getting the gist of it -- 3/10/16

Today's encore selection -- from Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything by Stephen Baker. Even a Jeopardy uberchampion like Ken Jennings uses basic 'associative' reasoning techniques to answer many of the contest questions. Because only a woeful fifty bits of information per second make their way into the conscious brain, while an estimated eleven million bits of data flow from the senses every second, all of us regularly rely on the "gist" of things in our reasoning:

"A century ago, the psychologist William James divided human thought into two types, associative and true reasoning. For James, associative thinking worked from historical patterns and rules in the mind. True reasoning, which was necessary for unprecedented problems, demanded deeper analysis. This came to be known as the 'dual process' theory. Late in the twentieth century, Daniel Kahneman of Princeton redefined these cognitive processes as System 1 and System 2. The intuitive System 1 appeared to represent a primitive part of the mind, perhaps dating from before the cognitive leap undertaken by our tool-making Cro-Magnon ancestors forty thousand years ago. Its embedded rules,with their biases toward the familiar, steered people toward their most basic goals: survival and reproduction. System 2, which appeared to arrive later, involved conscious and deliberate analysis and was far slower. When it came to intelligence, all humans were more or less on an equal footing in the ancient and intuitive System 1. The rules were easy, and whether they made sense or not, everyone knew them. It was in the slower realm of reasoning, System 2, that intelligent people distinguished themselves from the crowd.

"Still, great Jeopardy players like Ken Jennings cannot afford to ignore the signals coming from the caveman quarters of their minds. They need speed, and the easy answers pouring in through System 1 are often correct. But they have to know when to distrust this reflexive thought, when to pursue a longer and more analytical route. In [one] game, ... this clue popped up in the Tricky Questions category: 'Total number of each animal that Moses took on the ark with him during the great flood.' Jennings lost the buzz to Matt Kleinmaier, a medical student from Chicago, who answered, 'What is two?' It was wrong. Jennings, aware that it was supposed to be tricky, noticed that it asked for 'each animal' instead of 'each species.' He buzzed for a second chance at the clue and answered, 'What is one?' That was wrong, too. The correct answer, which no one came up with, was 'What is zero?'

"Jennings and Kleinmaier had fallen for a trick. Each had focused on the gist of the clue -- the number of animals boarding the biblical ark -- while ignoring one detail: The ark builder was Noah, not Moses. This clue actually came from a decades-old psychological experiment, one that has given a name -- the Moses Illusion -- to the careless thinking that most humans employ.

"It's easy enough to understand. The brain groups information into clusters. ... People tend to notice when one piece of information doesn't jibe with its expected group. It's an anomaly. But Noah and Moses cohabit numerous clusters. Thematically they are both in the Bible, visually, both wear beards. Phonetically, their names almost rhyme. A question about Ezekiel herding animals into the ark might not pass so smoothly. According to a study headed by Lynn Reder, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon, the Moses Illusion illustrates a facet of human intelligence, one vital for Jeopardy.

"Most of what humans experience as perception is actually furnished by the memory. This is because the conscious brain can only process a trickle of data. Psychologists agree that only one to four 'items,' either thoughts or sensations, can be held in mind, immediately available to consciousness, at the same time. Some have tried to quantify these constraints. According to the work of Manfred Zimmerman of Germany's Heidelberg University, only a woeful fifty bits of information per second make their way into the conscious brain, while an estimated eleven million bits of data flow from the senses every second. Many psychologists object to these attempts to measure thoughts and perceptions as digital bits. But however they're measured, the stark limits of the mind are clear. It's as if each person's senses generated enough data to run a 3D Omnimax movie with Dolby sound -- only to funnel it through an antediluvian modem, one better suited to Morse code. So how do humans re-create the Omnimax experience? They focus on the items that appear most relevant and round them out with stored memories, what psychologists call 'schemas.'

In the Moses example, people concentrate on the question about animals. The biblical details, which appear to fit into their expected clusters, are ignored. It's only when a wrong name intrudes from outside the expected orbit that alarms go off. In one experiment at Carnegie Mellon, when researchers substituted a former U.S. president for Moses, people noticed right away. Nixon had nothing to do with the ark, they said."


Stephen Baker


Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2011 by Stephen Baker


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