of Mind

Fleur picked up something off the floor, popped it in her mouth, stood up, and met my gaze. She spun around and took off. She knew I was coming for it without me having to say it.

She is about a year from having developed the Theory of Mind. With it, she is able to know what I am thinking about the situation. In the classic situation, a researcher shows putting something in a box. Another moves it while the first is not present. Then the child asked where the first thinks it is located.

The taking off means she knows something of what I am thinking. She just would think I know what she knows.

Pointing

Babies point at objects because they really want to touch them:

The first test revealed that we don’t necessarily angle a pointing finger in a way that will direct another observer’s attention towards the object we are pointing at. Rather, a virtual line runs from our eye through our fingertip and towards the object, as if we were reaching to touch the object.

The second test looked at the way we rotate our wrists when pointing at objects – for instance, how we point at a magnet attached to the right-facing side of a box that is placed directly in front of us. Even infants, if using their right hand to point at the magnet, will often rotate their wrist almost 180 degrees so that the pad of their pointing finger is directed towards the magnet, as if reaching to touch it.

The third tested how people interpret a pointing gesture being performed by someone else. It showed that 18-month-olds and 3-year-olds – but not nine-year-olds and adults – understand a pointing gesture to be an attempt by someone to touch an object, not an attempt to use their finger as an ‘arrow’ to direct attention in a certain direction.

The Recency Effect in children

When Fleur is done with dinner, she often exerts her displeasure at not having food in front of her. Such bad parents that we did not ensure she has just the right amount of food. Basically, if she has more than she wants to eat of something, then she throws it on the floor.

My wife often just gives something else. I prefer to provide options between two different kinds of food. So, this finding that children have a preference for the Recency Effect caught my eye.

Suspecting she might be picking left or right, the first several times I did switch them to see if she picked the same one. (She did.) My goal was to better understand her preferences.

Now, I know I need to design my choices for whether she is picking the second choice being a victim of this bias. Of course, she is not having to overburden her working memory capacity in these decisions. So, it probably does not apply.

Being a Musician Is Good for the Brain

Highlights from an Inc article on the benefits of music on the brain caught my attention:

  1. Musical training reorganizes neuron structures in the brain, specifically the corpus callosum which integrates the two sides plus areas involving verbal memory, spatial reasoning, and literacy.
  2. It improves long-term memory, in part because it teaches the hippocampus how to store memories and recall them on demand.
  3. It improves executive function, things like processing and retaining information, controlling behavior, making decisions, and problem solving
  4. Musicians tend to be more mentally alert with faster reaction times.
  5. They tend to have better statistical use of multisensory information, so they are better able to integrate inputs from the various senses.
  6. The earlier a musician starts, the more drastic the changes.
  7. Music reduces stress and improves happiness.*
  8. Increases blood flow in the brain.

* Wonder if all this singing we do with Fleur plus Galahad’s piano practice is part of why she is a happy child? After all, we’ve been leveraging singing as a way to distract Miss Wriggly.

 

Causation

fb_img_1552696891627Fleur has gleeful look when adults make weird sounds before doing something funny. Nose boops, tickles, and the like. She loves the stuff from people she likes. And doing it well, is a good way into her favorite people list.

Dopamine is thought of as the reward neurotransmitter. But, it is more complicated. It is what we get anticipating a reward. Say, you are playing a video game, dopamine surges to ensure you focus and persevere to achieve the level or match.

The noise right before tells her it is coming. Classical conditioning pairs a neutral stimulus with a desired one. The prior one is neutral the first time, but after she has paired it with the desired stimulus and anticipates the desired one. It seems like she enjoys the anticipation almost as much.

In getting mobile and manipulating objects, she is learning to use operant conditioning as well. She exerts her will on the world around her. This takes the form of doing the same thing over and over both using the same technique to confirm it works and adjusting to see what might work better. The other day she was trying to get into my tablet and tapping different spots to see how it reacted. You could see the Scientific Method in action: hypothesis, design test, execute test, evaluate result, new hypothesis.

Something I never thought about in university psychology classes was the impressive nature of linking things into causal chains. If this, then that. Over and over. Both forms of conditioning require understanding causation. The sponge that is Fleur’s brain seems to seek out understanding causation. And happiness to me is creating an environment for her try things and figure out how they work.

Kid jokes

I love reading about the incongruity of the kids of friends. Part of why I started this is in hopes of reporting on the best of Fleur’s. The Atlantic has a good article “Knock Knock. Who’s There? Kids. Kids Who? Kids Tell Terrible Jokes.“:

“Even when their parents are feeding them ‘dad jokes’ to try to teach them about humor, half of the jokes that kids hear, they don’t quite get.” So it’s only natural, Dubinsky says, for some children to believe that a couple of absurd or mismatched concepts assembled into a familiar “knock-knock” or “What do you call …” structure adds up to a joke.

“Kids say, ‘Oh, jokes are about incongruity. I’ll show you some incongruity,’” Dubinsky says. “But they haven’t got the sophistication to construct an incongruity that’s going to be resolvable.”

Which, coincidentally, sometimes results in jokes that resemble a more advanced form of humor: an “anti-joke.” Anti-jokes deliberately deny the audience a clever or satisfying punch line, and they often serve as edgy or sophisticated commentary on jokes themselves.

Poor Fleur will suffer from “dad jokes.” She already hears them. She just has no idea she is inundated with them. And I love me some incongruity. So much of my attention is analyzing rules from social behavior to code to business process rules. I am always interested in the how and why to tease out mismatches to learn from them. Maybe that is why I love “dad jokes” so much?