The Human Mind

I started writing morning pages a few months ago. That means writing three pages, on paper, before doing anything else [1].

I’ve only been doing this on weekends and holidays, because on weekdays I feel a need to do some stock market work close to when the market opens.

It typically takes me one hour to write three pages. At first, it felt like I needed 75 minutes but wanted to finish faster. After a few weeks, it felt like I could finish in about 50 minutes when I was in a hurry, but often preferred to take more than an hour.

That suggests I’m doing much less stream-of-consciousness writing than is typical for morning pages. It’s unclear whether that matters.

It feels like devoting an hour per day to morning pages ought to be costly. Yet I never observed it crowding out anything I valued (except maybe once or twice when I woke up before getting an optimal amount of sleep in order to get to a hike on time – that was due to scheduling problems, not due to morning pages reducing the available of time per day).
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Why do people knowingly follow bad investment strategies?

I won’t ask (in this post) about why people hold foolish beliefs about investment strategies. I’ll focus on people who intend to follow a decent strategy, and fail. I’ll illustrate this with a stereotype from a behavioral economist (Procrastination in Preparing for Retirement):[1]

For instance, one of the authors has kept an average of over $20,000 in his checking account over the last 10 years, despite earning an average of less than 1% interest on this account and having easy access to very liquid alternative investments earning much more.

A more mundane example is a person who holds most of their wealth in stock of a single company, for reasons of historical accident (they acquired it via employee stock options or inheritance), but admits to preferring a more diversified portfolio.

An example from my life is that, until this year, I often borrowed money from Schwab to buy stock, when I could have borrowed at lower rates in my Interactive Brokers account to do the same thing. (Partly due to habits that I developed while carelessly unaware of the difference in rates; partly due to a number of trivial inconveniences).

Behavioral economists are somewhat correct to attribute such mistakes to questionable time discounting. But I see more patterns than such a model can explain (e.g. people procrastinate more over some decisions (whether to make a “boring” trade) than others (whether to read news about investments)).[2]

Instead, I use CFAR-style models that focus on conflicting motives of different agents within our minds.

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Book review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal.

This book is primarily about discrediting false claims of human uniqueness, and showing how easy it is to screw up evaluations of a species’ cognitive abilities. It is best summarized by the cognitive ripple rule:

Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought.

De Waal provides many anecdotes of carefully designed experiments detecting abilities that previously appeared to be absent. E.g. asian elephants failed mirror tests with small, distant mirrors. When experimenters dared to put large mirrors close enough for the elephants to touch, some of them passed the test.

Likewise, initial observations of behaviorist humans suggested they were rigidly fixated on explaining all behavior via operant conditioning. Yet one experimenter managed to trick a behaviorist into demonstrating more creativity, by harnessing the one motive that behaviorists prefer over their habit of advocating operant conditioning: their desire to accuse people of recklessly inferring complex cognition.

De Waal seems moderately biased toward overstating cognitive abilities of most species (with humans being one clear exception to that pattern).

At one point he gave me the impression that he was claiming elephants could predict where a thunderstorm would hit days in advance. I checked the reference, and what the elephants actually did was predict the arrival of the wet season, and respond with changes such as longer steps (but probably not with indications that they knew where thunderstorms would hit). After rereading de Waal’s wording, I decided it was ambiguous. But his claim that elephants “hear thunder and rainfall hundreds of miles away” exaggerates the original paper’s “detected … at distances greater than 100 km … perhaps as much as 300 km”.

But in the context of language, de Waal switches to downplaying reports of impressive abilities. I wonder how much of that is due to his desire to downplay claims that human minds are better, and how much of that is because his research isn’t well suited to studying language.

I agree with the book’s general claims. The book provides evidence that human brains embody only small, somewhat specialized improvements on the cognitive abilities of other species. But I found the book less convincing on that subject than some other books I’ve read recently. I suspect that’s mainly due to de Waal’s focus on anecdotes that emphasize what’s special about each species or individual. Whereas The Human Advantage rigorously quantifies important ways in which human brains are just a bigger primate brain (but primate brains are special!). Or The Secret of our Success (which doesn’t use particularly rigorous methods) provides a better perspective, by describing a model in which ape minds evolve to human minds via ordinary, gradual adaptations to mildly new environments.

In sum, this book is good at explaining the problems associated with research into animal cognition. It is merely ok at providing insights about how smart various species are.

Book review: Made-Up Minds: A Constructivist Approach to Artificial Intelligence, by Gary L. Drescher.

It’s odd to call a book boring when it uses the pun “ontology recapitulates phylogeny”[1]. to describe a surprising feature of its model. About 80% of the book is dull enough that I barely forced myself to read it, yet the occasional good idea persuaded me not to give up.

Drescher gives a detailed model of how Piaget-style learning in infants could enable them to learn complex concepts starting with minimal innate knowledge.
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Book review: The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable, by Suzana Herculano-Houzel.

I used to be uneasy about claims that the human brain was special because it is large for our body size: relative size just didn’t seem like it could be the best measure of whatever enabled intelligence.

At last, Herculano-Houzel has invented a replacement for that measure. Her impressive technique for measuring the number of neurons in a brain has revolutionized this area of science.

We can now see an important connection between the number of cortical neurons and cognitive ability. I’m glad that the book reports on research that compares the cognitive abilities of enough species to enable moderately objective tests of the relevant hypotheses (although the research still has much room for improvement).

We can also see that the primate brain is special, in a way that enables large primates to be smarter than similarly sized nonprimates. And that humans are not very special for a primate of our size, although energy constraints make it tricky for primates to reach our size.

I was able to read the book quite quickly. Much of it is arranged in an occasionally suspenseful story about how the research was done. It doesn’t have lots of information, but the information it does have seems very new (except for the last two chapters, where Herculano-Houzel gets farther from her area of expertise).

Added 2016-08-25:
Wikipedia has a List of animals by number of neurons which lists the long-finned pilot whale as having 37.2 billion cortical neurons, versus 21 billion for humans.

The paper reporting that result disagrees somewhat with Herculano-Houzel:

Our results underscore that correlations between cognitive performance and absolute neocortical neuron numbers across animal orders or classes are of limited value, and attempts to quantify the mental capacity of a dolphin for cross-species comparisons are bound to be controversial.

But I don’t see much of an argument against the correlation between intelligence and cortical neuron numbers. The lack of good evidence about long-finned pilot whale intelligence mainly implies we ought to be uncertain.

Book review: The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, by Joseph Henrich.

This book provides a clear explanation of how an ability to learn cultural knowledge made humans evolve into something unique over the past few million years. It’s by far the best book I’ve read on human evolution.

Before reading this book, I thought human uniqueness depended on something somewhat arbitrary and mysterious which made sexual selection important for human evolution, and wondered whether human language abilities depended on some lucky mutation. Now I believe that the causes of human uniqueness were firmly in place 2-3 million years ago, and the remaining arbitrary events seem much farther back on the causal pathway (e.g. what was unique about apes? why did our ancestors descend from trees 4.4 million years ago? why did the climate become less stable 3 million years ago?)

Human language now seems like a natural byproduct of previous changes, and probably started sooner (and developed more gradually) than many researchers think.

I used to doubt that anyone could find good evidence of cultures that existed millions of years ago. But Henrich provides clear explanations of how features such as right-handedness and endurance running demonstrate important milestones in human abilities to generate culture.

Henrich’s most surprising claim is that there’s an important sense in which individual humans are no smarter than other apes. Our intellectual advantage over apes is mostly due to a somewhat special-purpose ability to combine our individual brains into a collective intelligence. His evidence on this point is weak, but it’s plausible enough to be interesting.

Henrich occasionally exaggerates a bit. The only place where that bothered me was where he claimed that heart attack patients who carefully adhered to taking placebos were half as likely to die as patients who failed to reliably take placebos. The author wants to believe that demonstrates the power of placebos. I say the patient failure to take placebos was just a symptom of an underlying health problem (dementia?).

I’m a bit surprised at how little Robin Hanson says about the Henrich’s main points. Henrich suggests that there’s cultural pressure to respect high-status people, for reasons that are somewhat at odds with Robin’s ally/coalition based reasons. Henrich argues that knowledge coming from high-status people, at least in hunter-gatherer societies, tended to be safer than knowledge from more directly measurable evidence. The cultural knowledge that accumulates over many generations aggregates information that could not be empirically acquired in a short time.

So Henrich implies it’s reasonable for people to be confused about whether evidence based medicine embodies more wisdom than eminence based medicine. Traditional culture has become less valuable recently due to the rapid changes in our environment (particularly the technology component of our environment), but cultures that abandoned traditions too readily were often hurt by consequences which take decades to observe.

I got more out of this book than a short review can describe (such as “How Altruism is like a Chili Pepper”). Here’s a good closing quote:

we are smart, but not because we stand on the shoulders of giants or are giants ourselves. We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits.

Book review: The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain, by John Kounios and Mark Beeman.

This book shows that insight and analysis are different modes of thought, and that small interventions can influence how insightful we are. It’s done in a clearly analytical (not insightful) style.

They devote a good deal of effort to demonstrating that the two modes of thought differ in more ways than simply how people report them. It’s unclear why that would surprise anyone now that behaviorism is unpopular. Nor is it clear what use we can make of evidence that different parts of the brain are involved in the two modes.

I’m mildly impressed that researchers are able to objectively measure insight at all. They mostly study word problems that can be solved on something like 30 seconds. They provide some hints that those experiments study the same patterns of thought that are used to solve big tasks that simmer in our subconscious for days. But there’s some risk that the research is overlooking something unique to those harder problems.

The “creativity crisis” could have been an important part of the book. But their brief explanation is to blame the obvious suspects: environments of constant stimulation due to social media, cellphones, games, etc.

One problem with that explanation is that the decline in creativity scores since 1990 is strongest in kindergartners through 3rd graders. I don’t find it very plausible that they’ve experienced a larger increase in those hyper-stimuli than older kids have.

It’s almost as if the authors got their understanding of the alleged crisis from a blog post rather than from the peer reviewed article that they cite.

The peer reviewed article suggests a better explanation: less time for free play.

Outdoor activity activity is valuable, according to the book, at least for short-term changes in whether our mood is creative. The “crisis” could be due to less recess time at school and a decline in free-range parenting. Were the tests taken shortly after a recess up through 1990, and taken after hours of lectures more recently? If so, the decline in measured creativity would reflect mostly short-term mood changes, leaving me uncertain whether I should worry about longer lasting effects.

The book provides some advice for being more insightful. It has caused me to schedule tasks that might require creativity after moderate hikes, or earlier in the day than I previously did.

The book has made me more likely to try applying ideas from the CFAR Againstness class to inducing creative moods.

The book hints at lots of room for computer games to promote a more insightful mood than the typical game does (e.g. via requiring players to expand their attention to fill the screen). But the authors aren’t very helpful at suggesting ways to identify games that are more insight-compatible. The closest I’ve come to practical ideas about games is that I ought to replace them when possible with fiction that promotes far-mode thinking(i.e. fantasy and science fiction).

My intuition says that insight research is still in its infancy, and that we should hope for better books in this category before long.

Book review: The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition, by Gregory Hickok.

This book criticizes hype from scientists and the media about embodied cognition, mirror neurons, and the differences between the left and right brain hemispheres. Popular accounts of these ideas contain a little bit of truth, but most versions either explain very little or provide misleading explanations.

A good deal of our cognition is embodied in the sense that it’s heavily dependent on sensory and motor activity. But we have many high-level thoughts that don’t fit this model well, such as those we generate when we don’t have sensory or motor interactions that are worth our attention (often misleading called a “resting state”).

Humans probably have mirror neurons. They have some value in helping us imitate others. But that doesn’t mean they have much affect on our ability to understand what we’re imitating. Our ability to understand a dog wagging its tail isn’t impaired by our inability to wag our tails. Parrots’ ability to imitate our speech isn’t very effective at helping them understand it.

Mirror neurons have also been used to promote the “broken mirror theory” of autism (with the suggestion that a malfunction related to mirror neurons impairs empathy). Hickok shows that the intense world hypothesis (which I’ve blogged about before) is more consistent with the available evidence.

The book clarified my understanding of the brain a bit. But most of it seems unimportant. I had sort of accepted mild versions of the mirror neuron and left-brain, right brain hype, but doing so didn’t have any obvious effects on my other beliefs or my actions. It was only at the book’s end (discussing autism) that I could see how the hype might matter.

Most of the ideas that he criticizes don’t do much harm, because they wouldn’t pay much rent if true. Identifying which neurons do what has negligible effect on how I model a person’s mind unless I’m doing something unusual like brain surgery.

One small part of the recent (June 2015) CFAR workshop caused a significant improvement in how I interact with people. I’ve become more spontaneous about interacting with people.

For several years I’ve suspected that I ought to learn how to do improv-style exercises, but standard improv classes felt ineffective. I’ve since figured out that their implied obligation for me to come up with something to say caused some sort of negative association with attempts at spontaneity when I failed to think of anything to say. That negative reaction was a large obstacle to learning new habits.

Deeply ingrained habits seem to cause some part of my subconscious mind that searches for ideas or generates words to decide that it can’t come up with anything worthy of conscious attention. That leaves me in a state that I roughly describe as a blank mind (i.e. either no verbal content at the conscious level, or I generate not-very-useful meta-thoughts reacting to the lack of appropriate words).

Since I much more frequently regret failing to say something than I regret mistakenly saying something hastily that I should have known not to say, it seems like I’ve got one or more subconscious filters that has consistently erred in being too cautious about generating speech. I tried introspecting for ways to simply tell that filter to be less cautious, but I accomplished nothing that way.

I also tried paying attention to signs that I’d filtered something out (pauses in my flow of words seem to be reliable indicators) in hopes that I could sometimes identify the discarded thoughts. I hoped to reward myself for noticing the ideas as the filter started to discard them, and train the filter to learn that I value conscious access to those ideas. Yet I never seem to detect those ideas, so that strategy failed.

What finally worked was that I practiced informal versions of improv exercises in which I rewarded myself [*] for saying silly things (alone or in a practice session with Robert) without putting myself in a situation where I felt an immediate obligation to say anything unusual.

In a few weeks I could tell that I was more confident in social contexts and more able to come up with things to say.

I feel less introverted, in the sense that a given amount of conversation tires me less than it used to. Blogging also seems to require a bit less energy.

I feel somewhat less anxiety (and relatedly, less distraction from background noise), maybe due to my increased social confidence.

I may have become slightly more creative in a variety of contexts.

I hypothesize that the filtering module was rather attached to a feeling of identity along the lines of “Peter is a person who is cautious about what he says” long after the consciously accessible parts of my mind decided I should weaken that identity. Actually trying out a different identity was more important to altering some beliefs that were deeply buried in my subconscious than was conscious choice about what to believe.

I wonder what other subconscious attachments to an identity are constraining me?

Something still seems missing from my social interactions: I still tend to feel passive and become just a spectator. That seems like a promising candidate for an area where I ought to alter some subconscious beliefs. But I find it harder to focus on a comfortable vision for an alternative identity: aiming to be a leader in a group conversation feels uncomfortable in a way that aiming to be spontaneous/creative never felt.

Thanks to John Salvatier and Anna Salamon for the advice that helped me accomplish this.

[*] – I only know how to do very weak self-rewards (telling myself to be happy), but that was all I needed.

I use Beeminder occasionally. The site’s emails normally suffice to bug me into accomplishing whatever I’ve committed to doing. But I only use it for a few tasks for which my motivation is marginal. Most of the times that I consider using Beeminder, I either figure out how to motivate myself properly, or (more often) decide that my goal isn’t important.

The real value of Beeminder is that if I want to compel future-me to do something, I can’t give up by using the excuse that future-me is lazy or unreliable. Instead, I find myself wondering why I’m unwilling to risk $X to make myself likely to complete the task. That typically causes me to notice legitimate doubts about how highly I value the result.