How the fear of coronavirus is changing our minds Humans have evolved “behavioural immune system” – automatic reactions that helped to stop the spread of disease. Today, these responses lead us to become more morally judgemental, more distrustful of outsiders, and more socially conservative – influencing our judgement on unrelated political issues such as immigration.
What makes a good leader during a crisis? A profile of Arjen Boin, a political scientist who has studied leadership behaviours during crises such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to determine the best ways to guide a population through a disaster.
If you feel like a distraction during these difficult times, I have also published a piece in Men’s Health on “paradoxical insomnia” – an eerie but surprisingly common sleep condition caused by faulty dreams.
Does the mind end with the brain? Or should the term also encompass the body and the tools we use to aid our thinking?
The idea of the “extended mind” was first proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in the late 1990s. As part of their argument, they propose a thought experiment concerning a man called Otto, with early Alzheimer’s, who carries a notebook in which he records important information throughout the day, so there is really no observable difference between his behaviour and someone with a healthy memory. In Clark and Chalmers’ view, the tool has simply become part of his mind. You could say the same about many of our other mental crutches – like our phone book or Google Maps – that have become so embedded in our day-to-day thinking. The extended mind may even reach to other people – in couples, we often rely on our partners to reinforce our memories, which is why a bereavement can feel like we’ve lost part of our own mind,
While that might seem like a rather abstract philosophical idea, I recently came across an intriguing paper suggesting that spiders‘ webs are an extended mind – with some interesting implications for evolutionary theory. According to recent research, spider silk is central to their sensing and memory – much like Otto’s notebook or my smartphone. They use the silk to sense their environment and have been known to “tune” it according to experience, for instance, which allows them to respond more quickly to prey. By outsourcing their “thinking” in this way, they are capable of much more complicated behaviours than you would expect from a typical invertebrate. Combined with other research showing that spiders can form mental representation of the world, and are even capable of expressing surprise, it now looks likely that spiders (and their webs) carry a rudimentary form of consciousness. You can read more in my recent feature article for New Scientist.
(Here’s a bonus fact: many spider species use tiny strands of silk to sense electromagnetic fields. When the force is strong enough to support their weight, they cast a few “sails” that allow them to fly thousands of miles across the ocean. Darwin’s The Beagle was apparently plagued by these flying spiders.)
Besides my piece on spider consciousness, I’ve been pleased to publish another piece in the Observer (the Guardian’s Sunday paper) on simple ways to boost your learning. I found that most articles about human memory tend to focus on mnemonic techniques – like Sherlock’s famous memory palace. But while that might be useful for learning isolated facts, it doesn’t really help you to build a profound understanding of a subject, or to be able to apply that learning to new situations in inventive ways. So I picked strategies from the scientific literature that have been proven to help any discipline.
As always, I’ve tried them all out myself – I try to practice what I preach with psychological research, so I can be sure they don’t fall into the “practicality gap” between lab research and everyday application. Since I’m splitting my time between London and Barcelona this year, I’ve tried to use them to boost my understanding of español. The benefits of wakeful rest – allowing your mind to wander aimlessly after a study session – has been a revelation. Interleaving – the practice of switching between topics/skills at regular intervals – has also been especially useful. You can read the article about learning and the “power of productive failure” here.
Here’s a simple maths question – the answer to which might tell you something important about your decision making skills. If you toss a coin 10 times, and the result is HHHHHHHHHH, what are the chances that it will be a tails on a the next throw? According to probability theory, the odds are exactly the same as before – 50%. But our intuitions often tell us this isn’t the case; somehow, a tails feels more likely. This is the gambler’s fallacy.
Perhaps most famously, it led punters at one of Monte Carlo’s casinos to lose millions of francs after a string of reds on the roulette wheel – but the implications stretch far beyond your typical games of chance. As I discuss in my new piece for BBC Worklife – the gambler’s fallacy can also sway stock market investments, judicial decisions, umpires’ calls and footballers’ penalty shootouts. Indeed, whenever you have to make a string of decisions, your intuitions about chance could be leading your astray.
I was delighted to see that The Intelligence Trap has been selected for JP Morgan’s Next List of what to read, see and taste in 2020. The French edition – Pourquoi l’intelligence rend idiot – arrived on 22 January, and the Italian edition (Le trappole dell’intelligenza) is set for later this year. The UK paperback comes out 6 February.
I’ve also been proud to publish some new features over the past couple of months. In no particular order:
Men and women aren’t equal when it comes to concussion – Mosaic Women athletes are twice as likely as men to get concussed – and the effects are more severe. But with research focusing mainly on men, what can we do to make sure women with concussion aren’t left behind? It’s a long-form piece that was later republished in the Independent. (See also my feature for Mosaic on awareness under anaesthesia, which was later republished by the Independent, the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Sun, Quartz and many others.)
What is the secret of the polymath? – BBC Worklife And can their cross-discipline expertise help tackle some of society’s most pressing challenges? An exploration of some cutting-edge research on the limits of our learning ability, featuring a profile of the real-life polymath Waqas Ahmed.
What I’m reading: To inspire/guide my New Year health kick, I’ve just finished Good to Go by Christie Aschwanden, which explores the science (and pseudo-science) of many sports recovery regimes. Christie’s one of my favourite writers on sport and fitness and this didn’t disappoint! In fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed Fu Ping by Wang Anyi and I’m just settling into La storia di chi fugge e di chi resta, the third of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.
As summer ended and autumn began, I’ve made some big moves. I’ve left my staff job at the BBC in London and moved to Barcelona for six months. I hope I’ll now have some time to update this blog more regularly. In the meantime, here are some of my most recent articles.
“I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters of religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s,” wrote Mark Twain.
Having written a book about our most common reasoning errors, I would argue that Twain was being rather uncharitable – to monkeys. Whether we are discussing Trump, Brexit, or the Tory leadership, we have all come across people who appear to have next to no understanding of world events – but who talk with the utmost confidence and conviction. And the latest psychological research can now help us to understand why… Read more here.
Fake news existed long before the internet. In an essay on political lying in the early 18th century, the writer Jonathan Swift noted that “Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it.” You have to hire a train to pull the truth, explained English pastor Charles Spurgeon in the 19th century, while a lie is “light as a feather … a breath will carry it.”
Clearly, humans have always been susceptible to mistruths. And social networks simply provide another way to propel falsehoods. MIT researchers recently studied more than 10 years’ worth of data on the most shared stories on Facebook. Their study covered conspiracy theories about the Boston bombings, misleading reports on natural disasters, unfounded business rumors and incorrect scientific claims. There is an inundation of false medical advice online, for example, that encourages people to avoid life-saving treatments such as vaccines and promotes unproven therapies. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is just one example… Read more here.
When I meet the cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon, she tells me one anecdote that helps demonstrate just how early children can be exposed to gender stereotypes.
It was the birth of her second daughter, on 11 June 1986 – the night that Gary Lineker scored a hat trick against Poland in the men’s Football World Cup. There were nine babies born in the ward that day, Rippon recalls. Eight of them were called Gary.
She remembers chatting to one of the other mums when they heard a loud din approaching. It was a nurse bringing their two screaming babies. The nurse handed her neighbour a “blue-wrapped Gary” with approval – he had “a cracking pair of lungs”. Rippon’s own daughter (making exactly the same sound) was passed over with an audible tutting. “She’s the noisiest of the lot – not very ladylike,” the nurse told her. “And so, at 10 minutes old, my tiny daughter had a very early experience of how gendered our world is,” Rippon says….. Read more here.
Imagine a pilot is taking a familiar flight along a known route, during which the weather takes a turn for the worst. She knows that flying through the storm comes with some serious risks – and according to her training, she should take a detour or return. But she has flown the same route before, in similar weather – and she hadn’t experienced any problems then. Should she continue? Or should she turn back?
If you believe that she is safe to fly on, then you have fallen for a cognitive quirk known as the “outcome bias”. Studies have shown that we often judge the quality of a decision or behaviour by its endpoint, while ignoring the many mitigating factors that might have contributed to success or failure – and that this can render us oblivious to potentially catastrophic errors in our thinking… Read more here.
Exciting news! I’m writing a book, called The Intelligence Trap – Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them. It will be published by Hodder and Stoughton in the UK, and my agent is currently negotiating the foreign rights in various territories.
Needless to say, I’m thrilled. Ever since I first took an IQ test to attend secondary school, I’ve been fascinated by the ways we assess cognitive ability, and that interest has only grown since I became a science writer. Psychologists and neuroscientists are now finding many skills and thinking styles that have been neglected by our old definitions of intelligence, but which turn out to be crucial for personal and professional success. Crucially, these skills can all be nurtured and cultivated – whatever our IQs, we can all think a bit more wisely.
Combining analyses of historical events, personal narratives, and philosophy, I’ll be show-casing this new discipline – sometimes called “evidence-based wisdom” – and exploring the ways that it can be applied by individuals, businesses and whole societies. These discoveries have already transformed my understanding of my own thinking, attitudes and behaviour – and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to bring them to a popular audience.
Over the course of the day, I mull over many new ideas and potential stories – and inevitably, not all of them are suited to the BBC’s audience. This blog is a home for those musings. It may not be as polished as my professional writing, but I hope that you will find it entertaining and informative; I hope you might also get to know me a bit better, personally, as I explore the stories behind the stories.
I’m always interested to hear feedback, so please do get in touch with your thoughts or queries. I’d also be interested if you have any scientific questions that you’d like me to research and answer.