Miscellaneous

From Moonwalking with Einstein, I learned about using memory palaces as a mnemonic to help memorize long lists of things. Now some researchers have tested and validated the technique by having people use unfamiliar virtual environments as memory palaces.

In a NYTimes op-ed, David Agus asks "when does regulating a person's habits in the name of good health become our moral and social duty?" He has one suggestion, and that is to make it public policy to encourage middle-aged people to use aspirin. 

The most tweeted movie of the year? Think LIke a Man.

This link is a bit math-heavy and abstruse, but less so than you'd think from scanning it. Stein's Paradox in Statistics (PDF) by Bradley Efron and Carl Morris is a famous and fascinating article in which the future batting averages of 18 major league baseball players after their first 45 at bats in 1970. It is a useful introduction to the James-Stein Estimator and concepts like regression to the mean and how to quantify it. In the tech business world, managers tend to be rated on many qualities, but rarely on the quality of their forecasts. Given the value of forecasting in such a fast-paced industry, it's interesting how much people in tech rely on gut instinct.

Why the return trip always feels shorter

One of the core ideas I took from Moonwalking with Einstein, one of my favorite books of 2011, was the tight relationship between memory and our perception of how quickly time passes. The more you fall into routine, the more your brain chunks those blocks of time, and thus the faster time seems to fly by. Break up patterns in your life, introduce variety, and time slows.

I haven't seen an actual description of the mechanism by which that works until now, but this is a good one from professor of biochemistry William Reville:

Biological cycles are measured by an internal clock that emits steady signals. The signals emitted over a given interval are counted by something called an “accumulator”. The counts can be stored in memory by an animal and used to repeat certain durations by counting signals until they match the count stored in the memory. No awareness of the passage of time is necessary. Humans however are aware of the passage of time and are easily influenced by attentional demands over a target interval.

Humans have an “attentional gate” through which the signals from the clock must pass in order to reach the accumulator. If the individual decides that the passage of time is important , then the attentional gate is opened wide and signal accumulation is maximised. If the passage of time is unimportant then the gate is narrowed and fewer signals are accumulated. Assuming that the estimate of time duration depends on the count registered by the accumulator, it is easy to see that the same objective time duration, eg 15 minutes, will seem longer when waiting for interview that while relaxing. And, memorising the complex figure requires more attentional resources than memorising the circle, leading to a narrower gate and a lower signal count.

Well worth reading the whole thing, it's not very long, and its power is in how it helps to explain all sorts of time perception phenomena. When Reville follows up his description with this homework assignment, suddenly everything makes sense:

Using the attentional gate model of prospective timing, explain why “a watched pot never boils”, why earthquakes feel longer than they are, and why the “return trip” always feels shorter.

Imagine the past

Why is human memory less reliable than we expect? Perhaps because our mental model for how human memory works is wrong. We picture ourselves retrieving a memory from a data bank like a computer retrieving a file.

But MRI studies conducted by Daniel Schacter indicate that the way we remember something may be the same process we use to imagine the future. That is, our brain takes disjointed components and tries to assemble it on the fly into a coherent picture. A process like that is inherently susceptible to influence. We may imagine a rosy future for ourselves for a variety of reasons, but it may be just as likely that we wear rose-tinted glasses when it comes to our past as well.

Our brains process time in one direction, but if we were to reverse the direction, perhaps it would feel the same to us. That is, we'd be remembering the future and imagining the past.