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Archive for November, 2009

Human qualities often come in clusters. Altruism, inner peace, strength, freedom, and genuine happiness thrive together like the parts of a nourishing fruit. Likewise, selfishness, animosity, and fear grow together. So, while helping others may not always be “pleasant,” it leads the mind to a sense of inner peace, courage, and harmony with the interdependence of all things and beings.

Afflictive mental states, on the other hand, begin with self-centeredness, with an increase in the gap between self and others. These states are related to excessive self-importance and self-cherishing associated with fear or resentment towards others, and grasping for outer things as part of a hopeless pursuit of selfish happiness. A selfish pursuit of happiness is a lose-lose situation: you make yourself miserable and make others miserable as well.

Inner conflicts are often linked with excessive rumination on the past and anticipation of the future. You are not truly paying attention to the present moment, but are engrossed in your thoughts, going on and on in a vicious circle, feeding your ego and self-centeredness.

This is the opposite of bare attention. To turn your attention inside means to look at pure awareness itself and dwell without distraction, yet effortlessly, in the present moment.

If you cultivate these mental skills, after a while you won’t need to apply contrived efforts anymore. You can deal with mental perturbations like the eagles I see from the window of my hermitage in the Himalayas deal with crows. The crows often attack them, diving at the eagles from above. But, instead of doing all kinds of acrobatics, the eagle simply retracts one wing at the last moment, lets the diving crow pass, and then extends its wing again. The whole thing requires minimal effort and causes little disturbance.

Being experienced in dealing with the sudden arising of emotions in the mind works in a similar way.

– By Matthieu Ricard, from “This is Your Brain on Bliss”

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“It is natural to describe key [scientific] events in terms of the work of individuals who made a mark in science – Copernicus, Vesalius, Darwin, Wallace and the rest. But this does not mean that science has progressed as a result of the work of a string of irreplaceable geniuses possessed of a special insight into how the world works. Geniuses maybe (though not always); but irreplaceable certainly not. Scientific progress builds step by step, and as the example of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace [who independently and simultaneously put forward the theory of evolution] shows, when the time is ripe, two or more individuals may make the next step independently of one another. It is the luck of the draw, or historical accident, whose name gets remembered as the discoverer of a new phenomenon.

“What is much more important than human genius is the development of technology, and it is no surprise that the start of the scientific revolution ‘coincides’ with the development of the telescope and the microscope. … If Newton had never lived, scientific progress might have been held back by a few decades. But only by a few decades. Edmond Halley or Robert Hooke might well have come up with the famous inverse square law of gravity; Gottfried Leibniz actually did invent calculus independently of Newton (and made a better job of it); and Christiaan Huygens’s superior wave theory of light was held back by Newton’s espousal of the rival particle theory. …

“Although the figure of Charles Darwin dominates any discussion of nineteenth-century science, he is something of an anomaly. It is during the nineteenth century – almost exactly during Darwin’s lifetime – that science makes the shift from being a gentlemanly hobby, where the interests and abilities of a single individual can have a profound impact, to a well-populated profession, where progress depends on the work of many individuals who are, to some extent, interchangeable. Even in the case of the theory of natural selection, as we have seen, if Darwin hadn’t come up with the idea, Wallace would have, and from now on we will increasingly find that discoveries are made more or less simultaneously by different people working independently and largely in ignorance of one another. …

“The other side of this particular coin, unfortunately, is that the growing number of scientists brings with it a growing inertia and resulting resistance to change, which means that all too often when some brilliant individual does come up with a profound new insight into the way the world works, this is not accepted immediately on merit and may take a generation to work its way into the collective received wisdom of science. …

“In 1766, there were probably no more than 300 people who we would now class as scientists in the entire world. By 1800, … there were about a thousand. By … 1844, there were about 10,000, and by 1900 somewhere around 100,000. Roughly speaking, the number of scientists doubled every fifteen years during the nineteenth century. But remember that the whole population of Europe doubled, from about 100 million to about 200 million, between 1750 and 1850, and the population of Britain alone doubled between 1800 and 1850, from roughly 9 million to roughly 18 million.”

John Gribbin, The Scientists, Random House, Copyright 2002 by John and Mary Gribbin, pp. xix-xx, 359-361.

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Cognitive Miserliness

In today’s excerpt – the human brain is a “cognitive miser”- it can employ several approaches to solving a given problem, but almost always chooses the one that requires the least computational power:

“We tend to be cognitive misers. When approaching a problem, we can choose from any of several cognitive mechanisms. Some mechanisms have great computational power, letting us solve many problems with great accuracy, but they are slow, require much concentration and can interfere with other cognitive tasks. Others are comparatively low in computational power, but they are fast, require little concentration and do not interfere with other ongoing cognition. Humans are cognitive misers because our basic tendency is to default to the processing mechanisms that require less computational effort, even if they are less accurate. Are you a cognitive miser? Consider the following problem, taken from the work of Hector Levesque, a computer scientist at the University of Toronto. Try to answer it yourself before reading the solution.

Problem: Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

A) Yes
B) No
C) Cannot be determined

“More than 80 percent of people choose C. But the correct answer is A. Here is how to think it through logically: Anne is the only person whose marital status is unknown. You need to consider both possibilities, either married or unmarried, to determine whether you have enough information to draw a conclusion. If Anne is married, the answer is A: she would be the married person who is looking at an unmarried person (George). If Anne is not married, the answer is still A: in this case, Jack is the married person, and he is looking at Anne, the unmarried person. This thought process is called fully disjunctive reasoning – reasoning that considers all possibilities. The fact that the problem does not reveal whether Anne is or is not married suggests to people that they do not have enough information, and they make the easiest inference (C) without thinking through all the possibilities. Most people can carry out fully disjunctive reasoning when they are explicitly told that it is necessary (as when there is no option like ‘cannot be determined’ available). But most do not automatically do so, and the tendency to do so is only weakly correlated with intelligence.

“Here is another test of cognitive miserliness, as described by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Shane Frederick.

“A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

“Many people give the first response that comes to mind – 10 cents. But if they thought a little harder, they would realize that this cannot be right: the bat would then have to cost $1.10, for a total of $1.20. IQ is no guarantee against this error. Kahneman and Frederick found that large numbers of highly select university students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and Harvard were cognitive misers, just like the rest of us, when given this and similar problems.”

Keith E. Stanovich, “Rational and Irrational Thought: The Thinking That IQ Tests Miss,” Scientific American, November/December 2009, pp. 35-36.

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