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Editor's Blog

Joe Quirk
January 16, 2011


You can't understand your brain unless you break it.  Without brain damage, you are incapable of acquiring any insight into how your mind works, because your brain is sublimely designed to trick you into thinking you have a clue.

Your memories are fiction.

Robert Burton describes an experiment in his book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You Are Not, which everyone with a strong opinion should read.  Immediately after the Challenger explosion in 1986, the psychologist Ulric Neisser asked 106 students to describe in writing where they were when they heard, who they were with, how they felt, what their first thoughts were.  Two-and-a-half years later, the same students were assembled and asked to answer the same question in writing.  The new descriptions were compared with the originals.  They didn't match.  People had changed facts about where they were, who they were with, what they felt, what they thought.  When confronted with the original essays, people were so attached to their new memories they had trouble believing their old ones.  In fact, most refused to revise their memories to match the originals written at the time. What struck Burton was the response of one student: "That's my handwriting, but that's not what happened."

I saw the movie Casablanca in high school.  One particular scene was so vividly corny it was emblazoned on my memory.  I often recited the saccharine scene in my mind and chuckled to myself over the next two decades.  I saw the flick for a second time in my thirties, and waited eagerly for that sissyboy scene. When it came, I thought I was seeing an alternative scene!  The characters said different things and were standing in different parts of the room.  Plus I had to grab for a box of tissues.  How could my memories so drastically overwrite what I actually saw?  And how could Rick let their love die like that?

Now here's the weird part:  Today, I don't remember the scene that moved me in my thirties.  I still remember the scene I laughed at as a teen.

You're so clueless about your own experience, you've already re-written the paragraph you just read.  Close your eyes and sum up what was just said.  Done?  Now when you re-read it, you'll find you don't remember the words, but only your impression of what was said.  Once you say it, you replace your vague impression with your act of verbalizing it. Associate Professor of Cognitive Psychology Jonathan Schooler calls the effect "verbal overshadowing.""

How much time do you spend verbalizing?  Every time you talk, you destroy the memory of what you're talking about.

Your memories can be selectively erased.

Famous experiments by neuroscientist Karim Nader demonstrated that each time you remember something, you demolish the old memory and recreate a new one.

In order to store a memory, a protein structure needs to form in the brain.  When rats are given a drug that disrupts this protein formation while they're trying to form a memory, the rats are unable to learn.  Now here's the weird part.  Once a rat becomes an expert at some knowledge — like knowing that a certain sound precedes a shock — and researchers inject the drug while he's trying to recall the memory, the memory is erased permanently.  The rat returns to the same state of ignorance he was in before he ever learned.  No other memories are harmed by the drug, only the memories the rat is trying to form or recall. That means the protein that encodes the memory is being rebuilt every time the rat accesses the memory.

The drug, anisomycin, has been used to selectively erase the memories of humans tormented by post-traumatic stress disorder.  If the patient takes the drug while being asked to recall the traumatic memory, the memory dims.  Some of the remembered events take different pathways through the hippocampus and reach consciousness, but the emotional intensity associated with amygdale is toned down, becoming hazy and painless.

Remembering is an act of creation.  This led to Yadin Dudai, professor at the Weizmann Institute and author of Memory from A to Z: Keywords, Concepts, and Beyond to arrive at the paradoxical conclusion that the most perfect memory "is the one that exists in a patient with amnesia."

Remember that person who pissed you off in high school?  It never happened.  You made that event up.   Don't bother writing your memoir, because there's no such thing as a memoir.  Fiction is stuff you know you're making up, and memoir is stuff you don't know you're making up.

Hey, dumbass.  You can't even figure out what already happened in your own life.  How are you going to figure out what's going to happen in the future for everybody?

The Feeling of Knowing is Separable from Knowing.

The feeling of knowing is exactly that, a sensation.

Dr. Burton demonstrates that the experience of knowing occurs independently from the "logical steps" you think you take to arrive at a conclusion.  In fact they arise from different regions of the brain.

Burton hypothesizes that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an inability to experience this feeling of knowing.  No matter how much the patient proves to himself that his hands are clean, the car door is locked, he won't forget his keys, he just can't believe it.  He can know that something is true; he just can't feel that it's true.  Other patients with brain lesions experience similar disconnections between knowing and feeling they know, such as being convinced that a table has been stolen and replaced with an exact replica, or that mother has been kidnapped and replaced with an identical imposter. They look at familiar things and don't feel that they are right.

Just as precise knowledge can come without any feeling of knowing, the feeling of knowing can come without any precise knowledge at all.  Burton analyzed the transcripts of people experiencing mystical revelations:  "It's all so clear!  Everything makes sense!" — who are always unable to speak in specifics.  Religious ecstasy suffuses a person with a pervasive sense of knowing all, utterly and completely, despite having no particular insight to attach the feeling to. Mystical revelation is indescribable precisely because there is nothing to relate it to but "allness" or "the universe."  Some epileptics in the initial stages of their seizures describe the same transcendent ecstasy.  You can have the experience, too.  When a scientist administers an electrical zap to your temporal lobe, you will use the language of prophets.

Our susceptibility to the intoxicating feeling of knowing is why humans everywhere are afflicted with what Burton calls "an epidemic of certainty."  Attend your next H+ Summit, see if you see any symptoms manifested, and wait to catch the exultant virus.

Reason is Never the Reason

Do you aspire to be a rational person?  Careful what you wish for.

A man who had a tiny tumor cut out of the cortex near the frontal lobe of his brain seemed fine at first.  He passed all intelligence tests and retained all faculties.  But once released to daily life, he was paralyzed by an inability to make the simplest decision.  Sitting at his office desk, he spent twenty minutes deciding whether to use a black pen or blue pen, carefully thinking through every implications of each option.  Family and friends reported that the subject became the most hyper-rational man who could talk endlessly through the details of scheduling conflicts, listing the pluses and minuses of every possibility, unable to settle on a decision.  Cognitively normal people who listened could always see his every reasonable point.  Nothing he said about any particular consideration was irrational.  But as Antonio Damasio, a guy accustomed to dealing with cognitively weird people, said, "You wanted to bang your fist on the table and say, Just make a decision already!"

It turns out the theologian Jean Buridan's medieval "proof" of free will is mistaken.  He claimed that a hungry ass equidistant between two bales of hay would freeze forever if it didn't have free will, because both choices are equally valid.  (Buridan's ass is like Newton's apple:  Untrue folk analogies are the vehicles in which memes travel.)

I've never been an ass equidistant between two equally large bales of hay, but I have been an asshole equidistant between two equally large pieces of ass, and I promise you I did not freeze. It takes very little thought to act in such circumstances.  In fact, the less you think, the easier action is.

It looks like the brain has an automatic timer, a wound spring pushing an emotional impulse to choose.  We didn't evolve to know the world, but to make the most statistically efficient decision given limited data and time.  Without impulse to close the deal, no decision is possible with pure reason. With enough thought, every possibility can be made to appear equally valid.  Reason is a tool to serve impulse, not the thing that provokes decision.   You can reason your way to any conclusion you want.  Wanting is the key.

Neurosis may be a poorly developed impulse to over-ride maddening rationality.  You may notice stupid people don't suffer from neurosis.  It's only guys like Woody Allen who drive you crazy rethinking every consideration.  Something has to override analysis paralysis, and it ain't more analysis.

In our leaders we admire the virtue of decisiveness, an ability to "act from the gut," unperturbed by egghead considerations.  But, of course, a leader's confidence is not based on knowing the cascading domino effects of his decisions.  Leaders act decisively with moral clarity in a state of ignorance.  That's why we follow them.  Their lack of doubt is infectious.

Did you want to believe in a scientifically supported possibility for negligible senescence before you discovered leaders who believe it?

Why did that answer just pop into your brain?  Why should answers "pop" into your brain at all?

You don't know why you just thought that.



Neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry found that people with a severed corpus collosum, the thumb-thick bridge between the left and right hemispheres of our brains, act with two different wills, each with roughly half our higher capacities, operating independently in the same skull, without consulting the other before they make a decision.  True story:  The left hand takes a shirt off the rack, and the right hand grabs it and puts it back.  The left hand gets so frustrated, it tries to strangle the person like Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains.

The left hemisphere is in charge of language.  The right hemisphere is in charge of visual imagery.  When you flash an image of a spoon to the eye that corresponds to the right hemisphere, the patient with a cut corpus callosum will say he sees nothing.  When asked to grab the object using the hand that corresponds to the right hemisphere, the patient will grab the spoon they just said they couldn't see, yet still be unable to say what they are holding.

When Sperry flashed "WALK" to the right hemisphere in charge of visual representation, the patient got up and walked across the room.  When asked why he did that, he (the left hemisphere, in charge of language) said, "To get a Coke." Imagine Sperry's astonishment at that moment, knowing the real reason why that person walked across the room. The language hemisphere spontaneously contrived a reason, yet the person who owned the brain had no notion of this.

The left hemisphere was shown a chicken and the right hemisphere was shown a snowfall. When Sperry asked the patient to choose a picture that goes with what they see, the hand controlled by the left hemisphere picked a claw, and the hand controlled by the right hemisphere picked a shovel.  Interesting.  Both hemispheres can independently and simultaneously pick an image that goes with what they saw.

Then Sperry asked (the left hemisphere, in charge of language) why he chose a claw and a shovel.  He responded without hesitation, "Oh, that's simple.  The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed."

If each hemisphere can spontaneously fabricate a meaning for every action, you've got to wonder how other more subtle parts of our brains are spin-doctoring reasons why other subtle parts of our brain are doing things.   If quick-witted lies pass between the two big parts of your brain, why shouldn't they go on among the little parts?

Why did you choose that for breakfast this morning?  Why are you still dating that jerk?  Why can't you stick to your diet?  Why are you considered the most reliable source as to the "reasons" you do you things?  Nothing told you to get a Coke.  You chose to get a Coke.  Right?

You're the Worst Judge of Yourself

Hey numbnuts, cognitive science demonstrates that you're not bright enough to realize what a clusterfuck your life is, because you're wired to tell yourself a coherent story after the fact.  Microsecond by microsecond, your neocortex spins a story that says: "I meant to do that."  Your conscious mind thinks its Sherlock Holmes, but really it's Maxwell Smart, tripping through life and weaving coherent excuses to maintain the illusion of control.

Take a look at your life, for instance, dipshit.  How much did you completely screw up and blame on others, and how much of the good stuff did you stumble into randomly, then take credit for as if you planned it all along?

More so than you think.  Clever experiments with memory recall show how we cast narratives back to justify what happened.  We think our lives have meaning to the extent we are able to look back and pick and chose the events that draw a coherent narrative, then we unconsciously alter all those events to confirm what we want to believe about ourselves.

When it comes to our self-assessments, we are all susceptible to the Lake Wobegon Phenomenon: When quizzed, most people rate themselves as smarter, more attractive, more optimistic, better leaders, and less biased than average.  Even if you beat the average in one of these domains, the chances of you beating the average in all five domains is slim. Chances are, you're below average in more than one of these domains.  How do I know this?  I'm smarter, more charming, a better leader, and less biased than most people.

I had a chance to talk to the class bully from my high school, who told me about how good life had been to him.  I decided not to mention this was the first nonviolent encounter we ever had.  He brought up a mentally handicapped guy who got beaten even worse than me and boasted that nobody messed with that kid when he was around.  I stared politely into his face amazed at what a deluded sense he had of himself.  I remembered him as relentlessly, inexhaustibly evil.  For an instant I wondered if I should question my sense of myself as a mature, faultless victim whose rapier witticisms should have provoked applause rather than pounding, but then I thought better of it.

The mind has a mind of its own.  But even that's not in charge.

Your Arm Makes you Think you Control It

Have you clicked away from this article yet?  Why not?  Because it's not up to you.  You can't even choose when you click your mouse.

In a famous experiment, Benjamin Libet stuck people's heads into an electroencephalogram and their arms into an electromyogram, then asked them to move their finger whenever they chose.  Libet found that motor activity in the brain began a quarter second before the subject became conscious of choosing to move his finger.  Here's the sequence:  First, motor activity in brain.  Quarter second later, patient consciously decides to move.  Quarter second later, patient moves.  Conscious choice does not cause motor activity.  Motor activity causes conscious choice.

Did you just say… Bullshit! Where did that come from?  A spontaneous reaction is not reasoned.

Reason is the act of justifying a spontaneous reaction.  Reason rushes into the milliseconds after you instinctively react.  Next time you make a snap judgment, ask yourself how much reasoning your can fit into the space of a snap.

Hey dingbat.  Thoughts are spontaneous.  Reason is torturous.  The impulse to believe sets up the maze.  Then reason finds a path through, convinced it's the only path available, unaware the same brain made the maze.  Crucial to your ability to conclude is a preconscious elimination of alternatives.  Everything you think you know is a con your brain plays on your conscious mind.  Including how you feel about the guy writing this.

You Don't Know Why You Like or Dislike People

How confident are you of your assessment of my personality?  Do I seem like a prick, or a raconteur you'd like to have for dinner?  It depends less on your objective judgment than whether you're holding a warm drink.

Researchers asked people to participate in a study where they rate a written portrayal of personality.  Just before half the subjects sat down, the researcher said, "Could you hold this for a sec?"  Half the subjects held the warm cup for about one second before they sat down.  The other half were never asked to hold the cup.  Then they were asked to read a description of a person.  Then they were asked,

“How do you feel about this guy?  Rate him on a scale from one to ten.”

The people who held the coffee for a second rated the described guy on average 20% higher than those who didn't.

Those of you who are drinking coffee, or maybe those who just did somebody a small favor, probably like me more than those who aren't and didn't.  The rest of you can go fuck yourselves.  (I'm not holding anything warm at the moment.  Wait a second, my dog just moved onto my lap.  I apologize for what I just wrote.  Can't we all just get along?)

Next time somebody makes an impression on you, ask yourself if your reaction is based on your judgment or your digestion.

The Sack of Meat our Dreams Drag Around

Many transhumanists tell me triumphantly that human nature has been left behind.  So why are they bothering to tell me?  All humans everywhere care what other people think, spontaneously react when their values are challenged, argue with tribemates about what's true.  See the comment button below?  Why doesn't your cat find this button irresistible?  Why can't you choose to be more like your cat?  Turn off your mind, go sit in the sunbeam, give not a shit, and be content.

Hey, you're still reading.  How long did you consider the option to stop chasing opinion and contributing your own?  Why does your cat's brain gravitate naturally toward the Buddhadom you must discipline yourself to achieve?  It's that damn human nature again.  It won't go away, not even the part that desires to transcend it, a particularly unique feature of Homo Confabulus.

If we can deny our own stubborn human nature, we can block out any information that contradicts what the author Tamim Ansary calls "the fruitless longing for transcendence" that drives much delusion.

Joe Quirk is the author of Exult, an epic myth about hang gliding and grief, and It's Not You, It's Biology: The Science of Love, Sex, and Relationships, a humorous science book translated into 17 languages.

47 Comments

    Your article was very interesting. I happen to be reading a chapter of a psychology book by Charles Tart, about the psycho-spiritual work of GI Gurdjieff, that covers defense mechanisms and the lies we tell ourselves to justify our actions. And yes, we ALL lie to ourselves to justify actions that we're not actually sure why we take.

    IMHO, we as a species need to become more self-aware, more understanding of ourselves and our role in the world around us in order to successfully become transhuman. Your article spoke to that need very eloquently.

    You DO realize, Joe, that the questions asked by Jared Loughner might usefully be analyzed the way you induce stasis by blocking paths of thought.

    You've got an amazing ability to reproduce your lecture style in writing.

    I've sent this to some strange places, like Marie Burns of RealityChex.com, Mark Morford, and Eurotrib. Do we have permission to quote it in full? I hate to think someone might choose not to click a link.

    Do you have a Honda Helix yet?

    Does case matter in the captcha code?

    What's the mechanism when I correctly believe your answer?

    Great, Joe. Now where the f*ck did I leave my keys?

      Your last link does not work.

      Si vous cherchez à gagner de l‘argent sur Internet, je vous conseille de jouer au casino en ligne.

    What is always missed, when it comes to human behavior, is how little of it is strictly human. Something like 90% of our acts and thoughts are the same survival acts and thoughts of all animals at any one time. Mostly we are about eating, drinking something liquid, having safety from being eaten and shelter, mating, and getting some sleep. When people believe something, it seems, just to believe it, it is not that they are stupid. To survive it is imperative to have a view of the environment at a moment, even though the next moment it will be proved wrong. Then, at that moment, survival and species success depends on assimilating that new information and formulating a new view and responding accordingly -- over and over again. So this fundamental skill of life, in humans, manifests itself in such things as how we know and what we know. The fact that we make facts flexible means that we can adapt to changing realities. The facts do change, and what is known can change, and even if it is wrong, it is better for being different than just knowing just one thing and not being able to change. In this context, there is nothing odd about the results of these experiments. What is odd is that we have been conditioned by civilization to actually think that reality is not transient. That there are immutable facts. Perhaps, there are, but that fact is simply useless to living.

    Hi, mate!

    Good article, but Libet's findings have been attacked in 2008:

    http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2008/09/exposing-some-holes-in-libets-classic.html

    So it's back in the game...

    I was thinking about your memories of the film and thought I do not seem to have the same problems remembering music but then again how would I really know. Usually when I listen to music I listen to lots of elements. I listen to the rhythm, for instrumentation, for emotional resonance, I listen for coolness, melodic lines, harmonicity or dissonances, I listen for a technical placement in a mental timeline I have of how music developed, I listen for recording fidelity, mix and balance of instrumentation, use of processes and effects, stereo image. A lot of this is in the background, a low priority process. It is going on as I decide whether I like it or not. Whether it has value to me or should i move on. I remember parts that hit one or more of these listening posts and I remember the track as that. Sometimes I will hear a track that hits a lot of the listening posts and I remember that track more vividly. I remember parts that excite me in a certain way - emotionally, intellectually etc. I know my tastes in music change over time but when I listen back to a track from my youth I often remember why I liked it or the bits I liked.

    I wonder is music memory different. Or is trained memory different. Or if I am fooling myself.

    Bolches yarbles

    My good Catholic mother always used to say, "You make up memories and what you call reality in your mind. And since you're making it up, you might as well make your memories happy, not gloomy." When priests talked of heaven she would say, "How do they know? Have they been there? No, they're making it up all up. You can make up your own version. If you're going to fool yourself, go with your own version." Or words to that effect. Yet the worst thing she could say to you or anyone else was "Easily pleased." She also used to dismiss the belief popular among psychiatrists at that time that "smother mothers" caused schizophrenia. She called their opinion "superstitious nonsense. Anyone observing a schizophrenic can see that it's an organic disease of the brain. But they prefer to hide their ignorance by making up a silly theory." So some people knew this about memory and the mind a long time ago. Or am I remembering incorrectly? I don't think so, since when I repeated what she said to others, they were shocked or distressed. And at the time neither she nor I had heard any theories about meaning or post-modern thinking.

    There are some things that are black and white and are within the human experience and brain exclusively (reason and learning does exist). How else do we explain nuclear weapons (they don't occur naturally and other creatures with brains haven't built them)?

    Interesting and fascinating article.

    Hey - that was a quirky little piece of shit.
    Ohh wait, what did I write?
    I keep writing shit and realize I dint want to. Or do I realize I dint want to? Or may be I think I realize that I dint want to, but actually I wanted to!?
    Whatever goes on nobody knows. At least a moment ago, I felt so. I think so. yeah.

    Enough of rubbish. But, interesting 'little (?)' article. The philosophers of older times had similar ideas - that we 'construct' stuff in our mind based on what's going on. They convoluted that understanding into thinking of Indirect Realism and some more, like 'there is nothingness'. In the end, it's easy to see - if you're rational enough - that what we perceive is what we think we perceive. Perception is one of the greatest deceptions and less effective than Inception - Inception of a thought, and not the movie. I mean - if you start thinking something IS, then it may not matter what you perceive. You make up your mind (your one part of the brain makes up one part or the whole of your brain) to think that you feel that you perceived what you 'thought' you did. Or is it?

    Ohh man, I'm liking this shit. Totally. Or may be I think I do :-)

    "Your memories are fiction" Well, I remember where my girl lives and how to get there without a map. Don't you? Duh...

    We don't really need conscious thought or reason to be "real" for them to be "relevant". At least not real in the way self esteem demands people believe them to be real. We only need it to have a Bayesian better-than-random alteration of the processes involved for them to be relevant. This nonrandom nature can be demonstrated to exist. Thus we are left with the conclusion that people and their minds are less important than they believe themselves to be. This conclusion that I draw is neither controversial nor interesting.

    I believe everything you wrote and will remember and cherish it always. Especially the part about how you water skied from Hawaii to Los Angeles while calling your friends and telling them to fuck off. That was cool.

    First, this was a hilarious and brilliant article. But Have some issues with the premise that I'd love to see answered seriously:

    a) I'm a singer/songwriter/guitarist. I write music and perform quite a bit. If the premise of this article is entirely true, then how is it I (or anyone) can perform anything? And I don't perform songs the same way twice *on purpose* as I enjoy off-the-cuff jams and improvisation (mostly guitar-heavy stuff: Blues and Psychedelia), so it's not like I'm lip-singing to recorded studio material.

    This point also includes actors/actresses, and comedians (neither of which I am, though I did try to be back in high school). How could we pull it off if our memories are generally mistaken?

    b) It was already pointed out, but I at least, can get from point A to B (say, home to school) without the aid of directions or a GPS after a certain amount of time, so, again, how is this possible if the premise is true?

    Now, I should point out that, assuming the premise is true, I missed a whole lot in this article that likely addressed these points and I forgot (as per the premise :D ), in which case, that's my excuse or the stupidity (:P), so feel free to point them out. I have printed this article out for future reference, so...

    Thanks.

    Some of the biological aspects of this essay are useful. As living organisms we are pre-disposed to certain types of behavior because of our biology and environment. However, this does not prove that we are deterministically and absolutely enslaved to such proclivities. Many human beings do live this way but a few do not. Those who are absolute rationalists(this does not mean that they rationalize every single decision in their lives as the article implies) are examples. The determinism that this article puts forward will lead many people into nihilism. The degrading tone of this article is not helpful either.

    The whole theory itself is broken because it implies that human beings cannot know or remember anything and yet it tries to use logic, reason and an appeal to memory of certain concepts to do. It tries to use the things that it claims are flawed to prove the theory that they are flawed.

    Some people embrace this flawed philosophy as a means to dealing with a life that they may feel they do not have control over. I would suggest re-considering this philosophy and instead embracing personal integrity(which can be painful) and deal with reality to resolve such issues. In the long term you will be better off.

      I'm sure the point wasn't that we are all 100% illogical, it's just saying that in order for us to function properly as human beings we need parts of the mind that are less than perfect. Of course, I'm drinking a pepsi right now so maybe I'm just in a cheerful mood. *snirk*.

      And let's not think that the part about overwriting memories with an updated version is unique to the living. Computers save space on most editing save files by overwriting the last draft rather than using the "Save As" function. Although that's as much human as design's fault.

      As I was told a while ago; nothing is pure or perfect. Yet I still find my position to be that even the not perfect things can work well enough for it to be worth while. A trade off in logic for a balance of logic and functionality is what has made humans as good survivers as they have been. Computers trade off the survival functionality for a more logical build, hence so far they have been tools. This leads to something I read that said that computer AI will have to become less logical to become more practical in "the real world" enviroments and situations.

      As for notes on impulse; well... I'm thinking that with logic and reason alone you don't have priorities. Only with a personality do you have priorities beyond a mission statement: cash, fun, knowledge. A person with logic alone would find them all equally desireable (if they think long enough to get past impulse), so impulse would allow you to choose what you want through what your personality likes more. And all people have differing personalities to drive impulse, (which doesn't sound so must deterministic as chaotic) which is a good thing when you remember it takes all kinds.

      Also, on a side note; not all science claims to be deterministic. from what i've heard: "from what quantum physics teaches us, anything can happen, in any way, for no reason whatsoever."... I'm not sure if that's true, but ultimately most things are chaotic.

      In the end, all things are both good and bad, yet thinking makes it so. And so let me part with a toast to the fact that In the end we are still alive... At least untill we run out of cake. (*snirk* sorry had to slip a portal reference somewhere)

      P.S. The article's tone is probably for entertainment value. And as such, that would be why it downplays the positive side of the less logical parts of humanity.

    Great men, when they write their memoirs, never say enough about the influence of a good dinner upon their state of mind.
    -- Delacroix's journal, August 6, 1850

      Kit,
      According to the great god google, the quote you posted only inhabits a few twitter accounts and blogs.

      Whilst I agree with the sentiment, I do hope that not too many sentients remember and subsequently propagate these wise words as Delacroix's own.

      We have enough bullshit to deal with as it is, and clearly insufficient personal storage space to cope with even the basics.

      Would that be a left or right lobal defrag Sir/Madame...?
      ---
      Great men, when they write their memoirs, never say enough about the influence of a good dinner upon their state of mind.
      – Delacroix’s journal, August 6, 1850

    Joe Quirk's relentless pursuit of proof of "human nature" doesn't leave him much time to read, say, a December issue of the New Yorker in which it turns out that "verbal shadowing" is false:

    Jonathan Schooler was a young graduate student at the University of Washington in the nineteen-eighties when he discovered a surprising new fact about language and memory. At the time, it was widely believed that the act of describing our memories improved them. But, in a series of clever experiments, Schooler demonstrated that subjects shown a face and asked to describe it were much less likely to recognize the face when shown it later than those who had simply looked at it. Schooler called the phenomenon “verbal overshadowing.”

    The study turned him into an academic star. Since its initial publication, in 1990, it has been cited more than four hundred times. Before long, Schooler had extended the model to a variety of other tasks, such as remembering the taste of a wine, identifying the best strawberry jam, and solving difficult creative puzzles. In each instance, asking people to put their perceptions into words led to dramatic decreases in performance.

    But while Schooler was publishing these results in highly reputable journals, a secret worry gnawed at him: it was proving difficult to replicate his earlier findings. “I’d often still see an effect, but the effect just wouldn’t be as strong,” he told me. “It was as if verbal overshadowing, my big new idea, was getting weaker.” At first, he assumed that he’d made an error in experimental design or a statistical miscalculation. But he couldn’t find anything wrong with his research. He then concluded that his initial batch of research subjects must have been unusually susceptible to verbal overshadowing. (John Davis, similarly, has speculated that part of the drop-off in the effectiveness of antipsychotics can be attributed to using subjects who suffer from milder forms of psychosis which are less likely to show dramatic improvement.) “It wasn’t a very satisfying explanation,” Schooler says. “One of my mentors told me that my real mistake was trying to replicate my work. He told me doing that was just setting myself up for disappointment.”

    Schooler tried to put the problem out of his mind; his colleagues assured him that such things happened all the time. Over the next few years, he found new research questions, got married and had kids. But his replication problem kept on getting worse. His first attempt at replicating the 1990 study, in 1995, resulted in an effect that was thirty per cent smaller. The next year, the size of the effect shrank another thirty per cent. When other labs repeated Schooler’s experiments, they got a similar spread of data, with a distinct downward trend. “This was profoundly frustrating,” he says. “It was as if nature gave me this great result and then tried to take it back.” In private, Schooler began referring to the problem as “cosmic habituation,” by analogy to the decrease in response that occurs when individuals habituate to particular stimuli. “Habituation is why you don’t notice the stuff that’s always there,” Schooler says. “It’s an inevitable process of adjustment, a ratcheting down of excitement. I started joking that it was like the cosmos was habituating to my ideas. I took it very personally.”

    Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer#ixzz1Bnt4e3NH

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=all

      Nancy McClellan, how can you cut-and-paste such a large proportion of an article without understanding it? Jonah Lehrer's article is where I first heard about "verbal overshadowing" and investigated further. They key sentence from Schooler himself is in your broad cut-and-paste:
      "“I’d often still see an effect, but the effect just wouldn’t be as strong,” he told [Lehrer]. “It was as if verbal overshadowing, my big new idea, was getting weaker.”
      Lehrer's article is not about the effect being false, but about regression to the mean. Don't take my word for it. Take PJ Myers:
      http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/12/science_is_not_dead.php
      Myers takes Lehrer to task because he worries that people will misunderstand Lehrer's article. Looks like you prove his point.

        no, joe; regression to the mean means the results have no statistical significance. Meaning, the hypothesis isn't as convincing as first thought. That is, the original study just happened to have some outlier results, so, was published, generated a lot of buzz (hey! it is a cool idea) but then we had a regression to the mean. The key part of the article concerned the coked out mice--doing the experiment in three different labs, making every variable identical, yet STILL coming up with huge variances in results. If the original study was only done in one lab, with no statistically interesting results, the study would never have been published. If the study were don at the lab with the big results, then we'd have thought some big hypothesis was shown to be on the right track. Instead we see that it's all more complicated than meets the eye. Meaning, in effect, the gist of your article is right on, only it contains some annoying parts. And yes, in fact I am drinking a warm tea.

    I've thought of most of this before, but you're writing was perfect. I especially liked you calling everyone stupid over and over

    why did i put this comment !!!!
    idiotic brain*

    'dipshit', 'clusterfuck'...?
    You write like someone who's brain-damaged.

    I truly liked your article. I suggest it incomplete, however, in that your premises do not require the suggested outcomes. Let me address knowledge.

    Accepting that the feeling of knowing is independent from the process by which one arrives at a conclusion, consider the consequences of disconnect. Burton suggests precisely that with the possibility that obsessive compulsives are unable to experience knowing. More subversive, of course, would be the experience of knowing without having arrived at a rational conclusion. Either way, it seems manifest that both "knowledge" and the "experience of knowing" must be reasonably correlated for either one to be helpful to our continued existence.

    What does that mean? It means that the feeling of knowing is an important, albeit fallible, signal of actually knowing. Moreover, given the general correlation of these separate and parallel processes, it implies a connection at some basic level. The rational part of the brain is apparently slipping notes to the experiential center which hint at its outcomes.

    Next... look at Sperry's experiments. After flashing "WALK" to the right hemisphere in charge of visual representation, the patient got up and walked across the room. When asked why he did that, the left hemisphere DID NOT say "Monkeys fly out of my butt." Rather, the language hemisphere spontaneously contrived a reason. Just as important and amazing as the ability to spontaneously deduce an explanation is the fact that the explanation given has the semblance of rationality.

    The left hemisphere, having been asked a question, attempts to fit what it knows into a rationale explanation for its behavior. It has been tricked, of course, but it has not abandoned all pretext of reality and reasonableness. Am I sure I typed the preceding paragraphs? No. But that seems like an awfully reasonable conclusion. Indeed any organism which deduces a substantially delusional reality would be not long for the world.

    Finally, you state "You don't know why you like or dislike people" and point to the warm coffee study. Clearly, however, if a warm beverage was all it took to sway someone's opinion, then the results would be far more dramatic. They're not, of course, and it would be foolish to expect the human mind to be so easily swayed. Nature wouldn't tolerate such a human nature.

    In sum and substance, I agree that that human nature is fallible and often fooled. But despite glitches, the feeling of knowing appears positively correlated with actually knowing; our incorrect, spontaneous deductions remain rooted in the struggle to make logical sense of the world; and our opinions may be influenced by nutty externalities without being controlled by them.

    It might not be pretty, but it 'works.'

    Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts into words.

    So....Science is telling people they are dumb huh?
    I have just come from reading an article about how some schools are telling kids are dumb because of too much internet--and psychological tests were done on them--hunting this imaginary octopus, etc. Anyone see this IRONY of this, and the intent??
    Well for the ironic schools report checkout John Taylor Gatto to REALLY see who are the ones doing the deliberate dumbing down

    As for science and its psychologists checkout my latest blog http://intothefaerywoods.blogspot.com where I show how science and its thinkers love nothin better than trying to convince you that you and the animals are machines and that you break down a lot. I say DONT BELIEVE THE HYPE

    Yes, I have experience of remembering this film wrong. I had seen it when 15 once and had assumed it ended when there is this awful scene of the wwoman who has freaked out is found under a table and there is a rotten chicken fly blown on the tabbe. the film is called Repulsion, by Roman Polanski, and the REASON I had though the film ended on that scene is because it is a VERy traumatic scene. Actually the film goes on for quite a bit after than as I found out when I eventually saw it again in ny early 40s, but thinking that did NOT mean I is an old machine that is broken down and in need of freakin 'scientific' help with their godamn mechanical toxic pills and what not.
    mainstream science is all about measure. THAT is why it looks at us as machines that can break down.

    I remember the first time I made love. I was fourteen and it was with Morgan Fairchild. Yeah...that's the ticket. Morgan FAIRchild.

    Joe, is there any way you could source the research you cited on warm drinks and personality assessments?

    It it's true that we change memory, how come that I remember exactly how I felt in a situation I'm reading about in a diary from my early teenage years - even if I had forgotten all about until I read about it?

    I've tried that with a movie too. I used to say that there was a very interesting part in "The Last Temptation of Christ" where Jesus is in the jungle trying to fight off the traps and temptations of the devil. I was certain I remembered satan appearing in the sky as a yuppie wearing a black suit , a white shirt and a black tie, talking sense in the logic of today's world (of capitalism). But when I saw the movie again a couple of years ago, the scene wasn't there!

    I sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between what was a dream and what really happened, having vivid dreams and sometimes waking up exhausted after a hectic dream night. Like having been to a place before or not - this place looks familiar - my parents saying - you've never been here before. And things I was certain people had said - that they never said - you must have dreamt it, they say.

    The "failure" is in the assumption that memory is supposed to work like a recording device, not in the fact that it doesn't work like a recording device.

    If what you imply is true. How the hell does a student get through engineering training let alone apply said training to real problems producing workable valid solutions?
    Or for that matter remember that 4 times 4 is 8?

    The secuence, first, motor activity in brain. Quarter second later, patient consciously decides to move. Quarter second later, patient moves. it isn't just another example of an impulse aided by reason? or I just got lost?

    I would like to see more data and experimentation to fortify your assumptions, however I cant help but agree with you on 90% of whats written. That and your a funny motherfucker.

    Keep on writing, I like your style.

    I eagerly support the opinon of the dingbat commentator above . =)

    Greetings from Croatia. Great article! Was that book published in Croatia, Serbia or Bosnia?

    As long as our brain tells us it's credible, we'll remember that sources were cited. And then later, we'll remember a funny article about the Jabberwocky. Good article!

    also greetings from Croatia... that part with the bully reminded me of eric cartman in "fishsticks" episode... it's the same shit you were talking about...

    Fantastic article. Also, I quite enjoyed how you berated us throughout the whole thing. I guess I had no say whether to enjoy it or be irritated, but I found it funny. So I suppose this article argues for a deterministic universe - one state leads directly to another, so we can map out the course of the universe?

    damn you are one smart MF, yes, my nescafe is perfect :)
    greetz d00d :)

    Dunning–Kruger effect

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

    The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes.[1] The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to the situation in which less competent people rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence. Competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. "Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others."[2]

    It also apply for scientists, geeks and transumanists, they are human afterall ( somehow ).

    Being rationnal, or a scientist or a philo - sopher : begin with the capacity to doubt everything !

    The truth need always to be searched
    The freedom need always to be defended
    The reality (yours) need always to be defined

    May I suggest you the complex thinking from Edgar Morin ? It could help in AGI

    That is the problem with rewatching movies, my favorite scenes have always somehow disappeared: computers will not become intelligent until they start to have this same problem.

    Also, why is there a question for commenters to test whether I am a human visitor? This site should be attracting more transhuman visitors.

    Also, is it just me or does that photograph make Joe look like a wiseguy?

    ...in the Princess Bride. The way he was constantly insulting Humperdink while lying on Buttercup's bed. Humperdink was absolutely sure that Wesley didn't have the strength to stand. However, the power of Wesley's invectives caused Humperdink to first become amused, then confused, then doubtful of the opinion he had held so strongly only moments before.

6 Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jochim Selzer, nof.io. nof.io said: Science Proves You’re Stupid http://goo.gl/fb/XSzqM [...]

  2. By Science Proves You’re Stupid « Commotio Populi on February 1, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    [...] Science Proves You’re Stupid. [...]

  3. [...] Joe Quirk writes a humorous article in h+ on the fragility of our memories and perceptions. Remember that person who pissed you off in high school?  It never happened.  You made that event up.   Don’t bother writing your memoir, because there’s no such thing as a memoir.  Fiction is stuff you know you’re making up, and memoir is stuff you don’t know you’re making up. [...]

  4. [...] who perform them don't know how or why they work! Here's an article you should probably read: Science proves you're stupid [...]

  5. [...] Yet you’re prone to stubbornly trusting this copy of a copy of a copy – even if it no longer resembles the original: [...]

  6. [...] feel like I remember this word-for-word. Of course, if the article “Science Proves You’re Stupid” is any indication, I’m probably misremembering this, but here’s what I remember her saying [...]

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