Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Invisible Gorilla - Why We're Not Nearly as Capable as We Think We Are

One of the most fascinating, if rather eye-opening books, I've read recently is "The Invisible Gorilla," by Christopher Chabris of Union College and Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois. They illustrate how, in a number of areas, our cognitive skills are not only, not nearly as acute as we think they are, but that in a meta-sense, we are unaware of our limitations.

For anyone with an interest in these sorts of topics, i.e., how does the human brain actually work?, I would heartily recommend their book as well as their website which has additional material, especially videos, that have to be seen to be believed.

They refer to these areas of concern as "illusions," of which they enumerate and describe in detail six:

The illusion of attention - “our vivid visual experience masks a striking mental
blindness - we assume that visually distinctive or unusual objects will draw our
attention, but in reality they often go completely unnoticed.” In other words, the danger of talking on a cellphone while driving is not such much that we're using our hands, but that we're using our brain. The result is that we are not paying as much attention to our driving as when we are not on the phone, even with a hands-free headset. Even worse, we are not aware that we are impaired so we do not take any extra precautions and have few or no qualms about using cell phones while driving.

The other illusions, much better explained in the book than I gave justice to here, are:

The illusion of memory - that we do not remember events, items, people, etc. as well as we think we do. Furthermore, our memories change, and in keeping with the meta-quality of all of the illusions, we do not remember that our memories have changed.

The illusion of confidence - that we both are more confident in our abilities than is warranted, and that we interpret the confidence of others as reliable indicators of their capabilities.

The illusion of knowledge - that our understanding of the workings of the world around us are limited. We know how to use things; we do not necessarily know how they work. In Mark Twain's classic, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a 19th-century American, upon being mysteriously transported to medieval times, brings the technology of his era to that society. I daresay that any of use, suddenly finding ourselves in a similar situation, would hardly be able to bring the basics of metallurgy, let alone the power of cell phones and automobiles, to King Arthur's or any other court.

The illusion of cause: that correlation is often confused with causation, in large part because the human mind seeks to understand causality, even if mistaken.

The illusion of potential: that the human mind does not have the proverbial 90% excess capacity and that task-specific cognitive training is often limited to the tasks for which the brain in trained. So much for Baby Einstein and for fending off age-related decline with Brain Games.

The essence of the book is to make us aware of our limitations and to make adjustments and compensate to create better outcomes in all areas - that we need to be careful when using a cellphone while driving, that the more confident leader is not necessarily the best leader, that we should carefully examine claims that vaccines cause autism - because how we view a situation has tremendous consequences.