Brain Rules by John Medina

If you read only two books about the brain, Medina’s Brain Rules should probably be your second one (thanks Kapsio, for the recommendation), after Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a few months, you might remember a post I did nearly a year ago called The Broken Brain Books. Let me repeat the quote from Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open that I used to start that post:

…while it is interesting to find out [the] exact addresses [of brain functions], that information is ultimately unsatisfying. Call it the “neuromap fallacy.” If neuroscience turns out to be mostly good at telling us the location of the “food craving center” or the “jealousy” center,” then it will be of limited relevance to ordinary people seeking a new kind of self-awareness — because learning where jealousy lives in your head doesn’t make you understand the emotion any more clearly. Those neuromaps will be of great interest to scientists of course, and doctors. But to the layperson, they will be little more than trivia.

By this critique (which I wholeheartedly agree with), most ‘brain’ books are a big waste of trees. Medina, thankfully, avoids this trap, and doesn’t even mention fMRIs till fairly late into the book, and when he does, he steps away lightly from pointless fMRI-pornography. That leaves us with 12 brain rules, each of which gets a chapter. The chapter on short-term memory for instance, is titled “repeat to remember.” Well Duh! you might say. Fortunately, there are deeper insights buried within. Despite appearances, the book isn’t an exercise in providing unnecessary proofs for folk-tautologies.

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How Geniuses Think

Guest post by Michael Michalko

How do geniuses come up with ideas? What is common to the thinking style that produced “Mona Lisa,” as well as the one that spawned the theory of relativity? What characterizes the thinking strategies of the Einsteins, Edisons, da Vincis, Darwins, Picassos, Michelangelos, Galileos, Freuds, and Mozarts of history? What can we learn from them?

For years, scholars and researchers have tried to study genius by giving its vital statistics, as if piles of data somehow illuminated genius. In his 1904 study of genius, Havelock Ellis noted that most geniuses are fathered by men older than 30; had mothers younger than 25 and were usually sickly as children. Other scholars reported that many were celibate (Descartes), others were fatherless (Dickens) or motherless (Darwin). In the end, the piles of data illuminated nothing.

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The UnAha! Experience

Imagine that there is a mystery closed curve about the origin. Allow two parallel lines to approach the origin from diametrically opposed directions, and have them stop where they first become tangent to the mystery curve. Suppose you do this from all pairs of directions from (0,π) to (π,0), and find that the lines stop the same distance apart everywhere. What is the mystery curve? (Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about mathematics!) [Read more…]

Sapir-Whorf, Lakoff, Metaphor and Thought

“What is thought?” is a question that is foundational by any reasonable measure. The best short answer I have found so far has been “thought is conceptual metaphor,” and it is one of the enduring regrets of my life that it took me so long to encounter this answer. An undergraduate friend (hi there Max!) introduced me to George Lakoff and the notion he introduced, conceptual metaphor, just as I was finishing up my PhD, and it radically altered my thinking (and my thinking about thinking, a.k.a philosophy) from that point on. I can only wonder how different my life would have been if I’d read Metaphors We Live By as an undergraduate. So here is a discursive introduction to these ideas.

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Clockspeed and Business Genetics Reconsidered

Nearly 10 years ago, in Clockspeed, Charles Fine of MIT revived a metaphor for the economy that goes back to at least Herbert Spencer’s essay, On The Social Organism (1860). A colleague recommended the book because I’ve lately been obsessed with issues of speed in innovation. Read as an anecdote-rich exposition of concurrent engineering, it is pretty good. As a justification of its title, it is badly derailed, since the limited discussion of time scales in the business world goes nowhere, least of all towards justification of the subtitle “winning industry control in the age of temporary advantage.” But the book, despite its value, mainly struck me as a massive missed opportunity to explore the metaphor of business genetics. In this piece, I attempt to remedy this gap with the benefit of 10 years of hindsight.

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A Surfer’s Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything

Garrett Lisi, a freelance physicist who apparently divides his time between surfing in Hawaii and snowboarding in Lake Tahoe, has come up with a new (and apparently falsifiable) approach to unifying quantum mechanics and gravity without using superstring theory, and is being taken seriously. I’ve blogged about the problems in physics before, and in the context of that unfolding drama, this appears to be viewed as a win for the heterodox camp (which includes digital physics). Even if it is ultimately proved wrong, there seems to have been some movement, and what is interesting to us non-physicists is that it seems to require a complete break with the establishment to make progress.

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Meditation on Disequilibrium in Nature

The idea of stability is a central organizing concept in mathematics and control theory. Lately I have been pondering a more basic idea: equilibrium, which economists prefer to work with. Looking at some fallen trees this weekend, a point I had appreciated in the abstract hit me in a very tangible form: both stability and equilibrium are intellectual fictions. Here is the sight which sparked this train of thought:

Trees 1

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Digital Philosophy II: Are Cellular Automata Important?

The assertion that the universe is a computer (or rather, a computation) might seem like an egregious category error — computers after all are things made from the ‘stuff’ of the universe. To take digital philosophy seriously we need to get past this non-trivial barrier to comprehension. The idea is that computation is not a metaphor for the universe, nor is the physical evolution of the universe analogous to computation. The idea is that the universe can be said to be a gigantic ongoing computation just as it can be said to be a bunch of particles interacting energetically via some laws. In the first part of this series, we looked at the prerequisite idea that the continuum (or real line) might not be so real. In the next part, we’ll get to the latest ideas, from quantum computing scientists like Seth Lloyd. But before we get there, we need to talk about Von Neumann, Stephen Wolfram and Cellular Automata, an approach to digital philosophy (and physics) that I think is wrong, but nevertheless very illuminating.

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Digital Philosophy – I: The Real is Unreal

In a previous article, I reviewed some of the troubles ailing superstring theory, as chronicled by two prominent and articulate discontents. Among the more radical suggestions for fixing physics is to get away from continuous models altogether and ask if the universe is fundamentally a discrete entity in some way. Proponents of this view — called digital physics or nearly-equivalently, digital philosophy— take on not one but two terrifying tasks. Not only must they reconstruct centuries of physics built on top of calculus (a fundamentally continuous sort of math) but to finish the job at a satisfying level, take on continuum mathematics itself and reconstruct it in discrete terms. The debate has relevance even further afield, to questions about the nature of consciousness. I’ll talk about three books that develop this approach in an accessible manner, and about one formidable one that I think confuses the issues in pointless distracting ways.

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The Fifty-Foot Rule Reconsidered

I have heard cited several times the so-called fifty foot law of sociology, which says that most collaborations happen among people who work less than fifty feet apart (the idea is generally credited to Tom Allen of MIT; the primary reference seems to be his monograph, Managing the Flow of Technology, MIT Press, 1977, which I admit I haven’t actually read). Let’s generalize and assert that most relationship interactions happen among people who live/work 50 feet apart, plus or minus an order of magnitude, say 5-500 feet. This being a probabilistic, phenomenological law, it should be interesting to mull how it is changing in Tom Friedman’s flattening world, and to what extent lives are getting transformed in terms of changes to this law.

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