The Edison Brainmeter

The Psychologist has a fantastic article on one of the first psychological ability measures, created not by a psychologist but by the inventor of the domestic light bulb, Thomas Edison, who devised his trivia-based ‘brainmeter’ test as a way of selecting employees.

Although earlier tests had been in use, such as the prototype of the modern IQ test created by French psychologist Alfred Binet, they were designed to detect disability rather than ability – specifically, to identify children with learning difficulties.

Edison’s test was quite different though. It consisted of a 163 seemingly unconnected obscure general knowledge questions of which the pass mark was arbitrarily set at 70%.

The test was considered by be nonsense by psychologists of the day, lacking both statistically validity and a proven connection with other mental abilities, but it became wildly popular and became a frequent media topic:

After the complete test was leaked to newspapers, the questions spread across the country in a national craze. ‘If You Cannot Answer These You’re Ignorant, Edison Says,’ declared one Pennsylvania newspaper, while police in Massachusetts picked up a deranged young man claiming that he was on the run from assassins who were after his book of Edison test answers, ‘valued at $1,000,000’.

Journalists gleefully sprang Edison questions on politicians, professors and captains of industry. New York‚Äôs governor failed; so did the mayor of New York City, its police commissioner and, rather alarmingly, its superintendent of schools. One particularly enterprising reporter tracked down Edison’s son Theodore, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also failed. ‚ÄòDad would find me amazingly ignorant,‚Äô the younger Edison admitted.

His father faced a media circus: the Fox movie studio ran mock Edison tests of biblical trivia to advertise its ‘super-screen spectacle’ The Queen of Sheba, while ads for Vogue magazine assured women readers ‘Never mind the Edison questions! All you need to know is how to be becomingly dressed’. Others were more seriously interested in its value: within days, the Eastman Kodak company announced a similar test for its employees, and the elite Groton School in Massachusetts extended its use to applicants.

The article goes on to explain that Edison’s ‘brainmeter’ test was the inspiration for the American college entry exam, the SAT, which is still in use today.

There turns out to be a few articles on Edison’s test in the archives of The New York Times, my favourite, from 1921, being titled “EDISON BRAINMETER DIVIDES THE CRITICS; Comments on Questionnaire Continue and About One-Half Are From Scorners. COLLEGE MEN NOT SOOTHED Suggestion That Chess Game Would Be a Better Test Meets With Favor From Players.”

Link to The Psychologist article ‘163 ways to lose your job’.

Full disclosure: I am an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist and I file all knowledge under the categories ‘psychology/neuroscience’ and ‘miscellaneous’.

Trend setters may only be visible in rear view mirror

Photo by Flickr user victoriapeckham. Click for sourceI’ve just found this excellent Fast Company article from last year challenging the idea that there is a ‘tipping point’ in fashions or trends driven by small numbers of highly connected people who have a disproportionate influence over which new products or ideas become popular.

The piece is based on work by Duncan Watts, a physicist and sociologist, who created numerous computer simulations of how trends move through society in a similar way to how medical scientists model how diseases spread.

One study has suggested that the role of key highly influential people in starting fashions or trends is likely to have been vastly overstated. This conclusion has rattled the cages of many in the marketing world who have been focussed on identifying and targeting ‘trend setters’ for many years.

Watts set the test in motion by randomly picking one person as a trendsetter, then sat back to see if the trend would spread. He did so thousands of times in a row.

The results were deeply counterintuitive. The experiment did produce several hundred societywide infections. But in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected. Now they could infect 40 times more people than the average citizen (and again, when they kicked off a cascade, it was substantially larger). But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion…

Mind you, Watts does agree that some people are more instrumental than others. He simply doesn’t think it’s possible to will a trend into existence by recruiting highly social people. The network effects in society, he argues, are too complex–too weird and unpredictable–to work that way. If it were just a matter of tipping the crucial first adopters, why can’t most companies do it reliably?

As Watts points out, viral thinkers analyze trends after they’ve broken out. “They start with an existing trend, like Hush Puppies, and they go backward until they’ve identified the people who did it first, and then they go, ‘Okay, these are the Influentials!'” But who’s to say those aren’t just Watts’s accidental Influentials, random smokers who walked, unwittingly, into a dry forest? East Village hipsters were wearing lots of cool things in the fall of 1994. But, as Watts wondered, why did only Hush Puppies take off? Why didn’t their other clothing choices reach a tipping point too?

However, Watts’ work is largely based on computer simulations. These have the advantage of having to be based on very explicit well-defined descriptions of the phenomenon, which many of the more popular accounts are not, but have the disadvantage or having to include various assumptions and simplifications about what actually happens when people pass on ideas.

The Fast Company article is interesting as it looks at how some core marketing ideas are being tested by Watts, and how the public relations world is reacting to having some of their assumptions questioned.

Link to Fast Company article ‘Is the Tipping Point Toast?’

The obscure tools of language

The Economist has an article based on rather a daft premise (‘in search of the world’s hardest language’) that nevertheless manages to cover numerous interesting ways in which diverse languages demand mental somersaults from the speaker or require that the speaker has to think about the world in specific ways.

Beyond Europe things grow more complicated. Take gender. Twain’s joke about German gender shows that in most languages it often has little to do with physical sex. “Gender” is related to “genre”, and means merely a group of nouns lumped together for grammatical purposes.

Linguists talk instead of “noun classes”, which may have to do with shape or size, or whether the noun is animate, but often rules are hard to see. George Lakoff, a linguist, memorably described a noun class of Dyirbal (spoken in north-eastern Australia) as including “women, fire and dangerous things”. To the extent that genders are idiosyncratic, they are hard to learn. Bora, spoken in Peru, has more than 350 of them.

The article is clearly inspired by psychologist Lera Boroditsky’s recent article for Edge on how language affects how we reason about the world, but it has a wider scope and is a fascinating look at the diversity of the spoken word.

Link to The Economist article ‘Tongue Twisters’.

New issue of Contemporary Psychotherapy

A new issue of the sleek internet magazine Contemporary Psychotherapy has just appeared online and is well worth checking out if you’re interested in the art of psychological treatment.

The magazine is aimed at psychotherapists and deals with everything from the bricks-and-mortar issues of running a practice to relationship dynamics in couples and families.

However, it doesn’t wander off into the thickets of theoretical jargon and makes a good read if you’re just interested in the world of therapy.

Link to Contemporary Psychotherapy.

Dealing with data of the damned

Photo by Flickr user Jungleboy. Click for sourceThere’s an interesting article in Wired about how scientists deal with data that conflicts with their expectations and whether biases in how the brain deals with contradictory information might influence scientific reasoning.

The piece is based on the work of Kevin Dunbar who combines the sociology of science with the cognitive neuroscience of scientific reasoning.

In other words, he’s trying to understand what scientists actually do to make their discoveries (rather than what they say they do, or what they say they should do) and whether there are specific features of the way the brain handles reasoning that might encourage these practices.

One of his main findings is that when experimental results appear that can’t be explained, they’re often discounted as being useless. The researchers might say that the experiment was designed badly, the equipment faulty, and so on.

It may indeed be the case the faults occurred, but it could also be the case when consistent information emerges, but these possibilities are rarely investigated when the data agrees with pre-existing assumptions, leading to possible biases in how data is interpreted.

Dunbar is not the first to tackle this issue. In fact, the first to do so is probably one of the most important but unrecognised philosophers of science, Charles Fort, who is typically associated with ‘Fortean’ or anomalous phenomena – such as fish falling from the sky.

Fort did indeed collect reports of all types of anomalous phenomena (interestingly, almost all from scientific journals) and used them as a critique of the scientific method – noting that while scientists say they reason from the data to theories about the world, what they actually do is filter the data in light of their theories and frequently ignore information that contradicts existing assumptions – hence, ‘damning’ some data as unacceptable.

This was later echoed when philosophers and sociologists started studying the scientific community in the 20th century, noting that the scientific method was not a clear practice but more of a tool in a wider consensus-forming toolbox.

Probably the most important thinker in this regard, not mentioned in the Wired article, was the philosopher Paul Feyerabend who noted that researchers regularly violate the ‘rules’ of science and this actually promotes progress rather than impedes it.

The article goes on to discuss research suggesting that part of this bias for information consistent with our assumptions may be due to differences in the way the brain handles this information.

Curiously, the piece mentions a 2003 study, where students were apparently asked to select the more accurate representation of gravity in an fMRI scanner, but unfortunately, I can find no trace of it.

However, a 2005 study by the same team, where participants where asked to match theories supported to different degrees by the data they’d seen (to do with how drugs relieve depression), came to similar conclusions. Namely, that brain activity is markedly different when we receive information that confirms our theories compared to when we receive information that challenges them.

In particular, contradictory information seems to activate an area deep in the frontal lobe (the ACC) often associated with ‘conflict monitoring’, along with an outer area of the frontal lobe (the DLPFC) associated with sorting out conflicting information, likely by filtering out some of the incompatible data so it is less likely to be registered or remembered.

There is clearly much more to scientific reasoning than this, as it is vast and complex both within individual researchers and between groups of people. I was particularly interested to read that breakthroughs were most likely to come from group discussions:

While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work.

Although it turns out that discussion with people from a diverse range of people is most important – having a room full of people who share assumptions and expertise tends not to lead to creative scientific insights.

Link to Wired article on scientific reasoning.

Kim Peek has left the building

Image from Wikipedia. Click for reports that the remarkable Kim Peek, inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 film Rain Main, has passed away.

Despite clear and disabling difficulties in day-to-day living, Peek accumulated an encyclopaedic knowledge of numerous subjects areas, could read two pages of a book at once and could instantly calculate the day of the week for any given date.

For many years Peek was thought to have autism, but scans completed in 1988 by neuroscientist Daniel Christensen and colleagues indicated that there were significant brain abnormalities, most strikingly a malformed cerebellum and an absence of the corpus callosum – the bundle of fibres that connect the two hemispheres of the brain.

Among other findings, this suggested that the most likely diagnosis was a genetic condition called FG syndrome.

Perhaps the best profile of Peek, co-written by Christensen, appeared in Scientific American [pdf] which captured both the man himself and discussed the science behind his remarkable abilities.

He was also the subject of numerous documentaries and you can view one of the best of them, Kim Peek – The Real Rain Man, on YouTube.

UPDATE: SciAm have made their article on Kim Peek freely available on their website as a tribute.

Link to announcement from
pdf of excellent SciAm article ‘Inside the mind of a savant’.
Link to documentary Kim Peek – The Real Rain Man.

Sampling from the stream of consciousness

The New York Times has a fascinating article revisiting a classic problem in psychology of whether our accounts of our individual ‘streams of consciousness’ have any useful role in the scientific understanding the mind.

Many of the early studies in psychology relied on people simply reporting ‘what they thought’ and got a bad reputation due to the rather haphazard ways in which studies were conducted.

In part, this led to a swing in the other direction, where the extremes of behaviourism suggested that not only were these methods useless but that the ‘stream of consciousness’ played no causal role in our behaviour – in effect, it was seen as uninteresting mental fluff.

Thankfully, mainstream psychology has moved on and now often tries to integrate conscious experience with objective observational data, but this isn’t always the easiest of tasks either practically or theoretically (indeed, the difficulty is the basis of the ‘hard problem‘ of consciousness).

Recently, psychologists have developed the experience sampling method to try and make sample the stream of consciousness a little more systematic. It involves giving someone a device that beeps randomly and when it sounds, they have to record exactly what they were thinking about or have to rate a certain aspect of the current psychological state.

The resulting mental freeze-frames are remarkably diverse.

On the third day of Melanie’s experiment, as her boyfriend was asking her a question about insurance, she was trying to remember the word “periodontist.” On the fourth day, she was having a strong urge to go scuba diving. On the sixth day, she was picking flower petals from the sink while hearing echoes of the phrase “nice long time” in her head.

These dispatches from the front lines of consciousness might be useful to a novelist seeking authentic material. But can they contribute to a scientific understanding of the mind?

Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher at the University of California, Riverside, says after-the-fact interviews should be treated with caution: one cannot assume the subjects will be honest, or that they are not twisting their answers to conform with their own biases, or telling the experimenter what they think he wants to hear, or simply filling in details they forgot.

The article is riffing on the recent book by Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel called Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic and a recent article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies where the debate was opened out to a range of cognitive scientists for their views.

Link to NYT piece ‘Taking Mental Snapshots to Plumb Our Inner Selves’.