Monday, February 28, 2011

Superstitious like a pigeon

Suppose you are a runner and tomorrow you will take part in the cross country championship of your province. You have a good chance to win but you are not the only possible winner. You have done everything that is reasonable to be in good shape, so you cannot do more. Or rather there is still one thing you can do: Do not forget to put the necklace on that you always take with you when you have a race. Always? Two weeks ago you forgot it and you had a bad race.
We know all such kinds of behaviour, which are actually a kind of rituals. In order to improve the chance to win a lottery, one has a favourite number. One does not want to have room number 13 in a hotel in order to avoid accidents. One keeps one’s fingers crossed during the exam of a friend. And so on. The essence of all this behaviour is that there is no direct relation between the ritual and its purpose (although you may think there is).
Burrhus F. Skinner, who is known for his research of behaviour, put a hungry pigeon in a so-called Skinner box, a simple box with a food dispenser and a response lever structured that way that, if the pigeon presses the lever, food may come from the dispenser (whether this really happens depends on the research plan). Then food was presented at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behaviour, so whether the pigeon pressed the lever or didn’t made no difference (I follow the description by Chris Frith, Making up the mind, p. 91; but it is easy to find other descriptions of the experiment on the Internet). After a short time the pigeons were seen repeatedly performing arbitrary actions, like making two or three turns clockwise between the appearances of the food, thrusting the head into one of the upper corners of the box, and the like. Each pigeon developed its own typical pattern of behaviour. The pigeons had learned to repeat whatever action they happened to be performing just before the food appeared. Skinner called this behaviour “superstitious” because the pigeons acted as if they believed that their behaviour caused the food to appear when this was not the case. He suggested, so Frith, that human superstitious behaviour can arise in the same way. Men are used to look for causes of the effects they see but in doing so they are often not smarter than pigeons.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Running with my mind

G.H. Yue and K.J. Cole took eight volunteers and asked them to exercise the muscle that controls the little finger of the left hand for four weeks, five sessions a week. They asked eight other volunteers to do the same but now only in their mind, so by imagining that they were training the muscle. A control group of eight volunteers had to do nothing. In the first group the average force of the muscle increased with 30%, in the second group with 22% and in the control group with a trivial 3.7%. The results were substantiated by other research, also for other muscles. The upshot is that we can train muscles by imagining the training in our mind.
Physical exercise is important for many people, also for me. I like to run in the wood behind my house or to go for a bike ride. But I like also a lot of other things and, actually, sometimes working out takes me too much time. For it does not only involve the exercise itself, but there are also many things around it that belong to it. I have to put my training clothes on; I have to take extra showers; I have to maintain my bike; and so there’s a lot more. In the end, a workout takes twice as much time as the exercise itself. But now I discovered a time-saving alternative: take a comfortable chair and start dreaming. Then I have simply to visualize how I move my legs, think how I jump over a tree fallen on my path, imagine how I climb a hill on my bike, simulate how I pass other joggers or do a little sprint now and then. I can train as I like it and I do not have to look for the right hill, the right flat track, or how I want to have it, for it comes to me. And I’ll not be stiff with my last training, for I need simply to imagine how smooth my legs move. And when I have finished my mental training, I can immediately go on with the other things that are waiting for me, like writing this blog, without taking off my training clothes, taking a shower, and so on. Maybe the training effect is a bit smaller than by training physically, but it is still big enough and its advantages are legion.
But shall I not miss the birds singing in the wood, the roes crossing my path, the tailwind that makes me ride faster? Will mental exercise be as relaxing as moving through real fields and through a real wood? I am afraid that I am going to miss it when I would switch from a physical to a mental training of my muscles. And I’ll still see my books around me when training in my chair and it will be difficult to distance myself from my other mental activities. Maybe it is not as relaxing as real running and riding a real bike. Maybe it will be better to keep it for special occasions; for when I am busy; for – let it not happen – when I am injured and cannot go; or for the days that the rain is pouring down. But in case this happens, I have an alternative now: running or riding with my mind.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Writing scientifically

“Writing scientific papers is rather like writing in an ancient verse form. Everything you want to say has to be forced into predetermined sections: introduction, method, results, discussion. You must never say “I,” and the passive tense is preferred. Inevitable all interesting things get left out.” Chris Frith, Making up the mind, p. 74.

At school I had to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. These works have been written in a strict verse form that is characteristic for epic prose: the dactylic hexameter. Each line of this prose has six foots: five dactyls (– u u) and then a spondee (–  –) (“–” means a long syllable and “u” a short one). Although some stylistic variation was possible, generally the author had not much freedom. Dutch Renaissance authors tried to copy the style but the dactylic hexameter is not very suitable for the Dutch language. It makes Dutch poems written with these verse form sound rather stiff and unnatural. Therefore it is used only in translations of ancient epic prose nowadays.

When Descartes wrote his Regulae ad directionem ingenii [Rules for the direction of the mind; published posthumously in 1684] he laid the foundation of modern scientific method. Only research that applied these rules or their improved versions could bear the name “scientific” since then. This did not only have its reflection on research as such but also in the way it was presented. Despite Feyerabend’s famous statement in 1975 that “anything goes” in methodology, implying that not so much the form of research is important but its results, scientists have stuck to their rules, at least in word. In order to show that their methods and results have to be taken seriously the strict presentation of scientific research did not change either, despite Feyerabend’s analysis. This makes that everything that influenced the results in an important way but that is not strictly “scientific” is left out in the presentation, even if the results would not have come about without these influences. The changing moods of the researcher; that she thought out the basic idea when taking a shower; that she had no budget to buy just those apparatuses she needed most; that a machine broke down and had to be repaired so that she had some time for extra theoretical study; and so on. All these things are omitted in the final report. Frith mentions the case that a test subject had got a clip in her brain in an operation. It took him much time to find out what metal it was made of in order to know whether it was safe to use his scanner. Although such facts are relevant for the outcome, they are supposed to be ignored in a scientific article. Even the researcher is absent: The “I” who did the research and wrote the article is left out as well in the text. The article is strictly limited to method, results, relation to other research and why the results are important; all this in a strict order: introduction, method, results, discussion. It is even better, if the sections are numbered and if as much mathematics as possible is used. Deviations of form are frowned on and reduce the chance of being published unless they are corrected, as if the writer is a mediocre ancient poet who does not know well how to apply the dactylic hexameter.

Monday, February 07, 2011

“All things have their season”

On the table here in front of me I have a copy of Montaigne’s Essays. It’s a thick book. My Dutch edition has 1321 pages. I bought it nine years ago and I have read all 107 essays since then. I did it in random order and also at random places. I read them in my study, in the train, on holiday, and so on, until I had read all essays. Montaigne makes you think, tells you about his life and time. He tells you about the past, too, for often he uses examples from classical antiquity. I read also a lot about Montaigne and his book and I visited the castle in France where he once lived. One could fill a lifetime with studying the man and his book, which I’ll not do, however, for my priorities are elsewhere. Nevertheless, I found the essays intriguing and interesting enough to reread them, now in the order presented in the book.
When I wanted to write my blog today, I had not yet a theme, and as a warming up for my brain and mind I took the Essays in order to read the next one, number XXVIII of Book II, titled “All things have their season”. What a coincidence. Hardly any of the essays could apply better to what is happening in the world at the moment. Here Montaigne explains that things have to be done at the right time, even good ones. Some things can better be done when you are young, other things when you are old: “Our studies and desires should sometime be sensible of age; yet we have one foot in the grave and still our appetites and pursuits spring every day anew within us”. For Montaigne himself this had the implication that “the only comfort I find in my old age, [is] that it mortifies in me several cares and desires wherewith my life has been disturbed; the care how the world goes, the care of riches, of grandeur, of knowledge, of health, of myself.” How different it often is for many of us, not only for the average citizen, who may stick to his or her habits, but also for the person on the top, whom we might have thought to be wiser. But as Montaigne quoted Terentius (II, II): “Humani a se nihil alienum putet” [Let him not think that anything that is human is alien to him]. So it is also for dictators, whether they are called Ben Ali, Mubarak or what their name is. They stick to their place and do not leave until they are forced to, by the people or by the army. As we say in Dutch, “There is a time of coming and there is a time of going”. But power is addictive and so many dictators forget this essential lesson of life. Montaigne did not. So he left his job as a judge in Bordeaux already quite young. He did not strive for high positions, and when he was appointed as mayor of Bordeaux, he accepted it à contre coeur, and it was not his choice that he got a second term (a great honour, for it rarely happened) but of the people around him. Montaigne knew the lessons of life, not only this one, so a wise dictator, and not only he, should read the Essays of Montaigne. But isn’t it a contradiction in terms: a wise dictator?