Sinister Research

A couple of interesting bits of research on handedness in the news today.

Chimps brains are asymmetrical in similar ways to human brains, and this is reflected in whether they’re left or right handed too. Why we have a preferred hand is still being debated, but this research shows handedness isn’t a consequence of the same brain asymmetry which arose with language (the language centres are on the left side of the brain). Handedness must have arisen much earlier, and been present 5 million years ago.

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Applying the hacks

flickr.png It’s good to try some of the ideas in Mind Hacks on real-world problems. We have a piece up on the O’Reilly Network today, using visual attention concepts to comment on Flickr’s Daily Zeitgeist toy. Photos continually fade in and shrink down on a grid of pictures–what does this mean, from the perspective of change blindness and the attention-grabbing nature of rapid movements?

Read the full article for more: Paying Attention (or Not) to the Flickr Daily Zeitgeist.

(To situate this in the book, we’re making use of “Blind to Change” [Hack #40] for not noticing the photos fading in, “Grab Attention” [Hack #37] for noticing them shrink, and “Glimpse the Gaps in Your Vision” [Hack #17] for not being able to see where the photo has shrunk to because your eyes are in motion as it does so. See the book’s table of contents for which chapters these are in.)

Don’t think, sleep!

Sometimes it isn’t how much sleep you got that’s important, but how much sleep you think you got.

Our own perception of how much we slept during a night can be startlingly inaccurate. Dr Allison Harvey (now of UC Berkley) took insomniacs and measured how much they actually slept during the night. Despite the insomniacs reporting that they had only slept for two or three hours, they had in fact been asleep for an average of 7 hours – only 35 minutes less than a control group who didn’t have any problems sleeping.

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Choice Irrationalities

There was a great Analysis programme on radio 4 last night: The Economy on the Couch which was about behavioural economics, neuroeconomics (whatever that is) and ways in which we fail to act like the rational agents that standard economic theory supposes us to be

One irrationality- a human frailty for fairness- is revealed by a thing called the Ultimatum Game. The Ultimatum Game works like this. I am offered some money, say £100, on the condition that I share it with you. I get to decide the split, and you get to say if you accept it or not. If you accept, we get the money in the proportions I determined, if you reject my split then neither of us gets anything. So what would you do if I offered £1 to you, leaving me with the other ninety-nine?

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Caffeine rituals

Ah, this is good to see. There’s a hack in the book about the rituals around coffee and tea. It’s on the O’Reilly catalog page for Mind Hacks as a free sample, Hack 92: Make the Caffeine Habit Taste Good. It’s like Pavlov and his dogs. He conditioned them to associate a noise with food so that they started salivating when they heard the noise. As with that, the ritual of making coffee gets associated with the caffeine high, and so the ritual becomes part of the buzz.

Anyway, here’s someone who has found the same thing.

My particular ritual seems to be boiling the kettle, putting the teabag and water in the mug to brew, and then forgetting about it for the next 20 minutes as I suddenly get back into work again.


dinosaur.png “So, I’m not really comfortable with the fact that my mind is actually something physical.” — at Daily Dinosaur Comics [via]. Hey that freaks me out too, knowing that the thought “that freaks me out,” is not just accompanied by but actually is some kind of arrangement of the actual physical stuff in my head, which represents (in this context) “that freaks me out.”

There’s a lot to say here, on the philosophical aspects, but I refuse to be drawn into discussion on the nature of representation, emergence, and where “self” is stored by a cartoon T. Rex stomping on a house. Forgive me.


I guess I should introduce myself. I’m Matt Webb, I co-authored the book with Tom. Hello! Mostly I post notes to my personal weblog, Interconnected, and sites that I run across to the Mini Links–that’s probably the best way to find out what I’m interested in. What I’m not is a psychologist or neuroscientist (my day job is in social software, internet stuff), but I’ve been immersed in the academic literature for the past N months. Hopefully that means I’ll be able to bridge some of these brain ideas over to the tech world, which is the one I usually inhabit.

It has been great fun writing Mind Hacks. Actually, what was possibly more fun was trying out all the experiments, mucking around with mirrors, or a pendulum, or sitting by the road watching the traffic. I’m aiming to post the same kind of stuff here, things to try at home (or on your friends), and to do the same as in the book: dig a little deeper, see what’s really happening in our heads. If there’s something you think we should give a go, email in. If it’s not too embarrassing I’ll put photos up.