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By Dean Buonomano, 2011, W.W. Norton, New York and London. US$29.95 list (at this writing $15.91 on Amazon.com), hardcover.
Dr. Buonomano is Professor in the Departments of Neurobiology and Psychology and the Brain Research Institute at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles, California).
This is an excellent companion to Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow (Tip 124). Kahneman provides the empirical research into decision-making and suggests possible evolutionary explanations for why we are what we are. Buonomano describes some of the same behavior and suggests tentative explanations from brain physiology.
Here are some of the interesting ideas and factoids from the book:
CAPTCHA = Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. It's easy: Just ask it/him/her to do a modest calculation (computer), recognize a face (human, though computers are gaining), or assess a time interval (computer).
Brain complexity: 90 billion neurons linked by 100 trillion synapses—this surpasses the elements and connections of the (current) World Wide Web.
Long-term memory relies on synaptic
plasticity—the formation of new synapses and the strengthening or
weakening of existing ones.
Association and Hebb’s rule: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”\
Evolution is slow. Nature’s solution is learning.
Survival: We are especially adapted to learn fear
“Fear is evolution’s way of ensuring that animals exhibit proactive responses to life-threatening dangers.” Some fears are preprogrammed (snakes), and others are learned (especially by watching the reactions of other people). Marketing of politicians, media, special interest groups, quack medicines, and many consumer products exploit fear.
Selection favors cooperative individuals. (My note: A fairness ethic has been observed in animals.)
Priming: memory is affected by association. Even though this introduces bias, this is a useful memory feature: “Remembering the gist of something is a useful feature of memory, because it is often the gist that really matters.”
Priming examples: Given first any number; holding something heavy; seeing oneself in a mirror (honesty); given words (danger vs. safe).
“Priming, framing, and anchoring may all be interrelated psychological phenomena attributable to the same neural mechanisms” explained by groups of neurons representing associated concepts. Chapter six, “Unreasonable Reasoning,” talks about cognitive biases (much of this studied by Tversky and Kahneman).
Eyewitness testimonies are unreliable (examples). An erroneous leading question can trump reality. Remedies: open-ended questions; show suspects one at a time.
Association explains a lot about the $100b spent on U.S. advertising. People often confuse correlation with causation. Advertisers put attractive people in ads. Buyers associating quality with price.
Forgetting may be nature’s way of avoiding memory bank saturation. “The decreasing in ease with which we store information as we age could reflect limited storage capacity of the brain.”
The neural system allocates resources where needed most. A blind person’s brain reallocates brain areas associated with vision to other senses. Braille readers have more sensitive fingertips.
Cause-and-effect. We’re wired for and expect relationships. We look for correlations. If the effect is hidden (odds at blackjack) or delayed (cancer from cigarettes), then the link is not made.
He offers some interesting ideas on religion (which some reviewers have posted that they found offensive).
Temporal discounting: preference immediate gratification. Our ancestors expected short and unpredictable life. Politicians deliver benefits and put-off paying for them. Suggestion for employee compensation: pay bonuses immediately as earned so the association is made.
I found the book highly interesting. If you're interested in cognitive illusions and other thinking traps, I suggest that you read Thinking, Fast and Slow first. Those readers interested in neural networks may want to first look at Tip 51.
—John Schuyler, February 2014
Copyright © 2014 by John R. Schuyler. All rights reserved. Permission to copy with reproduction of this notice.