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Category Archive • How the human mind works
September 02, 2004
Different languages going wrong in different parts of the brain

New light on dyslexia, from Yahoo!:

Westerners shudder at the idea of reading even the most basic street signs and instructions in Chinese, a language with 6,000 characters to memorize to be considered fluent.

A new set of brain images shows why: Reading English-style alphabets and Chinese characters use very different parts of the brain.

The results also suggest that Chinese schoolchildren with reading problems misfire in a different brain region than the one used in reading alphabet-based languages like English. This demonstrates that the learning disorder dyslexia is not the same in every culture and does not have a universal biological cause, researchers said.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:48 PM
Category: How the human mind worksLanguages
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July 29, 2004
Seeing faces

Faces.jpgI have already linked from elsewhere to this piece by Bunny Smedley, about the National Gallery exhibition Making Faces. On the right: one of the faces they are selling the exhibition with.

Here's how Bunny's piece starts:

I have recently taken to reading lots of books about birth and early childhood development – well, it makes a change from worrying about whether painting's dead, doesn't it? Thus it is that I have learned more over the past month or so than I ever wished to know about the way in which people respond to each other's faces.

A newborn baby, apparently, has an absolutely innate interest in the human face – not only his mother's face, either, although within days he can recognise this, but in all human faces. The part of his brain responsible for this achievement develops early, long before birth. Stranger still, within the first week or two he is drawn not only to actual human faces, but to man-made images of the human face, with black-and-white, full-face line-drawings being the preferred media. This fascination is not, however, you may be pleased to learn, primarily aesthetic in motivation. Babies, it turns out, are also amazingly adept both at 'reading' emotion – affection, anger, boredom, amusement – in other people's faces, and at mirroring what they find there. It's part of the way in which we learn to relate to each other – to function socially thorough the course of our lives. One can think of all sorts of reasons why the development of these abilities should have been smart moves in evolutionary terms. That, however, need not detain us. The point is simply that curiosity about our fellow creatures' faces is entirely natural, instinctive and universal. There is, put starkly, nothing we'd rather see, and nothing we are better at seeing.

All of which meshes nicely with the compulsion so many of us feel to take a look at the face of all brand new babies that cross our paths. That way, babies get a glimpse of lots of different faces.

Brand new members of other species are very easily fooled into responding to faked up versions of the signals which excite them. A red blob on a bit of paper, for example, has the same effect as the red blob on mum's beak. That kind of thing. Presumably someone has tried to discover what signals are sufficient to trigger the face response in new humans. Is a real human face needed, or will a badly drawn face on a bit of cardboard suffice? A lot hinges on this, I feel. If humans need "real" face to face contact to get them stirred up, then the educational consequences will be profoundly different to if they will get stirred up by a mere fake face on a screen. Anyone know the answer to that, or where to look for an answer? Maybe new babies can be fooled like this but older ones can't. Don't know, but would very much like to.

Television and children's books would suggest that it doesn't take much to make a child see a face.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:04 PM
Category: How the human mind works
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July 16, 2004
Thomas Sowell on moments of truth

I believe strongly in the power of the short but eloquent speech that hits the bullseye and changes your whole life from then on. Good teaching can consist of steady drip drip drip improving influence. But it can also come in single eruptions of revelation.

ThomasSowell.jpgHere's the kind of thing I mean. This is Thomas Sowell (pictured on the right) writing about the value of criticism, in connection with Bill Cosby's recent criticisms of black ghetto foolishness:

Criticism is part of the price of progress. Economics professor Walter Williams has said that a turning point in his education - and his life - came when a schoolteacher in the Philadelphia ghetto chewed him out for wasting his abilities on adolescent nonsense. …

My own moment of truth came when a roommate at Harvard said to me one day: "Tom, when are you going to stop goofing off and get some work done?"

Goofing off! I didn't know what he was talking about. I thought I was working hard. But, when the midterm grades came out - two D's and two F's in my four courses - it became painfully clear that I was not working hard enough. I was going to have to shape up or ship out - and I didn't have anywhere to ship out to.

I've heard that Sowell is a "difficult" man, tough, demanding, tricky to handle, etc. If that's true, then this could be why. One of the formative experiences of his life was when someone else was difficult with him, and demanded more from him.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:47 AM
Category: How the human mind works
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July 11, 2004
Martin Seligman on learned optimism

This is interesting stuff, which I got via this posting, which I got to from Grand Central Station.


That's a picture of Dr Martin Seligman, and here's some of what Dave Shearon says about Seligman's book Learned Optimism. This is Shearon's summary of and comment on Chapter 8, "School":

Failure devastates us. All of us, upon experiencing failure, quit – at least temporarily. Optimists bounce back and began trying almost immediately; defeat is temporary and achievement is assured. Pessimists, on the other hand, are defined by their failures. They are a failure, and there is no point in a failure continuing to try.

Comment: Children are natural optimists, as discussed earlier, and they sure better be in our schools. We often assure failure by such tactics as grading on the curve. We define relative success as failure. Please note that I am not arguing for low standards or namby-pamby, feel good education. I am simply making a point as to how school is experienced for many students. Is it any wonder that educators report "losing" students as they enter the later middle school years, which is approximately the same time that the natural optimism of childhood wanes. These students are suddenly unable to cope with an environment they have been in long as they can remember. How can such a failure not be a complete turn-off?

Working with Joan Girgus, and building on the work of Carol Dweck, Dr. Seligman and his staff conducted a study of 3rd-grade children from 1995 until they finished seventh grade in 1999. They found that children who began third grade with a pessimistic score on the CASQ were at risk for depression and severely-reduced academic achievement. In addition, bad life events, especially including divorce and parental turmoil, contributed to a pessimistic explanatory style. Over all, boys were significantly more depressed at all points along this age range then were girls.

In college, students with optimistic explanatory styles will outperform predictive measures such as SAT scores or high school grades. Students with pessimistic scores will under perform.

Through my (amateur and untrained) career counselling over the years I have found optimism/pessimism to be a key variable. What success I have achieved in this has mostly hinged on helping my punters to identify things they love to do and are good at doing , which they then look forward to doing and are confident they can do, which feeds their optimism, which jolts them pleasurably out of any negative feedback loops they were stuck in and puts them into some positive feedback loops. Often the mere possibility that life could sparkle again is enough to get them up and buzzing – at which point they often then do things that had nothing to do with what they talked about with me, but so what? What I try to avoid doing is simply telling them that they must do this or that, because unless they really want to do it, that just creates yet another negative feedback loop.

I think this is one of the core reasons why I oppose compulsion as a principle, in teaching as in all things, and favour voluntarism as a principle, ditto. People who do what they like doing in the way they like to do it immediately start getting what they regard as good results, which makes them more optimistic, which breeds success which breeds further optimism, etc. etc. (And if I can't make people do what they don't want to do, this won't happen, and I won't spread negative feedback loops everywhere.)

But that's an aside. All I'm really saying here is: I think this kind of stuff works.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:57 PM
Category: How the human mind works
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July 04, 2004
More about Tony Buzan

Liz Lightfoot reports on Tony Buzan, for the Telegraph:

Mr Buzan, who built his reputation on helping adults to improve their memory and thought processes, has recently turned his attention to the failings in our schools. I joined him on one of his regular visits to a struggling secondary modern.

He believes many teachers and parents make children feel dull and stupid by concentrating on what they do or don't know, instead of on their enormous capacity for self-improvement.

He criticises rote learning for treating memory as if it were a "grey, linear skill" when in fact it is "multi-dimensional and colourful" and works best when people use the creative side of their brain as well as the rational.

The previous posting right here makes, if you think about it, a similar point. There, the phrase "four by four" is connected in the mind of the child receiving the notion, with "four times four". And the absorbed bit of knowledge has, as it were, somewhere to attach itself to the existing stock, instead of just floating in, and then floating out again.


That's a not so gratuitous (given how Buzan feels about pictures) picture of Buzan, at the Mind Olympics.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:34 PM
Category: How the human mind works
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May 29, 2004
Tony Buzan and mind maps

Tony Buzan is this guy. He is most famous, it seems, for his invention/discovery/renaming of the "mind map".

Here is an example of a mind map, which I found here:


Click on that picture to get a bigger version, in which the words are easier to read. I know, they're in German. But nevertheless, you get the picture I'm sure. The idea is to organise all your thoughts in a way that is memorable. Buzan is very big on memory, on training the memory, on proving to people that they have much better memories than they realised.

I live a simple life. Whenever it gets complicated, my reaction is to try to simplify it again. And then to carry on doing one simple thing at a time. This is why I took to blogging with such enthusiasm. It fits with the way I like to function. But even blogging can get complicated. With me, the complication takes the form of a whole series of complicated blog postings which I want to write accumulating in my mind, but which don't get done because none of them is capable of getting finished in time to be a today's posting. This posting is actually an example of this. And I made a conscious decision a few minutes ago to just write the damn thing, quick and dirty as the American engineers like to say, rather than do it as a great set-piece performance that I would be able to link back to for years, confident that it said everything about … it.

So maybe I should be using a Buzan mind map to get to grips with all of that, and with all the other unavoidable complexities of my life. Trouble is, the very process of making a mind map now seems to me to be too complicated. Easier to just rough out a rough and ready TO DO list, and then knock over three or four of the items on the list and go to bed happy, in the knowledge that I at least got some stuff done today.

On the other hand, I have friends who have actually used mind maps, and who are very enthusiastic about them. I'm sure these friends are right, and that I am fending off what could be a very useful tool for thinking and for living. My life actually is about to get more complicated, which I'll tell you all about in a big set piece posting Real Soon Now, and then I may have to start mind mapping myself or sink under the complications of it all.

I first heard about Tony Buzan when they had a show on BBC2 TV a few weeks back, in which he was given a group of bright by very troublesome kids to teach for a while. His aim was to turn them into "geniuses", which he failed to do. But he did get them behaving a whole hell of a lot better and smarter than they had been, and the man sure impressed me. He also impressed the professional official educators who were commentating on all this. He didn't do as well as he had hoped, but he did a lot better than most of them reckoned he would, and some of them seemed decidedly embarrassed.

Not that there's anything very mysterious about what happened. A really smart guy taught about six kids for a longish time, and taught them a lot. Which is exactly what you would expect. Simply, most teachers are (a) not as smart as Tony Buzan, but much more importantly (b) living lives that are about a thousand times more complicated than just teaching six kids day after day.

I seem to recall one of them, for example, performing the amazing trick of remembering all one hundred and six (or however many it was – I forget) cars in the car park outside. Memory again, you see.

But many teachers wouldn't have done as well as Buzan no matter how clever they were and no matter how simple the circumstances. This is because Buzan's basic method is to persuade and to inform rather than to command.

As all regulars here will know, I believe persuasion and information to be the wave of the future in education. There may still be some life yet in the old command and control methods, but in the longer run, I believe these methods to be doomed, and that the teaching profession needs to get out of that business. But, easier said than done, I realise that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:53 AM
Category: How the human mind works
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February 27, 2004
Visualisation works

The other day I had one of those deeply satisfying conversations where someone says to you that (a) you said something very memorable to them several years ago which you had yourself completely forgotten about, and that (b) it had proved to be invaluably useful advice. So, hurrah for me.

Apparently I had said something about visualisation to this friend of mine, and it had worked, and helped her to do really well at university. So, I might as well pass it on to all you millions of people who read this. I say it to a lot of people because it is true true, and it is valuable, even if (as I will shortly explain) you have heard it several times before.

The basic point here is very simple: visualisation works.

Suppose you have acquired an ambition, but think of yourself as being someone who "lacks willpower". Suppose, that is, that you often "tell yourself" to do this or that, but then never seem to get around to doing it.

Assuming that you do sincerely want to do whatever it is, the way to get yourself to do something is to imagine yourself already doing it.

Apparently, what I told my friend the university student was: if you are worried about not getting stuck into your university work the way you now want to, the way to do that is to picture yourself doing this work in exactly the way you want to do it. Imagine yourself sitting at your desk in your room, deep into your books, scribbling pertinent notes. Imagine yourself getting tired, taking a breather from work, and then going right back to it half an hour later. In general, picture yourself living and working the way you want to.

And here's the really interesting bit. That's all you have to do. The actual result will then come automatically. If you have never done this, or never done it self-consciously, realising that you were doing it, so to speak, you might suppose that this is some kind of voodoo psychobabble. But it isn't. It works. Picutre yourself doing whatever it is, and then a few days, weeks, months or years later (depending on what kind of task it is) you will realise that, by God, you did exactly what you imagined!

It even works for things which you would think would require all sorts of impoossible-to-guarantee inputs from other people. This is because we all of us actually have lots of bits of good luck, every day of our lives. The trick for living successfully is to programme your mind to take advantage of these lucky breaks, saying and doing, immediately, without thinking about it, exactly what you need to say and do to make maximum use of all the luck that comes your way.

So, imagine yourself having that job interview. Imagine yourself saying all the things you want to say, in exactly the confident yet un-annoying way you want to say them. Imagine the people who are interviewing you saying the things you want them to say. Sooner or later, you – that is to say your subconscious mind – will manoevre yourself into circumstances where all of this happens for real.

Imagine the big things you want to do with your entire life. Picture them, as if you were starring in a movie. Imagine the tiny things you want to get done tomorrow morning. Imagine everything in between. Imagine it, and then forget about it and just do what comes naturally. Then sit down, relax, and imagine it again. What will come naturally is what you have imagined.

Well, not automatically. You could be hit by a car tomorrow morning and die in agony. (Don't picture that for any longer than you have to.) But visualisation will increase your chances of getting what you want.

(Talking of cars knocking you down ... if you picture what you fear, your mind will go after that too. So don't do this. Imaginative aversion therapy, so to speak, doesn't work.)

What does not work is to berate yourself with merely verbal instructions. Verbal instructions (items on on a verbal list for instance) are very useful, but not on their own. The words have to be the captions to pictures. They have to trigger the pictures. Then, they'll work. On their own ("willpower") they won't work.

I've tried this stuff on myself, and every time I try it, it gets results. I told my university friend some of this, and it worked. It does work. The value of this posting is not that you are likely to be hearing this for the first time in your life, although I suppose that this is just about possible. No, the value of this post is that you are hearing yet again from yet another person that visualisation works.

Make it work for you.

I was never told any of this when I was at school, which in retrospect I find rather surprising. I had to read about it in American psychobabble books, which are often not any sort of babble whatever, of course. Why wasn't I told about it sooner? Perhaps because until I was about twenty what I personally wanted to accomplish wasn't the central agenda of my life. (Maybe I was told about it, but I wasn't listening.) I was just doing what was expected of me, or rather what I supposed others to be expecting of me. And I've never been much good at that. But I digress.

Central point here: it works.

This is one of the reasons why I like the idea of putting pictures up on this blog from time to time, as on my other one. Picturing things is very powerful.

It's not that I'm against words. But words work best if they conjure up pictures. I haven't put up any picture with this posting, because the point is: what is the picture that you want? Add it for yourself, in your own mind.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:04 AM
Category: How the human mind works
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December 06, 2003
Denis Dutton – a learning experience

Last Wednesday I began a Samizdata posting thus:

Denis Dutton is a new name to me, but I have the strong feeling that this says a whole lot more about me than it does about Denis Dutton.

I never blogged a truer sentence.

As Michael Jennings pointed out in a comment, Dutton is the editor of Arts & Letters Daily, to which I have been linking a lot lately, and in a simultaneous personal email to me he expressed surprise that I hadn't taken in who Dutton is, what with me reading and linking to 2 Blowhards such a lot. They've linked to Dutton, and quoted from Dutton, while naming him, as Denis Dutton, and generally made a fuss of the man, Denis Dutton, a lot. So why hadn't I noticed?

Further evidence that I should have known about Dutton is that he figures prominently in the chapter about "The Arts" at the end of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, which I've also written about and quoted from.

Yet it was only when I read this article by Dutton that I began to focus seriously on this man and his writings and place in the world.

So, shouldn't I be drawing a veil over this embarrassing episode?

I choose not to. I think that it has an educational lesson, maybe not for us all (I'll get to that because that's basically the lesson), but at least for some.

Unlike people, say, four hundred years ago, we early twenty first centurions live in an information rich, as it is often called, environment. I would prefer, though, to call it "message" rich, because "information" implies truth and accuracy, and a lot of the messages we are now surrounded by are anything but true or accurate. (There's probably a mismatch here between how "information theory" uses the word "information" and how the rest of us use it. For the information theories, information is one thing and truth something else again; for the rest of us there's an implied overlap.

Anyway, surrounded as we all are by all this information, all these messages, most of us inhabit a mental world in which there is a huge gap between what we actually do know, and what you might think we would know, given what we've experienced and given all that has been said to us and aimed at us. I assume that there are parts of the brain whose entire purpose is (a) to ignore things and (b) to forget things, a function which I for one often find myself dominated by three seconds after I'm told someone's name for the first time. Almost invariably, I have to ask it again, and have got into the habit of saying, as so many do, that "I'm sorry but I didn't catch your name". Catch. In truth, I probably did "catch" it, but then in a reflex action I threw it away. It's almost as if my subconscious is asking: have I heard this name before at least twice in any other connections of interest? And if it's no, smack, out it goes.

My point is that "learning" consists not just of charging out there and hoovering up information, but also of rejecting lots of information as not germane to whatever seems to be the immediate and central issue at hand. Learning is like the growth of a plant, and plants don't make use of all the material in their vicinity, only of some. A lot, they reject.

I only paid serious attention to Denis Dutton, as I say, when I read that article by him (which he had helpfully linked to from Arts & Letters Daily) about piano playing. I thought it a wonderfully good piece, and for the first time, I found myself asking: who is this guy? At which point all the reasons why I might have asked that question a year or two sooner came tumbling down on top of me. I was re-reading Pinker's Arts chapter, and there he was, with a huge and important quote, and then several more. I scrolled down to the bottom of Arts & Letters, and there he was also. Editor: Denis Dutton.

Yet it was only when read something by Dutton which said extremely helpful and useful things on one of the subjects which is now of central interest to me, namely the immediate future of "classical" music – whatever classical now means exactly, hence the quotes, that being all part of the question – that Dutton went from being a name I spat out (smack) after three seconds of knowing it, to a name I really took in and held on to. At which point all kinds of things which had before been only semi-interesting about the man suddenly became interesting enough also to take in.

So, although I at first felt a distinct twinge of embarrassment about this episode, on reflection, I now believe that I need not feel all that embarrassed, and instead of apologising, I regard this Dutton episode as a fine example of how learning actually happens.

Are you a teacher of children, in some capacity or other? Be patient. From where you sit, the kid has just learned about 7, and he ought to be ready for 8. Yes? This seems like the logical next step. But instead of being interested in 8, and despite having been told about it 88 times, with big cards, pointings, repetitions, assemblages of 8 objects, 88888 … he's not interested. In comes the information, but smack, out it immediately goes again. Why? Because just for now, the issue that matters is why 7 sometimes has a horizontal cross in the middle of it, but mostly not. What's that about? Or something. But not: what comes after 7? That just isn't of interest right now.

However, my conclusion is not that you should forget about 8. By all means continue to mention 8, if you think 8 is important, as most of us do. Don't stop with the 8 message. Many conclude from the temporary rejection of the 8 message that the whole subject of 8 should be abandoned. Wrong. The point is, don't be hurt if this message gets rejected a lot, smack smack smack. Don't take it personally, or start a fight about it. Just accept that there is this huge gap between what teachers think it's worth the kid learning, and what the kid actually learns next. It's natural. It's not a problem. You don't try to solve this non-problem either by forcing the kid to learn everything you think he should learn, or by sterilising the learning environment of stuff which he is now mostly rejecting, but which he may later suddenly get excited about. He can handle excessive and temporarily irrelevant information. Surround him with the stuff. It's nice. Just be ready for him to ignore it for a month or two. And then suddenly to start asking: 8 – what's 8? And what connection does 8 have to eight? 8eight8eight8eight8 gimme gimme gimme. Hey, two 0s on top of each other, how about that? Etc. And he can't register 8 if you have purged it from the world, like Stalin scrubbing a murdered minion from the history books, merely because two months ago he wasn't interested.

Take my case. Would it have helped me if the Denis Dutton meme had been purged from my learning environment – perhaps by some impatient software programme desperate to get my attention with everything it says to me – merely because I had not been giving it the attention which, I now realise, it all along deserved? Certainly not. That would have been no help at all. In fact it would have been downright pernicious.

Teaching means dangling a mass of possible paths in front of the pupil, and most of them being rejected, and the teacher relaxing, and just carrying on with the dangling.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:13 PM
Category: How the human mind works
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October 01, 2003
Raise your reading age with fish

I read about it in the paper version of last Sunday's Sunday Times, which I still had lying around:

A study of primary school children found that supplements of fish and plant oils could push them from the bottom of class to the top in just two terms.

The study, which covered a dozen primary schools concludes that giving youngsters such "brain food" supplements causes dramatic improvements in reading age and numeracy.

Here's the link to the whole of that story, but Times links are liable to go dead in foreign parts, so I'm told. So then I googled "Fish" "Oils "Reading age" and I got to this, from something called Junior Magazine, last month:

It was a huge surprise to learn that our five-year-old son was not progressing well at school. Both his father and I had done well academically and assumed that our offspring would similarly breeze through their letters and numbers. However, a Year One test had indicated that Benedict's performance was "dipping" and he has been taken under the wings of the special needs teacher. We now have to take him through an eight-week extra tuition programme. But there may be a simpler, much easier solution. Fish.

According to a new piece of research which is being proclaimed by its author as a "landmark study", thousands of children up and down the country are failing to do their best at school because they are deficient in essential fatty acids, a nutrient found in the flesh of oil-rich fish such as mackerel, salmon, kippers, herring, trout and sardines. Essential fatty acids are, well, essential for the brain's development and functioning.

This story is at the website of Equazen Neutrachemicals, so they make a feature of this quote from the story:

Parents want the best for their children, and Equazen Nutraceuticals, the company which makes the supplement used in this study, already reports that sales have taken a pleasing upturn.

I'll bet they have.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:38 AM
Category: How the human mind works
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June 25, 2003
The skills of idiots

There's a fascinating posting at 2Blowhards, about why mental superpowers so often go hand in hand (brain location with brain location) with mental inadequacies of other sorts. Here's the bit that grabbed me:

The argument of Alan Snyder, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sydney, is that (1) the unusual mental abilities of savants (autistics who are capable of amazing mental feats) are actually present in all human beings, (2) that these abilities—such as the ability to do complex mental arithmetic rapidly, to remember with photographic detail and accuracy, to instantly spot proofreading errors, etc. – are actually just basic, lower-level brain processes that occur below the level of ordinary human consciousness, (3) that somehow our ordinary conscious processes mask these abilities or prevent us from accessing them, and (4) that these savant-like skills can be brought out by using TMS to turn down the volume on the "masking" processes.

That makes more sense of the "idiot savant" phenomenon than anything else I've ever read. I've never believed that savants possessed any powers I didn't have, merely that for some reason I couldn't get at my own similar powers, and that for some other reason, connected with their other mental problems, they could.

TMS, by the way, stands for "transcranial magnetic stimulation". Read more by following the link that Friedrich Blowhard supplies to this New York Times article.

They're learning more and more by the month about how the human brain actually works, as opposed to just recommending books to each other full of more or less sensible speculations on the subject, which is how things used to be. This knowledge is bound to have educational consequences sooner or later.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:29 PM
Category: How the human mind works
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