Archive for July, 2010


what he said…

July 24, 2010

The question of free will is one that rears its ugly (in a very interesting way) head often in the realm of psychology. The notion of free will (or illusion of free will, depending on who you talk to) relates to a myriad of issues concerning human behavior: development, learning, consciousness, morality, etc… In several classes, we engage with aspects of the free will debate, but rarely have an opportunity to deal with it wholeheartedly. That is what is good about philosophers – they make a career of dealing with these thorny issues…

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times (link here), Galen Strawson, a professor of philosophy at Reading University in the good ol’ United Kingdom, takes some time out to provide a primer on some of the issues related to free will. As this is philosophical, do not expect much in the way of “data” and “theory”. Instead, he provides some logical arguments that outline his view that “free will” as most envision it is not possible, and yet we have a need to feel it is so. The first part of that (the argument against free will) is fairly clear, but the second part (why we need it) is less well developed. I guess you’ll have to work on that part yourself.


a new frontier

July 1, 2010

I guess I get to put on my “I remember back in the day” goggles for this one. I find myself explaining to students how difficult it used to be to locate and print off references for research projects. There were no online databases with direct access to pdf files of most published research papers . How when I was an undergraduate I opted to use a typewriter because of the confusion induced by WordStar/WordPerfect/EasyWriter interface. Most computers didn’t even have a mouse or any sort of point and click ease (except Greg’s cool little Apple II). How we couldn’t just call a friend without first finding a payphone AND making sure we had the correct change. There was no email or texting or Twitter or Yelp or whatever new app will come out today that makes life so much easier… It was so much more difficult to be productive with our time back in the day – we wasted a lot of time and energy doing things that now are done for us or are ridiculously easy… Of course, there is always the other side of the coin:

“While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.”

The quote is form an interesting NYT article (click here or on the picture above) that summarizes some of the research that has been going on for the past decade exploring how our interactions with the various technologies we have access to these days affect our behaviors and thoughts. Forty years ago, cognitive psychologists were interested in human-computer interactions, but from a very different perspective – how can people (as information processors) and computers (as information processing systems) best interact to maximize the experience and productivity of the user? The research across the intervening decades was primarily focused on how effectively people could use various forms of  Some philosophers, and sci-fi writers of course, early on began to speculate what was going to be lost (as well as gained) as we depended more and more on this relationship with technology (also see just about any Star Trek episode).

Anyways, interesting things to consider as we rely more on smartphones to remember names and dates for us, gaming consoles to entertain us, gps systems to navigate for us, computers to spell for us…


a wandering mind needs somewhere to wander…

July 1, 2010

First: read this

Then, I guess the appropriate thing to do is to sit back and let all those brilliant ideas effortlessly come to you as you let your mind wander hither and fro… at least that is what it sounds like after reading this little piece in the NYT. Yeah, our minds wander naturally and effortlessly, but much of the time it does not lead to the types of insights that the authors of the piece note towards the end of the segment. Creativity does depend on this type of insight to some degree, but what they miss here is some indication of how important it is to PREPARE yourself to mind wander. They suggest going for a run, doing some knitting or doodling, and just letting the creativity happen.This is the “neato-presto” version of how creativity and insight operate. It is not that easy.

Before mind wandering will have any sort of payoff, it is critical to immerse yourself in effortful and directed contemplation of the tasks and challenges at hand. In a sense, the mind needs somewhere to wander, and if you haven’t populated your mind with lots of interesting and relevant bits of knowledge, you’ll end up wandering to the land of ’70s sitcom trivia or why your neighbors leave their garbage cans out instead of wandering towards insights into an interesting topic for the paper you need to write or a solution for the problem that has plagued the project you have to complete.The most creative individuals tend to be people who have extensive experience and knowledge within an area (often times they have more than one area of expertise). They combine that extensive knowledge base with a tendency to inquire and seek out multiple perspectives. When mind wandering occurs within these types of prepared minds (remember that there are lots of ways and topics that you can be an expert in), then insights can occur.

The mind does have some really impressive and powerful abilities to make connections, take new perspectives, and uncover previously unnoticed solutions (see both the popular press versions, e.g. Gladwell’s Blink, and the more experimental work of John Bargh and Ap Dijksterhuis). However, I think it is important to keep in mind, when your mind is not wandering, how important doing things (reading, observing, etc.) that have direct connections to your goals (writing a paper, building a birdhouse) is. Sitting around and waiting for insights is not a solution in and of itself.