kottke.org posts about Jonah Lehrer

What the hell is going on with Jonah Lehrer?Jul 31 2012

First there was the self-plagiarism. And now, just a month later, Lehrer was caught fabricating some Bob Dylan quotes for his most recent book and then tried to cover it up.

Mr. Lehrer might have kept his job at The New Yorker if not for the Tablet article, by Michael C. Moynihan, a journalist who is something of an authority on Mr. Dylan.

Reading "Imagine," Mr. Moynihan was stopped by a quote cited by Mr. Lehrer in the first chapter. "It's a hard thing to describe," Mr. Dylan said. "It's just this sense that you got something to say."

After searching for a source, Mr. Moynihan could not verify the authenticity of the quote. Pressed for an explanation, Mr. Lehrer "stonewalled, misled and, eventually, outright lied to me" over several weeks, Mr. Moynihan wrote, first claiming to have been given access by Mr. Dylan's manager to an unreleased interview with the musician. Eventually, Mr. Lehrer confessed that he had made it up.

I've posted about many articles written by Lehrer and even interviewed him after I read Proust Was a Neuroscientist. When this sort of thing happens, you wonder how much else was, shall we say, embellished for effect.

Comic Sans will make you smarterJan 06 2011

Researchers at Princeton have found evidence that making something more difficult to learn improves long-term learning and information retention. More specifically, changing the typeface from something legible (like Helvetica) to something more difficult to read (like Monotype Corsiva or Comic Sans) increased retention in actual classroom settings.

This study demonstrated that student retention of material across a wide range of subjects (science and humanities classes) and difficulty levels (regular, Honors and Advanced Placement) can be significantly improved in naturalistic settings by presenting reading material in a format that is slightly harder to read.... The potential for improving educational practices through cognitive interventions is immense. If a simple change of font can significantly increase student performance, one can only imagine the number of beneficial cognitive interventions waiting to be discovered. Fluency demonstrates how we have the potential to make big improvements in the performance of our students and education system as a whole.

I agree with Lehrer...get David Carson on the horn. (thx, lara)

How to prevent chokingApr 15 2010

Take smaller bites!!

Ok, no. I'm talking about performance-based choking, or as Jonah Lehrer puts it, "performing below skill level due to performance related anxieties". Lehrer points to some interesting research which suggests that simplified thinking about your general technique can be enough to ward off performance anxiety.

When the expert golfers contemplated a holistic cue word, their performance was no longer affected by anxiety. Because the positive adjectives were vague and generic, they didn't cause the athletes to lose the flow of expert performance or overrule their automatic brain.

The neuroscience of CostcoApr 01 2010

Jonah Lehrer on what our brains are up to when we're shopping at Costco.

As I note in How We Decide, this data directly contradicts the rational models of microeconomics. Consumers aren't always driven by careful considerations of price and expected utility. We don't look at the electric grill or box of chocolates and perform an explicit cost-benefit analysis. Instead, we outsource much of this calculation to our emotional brain, and rely on relative amounts of pleasure versus pain to tell us what to purchase.

A blind wine tasting with Robert ParkerNov 20 2009

Robert Parker, the world's foremost wine taster, tasted a bunch of bottles from Bordeaux 2005 (a great year for Bordeaux) and couldn't tell which one was which and ranked them differently than he had before.

Blind tasting removes preconceptions about wines while maintaining the ability to rate wines in a peer group setting. Wednesday night, Parker upended the order of his published ratings of the wines and, in the process, could not correctly identify any of these wines. In print, he awarded L'Eglise Clinet, a Pomerol, a score of 100 points. While he did call it his second favorite wine of the night, it is interesting to note that he could not pick out this wine in the lineup (he thought the actual L'Eglise to be Cos, a wine that is not only from across the river, but from St. Estephe, an appellation known for the extreme tannic structure of the wines). In that same vein, he mistook Lafite, a Paulliac, for Troplong-Mondot, a new wave St. Emilion. Blind tasting can be ruthless in its outcomes.

Jonah Lehrer elaborated on the outcome of the tasting.

When we take a sip of wine, we don't taste the wine first, and the cheapness or redness second. We taste everything all at once, in a single gulp of thiswineisred, or thiswineisexpensive. As a result, the wine "experts" sincerely believed that the white wine was red, or that Lafite was actually Troplong-Mondot. Such mistakes are inevitable: Our brain has been designed to believe itself, wired so that our prejudices feel like facts, our opinions indistinguishable from the actual sensation. If we think a wine is cheap, it will taste cheap. And if we think we are tasting a grand cru, then we will taste a grand cru.

No people, just wavesSep 09 2009

Jonah Lehrer profiles Clay Marzo, a top surfer who also happens to be on the autism spectrum, which has been useful in focusing his attention on surfer but is also a challenge.

It's like everyone else has a bucket for dealing with people and I only got a cup. When my cup gets too full, then I shut down.

I've lost control againMay 21 2009

Jonah Lehrer, who is seemingly in a race with Michael Lewis these days to see who can write the most books and articles in a 12-month period, writes about self-control in the New Yorker...what it is, how it works, and how it affects things like achievement, happiness, etc. The article focuses on the efforts of Dr. Walter Mischel and the marshmallow test that he developed to measure self-control in young kids. With the marshmallow test, kids are given a mashmallow and they are told that they can eat it right away or, if they hold out, they can eat two marshmallows.

Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

I must have really underachieved on the SAT because as a four-year-old, I would have likely waited forever...I don't like marshmallows.

Update: Radiolab recently tackled the marshmallow test on their podcast. There is also marshmallow test footage on YouTube. (thx, michael)

Update: Lehrer answers readers' questions over on the New Yorker web site.

The beginner's mindApr 27 2009

Alison Gopnik and Jonah Lehrer take a look at how babies' brains develop.

Gopnik argues that, in many respects, babies are more conscious than adults. She compares the experience of being a baby with that of watching a riveting movie, or being a tourist in a foreign city, where even the most mundane activities seem new and exciting. "For a baby, every day is like going to Paris for the first time," Gopnik says. "Just go for a walk with a 2-year-old. You'll quickly realize that they're seeing things you don't even notice."

The Neuroscience of IllusionApr 27 2009

In a bit of a sequel to Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer talks to Teller (of Penn and Teller) and learns how the tricks that magicians do can be explained by neuroscience.

Our brains don't see everything -- the world is too big, too full of stimuli. So the brain takes shortcuts, constructing a picture of reality with relatively simple algorithms for what things are supposed to look like. Magicians capitalize on those rules. "Every time you perform a magic trick, you're engaging in experimental psychology," Teller says. "If the audience asks, 'How the hell did he do that?' then the experiment was successful. I've exploited the efficiencies of your mind."

How We DecideNov 25 2008

News to me: Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, has a new book coming out in February called How We Decide.

From the acclaimed author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, a fascinating look at the new science of decision-making-and how it can help us make better choices. Since Plato, philosophers have described the decisionmaking process as either rational or emotional: we carefully deliberate or we "blink" and go with our gut. But as scientists break open the mind's black box with the latest tools of neuroscience, they're discovering that this is not how the mind works.Our best decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason -- and the precise mix depends on the situation.When buying a house, for example, it's best to let our unconscious mull over the many variables. But when we're picking a stock, intuition often leads us astray.The trick is to determine when to lean on which part of the brain, and to do this, we need to think harder (and smarter) about how we think.

Something's fishy about these financial modelsOct 30 2008

Jonah Lehrer answers the burning question of the day: what do cod fish have to do with the current financial crisis?

The [cod population] models were all wrong. The cod population never grew. By the late 1980's, even the trawlers couldn't find cod. It was now clear that the scientists had made some grievous errors. The fishermen hadn't been catching 16 percent of the cod population; they had been catching 60 percent of the cod population. The models were off by a factor of four. "For the cod fishery," write Orrin Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, in their excellent book Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future, "as for most of earth's surface systems, whether biological or geological, the complex interaction of huge numbers of parameters make mathematical modeling on a scale of predictive accuracy that would be useful to fishers a virtual impossibility."

In the same way, incorrect but highly lucrative financial models caused people to take on too much risk and leverage.

Daydreaming is important businessSep 05 2008

Jonah Lerher on daydreaming and the human brain's default network. Creativity, especially with regard to children, might be stifled by too little daydreaming and too much television.

After monitoring the daily schedule of the children for several months, Belton came to the conclusion that their lack of imagination was, at least in part, caused by the absence of "empty time," or periods without any activity or sensory stimulation. She noticed that as soon as these children got even a little bit bored, they simply turned on the television: the moving images kept their minds occupied. "It was a very automatic reaction," she says. "Television was what they did when they didn't know what else to do."

The problem with this habit, Belton says, is that it kept the kids from daydreaming. Because the children were rarely bored -- at least, when a television was nearby -- they never learned how to use their own imagination as a form of entertainment. "The capacity to daydream enables a person to fill empty time with an enjoyable activity that can be carried on anywhere," Belton says. "But that's a skill that requires real practice. Too many kids never get the practice."

But television isn't the default network that Lehrer is referring to:

Every time we slip effortlessly into a daydream, a distinct pattern of brain areas is activated, which is known as the default network. Studies show that this network is most engaged when people are performing tasks that require little conscious attention, such as routine driving on the highway or reading a tedious text. Although such mental trances are often seen as a sign of lethargy -- we are staring haplessly into space -- the cortex is actually very active during this default state, as numerous brain regions interact. Instead of responding to the outside world, the brain starts to contemplate its internal landscape. This is when new and creative connections are made between seemingly unrelated ideas.

How does insight work?Jul 25 2008

Jonah Lerher, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, has a piece in the New Yorker this week (not online1) about how the process of insight works in the brain. The main takeaway is that insight comes easiest when our brains are relaxed and not focused on too much detail so that it is able to look for more general associations between seemingly disparate ideas.

Kounios tells a story about an expert Zen meditator who took part in one of the C.R.A. insight experiments. At first, the meditator couldn't solve any of the insight problems. "This Zen guy went through thirty or so of the verbal puzzles and just drew a blank," Kounios said. "He was used to being very focussed, but you can't solve these problems if you're too focussed." Then, just as he was about to give up, he started solving one puzzle after another, until, by the end of the experiment, he was getting them all right. It was an unprecedented streak. "Normally, people don't get better as the task goes along," Kounios said. "If anything, they get a little bored." Kounios believes that the dramatic improvement of the Zen meditator came from his paradoxical ability to focus on not being focussed, so that he could pay attention to those remote associations in the right hemisphere. "He had the cognitive control to let go," Kounios said. "He became an insight machine."

[1] There's a samizdat PDF of the article here.

Mirror neurons and sportsJun 13 2008

Rampant speculation from Jonah Lehrer on why people care so much when they watch overpaid athletes play sports. It is, perhaps, all about mirror neurons:

"The main functional characteristic of mirror neurons is that they become active both when the monkey makes a particular action (for example, when grasping an object or holding it) and when it observes another individual making a similar action." In other words, these peculiar cells mirror, on our inside, the outside world; they enable us to internalize the actions of another. They collapse the distinction between seeing and doing.

This suggests that when I watch Kobe glide to the basket for a dunk, a few deluded cells in my premotor cortex are convinced that I, myself, am touching the rim. And when he hits a three pointer, my mirror neurons light up as I've just made the crucial shot. They are what bind me to the game, breaking down that 4th wall separating fan from player. I'm not upset because my team lost: I'm upset because it literally feels like I lost, as if I had been on the court.

Practicing relaxationMar 13 2008

A post by Jonah Lehrer about thinking under pressure links deliberate practice with another of my favorite concepts, relaxed concentration. For novice golfers, thinking more about a putt increases their chances of making it. But for experts, thinking about the mechanics of the putt in the same way makes it less likely that they'll sink it.

Rather than think about the mechanical details of their swing, [expert] golfers should focus on general aspects of their intended movement, or what psychologists call a "holistic cue word". For instance, instead of contemplating things like the precise position of the wrist or elbow, they should focus on descriptive adjectives like "smooth" or "balanced". An experimental trial demonstrated that professional golfers who used these "holistic cues" did far better than golfers who consciously tried to control their stroke.

Related: a reader recommended George Leonard's Mastery as a good read about deliberate practice. (thx, jd)

Update: Another recommendation: Inner Tennis. kottke.org reader Stuart says:

Reading this book a couple of years ago quite honestly transformed my tennis game: I am good at deliberate practice, which had allowed me to become technically very sound, but until then I was completely unable to consciously enter a state of relaxed concentration and execute in a match situation: I was a classic "over thinker". Gallwey's book treats relaxed concentration as a skill to be deliberately practiced, and gives an approach to do so. Highly recommended, and fascinating for any (thoughtful) sportsman.

(thx, stuart)

Proust Was a NeuroscientistFeb 22 2008

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Proust Was a Neuroscientist is the story of how eight writers and artists anticipated our contemporary understanding of the human brain. From the preface:

This book is about artists who anticipated the discoveries of neuroscience. It is about writers and painters and composers who discovered truths about the human mind -- real, tangible truths -- that science is only now rediscovering. Their imaginations foretold the facts of the future.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit so I sent the author, Jonah Lehrer, a few questions via email. Here's our brief conversation.

Jason Kottke: Your exploration of the intersection of neuroscience and culture begins with Proust; you were reading Swann's Way while doing research in a neuroscience lab. Where did the idea come from for a collection of people who anticipated our modern understanding of the human brain? How did you find those other stories?

Jonah Lehrer: The lab I was working in was studying the chemistry of memory. The manual labor of science can get pretty tedious, and so I started reading Proust while waiting for my experiments to finish. After a few hundred pages of melodrama, I began to realize that the novelist had these very modern ideas about how our memory worked. His fiction, in other words, anticipated the very facts I was trying to uncover by studying the isolated neurons of sea slugs. Once I had this idea about looking at art through the prism of science, I began to see connections everywhere. I'd mutter about the visual cortex while looking at a Cezanne painting, or think about the somatosensory areas while reading Whitman on the "body electric". Needless to say, my labmates mocked me mercilessly.

I'm always a little embarrassed to admit just how idiosyncratic my selection process was for the other artists in the book. I simply began with my favorite artists and tried to see what they had to say about the mind. The first thing that surprised me was just how much they had to say. Virginia Woolf, for instance, is always going on and on about her brain. "Nerves" has to be one of her favorite words.

Kottke: Which of your characters did you know the least about beforehand? Even a seeming polymath like yourself must have a blind spot or two.

Lehrer: Definitely Gertrude Stein. I actually found her through William James, the great American psychologist and philosopher. She worked in his Harvard lab, published a few scientific papers on "automatic writing," and then went to med-school at Johns Hopkins before dropping out and moving to Paris to hang out with Picasso. So I knew she had this deep background in science, but I had only read snippets of her work. I then proceeded to fall asleep to the same page of "The Making of Americans" for a month.

Kottke: Are there other characters that you considered for inclusion? If so, why weren't they included?

Lehrer: Lots of people were left on the cutting room floor. I had a long digression on Edgar Allen Poe and mirror neurons. (See, for instance, "The Purloined Letter," where Poe has detective Dupin reveal his secret for reading the minds of criminals: "When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.") I also had a chapter on Coleridge and the unconscious, but I think that chapter was really just me wanting to write about opium. But, for the most part, I can't really say why some chapters survived the editing process and others didn't. I certainly mean no disrespect to Poe. If they let me write a sequel, I'll find a way to include him.

Kottke: I noticed that three out of the eight main characters in the book are women. Surveying the usually cited big thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries, it would have been easy to write this book with all male characters. Is there an implicit statement in there that science would be better off with a greater percentage of women participating?

Lehrer: While I certainly agree with the idea that the institution of science would benefit from more female scientists, I didn't choose these female artists for that reason. I don't think you need any ulterior motive to fall in love with the work of Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. Their art speaks for itself. That said, I think the psychological insights of women like Woolf were rooted, at least in part, in their womanhood. Woolf, for instance, rebelled against the stodgy old male novelists of her day. Their fiction, she complained, was all about "factories and utopias". Woolf wanted to invert this hierarchy, so that the "task of the novelist" was to "examine an ordinary mind on an ordinary day." There's something very domestic about her modernism, so that the grandest epiphanies happen while someone is out buying flowers or eating a beef stew. Women might not be able to write novels about war or politics, but they could find an equal majesty by exploring the mind.

Plus, I think Woolf learned a lot about the brain from her mental illness. As a woman, she was subjected to all sorts of terrible psychiatric treatments, which made her rather skeptical of doctors. (In Mrs. Dalloway, she refers to the paternalistic Dr. Bradshaw as an "obscurely evil" person, whose insistence that the mental illness was "physical, purely physical" causes a suicide.) Introspection was Woolf's only medicine. "I feel my brains, like a pear, to see if it's ripe," she once wrote. "It will be exquisite by September."

Kottke: Are there other books/media out there that share a third culture kinship with yours? I received a copy of Lawrence Weschler's Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences for Christmas...that seems to fit. Steven Johnson's books. Anything else you can recommend?

Lehrer: I've stolen ideas from so many people it's hard to know where to begin. Certainly Weschler and Johnson have both been major influences. I've always worshipped Oliver Sacks; Richard Powers has more neuroscience in his novels than most issues of Nature; I just saw Olafur Eliasson's new show at SFMOMA and that was rather inspiring. I could go on and on. It's really an exciting time to be interested in the intersection of art and science.

But I'd also recommend traveling back in time a little bit, before our two cultures were so divided. We don't think of people like George Eliot as third-culture figures, but she famously described her novels as a "a set of experiments in life." Virginia Woolf, before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, said that in her new novel the "psychology should be done very realistically." Whitman worked in Civil War hospitals and corresponded for years with the neurologist who discovered phantom limb syndrome. (He also kept up with phrenology, the brain science of his day.) Or look at Coleridge. When the poet was asked why he attended so many lectures on chemistry, he gave a great answer: "To improve my stock of metaphors". In other words, trying to merge art and science isn't some newfangled idea.

--

Thanks, Jonah. You can read more of Lehrer's writing at his frequently updated blog, The Frontal Cortex.

Very few science and ideas books madeDec 26 2007

Very few science and ideas books made it on to the 2007 "best of" lists so Edge has provided a list of their picks for the year. I didn't read any of the books on this list, although I'm currently 1/3 of the way through Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

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