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Three More Reasons Why Your Brain is Not Your Friend

Three More Reasons Why Your Brain is Not Your Friend
Three More Reasons Your Brain is Not Your Friend

    Last week, I explained some of the ways that our brain tricks us. There’s more ways than just the three I listed that the brain works in odd and mysterious ways, causing us no end of mischief. Here’s three more:

    I am not a racist!

    In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was beaten and killed in an attack witnessed by dozens of people, none of whom intervened. In studies to understand this phenomenon, psychologists discovered the “bystander effect” (sometimes called the “Genovese effect” after the victim), which says that the more bystanders witness an attack, the less likely it is that any individual will intervene. Each individual witness believes that someone else will intervene, and that their action is therefore not needed.

    In a follow-up study to explore the effect of race in this equation, psychologists found that if a lone individual witnessed an attack by a white person on a black person, they were more likely to intervene than when they witnessed a white-on-white attack. When confronted with a racialized situation, most people feel compelled to intervene because not to intervene would make them feel like racists. In cases where other witnesses were present, the subjects were actually less likely to intervene in a white-on-black attack than similar subjects witnessing a white-on-white attack. In these instances, the presence of other potential interveners allows the subject to avoid the self-accusation of racism — they can tell themselves that they’re staying out of it because someone else will intervene, not because they’re racist.

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    These results are repeated in a similar study in which subjects were asked to play the part of jury member in a trial against a black defendant. Each subject was supplied with the details of the case and then watched recordings of 11 jurors explaining why they felt the defendant was guilty. In cases where the recorded jury members were all white, the subjects were very likely to find the defendant “not guilty”, feeling that the other jurors were racists and they were standing up against the other jurors’ racism. When one of the recordings was replaced by a black juror with the same argument, however, the subjects were much more likely to find the defendant “guilty”. If a black person thought the defendant was guilty, then it couldn’t be racist to agree, right?

    Pay no attention to the man in the gorilla suit

    In The Art of the Start, Guy Kawasaki describes a study performed with college-aged subjects in which they were asked to watch a video of several people passing a ball around and count the total number of passes and catches. At one point, a man with a gorilla suit enters the scene, thumps his chest a bit, and hangs out for 9 seconds.

    After watching the video, subjects were interviewed about what they had seen. A full 50% of the students did not see the gorilla. This phenomenon is called “perceptual blindness” or “inattentional blindness”, and occurs when we become so focused on what we’re doing that we fail to see anything that does not directly play into the task at hand. We basically fail entirely to pay attention to things we don’t expect to see.

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    You’re such a girl!

    Pity the poor college student — here’s another study involving college student subjects. In this one, male subjects were given a personality survey, after which the testers would tell them their character was especially feminine or especially masculine. The results were bogus, chosen at random, to set the subjects up for the second part of the study in which they were asked their opinions on such things as same-sex marriage, the war in Iraq, and President Bush’s performance.

    Men who were told that they had “feminine” personalities were much more supportive of President Bush and of the War, and much more opposed to same-sex marriage, than the men who were told they were very masculine. In essence, one group of men were called “sissies” and felt put upon to assert and thus prove their masculinity, while the other group felt unthreatened and thus more able to respond freely.

    We’re all doomed(?)

    What should we do with all this? Are we simply doomed? Are we just dumb animals dominated by a couple pounds of irrational meat?

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    I don’t think so. We are, of course, capable of deep reasoning — consider the work of the great philosophers, brilliant scientists, and far-sighted social critics. These quirks of thought don’t undermine our rationality, they coexist with it.

    Some of these gremlins in our thinking machine are the product of social conditions that we can change — but knowing they’re there and how they work is a prerequisite for that. Others are features, not bugs — anyone who has ever been deep in the “flow” of their work can attest to the value of perceptual blindness which allows us to “tune out” the inessential and distracting.

    Ultimately, knowing is better than not knowing. Those of us who are committed to the idea of personal improvement think a lot about the habits that hold us back and prevent us from achieving our goals, whatever they are. Knowing that we have a tendency to see others through the prism of race and gender, that we often act in ways that only become conscious after the fact, or that might blind us to important events as well as to trivial distractions can, I think, help us to better realize our goals.

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    At least that’s what my brain tells me to think.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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