Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Masters of the Rational Universe (by Chris Young)

Guest Post: Chris Young

Chris said writing his guest blog post reminded him of school newspaper days. We know each other from Westville Boys' High where I also attempted to get people who didn't usually write to get articles in. I had to try hard to convince them that the paper wouldn't be boring. If they wrote, it would be more likely that they read what they wanted to read! The same is true now. If we only hear from professional writers about what is going on in professional writers lives it would be rather boring. A little like the Oscars regularly giving the award for best film to films about Hollywood. Oh wait. The down side was that schools did have to censor what we put out. One particularly hilarious edition (well, we thought so) was severely trimmed - but I still have  the uncut edition safely tucked away. I may be purging almost everything I own, but I am still a hoarder of memories.

Chris is a super star. He is an Academic Neurosurgeon and former Rhodes scholar with multiple publications and other really fancy awards. He is also a great guy. He is currently a Research Fellow in Neurosurgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard University. Like Samir said, writing a blog is something Chris has wanted to do, but never really gotten around to. Hopefully this is the start of him regularly sharing some of his thoughts with us.

Master of the Rational Universe
By Chris Young

You may be alarmed to learn that the human brain is not quite the perfect machine we would like to believe.  Nor are we assuredly in control.  The brain is fraught with fragilities, susceptible to external influences, and prone to making poor judgements.  Indeed, with a mind of its own.

To demonstrate, try answering the question below:

A bat and ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

The intuitive answer is 10c.  If this was your answer, you can take comfort that this is the incorrect answer given by the majority of Harvard students. The correct answer is 5c.Daniel Kahneman, renowned psychologist and Nobel laureate explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

A number came to your mind. The number, of course, is 10: 10c. The distinctive mark of this easy puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing, and wrong. Do the math, and you will see. If the ball costs 10c, then the total cost will be $1.20 (10¢ for the ball and $1.10 for the bat), not $1.10. The correct answer is 5c. It is safe to assume that the intuitive answer also came to the mind of those who ended up with the correct number—they somehow managed to resist the intuition.
Many thousands of university students have answered the bat-and-ball puzzle, and the results are shocking. More than 50% of students at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the intuitive—incorrect—answer. At less selective universities, the rate of demonstrable failure to check was in excess of 80%. The bat-and-ball problem is our first encounter with an observation that will be a recurrent theme of this book: many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.
Kahneman proposes that our mental function can be thought of as two interconnected systems: a fast, intuitive one that is prone to errors, and a slow “rational thinking” one that has limited capacity.  The bat and ball question illustrates the frailty of the fast, intuitive system.  The limited capacity of the slow “rational thinking” system is something we have all experienced. Take the math problem 18 X 13.  Very few people will know the answer immediately. However, you also know that with some effort, you can probably work it out. If you were walking, there is a high chance that you might come to a stand-still to perform the mental calculation. If you were navigating rush-hour traffic, you might decline to solve the problem whilst driving.

In addition to intrinsic software and hardware issues, our constant interactions with the external environment also impact our thinking and decision making. In an elegant experimental paradigm, the experimenter accidentally drops pencils onto the floor. Experimental subjects with money on their minds helped pick up fewer pencils compared to those thinking about arts, sciences or politics.
How do our mental failings affect us in real life?  Decisions made by an Israeli parole review board over a 10 months period were analysed. The parole board sits from morning to afternoon, spending 6 minutes reviewing each case. Overall, the decision to approve the parole application occurred in about 35% of cases (i.e. rejection is the default position).  However, at the start of each session which was preceded by a meal break, the rate of approval exceeded 65%, gradually tapering down close to 0% by the end of the session.  This study of 1,112 judicial rulings involving 8 judges provides irrefutable evidence that even the most able and scrutinised of decision makers are limited by basic biological parameters.  In a state of fatigue and hunger, their capacity to make rational decisions was impaired and they fell back to the default position (rejection).

I want to point out: the mechanisms which underlie some of these "flaws" are probably also responsible for some of our most valued human qualities: the ability to remain optimistic in the most adverse circumstances, and the willingness to persevere when the odds are clearly against us. Perhaps the most valuable lesson in this: despite the obvious mystique of the brain, it is really a human organ like any other. Fantastically complex? Yes! But we will do well to study it, dissect it, and strategize to train it to reach new heights.

In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at trevorjohnblack@gmail.com 
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