Monday, February 21, 2011

Improving your cognitive toolkit - IV

Continuation of my abstracting of a few of the answers to the annual question at, "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?":

Charles Seife - Random events in the aggregate behave predictably.
Randomness is daunting; it sets limits where even the most sophisticated theories can not go, shielding elements of nature from even our most determined inquiries. Nevertheless, to say that something is random is not equivalent to saying that we can't understand it. Far from it...Randomness follows its own set of rules — rules that make the behavior of a random process understandable and predictable...These rules state that even though a single random event might be completely unpredictable, a collection of independent random events is extremely predictable — and the larger the number of events, the more predictable they become. The law of large numbers is a mathematical theorem that dictates that repeated, independent random events converge with pinpoint accuracy upon a predictable average behavior. Another powerful mathematical tool, the central limit theorem, tells you exactly how far off that average a given collection of events is likely to be. With these tools, no matter how chaotic, how strange a random behavior might be in the short run, we can turn that behavior into stable, accurate predictions in the long run.

The rules of randomness are so powerful that they have given physics some of its most sacrosanct and immutable laws. Though the atoms in a box full of gas are moving at random, their collective behavior is described by a simple set of deterministic equations. Even the laws of thermodynamics derive their power from the predictability of large numbers of random events; they are indisputable only because the rules of randomness are so absolute...Paradoxically, the unpredictable behavior of random events has given us the predictions that we are most confident in.
Emanuel Derman - Distrust Pragmamorphism
Anthropomorphism means attributing the characteristics of human beings to inanimate things or animals...I have invented the word pragmamorphism as a short-hand extension for the attribution of the properties of inanimate things to human beings...One of the meanings of the Greek word pragma is a material object...It's pragmamorphic to equate material correlates with human psychological states, to equate PET scans with emotion. It's also pragmamorphic to ignore human qualities you cannot measure.

We have discovered useful metrics for material objects -- length, temperature, pressure, volume, kinetic energy, etc. Pragmamorphism is a good word for the attempt to assign such one-dimensional thing-metrics to the mental qualities of humans...IQ, a length scale for intelligence, is a result of pragmamorphism. Intelligence is more diffuse than linear...The utility function in economics is similar. It's clear that people have preferences. But is it clear that there is a function that describes their preferences?
Nicholas Carr - Respect your cognitive load
...our brains can hold only about seven pieces of information simultaneously. Even that figure may be too high. Some brain researchers now believe that working memory has a maximum capacity of just three or four elements...The amount of information entering our consciousness at any instant is referred to as our cognitive load. When our cognitive load exceeds the capacity of our working memory, our intellectual abilities take a hit. Information zips into and out of our mind so quickly that we never gain a good mental grip on it...The information vanishes before we've had an opportunity to transfer it into our long-term memory and weave it into knowledge. We remember less, and our ability to think critically and conceptually weakens. An overloaded working memory also tends to increase our distractedness.'s important to remember that, when it comes to the way your brain works, information overload is not just a metaphor; it's a physical state. When you're engaged in a particularly important or complicated intellectual task, or when you simply want to savor an experience or a conversation, it's best to turn the information faucet down to a trickle.

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