Saturday, April 25, 2009

A bit about book covers and the brain

By now anyone not buried in sand or on a trek through the Antarctice knows the name Susan Boyle. If you haven't seen the Youtube replay of her performance on Britain's TV show "You've Got Talent", you might want to do so before reading on. Go ahead, I'll wait.....

Okay, back? If you think anything like me, you found the story interesting, inspiring, amusing and a little odd. On the face of it, the whole episode reminds me of my mother's admonition (echoed throughout my life from a jillion other sources) about the pitfalls of judging a book by its cover. Yep, she looks frumpy and yep, she doesn't do a great job of looking collected and alluring up there on the stage. We like our stars handsome and someone who doesn't fit has the temerity to aspire to stardom, we don't just dismiss her, we scorn her. Never mind that few in the audience would come off much better, we frumpy folk are supposed to know our places and not inflict our frumpiness on others, especially not on national TV.

Psychologists and neuroscientists have offered plenty of analysis of course. In this article from the NY Times, several experts note that this categorizing behavior runs very deep in the brain, reaching far back into our evolutionary history. Back then, we benefitted from a quick assessment of the stranger in front of us: are they good or bad, am I safe or in danger, can I eat it or have sex with it, etc. In modern times, we employ the same basic behavior to distinguish far less critical matters, like who's in and who's out, or who we want as leaders and who we can safely ignore.

As with so many other modern cultural co-optations of basic brain circuitry, we do not easily resist this compulsion to stereotype:

Scientists are finding that stereotypes are not simply stored and retrieved by the brain, but “are associated with general regions in the brain involved in memory and goal-planning,” Professor [David] Amodio [an assistant professor of psychology at New York University,] said, suggesting that “people recruit stereotypes to kind of help them plan a world that’s consistent with the goal they might have.”
The article goes on to note the research of Susan Fiske, , a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton,who found that:
The part of the brain that normally activates when you are thinking about people is surprisingly silent when you’re looking at homeless people...It’s kind of a neural dehumanization...But...the neural response is restored when people are asked to focus on what soup the homeless person might like to eat, something that makes one think about the person as someone with wants or goals.

In other words, the more we know about someone, the harder time we have not seeing them as "one of us", a human being.

I think this story tells us a lot more than simply to watch out for the dangers of judging by book cover. It demonstrates a few critical aspects of cognitive accuracy:

One: we get a more useful, accurate result if we base our assessment of someone on as many available facts as possible.

Two: we get more useful results when we recognize that our assumptions may interfere with the accuracy of our assessments.

Three: we get more useful results when we use available feedback to update our assessments when new information becomes available.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Need an Electronic Pause?

Once again, neuroscience seems to have gained a new insight into an aspect of human brains that folks with general semantics experience have known about for some time. You tend to produce a more compassionate response if you wait a few seconds for the higher brain circuits to kick in and add reason to your evaluation. This story from Wired describes research that found that brain circuits involved in the experience of empathy take several seconds to activate. The rest of the story worries, probably with some good justification, that today's instantaneous communication modes, especially social networks like Facebook and Twitter, allow us to respond before we have had a chance to engage in a deeper emotional and rational evaluation.

One sentence in particular gave me pause: Empathy "...might even fail to properly develop in children, whose brains are being formed in ways that will last a lifetime."

The entertainment and communications industry have long denied that consuming their products can "harm" or even seriously affect the brains of viewers and listeners. This suggests otherwise--or at least, it makes it pretty apparent that what we do affects the shape and circuitry of our brains.