Your Brain Lies to You

26 02 2013

In this second post relating to a VT seminar I’m participating in on New Media, I wanted to return to Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article, “As We May Think,” to take a closer look at why we might need a memex – i.e., a memory augmentation – device.

In 2008, I read a New York Times Op-Ed by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt entitled “Your Brain Lies to You,” which broaden my understanding of the challenges I might face when trying to present new ideas to students; ideas which might at first run against long held beliefs. The problem with our brain rests in how it manages information. Unlike the memex device envisioned by Vannevar Bush (or a modern day computer), your brain does not record information in a way that it can be retrieved in its original form. In the words of Wang and Aamodt, “Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain … . But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.”

This phenomenon is known as source amnesia and can result in a person forgetting whether a statement is true. Thus, while you might initially discredit an idea form a non-credible source, the problem of source amnesia means that the original idea might gain credibility as you misremember where it came from. Another challenge is that we tend to fit new information into established mental frameworks. This means that we are likely to selectively accept and remember ideas that reinforce existing beliefs and reject and forget those that don’t. The question then, is what can be done to address these inherent problems in the way in which our mind works?

One possible solution is to associate a new, contradictory, perhaps, controversial idea to an emotion. In their Op-Ed, Wang and Aamodt discuss how ideas can spread by their emotional selection, rather than by their factual merits. In the classroom, when covering an idea that may be at odds with a student’s mental framework, one approach I have tried is to ask the student to imagine how their world would be different if the information were true. The trick is to try and create an emotional jolt that the student will remember in the future when confronted by the same contradictory information.

Another potential way to resolve this dilemma might be to adopt a technology platform that can help counteract source amnesia and one’s own mental frameworks. The new Google Glasses, demonstrated in the short video below, present a modern day example of a possible memex device.

While these glasses could be used as a memory augmentation device, the question is whether or how the recording/structured information would change, hopefully improve, your mental frameworks. A deeper question is whether such a technology could be used to enhance your intelligence/wisdom, or would it simply enable you to cheat the system in some way.

Finally, while watching the video above, I started to wonder what would happen if my students and I were to use this technology during a group discussion. The possibilities seem immense, even if a little scary. Perhaps, I’ll be inspired in the next two days and submit a proposal to be a Google Glass explorer.

The New Media Seminar

21 02 2013

Every so often, one reaches a point where you can step forward into the unknown or stay within the safety of the familiar. Over the past year, I have developed my blog to record information about the activities undertaken by my colleagues, students, and myself. Thus, the blog is a compendium of interesting information, but it does not contain my voice or thoughts. As an experiment (for me), over the next couple of months this will change.

This semester, I am taking part in a VT FDI (Faculty Development Institute) seminar on New Media. The seminar asks participants (faculty and staff) to blog about the readings, our group discussions, or the connections between the two. The idea is to adopt a “first-thought-best-thought” approach, in the words of our intellectual guide, Gardner Campbell.

Having missed the first session due to a commitment in the UK, I joined the seminar for a discussion of Vannevar Bush’s classic 1945 article “As We May Think.” Rather than reflect upon the content of our conversation here (which I will leave for a future post), I wanted to reminisce a little.

Vannevar Bush was a faculty member at MIT from 1919 to 1938, and became the Dean of Engineering in 1932. During our group discussion about the life of Vannevar Bush, I started to wonder what he would think about MIT’s Engineering Systems Division (ESD). During the six years I spent at MIT (from 2000 to 2006), I was able to witness the emergence of ESD through the lens of a master’s student and then as a doctoral candidate. Thanks to MIT’s open courseware, I can share an example of ESD’s doctoral seminar, in which students explore “the core theory and contextual applications of the emerging field of Engineering Systems.” Our group discussion about Vannevar Bush’s 1945 vision of the future sent me back to the 2003 version of the ESD doctoral seminar. The creation of a new field of study requires the generation, accumulation, structuring, and communication of knowledge, which links me back to Vannevar Bush’s article in which he describes the memex – a memory augmentation device (see the video below). In the context of ESD, one could envision a memex approach that enables the engineer/scientist to combine and store information about complex socio-technical systems in new and creative ways, freeing the mind to further explore more and more complex interrelationships that may help solve the critical contemporary problems facing society. In 2011, ESD celebrated its first 100 doctoral alumni, a milestone that I would hope Vannevar Bush would celebrate.