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This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman

thiswillmakeyousmarterEach year, John Brockman and Edge.org ask a group of renowned scientists and thinkers a thought provoking question to stimulate discussion about important topics. In 2011, he asked “What scientific concept will improve everybody‚Äôs cognitive toolkit?” Something like 150 people contributed short essays with their answer to the question. They range from profound to rather silly (at least, in my opinion). But they all provide new ways of thinking about the world around us.

For example, P. Z. Meyrs discusses the “mediocrity principle”. Simply put, it means that you, or me, or any of us, aren’t special. We aren’t the center of the universe. Things don’t happen to us for a reason. The universe isn’t out there to either help us or hurt us. It just is, and we are just a part of it. Sean Carroll follows up on this, by stating “Humans… like to insist that there are reasons why things happen… [that things] must be explained in terms of the workings of a hidden plan” but, in the end, there is no such plan. In a twist to this idea, Samuel Barondes points out that, while each of us is ordinary, we are also each one of a kind.

Jonah Lehrer discusses research on willpower with an example of 4-year-old kids. These kids were sat down in a tiny room and presented with treats. They could either eat one now, or if they could way for a few minutes alone in the room, they could have two treats when the time was up. Some kids waited and some did not. In the end, it wasn’t a matter of kids having more or less willpower, but the kids who could wait for the two treats were better able to distract themselves, focusing on something else rather than the treats. The most important result: the kids who could wait, who could distract themselves from the most immediate reward, scored 210 points (on average) on SAT tests in high school compared to those who didn’t last 30 seconds before grabbing a treat. As Lehrer states, “these correlations demonstrate the importance of learning to strategically allocate our attention.” If we can learn to focus on things other than the immediate reward, we can improve our overall lot in life.

Another theme that is explored by multiple authors is the human brain’s inability to really assess risk. We inordinately fear things that have an extremely low probability of happening while we don’t give a second thought to things that actually are relatively likely. Garrett Lisi summarizes this paradox nicely: “The startling implication is that the risk of being bitten and killed by a spider is less than the risk that being afraid of spiders will kill you because of the increased stress.” That is, the stress of being afraid of spiders is more deadly than the spiders themselves.

One last example is by Jason Zweig. I like it because, in an ideal world, I would try to implement this in my own life. He focuses on serendipity, and how to nurture the creative process that lead to those Eureka! moments. In particular, he says that research shows that serendipity is a consequence of abrupt shifts in the focus of our brain activity. It is when the brain completely shifts gears. To facilitate this, he personally tries to read one scientific paper each week that is not in his field and to read it in a completely different place. The idea is to break his routine, to force his brain into new circumstances, with the goal of promoting shifts in the focus of the brain. I like the idea; I just need to find some time to do it.

There are a lot of other essays that are very interesting, going into various aspects of the scientific method, or principles from economics, or the role of randomness in our lives. Like the other books in this series, I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than to provide food for thought about how both our brains and the universe they find themselves in work.

 

 

 

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

9781611099690_custom-9ba9bdb4ab35cd10ff6b1ac6d3ca5b74c98bf343-s6-c30The conceit of stories like the X-Men is that there are people who are born that are different than the rest of us, and that difference makes them both special as well as a potential threat. In the case of the X-Men, they have extraordinary powers — shooting eye beams, controlling the weather, walking through walls, turning into metal — that give them enormous advantages over the rest of humanity. In some ways, that is the same conceit of Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance, though here it is treated in a much more subtle and realistic manner.

Imagine a world where, instead of being born with the ability to fly, the special people do have extraordinary talents, but they are essentially ampped up versions of things all of us can do. Recognize body language, but so well that you can anticipate the actions of others. See patterns in the movement of people that you can walk through crowds of people without being noticed. Or identify patterns in computer code such that you can make the computer do whatever you want. People like this would be viewed as both an asset and a threat. Or both at the same time. At some point, it would be inevitable that the government becomes involved in the lives of these people. And some of them would rebel. That is the basic premise of Brilliance.

Some of these people, so-called brilliants, in an effort to make sure their lives are peaceful, have decided to work on the side of the devil, so to speak, working for the government to keep other brilliants in check. And keeping them in check means some heavy handed involvement by the government, including taking potentially brilliant children to special schools. One of these agents, Chase, is on the trail of a brilliant terrorist. But, as he discovers, reality is quite a bit more complex and nuanced than his black and white view of the world.

My understanding is that this is the first in a series of novels developing and exploring this world of brilliant people. If the first one is any indicator, we are in for a dramatic ride that touches on themes such as individual freedom and responsibility, the role of government, and how we treat people who are different than ourselves.

Lexicon by Max Barry

lexicon_usa_hb_bigMax Barry has become one of my favorite authors. His novels take elements of every day life, the things that are changing around us because of advances in technology and our understanding of the world, and pushes those elements to extremes to explore their consequences in unique ways. In Lexicon, he does this again.

In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with advertisements and propaganda that try to influence us. And there is a lot of research that shows this stuff works. The way things are presented to us or the context in which they are presented to us influences how we think about them or even how we think more generally. Imagine taking this to the extreme, where certain special words can completely hi-jack our brains and make us do whatever the speaker wants. That is the premise of Lexicon.

Lexicon follows the adventures of a group of people who are particularly adept at this kind of manipulation. They recruit kids to a special school where they teach them to hone these abilities and teach them these powerful words. These kids are then players in a bigger global arena in which the most powerful are trying to assert control.

One of these students, Emily, is different than the others, mostly in that her moral code brings her to break the rules. Ultimately, this puts her on the run from the very organization that trained her as she tries to understand the secret machinations that run behind the scenes.

I won’t go into the plot very much, but there are twists and turns throughout the novel such that you never really know who is on the side of the angels and who is not. And some of the characters are pretty grey in this regard, maybe not so much good or bad but, really, are like all of us: depending on the situation, they sometimes make good or bad decisions.

In any case, this is another entertaining novel from Max Barry that, while taking you on a roller coaster ride of adventure, still makes you think about some of the bigger questions related to how we think and what really influences how we think. I don’t really believe we are as completely autonomous as our brains make us think we are. What happens if that is taken to an extreme? Lexicon provides one entertaining answer to this question.

My Dangerous Ideas

In a series of books, one each year, John Brockman asks the contributors and members of Edge.org a question. The goal is to foster exchange, to provoke thinking, and to stir debate. I thought I’d give my own answers to each question.

In What is Your Dangerous Idea?, John Brockman asked exactly that: “What is your dangerous idea?” Well, I have two.

The American Dream is a Fraud.

I’ve touched on this before. One of the defining tenants of American society is that anyone can make it, can be a success, if only they work hard. I have serious doubts that hard work is the most important criterion for success in American (with inheritance, skill, perseverance, and dumb luck likely all being more important), but let’s set that aside for the moment. Let’s assume that hard work, and hard work alone, will get you to the top. It’s a nice thought, and a nice ideal, but it simply can’t be true. There isn’t enough room at the top for everyone. Someone has to do those jobs near the bottom of the economic ladder, those jobs no one chooses to do, but must be done for society and the economy to function. Jobs that don’t pay well. The bottom rungs of the economic ladder must be occupied by someone, regardless of how hard everyone works. That is, even if everyone worked hard, the vast majority have to fail for the system to work. The top need the bottom to exist. Thus, the system has to be rigged to ensure that the bottom exists.

As a consequence, it simply can’t be true that all one needs is to work hard. Sure, some will work hard and rise above their “humble beginnings,” but we all can’t. Most of us won’t, regardless of how hard we work. If the majority of us are able to move up the ladder, we must bring in new people who are willing to exist at the bottom, for whatever reason.

The only way I can see that the American Dream can be a reality for the vast majority of Americans is for us to develop the technology to automate all of those jobs at the lowest economic rungs. Possibly then, we won’t need people to do them and the system will have the freedom to allow most or maybe even all of us to move up and realize the American Dream. But, until that happens, I fear that most of will have to settle for the hope of the American Dream for their children.

Behavior can be Predicted and Controlled.

It seems that, as we learn more about how the brain functions, we are learning more and more that many behaviors are a consequence of the structure and chemistry of the brain. Much of what defines each of us is based on genetic factors and our predilections are often a function of how our brains are wired, out of our direct control. If true, this has enormous implications for our place in society.

Imagine if each of our brains can be mapped to such a degree that we can place high probabilities of us behaving in certain ways. And imagine if this could be done when we are infants. That is, consider a world in which an infant, not long in this world, can have his or her brain mapped and the propensity for unsocial behavior determined. Behavior, for example, such as tendency to be violent or a psychopath or a sociopath. What should we do with such capabilities and knowledge? Should we use it to determine the likelihood of each and every individual’s probability to be a damaging member of society? And, if we can, what should we do to those people? Should we continuously monitor them in the hope of preventing them from harming anyone? Should we abscond them away to ensure they don’t?

Now imagine we take the scenario a bit further. Imagine we have the ability to change behavior, through chemistry. We do this already to some extent, with ADHD and other behaviors deemed undesirable. What if we could use chemicals, possibly forcibly given, to turn off that part of the brain that drives pedophiles? Or murders? What if we could alter the brain chemistry of individuals determined to be a danger to society to remove that danger? That is, what if we could stop these people from doing any harm, by changing them before they were ever able to do any harm? If we could identify the Jeffery Dahmers and Adolf Hitlers of the world long before they became those monsters, should we? And what should we do about it?

There are many ethical questions that arise from such a scenario, including the right of society to so drastically interfere with the rights of any given individual who has done nothing wrong, but has a brain that strongly indicates they will. Further, there will be those who want to use such power for more nefarious purposes, such as eliminating people with behaviors that aren’t dangerous but are deemed unacceptable (for example, homosexuality) or maybe dangerous to the regime (such as a proclivity to question authority).

I think we will soon have the ability to both determine who might be prone to dangerous behavior and then modify them so they don’t. We will soon have to answer questions about what we do with that ability.

My Elegant Explanation

In a series of books, one each year, John Brockman asks the contributors and members of Edge.org a question. The goal is to foster exchange, to provoke thinking, and to stir debate. I thought I’d give my own answers to each question.

In This Explains Everything, John Brockman asked “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”

maxwell-equations225px-James_Clerk_MaxwellFor me, it has to be Maxwell’s equations. When I was an undergrad physics major, struggling with some of the concepts in classical mechanics, it was really electromagnetism that struck me as both deep and elegant. Here is a set of four equations that not only link electricity and magnetism, but provide an immense and rich physical world that simply falls out of the equations. This includes the fact that electromagnetic waves can propagate in space. This understanding was the foundation from which Albert Einstein, who started with Maxwell’s equations, developed the special theory of relativity, which postulates that light travels at a constant speed, always.

Developed by James Clerk Maxwell, who was inspired by, amongst others, Michael Faraday, one of the greatest experimental physicists ever, Maxwell’s equations embody, to me, the beauty of physics. A concise set of equations that encapsulate a model of reality that both explains a vast amount of experimental observations but also provide profound insight into the nature of the universe and predict new phenomena that simply was not even dreamt of before. I don’t necessarily believe that all of physics and the physical sciences can be summarized and encapsulated into such nice and tidy equations. But, for those instances where it can, the power, beauty, and understanding provided by such a description is immense (all of our modern technology is essentially enabled by the understanding that Maxwell’s equations embody). Maxwell’s equations are one of the pinnacles of physics and, to me, essentially define an elegant and beautiful explanation.