Brain Science Roundup, vol IV

Brain-sciencey stories and studies I’ve been reading recently:

1. A fascinating semi-biography of Walter Pitts, homeless runaway, high school dropout, and child genius, and his collaborator Warren McCulloch. I never knew their first names, because as a student, you learn about them as though they are scientific conjoined twins: McCulloch-Pitts, who developed computational models of neurons, foundational work in cognitive science.

…identified several mistakes. Deciding that Bertrand Russell himself needed to know about these, [Pitts] drafted a letter to Russell detailing the errors. Not only did Russell write back, he was so impressed that he invited Pitts to study with him as a graduate student at Cambridge University in England. Pitts couldn’t oblige him, though—he was only 12 years old.

There’s also a great story about Pitts keeping a barrel of frogs in the basement.

2. I reviewed Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind last month, in which he tries to pin down what a “moral” really is. Haidt had found that people could sometimes find it difficult to identify a victim in “harmless” taboo acts, even if they thought the act immoral. Rather than discard the idea that morals are about “harm”, Haidt argued that moral violations may harm the group rather than the individual (essentially, he said that rule-breaking itself is a harmful force).

Here’s a recent NYT article from another group of researchers who suggest that people do identify victims in immoral acts, even for acts that don’t seem to be harmful:

…all our participants, liberals and conservatives alike, genuinely perceived victims in acts that they considered to be immoral. Even ostensibly “victimless” behaviors like necrophilia were seen to involve injured parties.

I don’t think these are necessarily contradictory findings—morals are probably definitionally about harm, so that from the perspective of the person who holds a moral rule, there cannot be a harmless immoral act (if violating it were harmless, it wouldn’t be a moral). Whether it’s an individual or the group that’s hurt is a different question.

3. Maria Konnikova with a (depressing) review of the perniciousness of false beliefs—have you heard there’s a measles outbreak and that Obama was born in Kenya and and and—what factors turn “bad information” into “false beliefs”, and how hard they can be to correct. Strongly recommend spending at least as much time pondering your personal intransigence as you spend thinking “christ, we’ll never get rid of anti-vaxxers”. One sentence that reveals deep truths about human nature:

If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.

4. On a short list of my favorite findings in psychology is that walking through a doorway can make you to forget what you’re currently thinking about. One explanation is that the doorway acts as a kind of boundary, a marker for the brain that it’s a new place, a new event, time to file away the old stuff and clean the slate for new information. Turns out the same forgetting happens when you only imagine walking through a door.

5. When innocent people confess, one assumes it’s under duress, after being psychologically or physically battered; that it’s like Daniel Day-Lewis finally giving in after days of questioning in In the Name of the Father (most of us also assume that we’d never give in, like Mel Gibson screaming for freedom while being disemboweled). But here’s a new study showing that simple suggestive techniques can induce false memories of having committed a crime. This is exactly the kind of shocking finding that screams out for replication, but it’s disturbing nonetheless. Coerced confessions are horrifying, but it’s terrifying to imagine convincing people they’re guilty without that kind of psychological torture we think goes along with false confessions

Since Brian Williams is being put through the wringer for his embellishments, it’s worth remembering (heh) that false memories aren’t exceptional, that we’re often just as confident in wrong memories as we are in accurate ones, and that false memories aren’t hard to induce.

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