Monday, June 25, 2018

The secret life of the mind - book overview

An interesting read, picked up at the local library. The secret life of the mind - how the brain thinks, feels, and decides by Mariano Sigman. Published in 2015 and translated into English in 2017 by Little, Brown and Co. Sigman is an Argentinian physicist, see here for Ted Talk,  and here for youtube video, summarising some of the items in the book. 

A short introduction is followed by 6 chapters. 7 pages of references and comprehensive index.

 The book begins with ‘Origins of thought’ which summarises the developmental aspects of neurobiology. The sub-title of the chapter is how babies think and communicate and how can we understand them better?’ In short, we are wired to learn, some of the ways we conceptualise the world are innate, but social conditioning and experiences provide large contributions. Of note is the explanation of Piaget’s object permanence in 10 month old babies. They can see that an object has been shifted from under or behind a barrier, but still point to the original location. This is not because they have not conceptualised that the object has shifted, but because they are unable to override the stronger message they are getting from the brain, to indicate their true answer.

The fuzzy borders of identity – what defines our choices and allows us to trust other people and your own decisions? – An overview of the principles of neuro-economics. Basically, our decisions are governed by our unconscious which in turn is ‘trained’ by our personality and predilections. How we make decisions is often thought to be rational, but much of the decision making process is founded on our beliefs and biases. We tend to be more optimistic as it is a coping mechanism for us to get on with our lives. The brain has evolved mechanisms to ignore certain negative aspects of the future. The halo effect is pronounced in us, as it is based on the brain’s need to find structure and patterns. The various moral dilemmas are used as examples of how we go for irrational decisions, based on our emotions rather than our logic.

The machine that constructs reality – how does consciousness emerge in the brain and how are we governed by our unconscious. This chapter explores how the brain decodes patterns. The world of the ‘unconscious’ is also explored and explained. These concepts are important to understanding the next chapter. We are drawn to forming patterns as these help us make sense of the world. These patterns allow us to become experts in specialised areas. However, these patterns also trip us up when we come to make decisions as the pre-established preconceptions, blind us to alternatives.

Voyages of consciousness (or consciousness tripping) – what happens in the brain as we dream; is it possible for us to decipher, control and manipulate our dreams? This chapter discusses the differences between dreams and imagination. Dreams are generally not controllable but can be very realistic. Some people have lucid dreaming, which they are aware of. The contribution of pharmacology (e.g. cannabis, lysergics) to states of consciousness are introduced and pros and cons discussed.

The brain is constantly transforming – what makes our brains more or less predisposed to change? This chapter provides foundation for understanding how the brain learns. Humans are primed to learn and some forms of ‘understanding’ are innate. For example, children’s brains are wired to learn language. Experiences attained from life, provide scaffolds from which to build more learning. Therein lies the difference between novices and experts. Novices have less foundation to call on and need to attend to cues at each step of learning. Novices are also unable to work out what they need to focus on, therefore, their energies are drawn into all the aspects of the process as they are unable, as yet, to see the wood from the trees. In comparison, experts have attained an all-encompassing perspective on their specialist area and are able to draw on this to extend learning. The example provided is of chess masters playing multiple games whilst blindfolded. As these expert chess players have established patterns in their brains of chess boards and moves, they are able to associate the plays and make decisions without having to actually see the board. Attaining expert hood is assisted by the individual’s attributes and proclivities but still requires concerted input / effort / practice to polish and progress beyond the standardised.

Educated brains – how can we use what we have learned about the brain and human thought to improve education? Application of the concepts introduced are presented in this chapter. Advocates teaching should be centred around helping learners improve their metacognition. So learners need to be able to work out they know something and also that others know other things (theory of mind). It is important for learners to be able to work out if there is a difference between their own knowledge and that of others and then have the skills / tools to bridge the gap. Learning through teaching others (tutor learning), even for the very young, is recommended as a way to increase metacognition and extend learners’ theory of mind.

A very readable, short book of just over 200 pages. A two page appendix provides an overview of brain anatomy and 15 pages of bibliography are provided for follow up.

The book offers many examples, summaries of contemporary scholarly work and metaphors to assist with explaining the various concepts introduced and extended on through the book. It is a good resource for laypeople interested in understanding better, how the brain works.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Work and how different types of jobs are perceived

Happened on a Channel News Asia series over the weekend. It is about jobs in Singapore, which are considered to be 'low status'. The documentary, in 5 episodes, is titled "don't make us invisible" and follows the work routine of a petrol pump attendant, bus driver, cleaner and construction worker. All part of the Singapore government's efforts to shift the perception of the populace to consider that all jobs are important, not only the ones which require academic excellence. As it is, the majority of jobs deemed to be low status, are conducted by non-Singaporeans. With the rise in AI and robotics, some of these jobs will disappear, but there will still be  whole categories of work, requiring humans.

The status of jobs is not only an Asian challenge, this chapter 'beyond the vocational / academic divide: inclusion through craftwork and embodied learning', argues that all work, requires engagement and commitment. If we take on the view of learning as moving towards 'embodiment' of a set of manual skills, tacit knowledge and craftsman-like attitudes, then all learning, be it vocational or academic, are important towards contributing to social good.

Interestingly, there is also a volume of  recent literature, example summarised in this recent Stuff article, of how well respected jobs, can be boring and feel pointless. Over 80% of legal jobs, 70% plus project management, support functions, 60%plus in consulting / accounting, financial services / banking, engineering, sales / marketing and communications and over 50% IT type jobs are on the list! Another article summarises David Graeber's, one perspective of why these jobs lack satisfaction. The book 'Bullshit jobs'  categorises these jobs as "goons, flunkies, box tickers, task masters and duct tapers" with people responding that 'the jobs are so pointless that they are not able to justify their existence themselves'.

So although the above well-respected jobs require high academic achievement to enter, they do not, offer satisfaction and are just a means to earn a wage. So perhaps the entry of AI / robotics might not be such a bad thing after all! Some of the boring aspects of 'bullshit jobs' may be taken over. Whereas, the jobs requiring high levels of 'embodiment' providing greater job satisfaction, may continue due to their high levels of manual skill complexity and variety. What does that say of how we educate for the future? Something to think through and follow up.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Emerge – Ara Institute of Technology ICT projects exhibition

The annual showcase for Bachelor of Information and Computer Technology (BICT) students runs across this week 11 – 15 June.

As part of the week, there was an evening event with two guest speakers, followed by presentations from students of their work.

Tony Grey, Ara CE provided the welcome and opening of the event. Dr. Bernard Otinpong, computing tutor/lecturer was the MC.

David Carter, Director of Stratos Technology Partners and the chairperson of Canterbury Tech presented on ‘the future of ICT’. Provided two examples of the acceleration in adoption of innovations requiring high IT infrastructure and resources. One is the use of AI bots by Google to  conduct conversations. The second is the development of self-driving cars. Social impacts are often under-stated and just these two technologies, will contribute to the world of the future. The challenge for NZ, a small country, is to ensure we understand what is coming or is already here, and to leverage of these. Provided an example of the smart use of technology to support dairy industry – monitoring of cows across a year provided sufficient data to predict time cows were ready for insemination and how the time of insemination would determine the gender of the offspring. Tech economy is low impact environmentally and Christchurch is well situated to contribute (being second to Wellington in number of IT companies and employees) . Need to ensure there are sufficient IT people to support the industry.

Teresa McCullum, Smart Cities project manager for the Christchurch City Council presented on ‘Smart cities and the internet of things’. Set up the context and rationale for the potentialities of IT careers in Christchurch. Shared the CCC vision for becoming a smart city. Defined smart city and internet of things (IoT). Updated on current work – open platform, open data and open information – to facilitate the interaction between the many ‘internet of things’ points and remove barriers to the adoption of innovative technologies. Exampled the way traffic flow is monitored and information is provided to motorists, rubbish bin sensors and earthquake response sensors. Check smart city Christchurch website.

An interesting session followed as students presented their work. Posters summarised their projects and students were available to answer questions. Almost all of the projects, were focused on the themes brought up by the speakers. Many projects also produced proof of concept type apps or systems for local companies, including this cycle safety app for school children to generate a safe route on bike to school.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst - book overview

I picked this book up from the local library and am glad I chanced upon it.

Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst by Robert M. Sapolsky, published 2017 by Penguin. 

Sapolsky presents excerpts from the book on a recent TedTalk

This book tries to and mostly succeeds in bringing together, the many threads of neurobiological, developmental, along with the evolutionary, and  social and cultural contributions to how we behave.
The book is pitched at interested lay people, but requires background in human biology to understand. 

The 3 appendices provided are therefore extremely useful overviews of neuroscience (i.e. how the brain works); endocrinology (i.e. the contribution of hormones and biochemical) and proteins (i.e. the genetics basis of life).

The book also has extensive notes for the keen to follow up (50 pages) and a thorough index.

There are 17 chapters with short introduction and epilogue bracketing the content.
The book begins with a behaviour, then proceeds to uncover, over time, layer by layer, the many influences that allow the said behaviour to occur.

The first 2 chapters focus on the neurobiology and biochemistry which drives behaviour. Appendix 1, covering the basics of neurobiology, is recommended as a prerequisite. The three chapters cover the brain areas relevant to understanding behaviour. The amygdala which is where reward, anticipation arise; the role of dopamine; and the frontal lobes contribution to regulation and restraint of behaviours.

Then follow 3 chapters which overlap between physical neurobiology and the biochemical interactions which contribute to behaviour. In particular, details on testetorone (on aggression), oxytoxin and vasopressin (on the mother-infant bond), adaptive female aggression through estrogen, progesterone and oxytoxine, the effects of sustained stress and the caveat that hormones do not determine, command or cause behaviours but make us more sensitive to triggers from emotionally charged behaviours. The effects of these hormones on memory and discussion on neuroplasticity are also included. Chapter 6 provides application of the precepts from the previous chapters by exploring and discussing the adolescent brain – ‘or dude, where is my frontal cortex?’

Then follow 3 chapters focusing on human development. Summarising the various behaviours’ development from birth and the genetic/ epigenetic causes of some of these behaviours. Also the contribution of mother’s behaviours while baby is in the womb and the wider social issues which cause behaviours which are distinct in various populations. Chapter 8 has a good overview of epigenetics and argues that genes are not autonomous. Instead, they are regulated by the wider environment. Epigenetics can allow environmental effects to be lifelong or even across generations. So it is now not so much important what your genetical heritage might be but the environment in which those genes find themselves and how many other environmental factors contribute to how genes manifest, or remain dormant.

Chapter 9 synthesises the biological with aspects of the social-cultural. For example, the role of culture in contributing to why there is a gender gap in mathemathics testing. There is overview of the salient foundations of social theories, including collectivist vs individualist cultures; pastoralism (e.g. what agriculture has contributed); stratified vs egalitarian cultures; the effects of population size, density and heteriogeneity; and origins of religion and war.

Evolution's contribution is then discussed in the next three chapters. The premise is that evolution can shape behaviour, but with caveats. The usual foundations of evolution are discussed, including why there is reciprocal altruism, as it does not favour genetical transfer of the altruistic individual. The nuances of selection are proposed and critiqued – as in individual, group, kin selection etc.  In short, brain neurobiology, genes, hormones, social contributions etc.  provide not so much causes as propensities, potentials, vulnerabilities, predispositions etc.

Chapter 11 provides a good overview of why we are ‘tribal’ and why it we are drawn to ‘us vs them’ reactions. Discussions follow on the contribution of this concept to a whole host of human responses. Chapter 12 follows with extension of chapter 11 with discussion on the social basis of hierarchy, obedience and resistance. Why we crave status, its roots in biology and the social and cultural bases that support and enhance status. This chapter covers much ground. Importantly, the ways we make decisions are founded in our biology (i.e. how we make decisions, our approaches to reflective thought and how we resolve cognitive dissonance). Our social systems have ameliorated some of the predisposition to just look after ourselves and those close to us. For instance, we invented democracy and social welfare. However, we are also conformists and this may lead us to follow pathways which disadvantage ‘the other’.

The implications on behaviour are then presented in a couple of chapters. Chapter 13 summarises morality and ethics and how they contribute. Chapter 14 is on empathy, why do we feel the pain of others? And especially, why are we neurobiologically primed to have empathy.

Chapter 15 follows up behaviours at the other end of the continuum from empathy. Why do we kill? How do we circumvent the inner biological and cultural reinforcements of disgust etc. to kill others?

Chapter 16 is an interesting chapter which discusses whether we have free will. The criminal justice system is used as the basis for examples. In particular, how snippets of neuroscience research have been used, without deeper study of the actual implications. Hence, neurolaw, as an emergent science has to counter misconceptions and provide more studied responses.

The penultimate chapter ‘war and peace’ brings the various themes together. It presents the behaviours which have improved (i.e. we have mellowed and are less likely to go to war); discusses how to move forward and improve our behaviours as a species further; and summarises the best of humanity’s contributions.

In short, things are complicated. We may understand some of the underlying biological basis for behaviour but there are many contributing factors beyond the biological. There is never one factor or cause, but a multitude of interactions, concurrent shifts, biological and social coevolution etc. Understanding this means we need to read the literature critically and not just take things at face value.

All in, a really good synthesis, written in readable prose. Best read if you are interested in the topic as there is a lot to take in (over 600 pages including the appendices).

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Peak: Secrets from the science of expertise - book overview

This is a layperson's book on deliberate practice. The book - Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise is by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, published in 2017.

The more scholarly book - development of professional expertise - see summary on this blog here, makes for more thorough discussion and information.

However, for people wanting a quick overview of deliberate practice, and its application to daily life, the book Peak provides good introduction and overview. The book has 10 chapters, each building on the other.

The book begins with 3 chapters to introduce the concepts of deliberate practice. Then, follow two chapters on application (deliberate practice on the job and in everyday life). There is then a chapter on 'the road to extraordinary', summarising much of the work on understanding expertise and arguing that it is deliberate practice which is the key to expert performance. The next chapter then discusses the conundrum of 'natural talent', what is its role in feeding into expertise. The last chapter looks into 'where do we go from here', providing for suggestions for further research into the development of expertise. 

There are 30 pages of notes for those who are keen to follow up more on the topic.

A related article - how to make your kid good at everything - provides more overview of the book's contents. The summation in the article is 'it is not how much practice, but how you do it' which is the important message from the book.

As always, one concept, can only go so far to explain the complexities of human learning. Critique of the concept of deliberate practice was summarised on this blog a few years ago.