February 25, 2014
I have mixed feelings about the proliferation of brain research tools. On the one hand, it’s like being a little kid with a new toy–you start thinking of all sorts of new uses for it. On the other, it’s just increasing the certainty that the Brain Initiative came before we were ready for it. We don’t have the tools yet to deliver on the promise.
Ed Boyden is the head of the Synthetic Neurobiology group at the MIT Media Lab, where he works on tools to map, control, record — and maybe even someday build — the brain. Boyden has worked on optogenetics, a technique which deploys light-sensitive molecules to the brain and then applies light to them to “turn on” and “turn off” certain cells. The technology has been used to attempt to better understand blindness and Parkinson’s disease — and even to manipulate memories in mice. But as optogenetics becomes more and more precise, what’s next?
We asked futurist and venture capitalist Juan Enriquez, always game to speculate about how to build future-enhanced humans, to continue a conversation he started with Boyden on stage at TED2011. Over the phone they caught…
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November 26, 2013
This is my second post about the Great Giraffe Challenge and the social media frenzy it created on Facebook. While the challenge has moved on to other riddles, I want to explore another layer to the first giraffe riddle that I believe a lot of people missed. You see, this riddle is from a family of classic insight problems going back all the way to 3-Card Monte. One of the most popular versions goes something like this:
You enter a dark, lonely cabin just as night is approaching. You need to get a fire lit or you will freeze to death. There’s a candle, a wood stove and a gas lamp. You only have one match–what do you light first?
Like the first giraffe riddle, the cabin riddle is a kind of bait and switch: it presents you with multiple options and then fakes you out by revealing that none of them is technically correct. The correct answer is the match, which obviously you must light before you light anything else. But the giraffe riddle takes it a step further: experienced puzzlers are misled because there are multiple “clever” answers, one of which is still superior to the others. This second list of answers is a layer of complexity that the cabin riddle doesn’t have.
All this suggests a kind of “riddling arms race,” where great puzzles become classics, which become old hat, prompting us to seek out ever-greater levels of challenge. This progression was predicted by psychologist James Flynn. When IQ tests are revised, they are standardized using younger populations to set the average IQ at 100. If these populations take the old tests, however, they generally score 7-8 points points higher than 100–in other words, it appears the “average” IQ actually goes up about 7 points per generation. Flynn believed this was due to environmental differences, including the continuous demand for more layered abstract thinking–including such casual challenges as riddles. While one can argue whether this IQ boost actually reflects practical intelligence (plenty of people, including many psychologists, would argue the opposite), the “Flynn Effect” is a puzzle that all IQ researchers wrestle with.
In this sense, the first giraffe riddle is a sign of the times. The world around us is becoming more and more intellectually demanding. We demand more of ourselves, of our children, of our brains, forcing ourselves to think with greater and greater complexity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in entertainment. Our folklore continues to become more convoluted. Modern media is obsessed with reinventing old tropes, whether it’s Shrek‘s irreverence or Once Upon a Time‘s juxtaposition. In other shows, the entire point is about making fun of other tropes and breaking the fourth wall. We love remakes, mashups, parodies, send ups, inversions, tweaks. At the very least, we need our dialogue heavy with pop culture references, or our frontal lobes get bored and our minds begin to wander. I may not be proud of the fact that I watch old black and white movies on fast-forward, but the fact is, it’s possible to follow the plot. This would be plainly impossible with almost any movie made after 1980.
Of course, other riddles in the “giraffe” series have been quite plain, ordinary riddles. The author has not cornered the market on next-generation riddles. This singular runaway hit is not the first of a new breed of riddle, but its success is a sign that a new breed would be welcomed in our continuous pursuit of intellectual challenge. What new form of entertainment will rise to fill this need is anybody’s guess, but the Flynn Effect has been going for several generations, with no clear sign of stopping.
November 3, 2013
A riddle called the “great giraffe challenge” has taken Facebook by storm this week. Let me start by saying that I actually failed the challenge, by which I mean to say I answered the riddle incorrectly, and therefore had to change my profile picture to a giraffe. While several of my friends were shocked that “the riddle man” got it wrong, I was actually excited. I’m not often fooled by riddles, and there’s no shame in being fooled by a master. Be warned: I’m going to spoil the riddle below, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to read it here before reading the rest of this post.
I’m not surprised that this riddle elicited a lot of controversy. There have been arguments about what is the actual “right” answer, such that some websites list more than one right answer, and others list only a single right answer, but disagree about what that answer is. In this post I’m going to explain how the riddle works, and the actual right answer. In the next one I’ll get into some other things that are cool about this riddle, beyond the simple matter of a “right” or “wrong” answer.
Part of the problem here is that riddles often have multiple right answers, because the answers are rarely based in logic. Logic problems almost always have a single right answer, because the answer is found by process of elimination; the right answer is right because all the other possible answers are wrong. Riddles tend to be based on various forms of non-logical creativity, including puns or other wordplay. The “right” answer in a riddle tends to be the one that is not only correct, but also has a kind of surprising elegance.
So what is the real “right” answer to this riddle? Let’s start with the riddle, and then give the answer from the original author.
It’s 3 a.m., the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors! It’s your parents and they are here for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?
The original author of the giraffe riddle is Australian vlogger and riddle-guru Andrew Strugnell. He says that the correct answer is “your eyes.” Of course, this was not on the list; the list is a red herring, intended to distract you. Some people have been arguing with this answer, using the logic that if you are awake, your eyes have already opened. These people usually offer their own favorite answers, such as the door, the fridge, or your mouth, all of which have the same kind of elegance–they all acknowledge the list of foods as a red herring.. The problem is, all these other “elegant” answers require you to open your eyes first. Thus the correct answer rests with the question, “Does waking up necessarily mean that you have already open your eyes?”
This is the argument that some people are having over the Internet. Some reporters are going so far as to state authoritatively that the answer endorsed by the original author is incorrect. Now it’s no secret that I despise reporters who don’t back up their claims with research, and this issue is no different. Whether or not you can wake up without opening your eyes is strictly a matter of states of consciousness, a subject of psychology (see what I did there?). And the facts of psychology are that rousing from a sleeping state to a waking state does not always mean opening your eyes. If you want evidence of this, watch a sleeping person as you turn on the lights in their room. Their eyes will not open immediately, and in fact they will shut them tighter, right before they grab the nearest object in the room and throw it at you. Their ability to do this is evidence that they have roused to (surly) consciousness, even with their eyes shut.
So I pretty clearly come down on the side of the original author of the riddle, even though he fooled me. Now, it’s happened before, that someone who invents a riddle does not come up with the most elegant answer, and some other answer goes down history as the correct one. But that’s not what’s going on here. Everything boils down to the fact that you have to open your eyes before you open anything else, which means eyes trump any of the other elegant solutions.
September 22, 2013
A few months ago, I was involved in an online discussion of biofeedback when someone trotted out the old joke about the definition of alternative medicine:
Alternative medicine is medicine that has not been proven to work. You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proven to work? Medicine!
I reacted harshly, perhaps too much so, considering that biofeedback does often fall into that category. After having had time to cool off and reflect, I think I can make a measured rebuttal. You see, this definition is roughly correct, but it’s not entirely fair. The joke sacrifices accuracy for pithiness, because the key method of proving how medicine works is clinical trials. Based on that extended definition, there are at least three types of alternative medicine, all significantly different from each other in levels of validity:
Medicine that has repeatedly failed in clinical trials: This is the stuff that skeptics sneer at when they are talking about alternative medicine. Stuff like homeopathic remedies, which have no scientific mechanism for how they work and defy the laws of physics in the process. After 200 years, it’s pretty damning to say that “Most rigorous clinical trials and systematic analyses of the research on homeopathy have concluded that there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition.” That’s science speak for saying, “We’ve spent 200 years looking for proof and haven’t found ANY.”
Medicine that has not been through any clinical trials…yet: Every day, new medical interventions are developed. Many of them go years before their first clinical trial, building a following through anecdotal evidence. Here skepticism is trickier: you can grumble all you want about how no amount of anecdotal evidence amounts to a clinical trial (i.e “the plural of anecdote is not ‘data'”), but if anecdotes are all you have, it’s unfair to ignore them. More important, however, is to ask whether the proposed mechanism for how the method works lines up with established science. Be wary of pseudoscientific jargon, but remember that even stuff in line with established science may eventually be revealed as a placebo. Likewise, treatments that rely on bad science to explain them may end up getting new explanations if they can show that they actually do help people.
Medicine that has been through clinical trials for some things but not for others: When it comes to science and medicine, it’s critical to remember that a specific treatment is tested against a specific illness. When it comes to new paradigm shifts, you often have a general treatment type that leads to specific treatment plans, each of which has to go through its own clinical trial. That’s what’s happening in the case of biofeedback, which is frequently referred to as a treatment, but is in fact a whole category of treatments, including subcategories like neurofeedback. That’s why the AAP lists it at varying levels of support–even as disparate as Level 5 (no support) for autism and Level 1 (best support) for ADD/ADHD. Thus, biofeedback would not be alternative medicine when used to treat ADD, though the label is justifiable for autism and many other things.
As a student of several new treatments, I believe it is unfair to use the same label to describe all three categories, but I’m not in a position to change it. Like it or not, all three of these are considered “alternative,” and as long as that’s the case, alternative medicine is critical to the progress of medicine. Any successful treatment is going to have the label “alternative” for many years, and anyone who sneers at the entire label is sneering at the frontiers of science as well as the dustbin.
September 2, 2013
This just in: if you are a journalist, part of your job will be to do research, look stuff up, and generally have a basis for your claims. It may not be as rigorous as being a research scientist, but you will need more than your opinion as a foundation for your statements.
I say this because more and more in the profession seem to have missed that memo. There appears to be a growing fringe of pseudo-journalists riding on the coattails of legitimate newspapers, who are getting paid not just to be ignorant, but to be jerks about it, too. Controversy sells, and all that.
This week, my award for ignorant opinionated rants goes to Allison Benedikt, who published her “manifesto” against private schools under the banner of Slate. I don’t know what the rest of you think of Slate, but in my house, they have a reputation for slightly-better-than-average journalism. I don’t know what they could possibly gain by their association with Ms. Benedikt that compares to what they stand to lose.
It starts in the title: If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You are a Bad Person. Are you kidding me?! To start with, bad people vs. good people is not a useful division. All people do good and bad things. Even Jeffrey Dahmer was polite, and I’m sure he helped a neighbor move once or twice. Would the title have been as punchy if it had said, “It’s morally wrong to send your kid to private school”? No, but it would have prevented an unfavorable comparison with my 7-year-old, who has given up the bad guys/good guys dichotomy in favor of a more nuanced perspective.
Benedikt tells us out of the gate that she’s not a wonk, she’s just judgmental. To be clear, being a wonk would mean she actually knew something about education reform. So she’s freely admitting that she lacks the basic criteria to inform people on the subject, but feels that her “judgmentalness” should make up for it. I can’t imagine why being judgmental would make up for actually knowing something of value, but there it is.
Full disclosure: I went to public school, and my kids go to public school. Anyone who has read my blog knows that I have issues with our public educational system. This might seem like bias, except I have these same issues with private education. And homeschool, and charter, for that matter. The education system that I don’t have issues with doesn’t exist yet, so I believe any bias I might have is pretty evenly applied.
Now to Benedikt’s claims:
“But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.”
Okay, so for the sake of argument, I’ll allow the basic assumption of her article that public schools are “mediocre” and private schools are superior. Given that, she’s proposing that we give up all “superior” education and then, after several generations without it, we’ll somehow figure out how to give it to everyone. How exactly we will do this after voluntarily giving it up, she offers no suggestions.
Here’s the next biggest problem with that logic: almost everything that makes private schools “superior” is available to public schools already. The educational psychologists who study private schools don’t hoard that information away from the government–at least not if they want to do their jobs or make money. In this sense, private schools are basically testing grounds to make public schools better. Those people you are calling “bad” are paying for their kids to be test subjects.
“So, how would this work exactly? It’s simple! Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service investment, or property tax investment, but real flesh-and-blood-offspring investment.”
Ah! So “investment” is the problem. If the parents were all “invested,” they would be committed to fixing things, and then everything would get fixed. This is the same faulty argument that is made in every armchair analysis of human motivation: if people are sufficiently motivated, they will figure out a way to succeed. But we have YEARS of science showing this to be false. When we increase the consequences of failure, performance does not increase. You know what increases? Rationalization, blame, and anxiety.
You know what else we have collected years of data on? Class size. As class sizes go up, the quality of education goes down. Class size is the single largest factor we’ve identified in student performance. You know one of the leading factors making private schools “superior”? Small class sizes. You know what would happen if all those kids went to public school? Larger class sizes. That’s right, all those people you are calling “bad” are paying to shrink the size of public education classrooms, which is improving public education.
I’m not sure what to make of Ms. Benedict’s attempt to reassure us that public school mediocrity isn’t as bad as it sounds. Her strategy–telling us that she went to a crummy public school, and is now “fine” despite listing the ways she suffered due to her education–is certainly a two-edged sword. Sadly, I found this the most convincing part of the article: as her own singular example, she makes a strong case for the weakness of public school education. Of course, her example could easily be taken as evidence that public schools don’t need improvement–kids will turn out “fine” despite it all, so we should just keep things as they are.
In the end, those “morally bankrupt” people she sneers at have contributed quite a bit to public education. In addition to the taxes they pay toward public schools, their private monies have funded the development of revolutionary teaching methods such as spiraled curricula, flipped classrooms, and the peerless Khan Academy. Removal of their children from the public system shrinks class sizes by enough to account for an entire grade level (1/4 of a standard deviation). Of course, some may do so ignorantly and while sneering at public schoolers, but as a whole we owe them our thanks, not our anger. In the world she proposes, we should sacrifice all of this, and in the process, lose the frame of reference that tells us our schools could be improved. How we would improve our schools after losing the basis for comparison, she offers no suggestions.
I’ve skipped the parts where Ms. Benedikt sets up straw-man arguments for private schools, and when she tries to tell us that parents have power. On that last part, I don’t disagree–parents have a lot of power, but they need to use it wisely. Kind of like words–words have power, if you actually use them properly. Or you could just blather on about stuff that bothers you without offering any means of fixing it, squandering your power for a chance to inflate your ego and rationalize your contempt.
August 26, 2013
I’ve been meaning to do book and product reviews for a while, and I can’t think of a better place to start than the SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness. It’s written by the Alvaro Fernandez and Elkhenon Goldberg of SharpBrains.com, sometimes called the Consumer Reports of the brain training industry. Needless to say, when I had an opportunity to snag an e-copy of the previous edition during a promotion for Brain Awareness Week, I jumped at the chance. And also needless to say, it languished in my Kindle Cloud Reader account, gathering e-dust until recently, when SharpBrains offered a prize for sincere, thoughtful reviews of the updated version. So I dusted off the old version, and bought the new version to compare.
Naturally, being a brain trainer myself, I’m looking at this with an eye for the three qualities I pursue in my own work: Is it clear? Is it accurate? Is it useful? I’ve met plenty of other products that had two of the three, and one of the reasons I’ve withheld doing product and book reviews for so long is that I imagined it as an endless variations on an old Meat Loaf song: two out of three just isn’t good enough. This just makes me all the more happy I’m starting with the SharpBrains Guide, because it’s setting the bar in all three:
Clarity: 5 out of 5
The SharpBrains Guide was written for a reasonably educated but lay audience. It assumes no special education on the topic of neuroscience, but it doesn’t fluff things up with a lot of hype or condescend to the reader, either. I can imagine little complaint if I assigned parts of it to my associate-level students, and I can imagine many participants in my Young-at-Brain workshops devouring it with enthusiasm. The solid structure is easy to follow, with summaries before and after each chapter, and interviews with leaders in the industry interspersed with the relevant chapters. I’m a sticker for study aids–contents, glossary, index, references, appendices–so books can lose points quickly in that department. The previous edition’s glossary was sparse, but the new version has more than made up for that.
Accuracy: 5 out of 5
Far too many authors sacrifice accuracy to make their works readable and interesting, but Fernandez and Goldberg passed this test with ease. For the first two chapters of the previous edition, I nodded in agreement as the relayed the state of the industry, followed by some a note-taking as the touched on a few topics I hadn’t heard enough about. The updated version has so much more! I can certainly see why the updated book is used as a core reader for neuroscience and coaching classes. I’ll be using the introductory example about media garble to teach my students to be wary of headlines. As I said before, this book doesn’t spare on study aids, but study aids that are inaccurate are worse than useless. Nothing like that here! Citations, extensive references in the back, everything I’d expect from good scientific scholarship. They kept to the recent research with cautious optimism, and didn’t go off into flights of fancy–a welcome relief from the kind of stuff we see in science headlines every day.
Usefulness: 4.5 out of 5
What practical advice does this guide give, that people can use right away? Plenty: a basic outline of dietary recommendations that can be quickly adapted for most people’s diets; a checklist of what to look for in brain-building computer games; a guide to meditation (including mindfulness!). I’ve already been using the checklist, but the dietary stuff will be getting extra-special attention in the next few weeks (salmon tonight!) Plenty of other sound advice on physical exercise and mental stimulation–all in all, a great overview of what people need to do to get their brains in shape. It might leave the reader wanting more details on how to do, say, mindfulness meditation, but in all fairness, it’s not supposed to be an how-to of brain exercises for every cognitive skill from speed reading to mnemonics. It’s a fitness guide, and it does that perfectly well.
Enough about the meat–does it have any spice? Oh yes. The predictions in the book are tantalizing, as the authors discuss possibilities for where the industry is heading. Brain gyms? Cognitive assessment as part of an annual checkup? Schools that monitor student stress levels? They leave off where any responsible scientist should, but I remain excited and intrigued. Above all else, this book made me happy to be in this industry.
So, who do I recommend this book for? Of course senior citizens, and anyone in the healthcare or education industries, but really anyone with an interest in better brain health. I’ve said for years that we must each own our own brain health, so you can imagine my agreement when I read in the new guide about how the goal of the reader should be to “be your own brain coach.” I myself expect to refer to it frequently for many years to come.
July 15, 2013
What if I told you that I drafted this entire blog post during my various commutes around the Jacksonville region? Is it possible to do so safely? I could dictate most of it using the voice-to-text software on my smartphone, and then do all the editing while waiting at red lights. I have enough commute time that I could easily dictate a thousand words in a week, then spend all those red lights finding pictures, adding links, tweaking phrases, and fixing errors where my smartphone typed “dictator” instead of “dictate.” As long as I’m saving that hard stuff for when the car is idling, what’s the harm? Isn’t that a more efficient use of my time?
Despite clear science that says multitasking leads to poor driving, the issue continues to grow as technology like this has found its way into the hands of millions. Let’s face it, we want to get more done in less time. Without excusing irresponsible behavior, I’d like to argue that the solution is to give people what they want: we should spend our commutes doing anything but driving the car.
Of course, the technology that would allow us to do so safely isn’t here yet. People are working on it. But I fear far too many in the world don’t see that self-driving cars aren’t just about getting more time to check email or take a nap. Removing the human from the driver’s seat is the only sure way to save countless lives.
As someone who studies the brain and cognition, I’d feel so much safer on the road if the other cars were guided by something other than human brains. Brains develop sloppy habits like walking into the kitchen and staring into the fridge. Brains are terribly limited in the data they can collect. Brains get emotionally compromised. Brains have a bottleneck in the frontal lobes that makes it hard for them to process multiple streams of information.
To make matters works, brains have the perfect defense against “more education” and “harsher laws” and all the other solutions people have proposed: until an accident happens, brains tend to believe that practice means improvement. The person who is dangerous behind the wheel is the person who is getting better at driving distracted, because they will do it again. After all, if texting while driving caused an accident every time you did it, a few people would learn that lesson the hard way, and the problem would be solved.
On the other hand, brains are very good at the stuff that we are currently calling distractions. Talking on the phone, sending texts, surfing the web, even writing blog posts with pictures and links–among all the tools we have, this is what brains are best suited for doing. So why are we still driving a car? That’s a menial task of the worst kind, and a monumental waste of our grey matter.
Let’s be clear, I am neither endorsing nor excusing distracted driving. I’m simply suggesting that the human brain’s concept of efficiency is to use all the tools and resources at hand on every problem, and any attempt to fight that efficiency is a losing battle. Nor am I admitting that I actually did write this blog post while driving. To me the problem is not that I would do so, but that I could do so. The former problem is one of irresponsibility within me as an individual. The latter problem is part of our modern world, and it does not go away when and if I exercise self-control.
Now if you’ll excuse me, this light just turned green.
October 5, 2011
Previously I posted about how everything I ever needed to know in life, I learned from logic puzzles. A few readers commented on how I had only written about one thing; if I wanted to compete with Robert Fulghum, I needed more material. So I’ve started this new series to catalog my favorite lessons from logic puzzles. This episode: Talent is Overrated.
In the years I’ve spent teaching logic, two basic groups emerge, which I’ll call “Tortoises” and “Hares.”
When the subject of logic puzzles comes up, Hares jump in headfirst, and do quite well. By the time the instructor is finished guiding the Tortoises through the first puzzle, some Hares are starting on the fifth. After two or three puzzles with the instructor’s help, Tortoises try in on their own, with mediocre results. With practice, they improve.
It’s apparent that Hares are “talented” at logic puzzles. But what does that really mean? Do their original sprints continue to bear them forward as the classes progress? Usually not. Sometimes within minutes, Hares run into road blocks that force them to break the rules down step-by-step, just like the Tortoises. As each participant finds his or her own level of challenge, everyone becomes a Tortoise…and that’s when the real learning begins. Each individual must face his or her own cocktail of assumptions, conclusion-jumping, poor attention and distraction. Those who raced in the beginning are no more or less equipped to deal with this than anyone else. Whatever talent they had was only useful in getting them to the real puzzle, the puzzle of character.
Character? Are logic puzzles really about character? In the long run, I think they are. When someone with talent hides their mistakes so they can keep the label of being “smart,” that’s a character issue. When someone must be humble enough to learn from a mistake, that’s a character issue. When someone puts time and effort into self-improvement, that’s a character issue. When someone gives up because it’s intimidating, that’s a character issue. Logic puzzles require character. Much like the Aesop fable, I’ve seen Hares dash ahead, teasing the Tortoises, until they suddenly fall silent. Some take a few trembling steps outside the world of talent, learning as they go. They are no longer competing with others, only with themselves. I’ve seen some Tortoises plod along, struggling with every step, until they look up and find they have outpaced the Hares. I’ve seen others give up after the first puzzle, believing that it only confirmed their lack of talent.
Of course, I’m not saying people who reject logic puzzles are lacking character–after all, we all have to make decisions about what types of self improvement we’re ready for. Perhaps some day those people who rejected the opportunity will be ready to try again, just as someday I’ll be ready to jog two miles every morning, like I know I ought to. I just hope that people can see it the same way. After all, no one looks at the habitual jogger and says, “Oh, he was just born healthy.” Yet far too many people look at those who do logic puzzles as being “born smart.” Whatever talents we may be born with, it’s ours now, to waste or cultivate the best we can. And that’s the part that matters.