Open Musings

Mind
Extracting Neural Info in Progress...

Popular Science featured an article about mind-reading technology; it describes the development of technologies and computing that helps to reconstruct images from purely information extracted from brain scans. That is pretty amazing since it is basically deciphering the code used to contain information in our minds and then trying to build up the information that is stored in the codes.

What I was wondering is if these images reconstructed actually reflects any sort of thoughts by the person. In other words, has the brain processed these images at all? In the Awareness Tests that was part of a campaign by Transport for London to raise awareness of presence of cyclist to other road users, you realise that you do not see some things that you don’t focus on in an image sequence. The question then, is whether the brain really didn’t see the images or it merely didn’t process it. Would these mind-reading technology at this moment be showing those details or parts that we didn’t notice?

Or perhaps they need to improve the technology before they can answer such questions; then the complex ethical problems will set in. Philosophy can’t work on an ethical problem until infringing it becomes a real possibility. Even then, they almost never help us get an answer. So meanwhile we’ll just think and wait around.

Importance of Focus

Lenses
Getting focus right...

It’s been a while since I last written something on studying; recently I observed how some students take a long time to study. Obviously, many of these people spend substantial amount of time plainly staring at pieces of information, occasionally reading through them with a tiny bit of appreciation and often not quite understanding what they are studying anyways. Computer gaming, and loads of interactive stuff online coupled with consistent television watching has reduced our attention span significantly and impaired our abilities to focus.

So to improve how you study as well as your concentration, you might like to try a few of the following:

Plan Revision & Stick to it
The first step to keeping focusing is having a good, realistic plan. Without a plan, when we decide that we’re going to study, we’ll often just lay out the books and stare at words, possibly read a little and then zone out. When we don’t have a plan that dictates specifically what we are going to study and for how long, we’ll often just drift about the different materials we have, not doing anything eventually. So come up with a proper plan, noting down what topics for what subject you’ll be studying and for how long. Give yourself breaks between topics and when you’re executing your plan, make sure you follow through and only skip the breaks if you believe you can continue. If you find yourself needing more or less time than planned, adjust your plans accordingly. Don’t tire yourself out if you are fast with your studying; reward yourself with a longer play time or break when you finish early.

Find a Good Site
Some people just can’t study at home. I’m not exactly such a person but many people around me are like that. The problem is when there’s people familiar around you, you’d be tempted to eavesdrop their conversation, observe what they are doing – in other words, doing everything else except the task at hand. This happens less (at least at a lower intensity) when it comes to having strangers around you, unless you’re really busybody. Studying outside might be a better option; Starbucks is pretty friendly with studying people, especially the more remote branches, The Coffee Bean is not.

Media White-out
For those who can’t even withstand a bit of distraction will need to try a boycott of media and other attention-seeking stuff. Turn off your TV, radio, computer for a pre-designated time that follows from your study plan. Do not allow yourself to use the computer or those devices even when you’re taking a break. Limit distractions to nuts, snacks, and drinks without digital or analog devices that produces visuals or audio. These people might realise they’ll be better off staying at home and paying their family to get out of the house. Of course, once you’re done with whatever you need to accomplish, you can get back to the stuff you like to do so that they act as a reward for your efforts.

A measure of self-awareness is necessary to help you with this; knowing how your mind gets distracted and what it is easily distracted by will help you attain focus through the elimination of these distractions. It sounds like a pretty simple concept but people usually don’t take steps to help themselves concentrate. Instead, they wait around for their moods to come or the distractions to go away; if you want to make any progress at all, you’ll have to start taking charge of how you waste your time.

The Value of Pessimism

Smile Frown
To smile or frown?

I felt a bit vindicated to read in the Lexington column in The Economist‘s Christmas edition that two writers have decided to tackle ‘the American tendency towards mindless optimism’. Being a habitual pessimist it does feel good occasionally to read about people who are pessimists and stand up for their views instead of let themselves be bashed by optimists.

The two writers mock the optimists for being too positive and too dependant on positive thinking to help them in their lives, from defeating cancer to not gaining weight. I like that the example of the banking crisis was used to justify when one should listen to ‘the killjoys’ and stop letting the bubble inflate. Optimism apparently blinds sometimes, and this is where pessimism comes in. I like how one of the writers allude pessimism to ‘foul weather’ like thunderstorms: it might be dampening and depressing, but to some it refreshes and energises them. It can wake people up from their daydreams and their eternal sunshine (even though many people love thunderstorms because they can sleep comfortably through the cool weather).

But of course, there needs to be some optimism. Ultimately, Lexington argues that pessimism should be taken like a pinch of salt, just a pinch / ounce and not too much. For instance, one of the writers (a conservative) argues that mass immigration will not benefit America, but ultimately ‘America was built on the mass immigration of optimists’. I guess there needs to be a balanced dose of both sides.

On a side-note, reading The Economist makes me feel more and more pessimistic about the world… is it because of the coverage, or are world affairs really that gloomy and glum?

Vertical Thinking

Lateral Thinker
Lateral Thinker

I finally found a copy of Edward De Bono’s Lateral Thinking, published in 1970s. It collects his earlier insights about Lateral Thinking and reflects his more original ideas about the subject. The books he published much later are more or less repetition of these earlier ideas, presented in alternative means – some acting as encouraging creativity, others at simplicity of thought and some plainly about motivation and happiness.

I’m not exactly a fan of De Bono – I think he exploits his authority in the area of lateral thinking pretty well and have managed to set himself apart from the general ‘creative thinking’ bunch. I think his Six Thinking Hats programme made him quite a lot of money and his success in trying to frame his concepts into thinking in the business realm means more money. Still, he offers much valuable ideas that are untapped by the masses.

He highlights some problems with Vertical Thinking that we traditionally use to think about problems and perceive our world; these problems are intricately woven with the advantages of this system of thinking so the point is to be aware of these inadequacies and counteract them with Lateral Thinking. Here are some of the problems with our thinking system I would like to share and explain how they might impede us in our daily thinking:

1) Our thinking creates patterns that helps create an efficient system of memory that relies of amazingly few details to trigger the recollection of an entire experience. Unfortunately, they become established ever more rigidly since they control our attention; we’re constantly searching for patterns to fit into our experience to make sense of things. These patterns are also difficult to change once they become established.

This is the case of conspiracy theorists who see patterns in places people don’t and form elaborate theories of conspiracies even when they are just a series of coincidence. The pattern that these conspiracy theorists establish in their minds direct their attention to particular details that reinforce their beliefs in their theories. It’s difficult to convince them that their ideas are flawed.

2) Our system of thinking tends towards ‘centering’ (a term used by De Bono), which means that anything which has any resemblance to standard pattern will be perceived as the standard pattern. Because the information that is arranged as part of a pattern cannot be easily used as part of a completely different pattern, it is hard to change the way one perceive the same set of information to interpret them differently.

This is a case of stereotyping on steroids, best exemplified by the character Mr “Everything Comes From India” in the BBC Sketch Comedy, Goodness Gracious Me. Here’s an Youtube clip showing how he makes his arguments that frustrates his poor son.

3) There’s also marked tendency to ‘polarize’ in our system of thought, moving to either extreme instead of maintaining some balanced point between them. This implies that even when the choice between two competing patterns are very fine, one of them would be chosen with another being completely ignored.

Using the above example of Mr “Everything Comes From India”, we notice that his thinking is such that there’s only the two extremes of ‘Indian’ and ‘Not Indian’. He thinks little of the effects of globalization and the influence of culture on each other or the possibility of overlapping rituals between different cultures.

Finally, patterns that we accumulate can get bigger and bigger, resulting in declarations like, “There are only 2 kinds of people in this world…” People package a whole lot of individual patterns and lump them within a bigger pattern, that immediately trigger off other perceptions that are unreal or not observed. Of course, there are advantages to this system, with it’s roots in instinctive fight-or-flight responses when efficiency of generating a response is more important than producing a precise/correct response.

The idea is to know when we should make use of what sort of thinking. In pondering over important issues in life and generating ideas for a project and such, one should suspend our typical system of thought in favour of lateral thinking that has the advantage of proliferating more ideas even if they don’t appear to be quality on first impression.

Making Judgments

Go on and strike!
Go on and strike!

Just a few days back I was discussing how we have to hold contradicting ideas as social science students; and it dawned on me that some students after training themselves to do just that, fails to make a judgment using the ideas. To them, it seems that everything is equally right and there’s no quantitative means of assessing which side is better. I hate to say this but then you actually have the power to decide what is right. After all, politicians, social scientist, economists and such are always at loggerheads and as I mentioned in that earlier post, no one is exactly right – at least we’ll never know what is truly right. We can only be sure of approximations to the right thing but then again there are high estimates, low estimates, depending on how things turn out.

The fact is we all make many decisions these way. There’s no way to know for sure that a plan will carry through and we have default positions, knowing all well what they rest upon and how they might change. We might wake up at 10am every Sunday Morning but then we adjust accordingly when we have appointments around that time on that day. You know that your priority is with the appointment and not with sleep; so unless your priority is the other way round, you’ll compromise. Likewise, when confronted with the question as to whether a Monopoly is harmful to consumers you might have to consider your priorities. You might be concerned with net transfer of wealth from consumers to the monopolist and thus against the theoretical supernormal profits. In that case you’ll argue that while the firm might be a natural Monopoly and the only one serving the market, it is harmful as long as it’s not taxed such that it only earn normal profits (with the tax revenue redistributed to the consumers).

On the other hand your sympathy might lie with consumer choice and welfare so you believe that as long as the monopolist exhibit some sort of dynamic efficiency, innovating and proliferating the market with variety then you’re fine with the Monopoly. After all, it is giving the consumers what they want that earn them the profits. But in an event when it becomes complacent and exhibits some sort of inefficiency (not in the P=MC sense though) then it needs some competition injected. Following that line of argument, some might choose to take side with competition right from the start and argue that as long as the market is a rather contestable market, with huge players ready and able to enter anytime (despite high barriers to entry), then the Monopoly need not be too closely regulated. The above arguments would all make sense and they could well be right answers for economics essays but then the question is whether you’ve presented your case convincingly by showing what are your priorities or principal considerations.

In other words, you do not make judgments when you’re analyzing or dissecting the ideas but when called upon, you’re able to demonstrate your principal concerns and judge the ideas in accordance to them. You should be comfortable with changing your stand when you adjust your judging guidelines and not cling on too hard to your positions. Karl Albrecht, author of Practical Intelligence believes that the open-mindedness so essential to learning and the path towards intelligence require this ability to see opinions/positions and separate from ourselves. So learn to pick up opinions from making judgments but readily drop them and learn to justify what prompted you to do so (new information input, changing circumstances, difference in judging guidelines).

Holding Ideas

All at the same time...
All at the same time...

Some students struggle with social sciences and humanities like Economics, Geography and History because they think they can’t hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and not take a side. Economist are somewhat famous for being able to do that and often criticized for being that way. As a matter of fact, humans are remarkably capable of doing that; we overrate our consistency of thought and the need for ideas that don’t contradict. When we demand scientific proofs for certain claims yet openly express faith in certain religious claims, we’re adopting contradictory frameworks of proof.

The reason why these subjects require that we hold contradictory ideas or for us to withhold judgment of these ideas is the lack of a proper quantitative approach to evaluating them. We might be able to come up with pros and cons but we are unable to assign a positive figure to denote the value and significance of the pro and a corresponding negative figure for a con and then evaluate them in an accounting matrix that will tell you which is better and how much better. Any attempts at that will be subjective and arbitrary anyways. As a result, it is important that students of these subjects hold on to them without judging but maintain the ability to dissect and analyse these ideas, zoom into certain features and investigate different aspects of it when necessary. More importantly, we’ll have to master our language and internalize the nuances of the typical jargons used in the field to discuss these observations we make.

As humans, we will definitely have preferences for some explanation over others as well as some outcomes over others and this is a reason behind all the disputes that social scientist usually have with each other, including high profile ones by economists. And worst, unlike sciences where there are experiments everyone can agree on to check their ideas and theories to discover ‘the truth’, the search for truths in social sciences have often ended in vain because of the dynamic nature of the field. Scientists might not agree before a discovery is confirmed (Linus Pauling, a super-Nobel laureate with 3 Nobel prizes famously believed that DNA’s structure should be a Triple Helix) but once it is confirmed, we find little delusional souls continuing with their false beliefs unless they are ignorant of the confirmation. Economics had its share of control experiments that happened in the world, often by chance. Unfortunately, they can never be repeated perfectly and their results are never agreed upon by experts in the field.

This is not to say that the subjects offer little value to the world; in fact the dynamic nature of these fields mean that there is always questions to answer and things to explore readily. And that is why we need more people to be able to hold different ideas at the same time and have different opinions on the same issue under different sort of circumstances and be able to see the world this way.