Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD has a unique perspective on being a stroke victim. She had one in her mid-thirties. She recovered. What made her situation unique was her training in neuroanatomy: it put her in a unique position to analyze what was happening to her brain. She tells her story in her book: My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.
Why talk about such a book on a blog dedicated to thinking errors? For several reasons: the book tells us how much unconscious processing happens in our brains. It tells us we can change, in this case recover. It tells us we can chose which thoughts will linger, and which we can let go.
On the morning of December 10, 1996, things did not feel right. First there was a sharp pain behind her left eye. After getting up she started feeling detached from her body. Her coordination was uneasy, her balance impaired. It is not until her right arm dropped that Jill realized what was happening: she was having a stroke. By then her ability to remember a phone number, dial it and speak had been dramatically reduced. Things came in and out of focus. She managed to call work, where a colleague recognized the garbled sounds as her, in trouble. He organized a rescue.
The hemorrhage on the left side of her brain had wiped out her ability to read, speak, do things in sequence, and recognize the boundaries of her own body. All the sounds and sights that we normally navigate without noticing became painful to absorb. The experience was not totally negative: unencumbered by the left, rational brain, she felt a sense of peace, of being one with the universe, of time being immaterial. Did she really want to fight to go back to being a different person she did not remember? Jill decided she did.
A blood clot was surgically removed, and a slow recovery process began. At first, individual letters were just wiggles. They had no meaning, no associated sound, and piecing them into words had to be re-learned. Everything had to be re-learned: it is OK to cross a line on the cement sidewalk. The line between the sidewalk and a lawn requires more attention. Recovery took eight years. Patient support by family and friends was crucial.
Along the way, associations between words, their meaning and emotional content were re-learned. One advantage of having an essentially blank slate is that Jill had the opportunity to choose which feelings and behaviors she wanted to regain, and which she needed to recognize and set aside when they appeared. What drove her recovery was her awareness of her mind.
Few of us will ever have a blank slate to work with. Nonetheless, when we pay attention to our thoughts and recognize a thought pattern, we can learn to alter our response. When it comes to recognizing thinking errors, metacognition (thinking about our thinking) is often the first step. Next, we need tools to change our response to do better.
This may not seem to be easy but it is worth trying, and it is within reach. To illustrate I will use a quote from John Otterness at UCLA: “Felipe showed up in my Kindergarten class one day and said, “I went home last night and I started thinking. Then I started thinking about thinking. And then I started thinking about thinking about thinking. Then I got tired and went to bed.” Felipe was well on the way to metacognition!”
Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions is a good read. One thing that sets this book apart from others on similar topics is the source of the information. All the data, all the experiments cited here come from the work of the author and his colleagues. This is fresh material. You will not hear for the nth time about an experiment performed in Antonio Damasio’s lab.
The tests are fun. Here is an example. To test how biases shape our taste perception, college students were offered free beer. Finding volunteers must have been easy. The students were asked to try beer A (a standard lager), or beer B. Beer B was A plus two drops of balsamic vinegar per ounce. In a first set of tests, students were told nothing about beers A and B, and were asked which they preferred. Next, other students were offered the same choice, but were told ahead of time that beer B had vinegar added. The third set of experiments was done telling students about the vinegar after they tasted the two beers. How did students like A and B? If they were told nothing, a majority chose B. If they were told about the vinegar ahead of time, they chose A. If they were told after tasting, they chose B. What this tells us is that an expectation of a sour, unpleasant concoction affected what students tasted!
This confirms what we have known for a long time: we see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear. Our senses do not give us an accurate representation of reality. Our expectations shape our experience.
This is one of the many topics tackled in the book, all through the eyes of an experimenter. Arielly gets us to question our actions, our beliefs, and he does this in an entertaining fashion. Why are free offers so attractive? Why do we overvalue what we have? Some of the questions have deep economic implications: prices can have little to do with supply and demand. Some push us to have a deeper look at ourselves: could we really act so differently when aroused than when calm?
This book is challenging and fun at the same time. Read it.
The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory
Sexy title, important topic given we are bombarded with ever more information.
Here is how it works: our working memory (the number of things we can juggle in our head at any one time) is very limited. The amount of working memory we have can be estimated. It is only about seven plus or minus two items.
Working memory determines our ability to solve complex problems. The same brain areas are also used to focus our attention. This makes it hard to focus on two different things at once, or to perform two complicated tasks at once. This is why multi-tasking does not work.
Working memory can be somewhat improved through training. The benefits can be in the form of improved problem solving, or ability to focus. This may help people with ADHD. Drugs that improve performance in ADHD patients also boost performance in normal subjects. This is not too surprising: ADHD is not an all or none disease: just like IQ, we all have different degrees of attention. The potential for abuse of these drugs is worrisome.
An interesting chapter deals with the Flynn effect: IQ scores have been increasing. The increase is about 20 points from 1900 to 1990, and the effect may be increasing. The author proposes that this is due to the increased complexity of our society, and the larger amounts of information we have to process.
Here you have it, in half a page. Read the book if you want to hear who came up with what hypothesis, which ones currently seem to be right, and how this was done.
If we are offered a coin toss in which we may lose $10, we will on average ask for a potential win of $20. Why is it that we are more sensitive to losses than to equivalent gains? How can we avoid making hasty, irrational decisions when we deal with an immediate loss, or the possibility of a loss?
This phenomenon takes many forms:
The stock market is going up. You only have twenty percent of your money in stocks. You feel you are losing out, and buy more stocks. Pretty soon, you may have shifted most of your investments to the stock market. This is when the bubble bursts. This has happened many times, to many people, over the course of numerous bubbles.
You lose a poker hand. You want to recoup your loss. To do so you bet on riskier hands. You lose more.
A flat tire made you late. You want to make up lost time. You are speeding, and you go through a red light.
You rent a car. Your car insurance and credit card company will take care of the costs in case of an accident. Yet you let the sales rep convince you to get the loss damage waiver.
Nobody seems to be immune to loss aversion. Since 1926, stocks have outperformed bonds by a factor of 10. Yet economics Nobel Prize winner Harry Markowitz split his own investment portfolio equally between stocks and bonds. Only neurological patients who are unable to feel any emotions seem to be immune to loss aversion.
The neurological basis for our greater sensitivity to losses than to equivalent gain is still unclear. A broad set of brain areas is activated in response to gains. Interestingly, losses do not appear to activate different areas: the activity of the same areas decreases.
How can we do better?
When faced with an immediate loss, the best way to avoid the trap of loss aversion is to take the long view. Is this loss significant over the long run? Are there risks involved with reacting the way I am tempted to? More often than not the answers are no, and yes. Are these risks worth taking?
Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational BehaviorThrough many stories, Ori and Rom Brafman tell us how we fool ourselves. Some of the topics well known: loss aversion, value attribution, our reluctance to speak up in a group. They are told with fresh, entertaining stories. Other topics are less often covered in the context of thinking errors.
What are the cultural differences in terms of deciding what is fair? One interesting approach is to look at the behavior of the studio audience in local versions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. A contestant has to choose between four possible answers to a question. If he is not sure which answer to pick, once in the contest he has the option to ask the audience to vote for the right answer. In the US, the audience will try to help. In elitist France, the audience may turn against a contestant. If he looks stupid, the audience will think he does not deserve to win. They will give a wrong answer. In Russia, the audience is useless to the contestant. After generations growing up in an egalitarian regime, the thought of someone getting rich quickly just seems wrong. Why should this guy become wealthy? The audience tends to give wrong answers.
Another interesting topic is why rewards can backfire. Ask a friend to help you move, and he reluctantly does. Ask the same friend the same favor and offer $10, and he will remind you that there are professional movers out there. Why should your friend turn down $10? fMRI studies show two parts of the brain being activated in this scenario. In the absence of a reward the posterior superior temporal sulcus is activated. This is an area involved in social interactions. The authors call it our “altruism center”. If a reward is offered, our “pleasure center”, the nucleus accumbens lights up. The problem is, if the nucleus accumbens is activated, the posterior superior temporal sulcus is not. Our altruistic tendencies are lost. We react to the reward. If it seems insufficient we reject it.
This book is a good read.
The show 60 minutes had a provocative piece on the use of fMRI to read thoughts.
fMRI has helped us understand what parts of the brain are involved in what, in a dynamic manner. It is also a powerful tool to understand a number of neurological problems. The technique, as any other, has its limitations.
The show was misleading. What was done was to show 10 pictures of different objects to test subjects, and record their brain activity. Subsequent activity was then matched to the training runs. Does anyone remember the Palm Pilot handwriting recognition? It was pretty crude. So are the current fMRI capabilities in terms of reading your mind. Brain activity is simply too complex.
The thought that some of these techniques could be used in a courtroom is frightening.
When a Carnegie Melon professor states that we are three to five years away from reading complex thoughts, I wonder. The brain is so complex. How many years will it take, or can it ever be done?
The show also mentions the emerging field of neural marketing. What we are talking about here is using the same techniques to evaluate people’s preferences. This is a simpler concept. It makes more sense. We can get a fair idea of which areas of the brain light up when a test subject experiences pleasure, fear, etc. Just as in the thought recognition experiments described above, we have to be careful to recognize what is and what is not possible. This is, unless you believe a market research firm would never make extravagant claims. The consequences of trusting unreliable data may be less dramatic: you won’t go to jail because of an unreliable test. You will lose money.
It seems there should be a place for someone who understands neuroscience to advise the customers of neural marketing firms, and help them spend their budgets wisely. Do you know anyone who could use such help?
Sometimes our rational mind is overloaded, and we want to go with our gut (see “When we should go with our gut” posting, May 8, 2009). We should do this when there are too many parameters, and no amount of analysis will give us the right answer. Sometimes our rational mind is just cluttered, and our gut gives us the wrong answer.
One situation where our gut gives us the wrong answer is… food choices.
Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin are clever experimenters. They are also a little sneaky. When they enrolled participants for a study they told them this was about memory. Not so. Here is the setup: participants are given either two or seven numbers to remember, and are sent to another room to test their recollection. On the way is a table with a choice of a bowl of fruit and a piece of chocolate cake.
Which will they choose, and will remembering numbers make a difference? Strangely, trying to remember more numbers decreases our self control. We now know why. Our prefrontal cortex, crucial to our rational decision making, can only hold a small amount of information. It roughly can hold seven plus or minus two “items” at the same time. The result: when our rational brain is busy remembering numbers, it is less able to control our emotions. We go for the fattening piece of cake.
This has important implications.
First, this tells us multi-tasking does not work. We simply do not have the bandwidth to handle more than one complicated task at a time. Trying to do more means we will make emotional decisions when we may have made a better, rational one.
Second, it has implications for how we design our environment. If you want to make (or you want your customers to make) rational decisions, keep things simple. Keep your desk clear, your product display neat and simple. If on the other hand you are trying to sell triple cream cheese, create clutter.
This is one way to “nudge” individuals. Allow them to choose, and influence the outcome.
Why do some people stay far away from the edge of a cliff, while others run, jump, and open their parachute a few seconds later?
An interesting article in the May issue of Outside magazine looks inside the brain of a BASE jumper.
Twenty-eight year old Ted Davenport is a little different. After about thirty trips to the emergency room, you might say he is a little reckless.
How are risk seekers different from the rest of us? This is the focus of Russell Poldrack’s group at UCLA. He describes risk-seeking as a combination of three factors: “sensation seeking”, not paying much attention to negative consequences (think emergency room trips), and impulsivity. Each is governed by distinct brain circuits. Ted Davenport? Check, check, check!
So, let’s look inside his brain. Ted and other risk seekers were given a simple game to play while being observed through fMRI. The game is simple: press one button, and a balloon starts expanding. The more it inflates, the higher your reward. The problem is: the balloon explodes at random times. You have a second button to lock in your gain before this happens. Here are Ted’s scans compared to a “normal” person.
The brain of a "normal" person (left) next to Ted's
To the left, a control subject, to the right, Ted. The yellow circle marks the amygdala, an area activated when we experience fear. The black circle marks the ventral striatum, an area associated with pleasure.
When a “normal” person plays the game, their amydgala light up, and they are showing no signs of pleasure. When Ted does, the opposite happens.
This is of course only one experiment, and we cannot make too much out of it. But it points to differences in how people react to a given set of circumstances. Taken together with experiments on other risk takers, it tells us that the behavior has a physiological basis.
This blog is focused on managerial thinking errors, so what is the lesson here for managers? Managers should be aware that different people will make different decisions in the same circumstances based on their risk-taking profiles. Thinking about how your team members think allows you to coach them, and achieve higher performance. The brain is malleable. People can be trained. The first step is to be aware of the differences amongst people.