Smarter Than You Think
There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately about the damage technology could be doing to our brains. As someone who spends nearly every waking hour tied to technology, the concern has preoccupied me. In some ways, I feel it. I panic when grappling for words I should know or having to revert to Google to blindly keyword around for the the name of a celebrity. So I understand the surge we've seen in books and speakers that chicken-little the demise of independent thought at the hands of the Internet, but it also doesn't feel entirely right to me. I'll readily admit that I'm over-reliant on Google and my unaided memory on many things may be worsening, but it's hard to argue that technology hasn't enriched my life and my intellect far more than it has caused it to shallow. All of which is why I was so impressed this month by Clive Thompson's book Smarter Than You Think.
If it feels like we've become over-reliant on technology, it's probably true. But we forget, Clive Thompson writes, that it's always been this way. Socrates used to lament the rise of writing, as it weakened the memory muscles required to recite long passages. The Gutenberg press prompted debates that the mass creation of books would clutter the intellectual landscape and result in a dampening of culture. "The history of factual memory has been fairly predictable up until now," Thompson writes, "With each innovation, we’ve outsourced more information, then worked to make searching more efficient. Yet somehow, the Internet age feels different." It's not all that different, at least not in its fundamentals. We are yet again handing off parts of our thought-work to make room for new thinking. We're letting Google remember celebrity names so that our brains can, hopefully, focus on something wholly new and productive. Does it always work that way? No. But it can, if we do it right.
The Extended Mind Theory: "The extended mind theory of cognition argues that the reason humans are so intellectually dominant is that we've always outsourced bits of cognition, using tools to scaffold our thinking into ever-more-rarefied-realms. Printed books amplified our memory. Inexpensive paper and reliable pens made it possible to externalize our thoughts quickly..."
History also shows that we generally improve and refine our tools to make them better. Books weren't always designed as well as they are now. The earliest books were just a block of text. No linebreaks, no paragraph breaks, no chapters or pagination. They were slow, trudging masses.
Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting: Memory decays quickly. Only a fraction of what you experience makes its way into long-term memory. After 20 minutes 40% of what you've learned is gone. After an hour, a little more than half. That which makes its way into long-term memory though, stays near permanently. Add context to that act of memorization and your odds improve further. Remembering the definition of Ouroboran is one thing. Recalling how you impulsively threw down Clive Thompson's book and shook your head when you read it casually placed in a sentence is quite another. (I'm seriously jealous of this man's vocabulary).
Transactive Memory: The notion that we farm out parts of our memory to other people and machines. Married people have been doing this for ages, Thompson writes. You remember all the birthdays of your in-laws and your spouse remembers where the checkbook is kept. It's not that either has a better memory, it's that each person's memory has become efficient at not having to hold onto what it knows is easily tappable in the spouse's mind.
Theory of Multiples: Popularized by Sociologists William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas who wanted to know why so many of history's greatest advancements were "discovered" by multiple otherwise unconnected people nearly simultaneously (flight, oxygen, radio). "Our ideas are, in a crucial way, partly products of our environment. They're 'inevitable.' When they're ready to emerge, they do," Thompson summarizes. "The things we think about are deeply influenced by the state of the art around us: the conversations taking place among educated folk, the shared information, tools, and technologies at hand." See: Ernest Duchesne, horse stables and penicillin.
How Commercial Interests Can Slow Invention: "If you're worried about making a profit, multiples dilute your special position in the market; they're depressing. But if you're just trying to improve your thinking, multiples are exciting and catalytic. Everyday thinkers online are thrilled to discover someone else with the same idea as them."
Why Montaigne Continues to be My Homeboy: In addition to wearing a pendant playfully inscribed, "but what do I know?" long after he established fame as a writer and thinker, Thompson underscores that Montaigne worked a bit like a modern blogger. Everything was derived. "He'd peruse a handful of unrelated books until something tickled his fancy -- at which point he'd compose an essay riffing off the last few things he'd read."
Sturgeon's Law: Quite simply, 90% of everything created is crap.
Biochemist David Baker and the Fold-It project. A protein is a string of atoms folded up into a tight ball. Each protein behaves differently depending on how it is folded. But determining how each protein is folded is an immense task. Baker created an online game that enabled users to fold up a protein themselves. It was an ideal use of collective thinking and started leading to major breakthroughs including progress against a protein responsible for AIDS in Monkeys. Baker would give the community proteins to fold, the community would find new and telling ways to fold them. The only trick was designing the problem well.
Games in Education: I'm underwhelmed by most attempts at gamification But Thompson reframes gamification in education in a way that makes more sense to me. It's not about adding a reward so much as it is about adding a purpose. Students learn complex math logic better when they can immediately apply it to create detailed drawings. They pick up geopolitical history if it helps them in a fictitious war-game strategy. They learn to read at higher-grade levels when they're urgently interested in the answers held within the text. Create the game to give context to the lesson - to help students immediately put it to use - and the education comes more organically.
The Importance of Teaching Critical Thinking: One study that will stick with me: Bing Pan, a business professor at College of Charleson asked a group of students to use Google to answer several questions. In the first instance he sent them off to Google and they came back with information from the top three search engine response links. He then artificially inverted the search results, so that the last page of results appeared to be the first. The students again brought back the first 3 links (in fact, the last three). "They just trusted the machine," Thompson wrote.
Granovetter and The Strength of Weak Ties: Sociologist Mark Granovetter studied how people found jobs through relationships. As it turns out, candidates were more likely to successfully find jobs through recommendations from weak ties - friend-of-a-friend type people they only knew loosely - than through their immediate circle. Weak ties expand your circle helping you into territory that's fresher and less trodden. Social media has strengthened our ability to tap weak ties.
"Which is smarter at chess -- Humans or computers? Neither. It's the two together, working side-by-side."
On getting distracted by the internet: "I look up in horror and realized I've lost two hours of work, a missing-time experience redolent of a UFO abduction."
"In any case, I won't be talking about how your brain is being "rewired" Almost everything rewires it, including this book. The brain you had before your read this paragraph? You don't get that brain back. I'm hoping the trade-off is worth it."
"The one thing that both apocalyptics and utopians understand and agree upon is that every new technology pushes us toward new forms of behavior while nudging us away from older, familiar ones."
"I'll admit it. Watson scared the heck out of me."
Solomon Shereshevskii's memory: Not really a concept or a single line, but I was most caught off guard in this book by the single heart wrenching story of Solomon Shereshevskii, a 1920s journalist who suffered from the physical inability to forget. "...he found the weight of so much memory oppressive," Thompson wrote. "His memory didn't even make him smarter; on the contrary, reading was difficult because individual words would constantly trigger vivid memories that disrupted his attention... Shereshevskii would write down memories on paper and burn them, in hopes that he could destroy his past with 'the magical act of burning.' It didn't work."
Neurasthenically: Exhaustion of the neural system
Navonotootse’a: The Cheyenne word for tip-of-the-tongue syndrome.
Ouroboran: Based on an image of a dragon eating its own tail, meant to signify the cycle of regenerating oneself by destroying oneself. You veritable lexicon, Clive Thompson.
The book contains far more than I've referenced here. It's worth buying so you can underline your own favorite lines and make your own conclusions.
Other Things Read, Watched and Consumed
"I don’t know how you are so familiar to me—or why it feels less like I am getting to know you and more as though I am remembering who you are. How every smile, every whisper brings me closer to the impossible conclusion that I have known you before, I have loved you before—in another time, a different place, some other existence." - by Lang Leav found via Farnam Street
Brain on Fire (Susannah Cahalan)
A really great read that I would probably have given more screen space too had I not been so completely fixated with Smarter than you Think. This is the personal account of Susannah Cahalan's "month of madness." Cahalan, a journalist and strong writer, details as much as she can about the illness that robbed her of her sanity, trust and personality and the slow road back. Read it. Seriously, I'm not doing it justice.
The Myth of Sisyphus (Albert Camus)
"You brought a book about suicide to our tropical vacation?" - my husband, upon seeing me slide Sisyphus out of my beach bag. In review, yes, that may not have been my best decision. Jamaica was lovely, little time or motivation to ponder the absurd. Sorry Albert, I failed you.
Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch has yet to steer me wrong.
I'm as biased as it comes on this one as I work for HubSpot, co-hosted a couple of episodes, and Dave Gerhardt, the inexhaustible force behind it, is a friend. That said, it's quite good and getting even better.