Self-Care Lessons for the Resistance
New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.
Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms was published by Basic Books in 1980, and outlines his vision of children using computers as instruments for learning. A second edition, with new Forewords by John Sculley and Carol Sperry, was published in 1993. The book remains as relevant now as when first published almost forty years ago.
The Media Lab is grateful to Seymour Papert’s family for allowing us to post the text here. We invite you to add your comments and reflections.
If you are interested in purchasing the print edition of Mindstorms, please visit Basic Books.
from the MIT Media Lab.
We know about the power of clothes to affect how others see us. But does clothing have the power to actually change us on the inside? To boost our intellectual skills or melt our fear? Co-hosts Hanna Rosin and Lulu Miller, along with new contributors, explore the invisible ways clothes can seep into our skin and change us in surprising ways. This hour, stories about a guy who uses sunglasses to fight off bullies, the science of how wearing a doctor's coat can make you smarter, a tailor who may or may not have survived the Holocaust by wearing a Nazi officer's shirt, a family for whom what outfit to wear is a life or death decision, and why shoes may be the root of all human evil. Maybe.
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One of America’s foremost philosophers offers a major new account of the origins of the conscious mind.
How did we come to have minds?
For centuries, this question has intrigued psychologists, physicists, poets, and philosophers, who have wondered how the human mind developed its unrivaled ability to create, imagine, and explain. Disciples of Darwin have long aspired to explain how consciousness, language, and culture could have appeared through natural selection, blazing promising trails that tend, however, to end in confusion and controversy. Even though our understanding of the inner workings of proteins, neurons, and DNA is deeper than ever before, the matter of how our minds came to be has largely remained a mystery.
That is now changing, says Daniel C. Dennett. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his most comprehensive exploration of evolutionary thinking yet, he builds on ideas from computer science and biology to show how a comprehending mind could in fact have arisen from a mindless process of natural selection. Part philosophical whodunit, part bold scientific conjecture, this landmark work enlarges themes that have sustained Dennett’s legendary career at the forefront of philosophical thought.
In his inimitable style―laced with wit and arresting thought experiments―Dennett explains that a crucial shift occurred when humans developed the ability to share memes, or ways of doing things not based in genetic instinct. Language, itself composed of memes, turbocharged this interplay. Competition among memes―a form of natural selection―produced thinking tools so well-designed that they gave us the power to design our own memes. The result, a mind that not only perceives and controls but can create and comprehend, was thus largely shaped by the process of cultural evolution.
An agenda-setting book for a new generation of philosophers, scientists, and thinkers, From Bacteria to Bach and Back will delight and entertain anyone eager to make sense of how the mind works and how it came about.
4 color, 18 black-and-white illustrations
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We are naturally drawn to finding solutions. But are there ever problems we shouldn't try to solve? Lulu Miller visits a town in Belgium with a completely different approach to dealing with mental illness. Families in the town board people – strangers - with severe mental illnesses in their homes, sometimes for decades. And it works, because they are not looking to cure them.
A stunning idea, and one that could do well not only for the mentally ill among our friends and families, but some interesting psychology for parenting and expectations of parents for their children.Syndicated copies to:
We like to think of our own personalities - and those of our spouses, children and friends - as predictable and constant over time. But what if they aren't? In this episode, Alix Spiegel visits a prison to explore whether there is such a thing as a stable personality. And Lulu Miller asks whether scientists can point to a single thing about a person that doesn't change over time. The answer might surprise you.
Not explicitly said, but this episode points out the heavy nurture side of the nature/nurture question in relation to the stability of one’s personality over time. In some sense, you are who those around you expect you to be. This also makes me think I ought to go back to working for a larger company with more people around me.
Yet another great episode, though to me not as intriguing as some of their other prior efforts. Still overall, a stellar podcast series.Syndicated copies to:
You probably don't even notice them, but social norms determine so much of your behavior - how you dress, talk, eat and even what you allow yourself to feel. These norms are so entrenched we never imagine they can shift. But Alix Spiegel and new co-host, Hanna Rosin, examine two grand social experiments that attempt to do just that: teach McDonald's employees in Russia to smile, and workers on an oil rig how to cry.
This is a fantastic episode that fits right into the heart of their running theme. The psychology of the smile isn’t something one thinks about often, but it has such a profound effect on our daily lives.
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The Power Of Categories examines how categories define us — how, if given a chance, humans will jump into one category or another. People need them, want them. The show looks at what categories provide for us, and you'll hear about a person caught between categories in a way that will surprise you. Plus, a trip to a retirement community designed to help seniors revisit a long-missed category.
The transgender/sexual dysphoria story here is exceedingly interesting because it could potentially have some clues to how those pieces of biology work and what shifts things in one direction or another. How is that spectrum created/defined? A few dozen individuals like that could help provide an answer.
The story about the Indian retirement community in Florida is interesting, but it also raises the (unasked, in the episode at least) question of the detriment it can do to a group of people to be lead by some the oldest members of their community. The Latin words senīlis (“of or pertaining to old age”) and senex (“old”) are the roots of words like senate, senescence, senility, senior, and seniority, and though it’s nice to take care of our elders, the younger generations should take a hard look at the unintended consequences which may stem from this.
In some sense I’m also reminded about Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and why progress in science (and yes, society) is held back by the older generations who are still holding onto outdated models. Though simultaneously, they do provide some useful “brakes” on both velocity of change as well as potential ill effects which could be damaging in short timeframes.Syndicated copies to:
In Entanglement, you'll meet a woman with Mirror Touch Synesthesia who can physically feel what she sees others feeling. And an exploration of the ways in which all of us are connected — more literally than you might realize. The hour will start with physics and end with a conversation with comedian Maria Bamford and her mother. They discuss what it's like to be entangled through impersonation.
I can think of a few specific quirks I’ve got that touch tangentially on mirror synethesia. This story and some of the research behind it is truly fascinating. Particularly interesting are the ideas of the contagion of emotion. It would be interesting to take some complexity and network theory and add some mathematical models to see how this might look. In particular the recent political protests in the U.S. might make great models. This also makes me wonder where Donald Trump sits on this emotional empathy spectrum, if at all.
One of the more interesting take-aways: the thoughts and emotions of those around you can affect you far more than you imagine.
Four episodes in and this podcast is still impossibly awesome. I don’t know if I’ve had so many thought changing ideas since I read David Christian’s book Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History.  The sad problem is that I’m listening to them at a far faster pace than they could ever continue to produce them.
In "The Secret History of Thoughts," co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller ask the question, "Are my thoughts related to my inner wishes, do they reveal who I really am?" The answer can have profound consequences for your life. Hear the story of a man gripped by violent thoughts, and explore how various psychologists make sense of his experience. Also, meet a man trapped inside his head for 13 years with thoughts as his only companion.
What an awesome little podcast Invisibilia is! Can’t wait to catch the rest of the episodes. Interesting to hear the quick overview of the three schools of thought on thought.
I had been hearing commercials for this off and on from other podcasts for almost a year; glad I finally downloaded to listen.Syndicated copies to:
Over the years, hundreds of people online have shared memories of a cheesy Nineties movie called “Shazaam”. There is no evidence that such a film was ever made. What does this tell us about the quirks of collective memory?
A Problem with Transcripts
In the past few weeks, I’ve seen dozens of news outlets publish multi-paragraph excerpts of speeches from Donald Trump and have been appalled that I was unable to read them in any coherent way. I could not honestly follow or discern any coherent thought or argument in the majority of them. I was a bit shocked because in listening to him, he often sounds like he has some kind of point, though he seems to be spouting variations on one of ten one-liners he’s been using for over a year now. There’s apparently a flaw in our primal reptilian brains that seems to be tricking us into thinking that there’s some sort of substance in his speech when there honestly is none. I’m going to have to spend some time reading more on linguistics and cognitive neuroscience. Maybe Stephen Pinker knows of an answer?
The situation got worse this week as I turned to news sources for fact-checking of the recent presidential debate. While it’s nice to have web-based annotation tools like Genius and Hypothes.is to mark up these debates, it becomes another thing altogether to understand the meaning of what’s being said in order to actually attempt to annotate it. I’ve included some links so that readers can attempt the exercise for themselves.
Recent transcripts (some with highlights/annotations):
- Fact Check: Trump And Clinton Debate For The First Time
- The first Trump-Clinton presidential debate transcript, annotated
- Transcript: The most important exchanges of the presidential debate, annotated
- Transcript: Donald Trump’s full immigration speech, annotated
- Transcript: Here are words Trump just used to talk about ‘the cyber’
Doubletalk and Doublespeech
It’s been a while since Americans were broadly exposed to actual doubletalk. For the most part our national experience with it has been a passing curiosity highlighted by comedians.
n. (NORTH AMERICAN)
a deliberately unintelligible form of speech in which inappropriate, invented or nonsense syllables are combined with actual words. This type of speech is commonly used to give the appearance of knowledge and thereby confuse, amuse, or entertain the speaker’s audience.
another term for doublespeak
see also n. doubletalk 
Since the days of vaudeville (and likely before), comedians have used doubletalk to great effect on stage, in film, and on television. Some comedians who have historically used the technique as part of their acts include Al Kelly, Cliff Nazarro, Danny Kaye, Gary Owens, Irwin Corey, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Stanley Unwin, and Reggie Watts. I’m including some short video clips below as examples.
A well-known, but foreshortened, form of it was used by Dana Carvey in his Saturday Night Live performances caricaturizing George H.W. Bush by using a few standard catch phrases with pablum in between: “Not gonna do it…”, “Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture”, and “Thousand Points of Light…”. These snippets in combination with some creative hand gestures (pointing, lacing fingers together), along with a voice melding of Mr. Rogers and John Wayne were the simple constructs that largely transformed a diminutive comedian convincingly into a president.
Doubletalk also has a more “educated” sibling known as technobabble. Engineers are sure to recall a famous (and still very humorous) example of both doubletalk and technobabble in the famed description of the Turboencabulator. (See also, the short videos below.)
Doubletalk comedy examples
Al Kelly on Ernie Kovaks
Rockwell Turbo Encabulator Version 2
And of course doubletalk and technobabble have closely related cousins named doublespeak and politicobabble. These are far more dangerous than the others because they move over the line of comedy into seriousness and are used by people who make decisions effecting hundreds of thousands to millions, if not billions, of people on the planet. I’m sure an archeo-linguist might be able to discern where exactly politicobabble emerged and managed to evolve into a non-comedic form of speech which people manage to take far more seriously than its close ancestors. One surely suspects some heavy influence from George Orwell’s corpus of work:
While politicobabble is nothing new, I did find a very elucidating passage from the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election cycle which seems to be a major part of the Trump campaign playbook:
In the continuation of the article, Jacobs goes on to give a variety of examples of the term as well as a “translation” guide for some of the common politicobabble words from that particular election. I’ll leave it to the capable hands of others (perhaps in the comments, below?) to come up with the translation guide for our current political climate.
The interesting evolutionary change I’ll note for the current election cycle is that Trump hasn’t delved into any depth on any of his themes to offend anyone significantly enough. This has allowed him to stay with the dozen or so themes he started out using and therefore hasn’t needed to change them as in campaigns of old.
Filling in the Blanks
These forms of pseudo-speech area all meant to fool us into thinking that something of substance is being discussed and that a conversation is happening, when in fact, nothing is really being communicated at all. Most of the intended meaning and reaction to such speech seems to stem from the demeanor of the speaker as well as, in some part, to the reaction of the surrounding interlocutor and audience. In reading Donald Trump transcripts, an entirely different meaning (or lack thereof) is more quickly realized as the surrounding elements which prop up the narrative have been completely stripped away. In a transcript version, gone is the hypnotizing element of the crowd which is vehemently sure that the emperor is truly wearing clothes.
In many of these transcripts, in fact, I find so little is being said that the listener is actually being forced to piece together the larger story in their head. Being forced to fill in the blanks in this way leaves too much of the communication up to the listener who isn’t necessarily engaged at a high level. Without more detail or context to understand what is being communicated, the listener is far more likely to fill in the blanks to fit a story that doesn’t create any cognitive dissonance for themselves — in part because Trump is usually smiling and welcoming towards his adoring audiences.
One will surely recall that Trump even wanted Secretary Clinton to be happy during the debate when he said, “Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.” (This question also doubles as an example of a standard psychological sales tactic of attempting to get the purchaser to start by saying ‘yes’ as a means to keep them saying yes while moving them towards making a purchase.)
His method of communicating by leaving large holes in his meaning reminds me of the way our brain smooths out information as indicated in this old internet meme :
I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arpppoiatrely cllaed typoglycemia.
I’m also reminded of the biases and heuristics research carried out in part (and the remainder cited) by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow  in which he discusses the mechanics of how system 1 and system 2 work in our brains. Is Trump taking advantage of the deficits of language processing in our brains in something akin to system 1 biases to win large blocks of votes? Is he creating a virtual real-time Choose-Your-Own-Adventure to subvert the laziness of the electorate? Kahneman would suggest the the combination of what Trump does say and what he doesn’t leaves it up to every individual listener to create their own story. Their system 1 is going to default to the easiest and most palatable one available to them: a happy story that fits their own worldview and is likely to encourage them to support Trump.
Ten Word Answers
As an information theorist, I know all too well that there must be a ‘linguistic Shannon limit’ to the amount of semantic meaning one can compress into a single word.  One is ultimately forced to attempt to form sentences to convey more meaning. But usually the less politicians say, the less trouble they can get into — a lesson hard won through generations of political fighting.
I’m reminded of a scene from The West Wing television series. In season 4, episode 6 which aired on October 30, 2002 on NBC, Game On had a poignant moment (video clip below) which is germane to our subject: 
Moderator: Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is the centrepiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?
Governor Ritchie, R-FL: You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.
Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.
President Bartlet: There it is…
That’s the 10 word answer my staff’s been looking for for 2 weeks. There it is.
10 word answers can kill you in political campaigns — they’re the tip of the sword.
Here’s my question: What are the next 10 words of your answer?
“Your taxes are too high?” So are mine…
Give me the next 10 words: How are we going to do it?
Give me 10 after that — I’ll drop out of the race right now.
Every once in a while — every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for 10 words.
I’m the President of the United States, not the president of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.
As someone who studies information theory and complexity theory and even delves into sub-topics like complexity and economics, I can agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Though again, here I can also see the massive gaps between system 1 and 2 that force us to want to simplify things down to such a base level that we don’t have to do the work to puzzle them out.
(And yes, that is Jennifer Anniston’s father playing the moderator.)
One can’t but wonder why Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to have ever gone past the first ten words? Is it because he isn’t capable? interested? Or does he instinctively know better? It would seem that he’s been doing business by using the uncertainty inherent in his speech for decades, but always operating by using what he meant (or thought he wanted to mean) than what the other party heard and thought they understood. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Idiocracy or Something Worse?
In our increasingly specialized world, people eventually have to give in and quit doing some tasks that everyone used to do for themselves. Yesterday I saw a lifeworn woman in her 70s pushing a wheeled wire basket with a 5 gallon container of water from the store to her home. As she shuffled along, I contemplated Thracian people from fourth century BCE doing the same thing except they likely carried amphorae possibly with a yoke and without the benefit of the $10 manufactured custom shopping cart. 20,000 years before that people were still carrying their own water, but possibly without even the benefit of earthenware containers. Things in human history have changed very slowly for the most part, but as we continually sub-specialize further and further, we need to remember that we can’t give up one of the primary functions that makes us human: the ability to think deeply and analytically for ourselves.
I suspect that far too many people are too wrapped up in their own lives and problems to listen to more than the ten word answers our politicians are advertising to us. We need to remember to ask for the next ten words and the ten after that.
Otherwise there are two extreme possible outcomes:
We’re either at the beginning of what Mike Judge would term Idiocracy. 
Or we’re headed to what Michiko Kakutani is “subtweeting” about in her recent review In ‘Hitler’ an Ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue  of Volker Ulrich’s new book Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939. 
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) September 28, 2016
Here, one is tempted to quote George Santayana’s famous line (from The Life of Reason, 1905), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, I far prefer the following as more apropos to our present national situation:
If Cliff Navarro comes back to run for president, I hope no one falls for his joke just because he wasn’t laughing as he acted it out. If his instructions for fixing the wagon (America) are any indication, the voters who are listening and making the repairs will be in severe pain.
🔖 Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior by Robin Dunbar (Oxford University Press) marked as want to read.
Official release date: November 1, 2016
09/14/16: downloaded a review copy via NetGalley
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The story of human evolution has fascinated us like no other: we seem to have an insatiable curiosity about who we are and where we have come from. Yet studying the “stones and bones” skirts around what is perhaps the realest, and most relatable, story of human evolution – the social and cognitive changes that gave rise to modern humans.
In Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior, Robin Dunbar appeals to the human aspects of every reader, as subjects of mating, friendship, and community are discussed from an evolutionary psychology perspective. With a table of contents ranging from prehistoric times to modern days, Human Evolution focuses on an aspect of evolution that has typically been overshadowed by the archaeological record: the biological, neurological, and genetic changes that occurred with each “transition” in the evolutionary narrative. Dunbar’s interdisciplinary approach – inspired by his background as both an anthropologist and accomplished psychologist – brings the reader into all aspects of the evolutionary process, which he describes as the “jigsaw puzzle” of evolution that he and the reader will help solve. In doing so, the book carefully maps out each stage of the evolutionary process, from anatomical changes such as bipedalism and increase in brain size, to cognitive and behavioral changes, such as the ability to cook, laugh, and use language to form communities through religion and story-telling. Most importantly and interestingly, Dunbar hypothesizes the order in which these evolutionary changes occurred-conclusions that are reached with the “time budget model” theory that Dunbar himself coined. As definitive as the “stones and bones” are for the hard dates of archaeological evidence, this book explores far more complex psychological questions that require a degree of intellectual speculation: What does it really mean to be human (as opposed to being an ape), and how did we come to be that way?
As it was published, I had read Kevin Hartnett’s article and interview with Christoph Adami The Information Theory of Life in Quanta Magazine. I recently revisited it and read through the commentary and stumbled upon an interesting quote relating to the history of information in biology:
These two historical references predate Claude Shannon’s mathematical formalization of information in A Mathematical Theory of Communication (The Bell System Technical Journal, 1948) and even Erwin Schrödinger‘s lecture (1943) and subsequent book What is Life (1944).
For those interested in reading more on this historical tidbit, I’ve dug up a copy of the primary Forsdyke reference which first appeared on arXiv (prior to its ultimate publication in History of Psychiatry [.pdf]):
🔖 [1406.1391] ‘A Vehicle of Symbols and Nothing More.’ George Romanes, Theory of Mind, Information, and Samuel Butler by Donald R. Forsdyke 
Submitted on 4 Jun 2014 (v1), last revised 13 Nov 2014 (this version, v2)
Abstract: Today’s ‘theory of mind’ (ToM) concept is rooted in the distinction of nineteenth century philosopher William Clifford between ‘objects’ that can be directly perceived, and ‘ejects,’ such as the mind of another person, which are inferred from one’s subjective knowledge of one’s own mind. A founder, with Charles Darwin, of the discipline of comparative psychology, George Romanes considered the minds of animals as ejects, an idea that could be generalized to ‘society as eject’ and, ultimately, ‘the world as an eject’ – mind in the universe. Yet, Romanes and Clifford only vaguely connected mind with the abstraction we call ‘information,’ which needs ‘a vehicle of symbols’ – a material transporting medium. However, Samuel Butler was able to address, in informational terms depleted of theological trappings, both organic evolution and mind in the universe. This view harmonizes with insights arising from modern DNA research, the relative immortality of ‘selfish’ genes, and some startling recent developments in brain research.
Comments: Accepted for publication in History of Psychiatry. 31 pages including 3 footnotes. Based on a lecture given at Santa Clara University, February 28th 2014, at a Bannan Institute Symposium on ‘Science and Seeking: Rethinking the God Question in the Lab, Cosmos, and Classroom.’
The original arXiv article also referenced two lectures which are appended below:
[Original Draft of this was written on December 14, 2015.]