29 August 2009

The human mind as a flawed creation of nature

Filed under: books, evolution, happiness, intelligence, unconscious — David Wood @ 11:38 am

I’m sharing these thoughts after finishing reading Kluge – the haphazard construction of the human mind by NYU Professor of Psychology, Gary Marcus.

I bought this book after seeing it on the recommended reading list for the forthcoming 2009 Singularity Summit.  The quote from Bertrand Russell at the top of chapter 1 gave me warm feelings towards the book as soon as I started reading:

It has been said that man is a rational animal.  All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.

A few days later, I’ve finished the book, still with warm feelings.

(Alas, although I’ve started at least 20 books this year, I can only remember two others that I finished – reviewed here and here.  In part, I blame the hard challenges of my work life this year for putting unusual stress and strain on my reading habits.  In part, I blame the ease-of-distraction of Twitter, for cutting into time that I would previously have spent on reading.  Anyway, it’s a sign of how readable Kluge is, that I’ve made it all the way to the end so quickly.)

I first knew the word “Kluge” as “Kludge”, a term my software engineering colleagues in Psion often used.  This book explores the history of the term, as well as its different spellings.  The definition given is as follows:

Kluge – noun, pronounced klooj (engineering): a solution that is clumsy or inelegant yet surprisingly effective.

Despite their surface effectiveness, kluges have many limitations in practice.  Engineers who have sufficient time prefer to avoid kluges, and instead to design solutions that work well under a wider range of circumstances.

The basic claim of the book is that many aspects of the human mind operate in clumsy and suboptimal ways – ways which betray the haphazard and often flawed evolutionary history of the mind.  Many of the case studies quoted are familiar to me from previous reading (eg from Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis and Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves), but Gary Marcus fits the case studies together into a different framework.

The framework is, to me, both convincing and illuminating.  It provides a battery of evidence relevant to what might be called “The Nature Delusion” – the pervasive yet often unspoken belief that things crafted by nature are inevitably optimal and incapable of serious improvement.

A good flavour of the book is conveyed by some extracts from near the end:

In this book, we’ve discussed several bugs in our cognitive makeup: confirmation bias, mental contamination, anchoring, framing, inadequate self-control, the ruminative cycle, the focussing illusion, motivated reasoning, and false memory, not to mention absent-mindedness, an ambiguous linguistic system, and vulnerability to mental disorders.  Our memory, contextually driven as it is, is ill suited to many of the demands of modern life, and our self-control mechanisms are almost hopelessly split.  Our ancestral mechanisms were shaped in a different world, and our more modern deliberative mechanisms can’t shake the influence of that past.  In every domain we have considered, from memory to belief, choice, language, and pleasure, we have seen that a mind built largely through the progressive overlay of technologies is far from perfect.  None of these aspects of human psychology would be expected from an intelligent designer; instead, the only reasonable way to interpret them is as relics, leftovers of evolution.

In a sense, the argument I have presented here is part of a long tradition.  Stephen Jay Gould‘s notion of remnants of history, a key inspiration of this book, goes back to Darwin, who started his legendary work The Descent of Man with a list of a dozen “useless, or nearly useless” features – body hair, wisdom teeth, the vestigial tail bone known as the coccyx.  Such quirks of nature were essential to Darwin’s argument.

Yet imperfections of the mind have rarely been discussed in the context of evolution…

Scientifically, every kluge contains a clue to our past; wherever there is a cumbersome solution, there is insight into how nature layered our brain together; it is no exaggeration to say that the history of evolution is a history of overlaid technologies, and kluges help expose the seams.

Every kluge also underscores what is fundamentally wrong-headed about creationism: the presumption that we are the product of an all-seeing entity.  Creationists may hold on to the bitter end, but imperfection (unlike perfection) beggars the imagination.  It’s one thing to imagine an all-knowing engineer designing a perfect eyeball, another to imagine that engineer slacking off and building a half-baked spine.

There’s a practical side too: investigations into human idiosyncrasies can provide a great deal of useful insight into the human condition.  As they say at Alcoholics Anonymous, recognition is the first step.  The more we can understand our clumsy nature, the more we can do something about it.

The final chapter of the book is entitled “True Wisdom”.  In that chapter, the author provides a list of practical suggestions for dealing with our mental imperfections.

Some of these suggestions entail changes in our education processes.  For example, I was intrigued by the description of Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery – a book intended to help teach children skills in critical thinking:

The eponymous Harry is asked to write an essay called “The most interesting thing in the world”.  Harry, a boy after my own heart, choosing to write his on thinking.  “To me, the most interesting thing in the whole world is thinking…”

Kids of ages 10-12 who were exposed to a version of this curriculum for 16 months, for just an hour a week, showed significant gains in verbal intelligence, nonverbal intelligence, self-confidence, and independence.

The core of the final chapter is a list of 13 pieces of individual-level advice, for how we can all “do better as thinkers”, despite the kluges in our design.  Each suggestion is founded (the author says) on careful empirical research:

  1. Whenever possible, consider alternative hypotheses
  2. Reframe the question
  3. Always remember that correlation does not entail causation
  4. Never forget the size of your sample
  5. Anticipate your own impulsivity and pre-commit
  6. Don’t just set goals.  Make contingency plans
  7. Whenever possible, don’t make important decisions when you are tired or have other things on your mind
  8. Always weigh benefits against costs
  9. Imagine that your decisions may be spot-checked
  10. Distance yourself
  11. Beware the vivid, the personal, and the anecdotal
  12. Pick your spots
  13. Remind yourself frequently of the need to be rational.

You’ll need to read the book itself for further details (often thought-provoking) about each of these suggestions.

A different kind of suggestion that we can augment our own mental processes, imperfect though they are, with electronic mental processes that are much more reliable.  The book touches on that idea in places too, mentioning the author’s reliance on the memory powers of his Palm Pilot and the contacts application on a mobile phone.  I think there’s lots more to come, along similar lines.

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you.

    Seeing your recommendation I obtained a copy and enjoyed reading it. It is a useful reminder of how we have to work hard to be rational.

    Comment by Peter Jackson — 27 September 2009 @ 6:03 pm

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