Made to Stick

Yesterday’s New York Times had this article, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike,” which quickly became the #1 emailed article on the site.  While a little light, it raises several points that bear reflection. 

First, in discussing the “curse of knowledge,” the difficulty in remembering what the world looked like before you became an expert, I am struck by this as one apt metaphor for culture.  It is so hard to escape from our own ways of thinking, which is why living in another culture, literally becoming a non-expert once again through participant observation, is such a core part of becoming a good cultural anthropologist.  After that experience, or the similar experience of indoctrination into evolutionary theory, anthropologists in general struggle to create knowledge that is useful to people beyond anthropology, to both market it and make it relevant. 
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Cave men in classrooms by Prof. Roger Schank

Roger Schank, founder of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, John P. Evans Professor Emeritus in Computer Science, Education and Psychology, and author of about twenty books, gives us an offering on evolution and education on The Pulse, the blog of District Administration, an educational organization. His posting, Cave Man Didn’t Have Classrooms, borrows from the idea that we are gastro-intestinal ‘cave men’ eating twenty-first century (read: ill adapted) diets, using it to criticize the Western approach of education. As he puts it, cleverly, we are ‘still’ cave men (we’ll be back to that point): ‘We just wear better clothes.’

I take seriously the idea that, biologically, we are still cave men. And, mentally we are cave men as well. Just as we were evolved to live off the land without excessive alteration to what we find there, so have we evolved to think and learn in a certain way, a way that may not be consonant with how we think we think, and how we learn in the modern world.

He goes on to paint absurdist images of ‘cave men’ learning through lectures in class rooms to highlight the fact that human brains may not learn well by sitting quitely and listening. Prof. Schank writes:

Why do these images seem absurd? Because, we imagine, that cave men taught their children by example. We imagine that they took them along on the hunt when they were ready and that they practiced, by playing, prior to that. We assume, that learned to build shelters by doing simple tasks first and that they learned to defend against predators by watching and later helping. We don’t really have to imagine this very hard, as there are primitive societies where this still takes place today. In fact, prior to the idea of mass compulsory education, like that of mass feeding, we knew how to educate children properly, that is in the way that their minds were set up to work after 1,000,000 years of evolution. Instruction in cave man society, indeed in all societies until very recently, was by long-term apprenticeships. Knowing was not valued. Doing was seriously valued.

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Everyday Design Continued

John Tierney, whose New York Times article I commented on in the post Neuroanthropology and Everyday Day Design, wrote me a kind email (Thanks, John!) to say: 

Thanks… for writing about Donald Norman so perceptively. I enjoyed your advice to neuroanthropologists, and the cautionary words from the commenter [who was actually me] who bought one of those digital frames anyway. BTW, Don Norman was looking at design and other factors in our shopping excursion — one of the frames he liked better was partly due to the esthetics (it was a natural wood instead of black). As he and your commenter realize, people often buy something without testing it out and so the buttons really don’t matter from a marketing standpoint. Although with Amazon comments and other feedback, maybe usability will become more of a factor.

 Tierney continued discussing Donald Norman’s work in this article “Smart Elevators, Dumb People.”  The new smart elevators work without buttons inside the elevator; rather, you push a button in the lobby and are directed to the elevator that will take you (and others) to that specific floor.  In other words, instead of each elevator making all stops, the new smart elevators attempt to group people going to the same floor into the same elevator.  Faster service, energy saved… 

Norman again points to two important aspects that concern anthropology—“years and years of experience” and a “clash of cultures.”  For the experiential side, Tierney points to people reaching for buttons that are not there and using the door opening and the floor shown as the signal to get off.  On the one hand, people had to learn that the button pushing happened outside the elevators; on the other, the engineers had to adapt their technology so that the floor being displayed and the floor where the doors opened actually matched.  This point about experience, signals, and old habits highlights a realm that cultural anthropology does not explore much because its main causal explanations are things like “inequality” or “culture” or “discourse/ideology.”  A lot of life is simply about years and years of experience, and in many ways, the things that interest anthropologists empirically build on these everyday things.  Cognitive neuroscience—Donald Norman is a cognitive scientist—offers us a wealth of ways to think about and examine these sorts of habits and cues and behaviors in ways that will ultimately enrich out understanding of what “culture” means and does. 

For the clash of cultures, Norman indicates the conflict in our everyday spaces (like elevators) between people used to one way of doing things with the engineers trying to foist another way of doing things on us everyday mortals.  Something that culture does well is to make things less confusing—culture imposes an order on the world that is quite different from what all other animals do (even if there are shared roots to culture way back in primate evolution).  But we humans are still animals, and we often diligently follow the dictates of our cultural environment.  Sometimes less confusion doesn’t mean more enlightenment, it just means more efficiency and better execution.  From an evolutionary point of view, that will often be enough.

The Brains of Conductors

The BBC News carried a story recently about research done on the brains of orchestra conductors and band leaders and how they responded to a complicated listening task. The researchers played two tones for the subjects very closely together, fractions of a second apart, and the subjects were asked to tell what order they were played in.

The most interesting finding was that all subjects, untrained controls and experienced conductors alike, demonstrated a decrease in activity on fMRI scans in the ‘visual areas’ (I presume the visual cortex) when asked to do this difficult listening task. As the BBC headline reads, ‘Brain “Closes Eyes” to Hear Music.’ The more difficult the researchers made the task, the more activity in the visual regions was decreased. As the BBC article puts it:

As the task was made harder and harder, the non-musicians carried on diverting more and more activity away from the visual parts of the brain to the auditory side, as they struggled to concentrate.

However, after a certain point, the conductors did not suppress their brains, suggesting that their years of training had provided a distinct advantage in the way their brains were organised.

The implications of this in terms of brain ‘enculturation’ are several, and I want to highlight a couple.

Firstly, the testing itself suggests that brain activity is task dependent, both in positive and negative terms. That is, ask the brain to do some things and not only do particular regions associated with the task get very active, but other, possibly competing or distracting neural activities, get suppressed. I’ve been thinking about the senses a fair bit lately (more on that soon), and this would seem to be one way in which the senses are not independent. Instead, the senses are linked together, even if it is in suppressive links, the heightened attention or concentration along one channel sometimes suppressing others. For culturally influenced patterns of sensing, it could mean that what we don’t sense is as important as what we do.

Second, these sorts of links between expertise and the effectiveness of sensing are variable phenomena, not necessarily existing at all levels of task demand. I find this interesting because it might not show up in every experiment, depending on the difficulty of the experimental task. In the case of the conductors, you don’t really notice the difference in their performance on the task until the difficulty is greatly increased.

Third, the ‘enculturation’ is very much a skill-dependent brain change. That is, it’s not a blanket, shared-by-all cultural trait, but one that’s only shared by a specialist group within a ‘culture.’ This makes more sense to me in a lot of ways because I work with elite athletics, but I suspect that many ways in which the brain is ‘encultured’ are not shared throughout what anthropologists typically think of as ‘cultures.’ Moreover, because the brain likely responds to similar demands by using similar mechanism, another elite practitioner of a parallel skill (like a musical leader in capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art I’ve worked on) might have an ability that looked a bit like the conductors’. How these abilities differed then — not only in terms of their meaning, acquisition, and the like, but also in terms of the neurological dynamics — would be an interesting set of research questions.

One could write a lot more, but I’ll leave it at this for now.