London’s Black Cab Drivers Brains Changed Through Learning

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Driving one of the famous London’s black cabs is not an easy feat; you have to show you’re up to it. And to do that, you must show that you know every one of the single 25,000 streets of the city center, as well all the major landmarks that populate the space. And after you gather all this knowledge you also have to show that you can recreate by heart the route between two given streets, step by step not forgetting to mention every single statue along the way.

This exhausting process to obtain a black cab license is known as The Knowledge, and it usually takes 2 to 4 years for an applicant to obtain it through a serie of tests are points are won. But taking and aquiring The Knowledge not only gets you a license, it changes your brain. Or more correctly, it changes a part of your brain known to be related with spacial memory:

In 2000, Maguire showed that one particular part of the brain – the  hippocampus – is much larger in London cab drivers than in other people. This seahorse-shaped area lies in the core of the brain, and animal studies had linked it to memory and spatial awareness. Species that store a lot of food tend to have a bigger hippocampus than those without the need to remember any burial sites.

Maguire showed that the same applies to humans. Not only did cab drivers have an unusually large hippocampus, but the size of the area matched the length of their driving careers.

Furthermore, the studies that have been conducted over the years on this subject as shown that it’s the aquisition of The Knowledge and its practice that changes the hippocampus size and not the fact that one has an abnormally (compared to mean) large hippocampus that allows the aquisition.

This is further proof of brain’s plasticity through learning even after adulthood and can have an important role in the study on how can we deal with diseases such as Alzheimer.

You can read more about these studies here.

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Cognitive Bias: Daniel Kahneman and the Optimistic Bias

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Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, along with the late Amos Tversky, is probably one of the most important thinkers of our time. His work on decision making and the biases that pervade our thinking patterns, help to shed light on the inconsistencies of human behavior with the rational model of decision that is the basis of modern economical theory.

We are not as rational as we think we are. We usually make the same mistakes over and over without even realizing that we are mistaken or the origin of those errors. Behavioral economics, that is getting a lot of attention lately, owes much of its core assumptions to the work of Kahneman and Tversky.

One of the most interesting and important biases uncovered by their work is the Optimistic bias that makes people assume a more probable brighter future for themselves and their endevors, over-estimating the probability of positive outcomes and under-estimating the likelihood of negative outcomes. In a recent article for Bloomberg, Kahneman calls it “the most significant bias”:

Because optimistic bias is both a blessing and a risk, you should be both happy and wary if you are temperamentally optimistic.

Optimism is normal, but some fortunate people are more optimistic than the rest of us. If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person — you already feel fortunate.

Optimistic people play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are inventors, entrepreneurs, political and military leaders — not average people. They got to where they are by seeking challenges and taking risks. They are talented and they have been lucky, almost certainly luckier than they acknowledge.

A survey of founders of small businesses concluded that entrepreneurs are more sanguine than midlevel managers about life in general. Their experiences of success have confirmed their faith in their judgment and in their ability to control events. Their self-confidence is reinforced by the admiration of others. This reasoning leads to a hypothesis: The people who have the greatest influence on the lives of others are likely to be optimistic and overconfident, and to take more risks than they realize.

This excerpt is part of 4 articles that Kahneman wrote for Bloomberg that are a highly recommended reading. We can read the four part article on “Bias, Blindness and How We Truly Think” over the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4.

For more of Kahneman thoughts and experiments, you shoul read is recently published book Thinking Fast & Slow that already has been considered one of the most important books of the year.

Rough Negotiators: How Our Judgments Are Affected by the Things We Touch

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I’ve wrote here before how tactile sensations can shape how we feel about objects. In “Fooled by a Carpet” I reported that a recent study showed that stores’ flooring can affect costumers’ perception of couches: hard flooring make the couches seem more comfortable, while soft flooring “turns” the same couch less appealing.

A recent paper covering six experiments led by Joshua Ackerman (MIT), Christopher Nocera (Harvard Uni.) and John Bargh (Yale Uni.), shows that it’s not only flooring that can have an effect on our perceptions on other objects: what we touch, hold or sit on can shape our thoughts and decisions. What’s more, not only our perceptions of objects are affected: judgments over a person suitability for a job and the way we approach a negotiation are also affected by our tactile sensations. The article abstract:

Touch is both the first sense to develop and a critical means of information acquisition and environmental manipulation. Physical touch experiences may create an ontological scaffold for the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal conceptual and metaphorical knowledge, as well as a springboard for the application of this knowledge. In six experiments, holding heavy or light clipboards, solving rough or smooth puzzles, and touching hard or soft objects nonconsciously influenced impressions and decisions formed about unrelated people and situations. Among other effects, heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, rough objects made social interactions appear more difficult, and hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations. Basic tactile sensations are thus shown to influence higher social cognitive processing in dimension-specific and metaphor-specific ways.

According to the authors, this effect happens because our physical experiences shape our understanding of abstract concepts. We are, from an early age, trained to attribute more importance to weighty objects and to perceive rough objects as stronger. Our physical contact with objects creates an anchor point in our perception that leads subsequent perceptive evaluation of other social objects. So if you’re trying to sell a car and are open to negotiation, you would do well to provide comfortable chairs to your prospective customers in order to decrease their rigidity in negotiations.

You can access the abstract of the study here.

Our Unreliable Memory

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Memories. We all give a great amount of importance to our memories. Our memories represent who we are, our history and influence the way we act and the way we judge. Memories have an impact not only on our lives, but also on the lives of others as they often relate to events where other people where actors. For instance, memory is a key part of the legal system especially in witnesses’ testimonials and criminal identification.

But how reliable are our memories? Does memory work like a video recorder capturing the event so that we later can replay it as it happened? Or is memory more error prone and easy to manipulate? If you ask these questions to people you’ll see that the majority tends to place high reliability in memories and disregard the idea that memories can be tampered with easily. If you ask people who do study memory, like psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, you’ll get a different and slightly disturbing answer.

It turns out that memories aren’t as reliable as people think and can, with some effort (not nearly as much as you may think) and by expert hands, be modified so that you can forget key details, alter others and even remember events that never took place. For instance, in one of the many experiments Loftus did through her career, subjects vividly remembered going to Disney World and shake hands with Bugs Bunny, a Warner Bros. character.

Slate has a magnificent 8 part report on memories – including a massive experiment – and the work of Elizabeth Loftus that is worth reading. Here’s an excerpt from the first part:

Slate can’t erase all records the way Orwell’s ministry did [in the book 1984]. But with digital technology, we can doctor photographs more effectively than ever. And that’s what we did in last week’s experiment. We altered four images from recent political history, took a fifth out of context, and mixed them with three unadulterated scenes. We wanted to test the power of photographic editing to warp people’s memories.

We aren’t the first to try Orwell’s idea on real people. Elizabeth Loftus, an experimental psychologist, has been tampering with memories in her laboratory for nearly 40 years. Photo doctoring is just one of many techniques she has tested. In an experiment published three years ago, she and two colleagues demonstrated that altered images of political protests in Italy and China influenced Italian students’ descriptions of those incidents. We wanted to see whether similar tampering could work in the United States.

You can read the rest of the first part, and the following 7 parts, here.

Religion as a Side Effect of Sex

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Religion commands the world. It’s hard to argue with a statement like this one as we can see, on a daily basis, how religion and religious beliefs guide people’s behavior and thoughts. Studying religion – the institution of religion, not its claims – is therefore a fundamental step in order to understand human action. Of course, as a touchy and rather personal subject as it is, doing so tends to create tension between believers and non-believers. It would not be a surprise that a theory that postulates religion as a side effect of sex would be greeted with outrage.

It just so happen that it’s a theory of the sort that John Horgan discusses in a guest post at the Scientific American website. Horgan starts by referring to the theory of sex as a side effect of theory of mind. He then goes on to explain the theory proposed by Andrew Newberg that religious experiences have some overlap with sexual arouseness in terms of neural activity:

Another intriguing theory of religion—or, more specifically, religious or mystical experiences—has been proposed by the radiologist Andrew Newberg. Using single-photon emission computed tomography, a variant of the better-known positron emission tomography, or PET, Newberg has scanned the brains of praying Catholic nuns and meditating Buddhist monks, and he has found some overlap between their neural activity and that of sexually aroused subjects (scanned by other researchers). The correlation makes sense, according to Newberg. Just as sex involves a rhythmic activity, so do religious practices such as chanting, dancing and repetition of a mantra. Like orgasms, religious experiences produce sensations of bliss, self-transcendence and unity; that may be why some mystics describe their raptures with romantic or even sexual language.

Horgan states in the end that just because religion can be seen as a side effect of either sex or the theory of mind, that doesn’t mean that it has no value or purpose. Which I quite agree, although it reads more like a political statement than a scientific one. You can read the post here.