Monday, August 18, 2008

Brain: How much does brainpower matter to success? Some surprising answers, only one of which matters much

In "High-Aptitude Minds: The Neurological Roots of Genius" (Scientific American Mind - September 3, 2008) Christian Hoppe and Jelena Stojanovic tell us that "Researchers are finding clues to the basis of brilliance in the brain."

The clues are pretty murky, and the whole area sounds confusing and contradictory in the article (which is not the writers' or the researchers' fault - it is more likely due to the plasticity of the brain). For example,
No one is sure why some experiments indicate that a bright brain is a hardworking one, whereas others suggest it is one that can afford to relax. Some, such as Haier—who has found higher brain metabolic rates in more astute individuals in some of his studies but not in others—speculate one reason could relate to the difficulty of the tasks. When a problem is very complex, even a gifted person’s brain has to work to solve it. The brain’s relatively high metabolic rate in this instance might reflect greater engagement with the task. If that task was out of reach for someone of average intellect, that person’s brain might be relatively inactive because of an inability to tackle the problem. And yet a bright individual’s brain might nonetheless solve a less difficult problem efficiently and with little effort as compared with someone who has a lower IQ.
The most useful take-home information is this:
University of Pennsylvania psychologists Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman examined final grades of 164 eighth-grade students, along with their admission to (or rejection from) a prestigious high school. By such measures, the researchers determined that scholarly success was more than twice as dependent on assessments of self-discipline as on IQ. What is more, they reported in 2005, students with more self-discipline—a willingness to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain—were more likely than those lacking this skill to improve their grades during the school year. A high IQ, on the other hand, did not predict a climb in grades.
In other words, one reason that a difference between highly intelligent people and the rest of us may be difficult to identify is that the difference is not necessarily reflected in real life performance.

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Neuroscience: Yes, we do think while we are asleep

In "Sleep on It: How Snoozing Makes You Smarter" Robert Stickgold and Jeffrey M. Ellenbogen reveal, "During slumber, our brain engages in data analysis, from strengthening memories to solving problems" (Scientific American Mind - August 7, 2008):
The latest research suggests that while we are peacefully asleep our brain is busily processing the day's information. It combs through recently formed memories, stabilizing, copying and filing them, so that they will be more useful the next day. A night of sleep can make memories resistant to interference from other information and allow us to recall them for use more effectively the next morning. And sleep not only strengthens memories, it also lets the brain sift through newly formed memories, possibly even identifying what is worth keeping and selectively maintaining or enhancing these aspects of a memory. When a picture contains both emotional and unemotional elements, sleep can save the important emotional parts and let the less relevant background drift away. It can analyze collections of memories to discover relations among them or identify the gist of a memory while the unnecessary details fade-perhaps even helping us find the meaning in what we have learned.
Their research is a far cry from earlier theories that the brain shuts down when we are asleep. Apparently, sleep plays an active, not merely a passive role in learning, as a number of fascinating experiments show.

The fact that sleep plays at least a passive role in learning won't be news to anyone who has had to teach students who were up half the night partying and can't now remember their classroom number, let alone the topic we discussed in the last class. But consider this:
In a 2004 study Ullrich Wagner and others in Jan Born's laboratory at the University of Lübeck in Germany elegantly demonstrated just how powerful sleep's processing of memories can be. They taught subjects how to solve a particular type of mathematical problem by using a long and tedious procedure and had them practice it about 100 times. The subjects were then sent away and told to come back 12 hours later, when they were instructed to try it another 200 times.

What the researchers had not told their subjects was that there is a much simpler way to solve these problems. The researchers could tell if and when subjects gained insight into this shortcut, because their speed would suddenly increase. Many of the subjects did, in fact, discover the trick during the second session. But when they got a night's worth of sleep between the two sessions, they were more than two and a half times more likely to figure it out-59 percent of the subjects who slept found the trick, compared with only 23 percent of those who stayed awake between the sessions. Somehow the sleeping brain was solving this problem, without even knowing that there was a problem to solve.
I'm not so sure the sleeping brain did not know there was a problem to solve - the prospect of waking up to another two hundred iterations of a tedious procedure must have set the little grey cells churning, so to speak.

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"Neurotheology": Bad neurology and bad theology?

In "God, theologian and humble neurologist", Alasdair Coles of the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge reviews recent books, Did my neurons make me do it? and The Soul in the Brain for Brain (June 23, 2008). He and I share a dislike of "neurotheology," which he describes as "bad neurology and bad theology" (and which I have described less elegantly as "neurobullshipping"):

In the 1980s, a small group of neuroscientists arrogated for itself a new field of ‘neurotheology’ which has become—not to put too fine a point on it—an embarrassment. In privatized discussions, over-interpreted accounts of poor experiments are recycled to construct grand schemes to explain religious experience.
Yuh. Mario and I discussed a number of these schemes in The Spiritual Brain, and they all have one thing in common: They aim to explain religious experiences away rather than explain them.

It is as if someone were to explain Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in terms of infighting at the Vatican. If infighting at the Vatican in those days explained the Sistine, no one would bother with it now.

Coles also talks about another favourite subject - the apparently sudden emergence of human consciousness, especially as expressed in art, literature, music, and spirituality:
The Upper Paleolithic Revolution consisted of more than just cave paintings. Visual creativity emerged in many other ways. Burial rites become more complex. And, it is speculated, the first music was made and the first words spoken. van Huyssteen argues that the key distinction between Upper Paleolithic man and homo sapiens elsewhere and earlier hominids, was the power to construct and understand symbol, of which language of course is a part. This ability to ‘code the invisible’ allowed for storage of information outside of the gene and the start of the cultural
non-genetic inheritance. The ‘mental toolkit’ required to manage symbolic representation is the ‘ability to be conscious of being conscious’ and to search for meaning. The new humans wake up, discover they are naked and meet God.

[ ... ]

So it seems that, some 30–40 000 years ago in Europe, humans suddenly acquired the gifts of self-awareness, symbol, language and creativity. Which of these was the foundational event is hard to know, and perhaps need not be known. But, importantly, spirituality was part of the package.
Yes, and that spirituality seems so evident in the cave paintings! The pantings are not about animals literally, in the sense that an anatomical diagram or textbook description might be about animals. The cave paintings are about the artists' perceptions of animals, their relationship to animals, and their explorations of what it must feel like to be an animal.
Tour the caves, courtesy France's culture ministry. Also tour the Lascaux caves here (at Virtual visit) and view Altamira cave images here.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose.

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Consciousness: So familiar and yet so puzzling ...

In The Return of Religion in Axess magazine, philosopher Roger Scruton observes,
Consciousness is more familiar to us than any other feature of our world, since it is the route by which anything at all becomes familiar. But this is what makes consciousness so hard to pinpoint. Look for it wherever you like, you encounter only its objects - a face, a dream, a memory, a colour, a pain, a melody, a problem, but nowhere the consciousness that shines on them. Trying to grasp it is like trying to observe your own observing, as though you were to look with your own eyes at your own eyes without using a mirror. Not surprisingly, therefore, the thought of consciousness gives rise to peculiar metaphysical anxieties, which we try to allay with images of the soul, the mind, the self, the 'subject of consciousness', the inner entity that thinks and sees and feels and which is the real me inside.
However, Scruton does not think that that works very well.
But these traditional 'solutions' merely duplicate the problem. We cast no light on the consciousness of a human being simply by re-describing it as the consciousness of some inner homunculus - be it a soul, a mind or a self. On the contrary, by placing that homunculus in some private, inaccessible and possibly immaterial realm, we merely compound the mystery.
Actually, consciousness is immaterial whether we like it or not. Your idea of red - or mine - are both immaterial. They have material correlates - that is, they relate to material things, including red objects, eyes and neurons in the brain. But the concepts are not material in themselves.

Scruton, usually a clear thinker, makes his effort to defend religion (the primary purpose of his piece) unnecessarily difficult, by agreeing in advance to two mistaken concepts - that the evangelical atheists are right in their general picture of the universe and that they are not religious.

Surprisingly, he even endorses Richard Dawkins’s "selfish gene" (you are merely a robot that your selfish genes use to replicate themselves) - a concept that is increasingly regarded as an embarrassment to evolution theory.

He then announces that this concept presents no problem for traditional religion. Huh?

Unfortunately, his idea of traditional religion turns out merely to be sentimental longing for the comforts of an exploded belief system - which is certainly not how we see it at my church, where traditional religion is a living presence and the selfish gene isn't.

Meanwhile, an American lawyer friend, John Calvert, writes me to point out the second serious flaw in Scruton's understanding of religion.
According to a popular dictionary religion is a set of beliefs about the cause, nature and purpose of life.

Dawkins, et al are promoting a set of beliefs about the cause, nature and purpose of life, predicated on a dogma - scientific materialism. Hence, they are also promoting a religion in the Constitutional sense and in its functional sense. Atheism and its sister religion of Secular Humanism function in the very same manner as traditional theistic religion.

The Supreme Court and most other courts have recognized that in a pluralistic society, religion must be defined functionally and inclusively. An exclusive definition of religion discriminates by limiting it to only theistic beliefs

Atheism and Secular Humanism have both been held to be religions. They are in fact organized religions that meet in churches, have manifestos, ethical and moral tenets, priests and Sunday school teachers.
Yes, precisely. "Religion" includes materialist atheism and secular humanism because they act as a set of beliefs about the cause, nature and purpose of life.

The fact that the zealots of these relatively new religions attack traditional religions is more or less what you might expect.

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