Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Cognitive Toolkit Improvements

Studley Tool Chest
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As part of my ongoing project in making myself better, I am reading a book entitled This Will Make You Smarter, a collection of short essays submitted to Edge.org in response to the prompt "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" I'm about 75% of the way through it at the moment and have some thoughts.

Most of the essay authors are involved in science, whether through research/academia or journalism (which is important, as how else are we to disseminate knowledge?)--understandable, given the question. There are of course outliers, such as music producers and artists.

Thus far, some common themes:

1. Doubt and Experimentation. Instead of treating what we're told as a given, we should see for ourselves the results of actions. Doubt and uncertainty are vital because they allow for us to be wrong--meaning that we can improve our understanding of the world.

Recommended reading: Richard Feynman's book The Meaning of It All. I got my senior quote from him (not this book specifically, iirc): "We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress."

2. Statistics and Probability. A better understanding of risk, probability, uncertainty, would help us worry about the right things--the small, constant dangers (like carbon emissions)--rather than the headline-grabbing but unlikely perils (terrorist attacks).

Recommended reading: The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A cognitive tool I remember in particular: if everyone has a different opinion, shoot for the center. If everyone thinks the same way, go in the opposite direction. Use with caution and always evaluate the evidence for yourself, and pay attention to Pareto's principle (known more commonly as the 80-20 rule or something like that).

3. And >> xor. Nature or nurture? Yes. Wave or particle? Yes. There are actually two essays in the collection called "Dualities," and they emphasize the importance of seeing both sides of the problem or the topic. Dichotomies exist, of course, but a more fluid spectrum, or a Schrodinger-esque situation in which two seemingly-opposite states exist at the same time, is often a more accurate picture of reality.

Causes are rarely singular: often, you have to look farther back and trace out multiple strands contributing to an event. I particularly enjoyed the essay "Path Dependence" by John McWhorter, which encouraged looking beyond the easy answers to the fundamental ways that historical forces shape present situations.

John Horton Conway's Game of Life
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4. Emergent properties. I've got to admit that I really like these. A lot of essays mentioned how our sense of self is an emergent property of our neurons, how there's no corner in the brain where the Identity hangs out.

Closely related are the ideas of holism (and thus a refutation of reductionism). In a cliche, synergy: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It is only when you put things together that stuff happens--the system can do what the individual parts cannot.

5. Self-improvement. The whole book is about improving your cognitive toolkit, but here are some of the highlights:

a. Cultivate and learn from failure. Iterative design, yo.

b. Do new things. From "Structured Serendipity," by Jason Zweig--on a regular basis with a high frequency, read something in a field that's not your specialty in an uncommon location.

c. Curate. Consciously choose what is important, how to juxtapose things for maximum...meaning? Impact? Insight? Pay attention to negative space--what has been left out?

d. Practice skills at which you are weak. (Obvious, but bears stating.) The corollary: identify your weak spots by looking at the evidence--"personal data mining," as David Rowan puts it--and tracing out the patterns of your behavior. In general, more self-awareness.

e. Draw upon others' expertise. Humans are definitely not unique in our ability to share information, but you could argue that we are the species that does it the most efficiently. Delegate knowledge to other people--comparative advantage, ja?

I notice that unlike traditional self-help books, which (and yes, I've read a few) often emphasize how you feel about things and relate to yourself, this book mostly relates to how you think about things and change your behavior in response to inputs. Which gels with the idea that we as entities are not states but processes. And processes, of course, are dynamic, always subject to improvement, as we are.

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