The Science of Thinking

For most of us, thinking
is at least somewhat unpleasant. We try to avoid it, where possible. For example: I asked these guys how long does it take for the earth to go around the Sun. – What do you reckon, cuz? – Isn’t it 24 hours ?
– Obviously a day, yes. Or take this problem which has been given to thousands of college students. You go into a toy store, and there’s a toy bat and a toy ball. Together they cost 1.10$. And the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost ? – Ten cents. – We’re all wrong aren’t we? – WHAT’S THE ANSWER ? If you think about it for just a second it’s obvious that the ball can’t cost ten cents, because if it did, then the bat would cost 1.10$ and the two items together would cost 1.20$. The correct answer is five cents. Now, the point of these questions is not that they’re difficult. Any of these people could have quickly check their answer if they wanted to. The point is that they don’t check because thinking is uncomfortable. It takes effort. – Hey, the Earth doesn’t take one day to get around the Sun. – Takes like a year! [LAUGHS] Now, I think it would be easy to put these mistakes down to stupidity, and believe that you, being much smarter, could never fall into such traps. But then I think you’d be fooling yourself. I think these examples reveal blind spots in all of our thinking due to the fundamental way that our brains work . Now, one way of modeling how the brain operates is as though there are two systems at work psychologists call them system one and system two but maybe it’s useful to think of them as characters so let’s call system one Gun and system two Drew. You are Drew. he represents your conscious thought, the voice in your head.“I am who you think you are” he’s the one capable of following instructions. He can execute a series of steps. If you are asked to calculate 13 x 17 in your head, for example, he is the one who has to do it.“can just use my calculator?” no…“all right, um, seventeen times….” Drew is lazy it takes effort to get Drew to do anything and he is slow but he’s the careful one, capable of catching and fixing mistakes…“221”. Now meet system one Gun. He is incredibly quick, which he needs to be since he’s constantly processing copious amounts of information coming in through your senses. He picks out the relevant bits and discard the rest, which is most of it, and he works automatically without you, Drew, being consciously aware of what he is doing. For example when you spot them text he reads it before you can even decide whether or not you want to read it Gun fills in the gaps. For example, what does this say? Did you notice that the “H” in ‘the’ ‘A’ in ‘cat’ are actually the same symbol but you had no trouble reading it because Gun made the correct, automatic, assumption, so although Drew is unaware of what Gun is doing, its Guns perceptions that become the basis for your conscious thoughts. The way I like to think of it each of these characters is related to one of your main memory structures, Guns automatic responses are made possible by long-term memory, the library of experiences you’ve built up over your lifetime. In contrast, Drew exists entirely within working memory so he’s only capable of holding four or five novel things in mind at a time. This is perhaps one of the best-known findings from psychology. That our capacity to hold and manipulate novel information is incredibly limited like when trying to remember a string of random numbers. “6 7 5 5 3 1” (offscreen)Yes! But we are able to overcome these limitations if the information is familiar to us. For example, let me give you four random digits “7102”. Now these would normally take up most of your working memory capacity just to remember, but, if you reverse them, 2017, there now just one thing the present year the process of grouping things together according to your prior knowledge is called chunking and you can actually hold four or five chunks in working memory at once. So the larger the chunks the more information you can actively manipulate at one time. Learning is then, the process of building more and bigger chunks by storing and further connecting information in long-term memory essentially passing off tasks from Drew to Gun. But in order for this to happen, Drew first has to engage with the information actively and effort-fully, often multiple times. For example, when you were first learning to tie your shoelaces, you probably recited a rhyme to help you remember what to do next using up all your working memory in the process. But after doing it over and over and over again, it gradually became automatic, that is, Drew doesn’t have to think about it anymore because Guns got it. Musicians and sports stars refer to this as muscle memory, though of course, the memory is not the muscles it’s still in the brain just controlled by Gun. “You can practice everything exactly as it is, and exactly as it’s written but at just such a speed that you have to think about and know exactly where you are and what your fingers are doing and what it feels like.” Slow deliberate conscious practice repeated often enough, leads to this:I bet 99% of the time what appears to be superhuman ability, comes down to the incredible automation skills of Gun, developed through the painstaking deliberate practice of Drew. What’s interesting is, its actually possible to see how hard Drew is working, just by looking at someone. Try this task: I’m going to show you four digits, I want you to read them out loud and then after two beats, I want you to say each number back on the beat, but adding one to each digit. So, as an example, 7 2 9 1 (beats in background) should be… 8 3 0 2 This is called the Add One task and it forces Drew to hold these digits and memory while making manipulations to them. Now it’s important to say the numbers back on the beat. Try this one: (beats in background at regular interval) To make it harder, you can try adding 3 instead of 1. Ready? (beats in background at regular interval) Now what you’re unaware of, is that, as you’re completing this task, your pupils are dilating. When Drew is hard at work, as he is in this task, you have a physiological response: including increased heart rate, sweat production, and pupil dilation. Watch how the pupils of these participants enlarge as they perform the Add One and Add Three tasks. 4…3…9…7…2 (beats in backrgound) 5…4…0…8…3 (offscreen) Excellent! nicely done. (offscreen conversation)…”this requires a lot of thinking” “I know, that’s the point6 9 1 6 7 0 2 7 When this research was originally carried out the researchers made a surprising observation: when the participants were not engaged with the tasks that were just chatting with the experimenters their pupils didn’t really dilate at all.. this indicates that the Add One and Add Three tasks are particularly strenuous for system two, and that most of our day-to-day life is a stroll for Drew with most tasks handled automatically by Gun. Just as we spend a lot of our lives lounging around, our brains spend most of their time doing the mental equivalent. And I don’t mean to make that sound like a bad thing, this is how our brains evolved to make the best use of resources. For repetitive tasks we developed automatic ways of doing things, reserving Drew’s limited capacity for things that really need our attention, but in some circumstances there can be mix-ups. For example, I moved to Australia in 2004 and one of the first things I learned was that turn the lights on you flick the switch down. My whole life growing up in Canada Gun had automated that ‘up’ means ‘on’, so no matter how well I, Drew, knew that ‘down’ was ‘on’ in Australia I would for years, continually switch the lights off when entering a room and on when leaving. When Destin learn to ride the backwards bicycle with its steering reverse it took months to overcome his automated habitat and once he had done that he couldn’t easily go back to writing a normal bike. Understanding Gun and Drew also explains errors in the “Bat and Ball” question. Its Gun who first perceived the key pieces of information that, together the bat and ball cost a dollar ten, The bat costs more than the ball so the ball costs… Gun: “Ten cents” Drew: “Ten cents” Gun imediately had a answer that he blurted out automatically. Meanwhile Drew, without being consciously aware that the answer came from Gun endorsed the idea without checking it, after all the answers sounded reasonable and drew is lazy so how do you get Drew to do more work? Well researchers have found at least one way. When they gave out a clearly printed test including the “Bat and Ball”question to incoming college students 85% got at least one wrong but when they printed the test in a hard-to-read font with poor contrast the error rate dropped to thirty-five percent harder to read test resulted in more correct answers and the explanation for this is simple. Since Gun can’t quickly jump to an answer he hands off the task to Drew who then invest the required mental effort to reason his way to the correct answer. When something is confusing, Drew worked harder and when Drew work harder you’re more likely to reach the right answer and remember the experience. This is something i think the advertising industry knows about and is using to its advantage. A few years ago, again in Australia, I saw a giant billboard that had just two letters on it “Un”. There was no logo, no indication of what it was for and this seems to go against all the basic principles of advertising: to show what the product does, how it’s better than the competition, and use clear branding and maybe a jingle to make it memorable. The goal is usually to make the message as easy to understand as possible so Drew doesn’t have to work very hard, but if you look at a lot of effective advertising today, it’s changed to be more confusing. as the “Un” campaign rolled out across Sydney, I saw ads like this one in bus shelters. “Un” explained. With ‘Un’ there is no stress, just unstress no hassle, just unhastle with ‘Un’ you can undo what you did, you can undrive through the car wash with the window down or unbreak dance in front of your teenage son. And his mates. ‘Un’ makes life relaxing and unreal. ‘Un’ your life. Be happy and live for now. Don’t worry. Unworry. Can you guess what the ads were for? They’re actually for insurance. Now that advertising is everywhere, Gun is skilled at filtering it out. Its automatic, if I just saw another insurance ad that I never would have given it a second thought, but something that doesn’t make sense, thats something Gun can’t deal with, so he hands it off to Drew This same realization has been happening in education: lectures which have long been the dominant teaching method, are now on the decline. Like the old form of advertising, they’re too easy to tune out and often, especially in science lectures, too many new pieces of information are presented, and that exceeds Drew’s capacity because he doesn’t have big enough chunks to break the material into. In place of lectures, universities are introducing workshops, peer instruction and formats where students are forced to answer more questions, do more work than just listen and take notes, and this will undoubtedly make Drew work harder, which is good because that’s how learning happens, but a lot of students don’t like it because it requires more effort. Just as it’s hard to motivate someone to get off the couch and exercise, it’s hard to get Drew to give his full effort. There’s an appeal to doing things you already know, for the musician to play the same familiar songs that Gun has already automated, that feel and sound good. To watch videos that give you the sensation of understanding without actually learning anything. To always drive with the GPS on so you never get lost, but you also never learn the way. If you really want to learn and get better at anything, have any chance of becoming an expert, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Because thinking takes effort, it involves fighting through confusion, and for most of us that’s at least somewhat unpleasant.


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