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Friday, April 25, 2008

Evolutionary psychology: Eliot Spitzer is a kludgebrain!, psychologist opines (but so are we all)

Some idea of what awaits if we read psychologist Gary Marcus's Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind (Houghton Mifflin) can be divined from his comments at the Huffington Post on the recent resignation of New York governor Eliot Spitzer, caught in a prostitution scandal:
This is not just a case of a man being led about his hormones, to the exclusion of the rest of his brain, but something more complicated: a case in which an extraordinarily intelligent man used all of his rational capacities to form a track-covering plan -- yet seemingly focused none of his cognitive wherewithal on evaluating whether that plan was worth pursuing in the first place.

[ ... ]

Why does this happen so often? The answer, in a nutshell, is this; evolution blew it. When our fancy new deliberative reasoning systems evolved, evolution, which lacks foresight, took what amounts to the lazy way out, crudely grafting the new capabilities onto the older ancestral systems, with nary a thought as to how the two would work together. The ancestral mate seeking systems that led Client 9 [Spitzer] by the nose thus still receive extremely high priority, whether or not their actions are in the interests of our minds as a whole.

I've heard many unconvincing explanations of the age-old conflict between what we want to do and what we ought to do, but this is so far the least convincing.

Any convincing explanation must take into account Spitzer's reputation as a ruthless foe of corruption. A reputation often becomes a sort of shell - lots of hollow space inside. Evolution didn't fail Spitzer; he just found his shell too heavy after a while. It's better to walk humbly ... away from trouble (but Spitzer doesn't need anyone to tell him that now).

Gary Marcus also asks in "Total Recall" in the New York Times Magazine (April 13, 2008) how much we would pay to have a memory chip implanted in our brains to double our short term memory. But, in his view,
... techniques like that can only take us so far. They can make memories more accessible but not necessarily more reliable, and the improvements are most likely to be only incremental. Making our memories both more accessible and more reliable would require something else, perhaps a system modeled on Google, which combines cue-driven promptings similar to human memory with the location-addressability of computers.

However difficult the practicalities, there's no reason in principle why a future generation of neural prostheticists couldn't pick up where nature left off, incorporating Google-like master maps into neural implants. This in turn would allow us to search our own memories - not just those on the Web - with something like the efficiency and reliability of a computer search engine.

The Next Big Thing will probably be a project for erasing the memories of things we would rather forget, so we no longer recognize our connection to our real past.

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