Jonah Lehrer's Blog, page 3

June 29, 2010

Ever since Pac Man, video games have obeyed a few basic principles: A player sits down in front of a screen and presses a few buttons with his or her thumbs. Perhaps there's a joystick involved, or maybe the index finger has to do some work, too. But the body is essentially still. The only moving parts are the eyes and the fingers.



The Wii changed everything. Unlike every other game console, the Wii controller isn't built around a confusing alphabet of buttons. Instead, Nintendo uses some...

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Published on June 29, 2010 10:55 • 59 views

June 28, 2010

The intelligence test is badly named. The main problem is that we should be talking about intelligence tests in plural, so that the IQ test is merely one of the many measures we use to assess our innate mental skills.



Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg and others, the IQ test remains the singular test of individual cognitive ability. The mysterious entity that it measures - g, for general intelligence factor - is still seen as the dominant variable i...

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Published on June 28, 2010 10:44 • 29 views

June 24, 2010

I was a stuttering child. Whenever I got the slightest bit nervous, I had an annoying tendency to run out of air on vowel sounds, so that beginning a phrase with "A" or "eee" or "I" was all but impossible. I would choke and sputter, my eyes blinking in mad frustration. This minor affliction led me to become extremely self-aware of my speech. Before I said anything out loud, I would consider the breathy weight of the words, and mentally rehearse all those linguistic speed bumps and stop...

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Published on June 24, 2010 10:08 • 48 views

June 22, 2010

I have a complicated relationship with my GPS unit. On the one hand, it rarely works. Here's what happened the last time I turned it on. First, there was a five minute delay while it searched for the satellite signal. Then, it couldn't find the street I was searching for. Then, it found the street but lost the satellite signal. Then, it regained the signal but sent me in the wrong direction. And then, after I'd already gotten accurate directions off my phone, the GPS unit finally decided...

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Published on June 22, 2010 11:37 • 47 views

June 21, 2010

Clive Thompson has a wonderful article in the NY Times Magazine on Watson, the supercomputer programmed to excel at Jeopardy. Thompson delves into the clever heuristics used to generate singular answers to ambiguous questions. (Watson relies on massive amounts of parallel processing, so that "he" is running thousands of Google searches simultaneously.) While Watson's performance is certainly impressive, I thought the most interesting part of the story involved the failings of the machine...

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Published on June 21, 2010 10:26 • 149 views

June 18, 2010

Over at the Barnes and Noble Review, I have a short review of Cognitive Surplus, the new book by Clay Shirky:



Cognitive Surplus, the new book by internet guru Clay Shirky, begins with a brilliant analogy. He starts with a description of London in the 1720s, when the city was in the midst of a gin binge. A flood of new arrivals from the countryside meant the metropolis was crowded, filthy, and violent. As a result, people sought out the anesthesia of alcohol as they tried to collectively...
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Published on June 18, 2010 15:41 • 67 views

June 15, 2010

Sam Tanenhaus has an interesting essay on the relationship between age and literary genius, which was prompted by the new New Yorker fiction issue, featuring a list of 20 accomplished writers under the age of 40. Tanenhaus argues that the purpose of the list - "to offer a focused look at the talent sprouting and blooming around us" - neglected to mention one crucial fact, which is that many of these writers have probably already composed their best work:



The emphasis on futurity misses an...
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Published on June 15, 2010 10:06 • 170 views

June 14, 2010

The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has written an excellent new book, How Pleasure Works, that I had the pleasure of blurbing. The book elegantly refutes the idea that our pleasures are mere sensations, or that our delight can be neatly reduced into some ingredient list of superficial perceptions. Instead, Bloom emphasizes the importance of essentialism, which is the instinctive belief that everything in the world has an underlying reality, or true nature, or essence.



We are all natural...

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Published on June 14, 2010 09:43 • 48 views

June 10, 2010

I'd like to tell you a story about a routine of modern life that is really bad for your brain. Everybody performs this activity - sometimes multiple times a day! - and yet we rarely realize the consequences. In 2008, scientists at the University of Michigan did a very clever study illuminating how this activity led to dramatic decreases in working memory, self-control, visual attention and positive affect. Other studies have demonstrated that people who are less exposed to this activity show ...

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Published on June 10, 2010 05:30 • 69 views

June 8, 2010

I recently had a short article in Wired on the danger of getting too enthralled with our empirical tools, which leads us to neglect everything that our tools can't explain:



A typical experiment in functional magnetic resonance imaging goes like this: A subject is slid into a claustrophobia-inducing tube, the core of a machine the size of a delivery truck. The person is told to lie perfectly still and perform some task -- look at a screen, say, or make a decision. Noisy superconducting...
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Published on June 08, 2010 23:44 • 46 views