Book Review

The Time Keeper: Review and Reflection

Try to imagine a life without timekeeping.
You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie.
Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays.
Man alone measures time.
Man alone chimes the hour.
And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures.
A fear of time running out.

How do our minds make sense of such vastly complex concepts like time? It’s a perennial cognitive science question and one taken up by Mitch Albom in his novel The Time Keeper. The book is about an ancient man named Dor, the inventor of the first clock and a time keeping hobbyist. As a punishment for trying to measure time, Dor is sent to a cave for 6,000 years. While in the cave, he hears voices from people all over earth, constantly asking for more time. He experiences intense loneliness, and quickly realizes that the immortality he’s received is no gift. When he’s allowed out of the cave, he’s given an hourglass that lets him selectively slow time to a near halt and the task to teach two people what he’s learned about time.

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One of these people wants too much time. This is Victor Delamonte, fourteenth richest man in the world and dying from cancer. Victor decides that he will have his body cryogenically frozen, to be rejuvenated and cured once medicine has advanced enough. Victor wants to live forever.

The other character Dor is sent to help wants too little time. Sarah Lemon is a high school senior who has been humiliated and cast off by a boy she mistakenly believed to be her boyfriend. Sarah wants to die.

Both Victor and Sarah cross paths with Dor in modern New York City in the watch shop where Dor now works. Victor decides he will be frozen before he’s officially dead to increase his chances of success, and Sarah decides she will kill herself. Moments before they follow through with their radical and opposite actions, Dor slows time to bring them together and teach them what he’s learned about time: “‘Man wants to own his existence. But no one owns time… When you are measuring time, you are not living it.'”

We treat time as a thing. My Google calendar may as well be my homepage. The rare room lacking a clock feels like a prison. We take ownership of our time when we capture it in photographs, sign contracts for work we will complete, and invest our money for the future. We talk about wasting or saving time just the same way we talk about wasting or saving food. Albom reminds us that despite our language, cultural practices, and technological innovations, despite the fact that we can measure and quantify time in amazingly precise and meticulous ways, we do not control time. As Dor was told at the beginning of his sentence in the cave, “‘The length of your days does not belong to you.'”

How We Learn: A Guest Review

I mentioned in a previous post that I have some stellar undergraduate Research Assistants. I neglected to mention that this summer I also have some stellar high school assistants. Juliette Hill is a rising senior whose main goal for her time in the lab was to learn what it’s like to be a cognitive science grad student. She worked on some open-ended and exploratory questions as well as some very detailed data collection. She also read and thought about cognitive science ideas beyond the specific ones we’re addressing in the lab. Here are her thoughts on How We Learn, a book by Benedict Carey:

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Like most of us, Benedict Carey grew up with the belief that in order to learn best, one had to find a quiet, designated study space. Practice was the only path to perfection. The Internet and all other electronic devices should be turned off lest they disturb your concentration. Highlighting and rereading notes, if done frequently, will improve your test scores. Forgetting is the enemy of learning.

Yet most of these adages are far from the truth.

Distractions can actually aid learning in ways that remaining focused cannot. Studying in the same spot repeatedly may weaken your grasp on the subject. After an intense study session of revising notes, we feel confident we know our subject inside out, but we still barely manage a B on the test. Why?

With the advent of modern science, we are barely able to scrape the surface of discovering the cognitive aspect of learning. In his book How We Learn, Benedict Carey walks the reader through a multitude of discoveries that may revolutionize the way we perceive the learning process. Here are some of the findings he explains:

Distraction can aid learning. While this is not an absolute (checking Facebook during a lecture does not help you learn what the teacher is presenting you), it certainly has much potential, especially in today’s society. While stuck on a difficult math problem or other similar pit, taking a study break can definitely boost your ability to solve the problem the second time around. Does this mean taking an hour-long nap will have similar effects? Absolutely! And it can possibly help even more than a simple distraction.

Sleep is your friend. Most people know that sleep can help consolidate learned facts and motor skills, but few people know when such benefits occur in the night. Each night is comprised of several cycles, alternating between a deep sleep and a more wakeful one. The times in the night when you sleep the deepest occur around the first 2 to 3 hours of sleep. This deep sleep has been found to reinforce the learning of rote facts. Yet if you are preparing for a music recital (which would involve your motor skills and learning), your peak of the night would occur slightly later.

Highlighting and rereading of notes will not carry you far. In fact, you will feel as if you know the subject manner by heart, but will be disappointed when you see an unexpected score on your test. What happened? You knew the content so well, right? The danger of highlighting and rereading is that it gives you the impression that you know the material, when you actually are only familiar with it. The best way to review content is to maintain a “desirable difficulty” (as coined by Dr. Robert Bjork) in your studying. This means that testing yourself (as opposed to just reading the content) will help you retain the material much better. So you can dig up those flashcards you never thought you’d use again. This applies to preparing a speech too, in that you will be better prepared if you practice reciting your speech instead of just rereading your notes.

Interleaving helps retain information best. If you are asked to memorize the styles of 12 different artists from different eras, do you think you would do best by studying all the works done by each artist one at a time (a method called “blocking”) or by mixing up the artists? If you are like most, you may choose to study by blocking. However, this has shown to be significantly less effective than mixing up the artists (interleaving) and studying that way. Ever noticed that when you do your math problems (by each section), you understand right away and feel like you mastered the skill, yet come time for the test, you are confused by which equations to use? This can easily be avoided with interleaving, which would mean, in this case, that you include problems from previous sections along with the night’s homework.

Your study corner is a trap. There have been several studies that looked at the effect of location on retention and found that if you studied certain information in a particular spot and were tested on it at that same location, you do better than if you studied the material in one place and tested in another location. The same is true for body states (hunger, influence of drugs, mood…) or when listening to music. You do best when these stay consistent. Yet it is often too hard to study and test in the same location, and more importantly, it becomes harder to recall the information when not in that same area. The answer is to vary your location when studying. If you only study in one location, the information will unconsciously (though not on a large scale), be tied to that location. This means that if you move to another spot, your recall will not be at its optimal. However, by altering your study spots, you can avoid this dependence on your surroundings and possibly increase your score on the next test.

These are just a few of the topics Carey explains in his book, and there are many more discovered since the book’s publishing. Therefore, I highly recommend that you look into this book and share your findings with others. It’s a shame so few people know about the science of learning, despite the fact that their lives revolve around it.

Remembered Lessons from James Watson

Reading a memoir often feels like holding an in-depth conversation with the author, albeit a largely one-sided conversation. When I finish, I feel like I’ve just spent hours with an accomplished person who has something valuable to share. What’s better, I’ve taken in the information at my own speed, on my own watch, and haven’t had to worry about things like exactly how much eye contact I should make while listening and when and what to interject. Humans’ thoughts and experiences are so often fascinating, and this is one of my favorite ways to learn about them.

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I was recently browsing the memoir section of the library and a book called Avoid Boring People caught my eye (how could it not?). It’s a memoir by James Watson, one the discoverers of the structure of DNA. The book chronicles Watson’s life, focusing on his path to scientific success. Each chapter discusses a phase of his life so far, and concludes with a list of Remembered Lessons, which are written as nuggets of advice to scientist readers.

The beginning of the book really captured me. Maybe Watson’s earliest days in science are the most interesting to me because I’m still near the beginning of my own scientific career. As I neared the midway point, though, Watson had already won his Nobel and I had to put the book down because I was getting bored of reading page after page about Watson’s elbow-rubbing with other famous scientists and the details of so many of his experiments. I realize the irony of my capitulation given the book’s title, but the latter half of the book just wasn’t for me. Maybe it was just to hard to identify with an older man who was a Nobel-prize winning scientist and seems to speak biochemistry as a second language.

I did, however, skim the book to read the rest of the Remembered Lessons, which I had been enjoying since the start. I’ve decided to share some that resonate with me. If you’re not up to reading Watson’s 320+ page magnum opus (actually, it’s just one of his three memoirs), here are some of my favorite takeaways:

  • College is for learning how to think.
  • Keep your intellectual curiosity much broader than your thesis objective. Especially timely advice for me, as I’m in the process of drilling deeply into one topic in order to formulate my dissertation proposal.
  • Banal thoughts necessarily also dominate clever minds. He comments that “most high-powered minds… mostly lie idle until the input of one or more new facts stimulates their neurons to resolve the conundrums that stump them.”
  • Exercise exorcises intellectual blahs. I’ve heard it has a few other benefits too…
  •  Read out loud your written words. 
    And of course…
  • Avoid boring people. Watson means this boring both its verb and adjective senses: Do not bore people and do not associate with people who bore you.

Amen to that!

The Professor and the Madman: Review

I heard myself mention to a friend one day, “I’m reading this great book about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” This comment was followed by a pause as I thought to myself, that feels like a weird thing to have just said, and as she (probably) thought to herself, this girl is getting geekier by the day.

The book truly is about how the OED came to be, but reads more like a novel. Simon Winchester gives his readers an appreciation for the magnum opus that is the dictionary. In a world without the Internet or other good dictionaries to use as precedents, the people working on this project had to read extensively, documenting and defining every new word they came about. The OED goes beyond this, though, because it includes examples of the word in context – examples that really make its meaning clear. And the dictionary makers were careful to include examples from different time periods, in order to show the changes in usage that a single word has undergone during its life. All of this had to be coordinated among a changing team of numerous contributors distributed across many locations (did I mention yet that there was no Internet? This feat alone blows my mind).

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In addition to imparting an appreciation for the complexity of the project, Simon Winchester shares much about two of the most influential men involved (the professor [James Murray] and the madman [William Minor]). Readers get a sense of these mens’ lives – for example, that William Minor was a doctor during the Civil War, forced to brand a deserter’s face with a hot iron – and how their pasts shaped the men they were as they worked on the project. There was hardly an antagonist (though there were characters that posed trouble at times). Instead, I was rooting for everyone all along – for Murray, Minor, and for the dictionary itself.

This book rekindled my appreciation of stories, quirky genius characters, words, and massive, seemingly intractable projects. It simultaneously inspired me, and made my own work feel like a picture book in comparison.

Lab Girl: Review

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I discovered Hope Jahren’s new memoir Lab Girl because it’s listed under the genre of Environmental Science, a type of book I don’t usually gravitate to. It didn’t take me long to realize that the scientific world has been begging for this book to be written for a while. As I’ve continued to immerse myself more deeply into academia, I’ve realized that the massive rift separating the Ivory Tower from the rest of the world is not narrowing. Lab Girl is an account of one woman’s journey toward and through academic science, a glimpse of what a scientist might actually be like as a person and what it means to conduct scientific research as a career.

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Jahren’s story starts when she was a little girl, spending hours in her dad’s lab, and continues to cast glances into her life as a young adult, graduate student, assistant professor, and finally as a tenured professor. Her road was anything but smooth. While many features of her path were unique, so many were not. Financial struggles were a theme throughout a good portion of the book. First, she had to pay for her education as an undergraduate, and once she completed grad school, she had to apply for competitive grants to afford her lab, her right-hand man Bill’s salary, and her own. At one point she writes about buying a bunch of fast food burgers when they were on sale and freezing them for future lunches. She also writes about periods in which mental illness overcame her daily life and left her unable to function. Again, the Ivory Tower might seem like a utopia where everyone is happy and nobly working toward the pursuit of knowledge, but such struggles are not so rare among the ultra-driven academics who have never failed a test in their lives and are now pursuing PhDs or esteemed faculty positions. And she writes about the tedium, discomfort, and anxiety involved in doing science, like meticulously labeling vials and taking long road trips to dig up and study the earth in new (often desolate-seeming) locations.

Writing about these less glamorous moments and years sends the message to other academics, you are not alone. This shit is hard. And it sends a message to non-academics that the road to becoming a successful scientist is not paved with gold. Jahren adds even more value because she’s a female scientist, and although she doesn’t belabor the point, there are many stories that shed light on the extra hurdle that many females experience in science.

Jahren paints a clear picture of what doing science was like at different stages of her life, while also shedding light on what being she as a person was like at different stages and interspersing short chapters that expose trees’ beauty and complexity. Lab Girl is a love story between Hope Jahren and science, exposing their relationship’s joys and challenges and showing the readers that all along these two were meant to be together.

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on it (Review)

One day as I was clicking through Amazon, the site recommended a book with the word Curious across a black cover with an owl beneath. Naturally, I was curious: A whole book on curiosity? How much is there to say? About 45 seconds later, I was reading it. It was a fun read, peppered with stories, descriptions of research, and historical anecdotes. It was filled with rich quotes, by the author and many others that have written about the topic over centuries, and I’ll let those quotes drive this review.

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A Taxonomy of Curiosity

Curiosity is not just one thing. Ian Leslie describes three types of curiosity, distinguished by the contexts in which they arise and the behaviors they encourage us to seek out.

Diversive curiosity is an attraction to things that are novel. I imagine a dog on a walk, pausing to inspect every seemingly new patch of dirt, trash, or fire hydrant. Humans show a lot of diversive curiosity too, like when we scroll through a Twitter feed or flip the TV channels 30 times in a minute. It’s not just a low-level type of curiosity, but instead is a starting point that drives us to seek out new experiences and people and paves the way for two deeper types of curiosity.

Epistemic curiosity manifests when diversive curiosity is honed as a quest for knowledge or understanding. It is “deeper, more disciplined, and effortful” than diversive curiosity, a desire to understand how the world works. Psychologists use the term Need For Cognition (NFC) as a measure of intellectual curiosity. People with a high NFC thrive on and enjoy intellectual challenges, while those low in NFC prefer their mental lives to be as straightforward as possible.

Empathic curiosity is the drive to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, which we can attain by learning to put ourselves in others’ shoes.

A History of Curiosity

Leslie takes us through curiosity’s ups and downs over the past centuries: in some eras, it was looked down upon, and little innovation took place during those times. In other times, for example during the Renaissance, empathic and epistemic curiosity became widely popular, and culture exploded. Cities, too, promote the explosion of curiosity: “The city was a serendipity generator.”

Even now, public opinion of curiosity is a mixed bag: we still repeat warnings of Adam and Eve’s curiosity, we parrot the phrase, “curiosity killed the cat,” use the word curious when we actually mean that someone is weird, and emphasize practical job skills in education over all else. At the same time, there’s a market for books like this one, lauding the trait and going so far as to claim that “your life depends on it.”

How does the Internet fit into society’s curiosity? On the one hand, we have an incredible amount of information literally at our fingertips. Naturally curious people can have a field day, and many do. But people who are lower in NFC can use the internet to stunt the development of their curiosity… which many also do. Who/what/when/where questions can usually be answered by typing a pithy phrase into Google, clicking on the first search result without reading about it, and scanning a sentence or two of the web page. This type of information-seeking is not effortful, and therefore doesn’t engage the processes at work when we truly exercise curiosity. Leslie comes back to this theme often: while the Internet has amazing potential for expanding our horizons and allowing us to share ideas faster than ever, if we’re not careful, it can also squash our curiosity, much to society’s detriment.

Metaphors for curiosity

Puzzle vs. Mystery: Leslie attributes this distinction to security and intelligence expert Gregory Treverton. Some problems are puzzles:

they have definite answers… are orderly; they have a beginning and an eng. Once the missing information is found, it’s not a puzzle anymore. The frustration you felt when you were searching for the answer is replaced by satisfaction. Mysteries are murkier, less neat. They pose questions that can’t be answered definitively, because the answers often depend on a highly complex and interrelated set of factors, both known and unknown… Puzzles tend to be how many or where questions; mysteries are more likely to be why or how.

He uses the question “where is Osama bin Laden?” as an example of a puzzle. Its mystery equivalent might be “how does Osama bin Laden think?” Similarly, reading a mystery novel is also a puzzle, because once you get to the end, you know who did what, and the problem is solved. Reading a novel like The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is a mystery, because it leaves you thinking about questions that don’t have definite answers, like the true nature of the American dream.

Leslie encourages people to “forage like a foxhog.” This idea, credited to the Greek poet Archilochus, is that “‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.'” The hybrid foxhog is the compromise to the question of whether we should strive to become generally knowledgable people or aim to become experts in very specific areas. The foxhog does both of these, resulting in knowledge that can be considered “T-shaped”: The top of the T is surface knowledge, and foxhogs have a lot of it. The other part of the T is its slender, lengthy spine. Foxhogs also possess tall Ts, because they have intense knowledge about at least one area. In other words, “curious learners go deep, and they go wide.” As a side note, robust, healthy Ts are precisely the goal of a PhD program, designed to make you smart in a way that will be conducive to having happy hour drinks with many people (academics) while becoming so knowledgable about your own field (or subfield, or sub-subfield…) that sometimes you have to teach your advisor what you’re doing.

The Malleability of Curiosity

Leslie emphasizes that “a person’s curiosity is more state than trait.” That means that although we are born with varying degrees of innate NFC, curiosity is highly influenced by our surroundings.

Questions are crucial. They’re tools through which we learn incredible amounts of information about the world.While asking questions may seem like a very basic ability, it actually requires a few important skills: you have to know that there are things you don’t know, you have to be able to imagine that there are different possibilities for the things you don’t know, and you have to recognize that other people are sources of information. A kid between the ages of 2 and 5 will ask roughly 40,000 explanatory questions. And when kids are spoken to by adults who ask questions themselves, the kids begin to ask more. The moral of that story is that asking kids questions gets them to also ask questions, which helps them not only learn about the world, but also to learn that inquiring about the world is a fruitful behavior.

The Importance of Curiosity

Curiosity fosters innovation. Computers are now smarter than humans at many tasks, but computers aren’t curious. For this reason, Leslie writes:

The truly curious will be increasingly in demand. Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests, who have a strong, intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems, and ask penetrating questions. They may be difficult to manage at times, there individuals, for their interests and enthusiasms can take them along unpredictable paths, and they don’t respond well to being told what to think. But for the most part, they are worth the difficulty.

Why can curious people innovate better than non-curious ones or better than computers? Curious people are “the ones most likely to make creative connections between different fields, of the kind that lead to new ideas.”

Angela Duckworth is well-known for popularizing the concept of grit: “the ability to deal with failure, overcome setbacks, and focus on long-term goals.” Grit has been demonstrated to be an incredible predictor of success in many areas of life. I once heard two professors talking about the most successful grad students as those who have grit, and their conversation plays through my head on a weekly basis, if not more often. Grit and curiosity go hand in hand. If you’re curious, you just keep learning and exploring, even once you’ve learned what you set out to know. If you’re gritty, you just keep going, even when obstacles arise and the goal you’re pursuing becomes more difficult.

To be curious, you have to know things. One way of thinking about curiosity, attributed to George Loewenstein, is that there’s an information gap: you know some things about a topic, and then realize that you don’t know everything, but that you can learn more. This creates an awesome cycle: the more you learn, the more you want to learn.

Hints for Sacks-like Success from On the Move

Oliver Sacks was a neurologist, professor, writer, and role model for many in medicine and other scientific fields. He had a unique ability to view patients in context, a refreshing opposition to the common tendency to treat each symptom in isolation. He wrote prolifically about his patients and what they could teach us about the mind, brain, and body. And his books were widely accessible – no M.D. needed to understand their contents.

When he died recently, many people wrote moving tributes to Dr. Sacks and his life. As I read some of these, I realized that I had read startlingly little of his writing, so I decided to read his memoir, On the Move. Sacks doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda with this book besides to share his life story. We learn about everything that was most important to him – people, places, jobs, and interests. In many ways, this book reminds us that even this revered doctor is still a person like the rest of us. There’s tension in his family, people who criticize his work, and he has his heart broken. At the same time, though, I often found myself thinking, he’s really not just like the rest of us – there’s something special here. I think that many of those unique traits contributed to his success, so I’ve tried to compile a few here.

Oliver Sacks spent a lot of time alone. He writes quite a bit about how much he loved his motorcycles and his time on them. Although this is something he did do with others at times, he refers to himself as a lone rider. Sacks seemed to be at peace with being alone. He writes that “by disposition I am solitary and venture to believe that the best, at least the most creative, part of me is solitary.”

He passionately pursued things that were far from his work. One of these activities was weightlifting. Lifting didn’t seem to be a just hobby for Sacks, but instead became a central part of his life at times. This quote hilariously sums up his commitment: “Rationing myself to five double cheeseburgers and half a dozen milkshakes per evening and training hard, I bulked up swiftly…” He did end up setting a lifting record in the state of California, further proof that this was not a half-hearted diversion for him.

On a related note, he threw himself fully into everything he did – especially his work. When he had a goal, it seems that nothing could stop him from achieving it. “It was the first of September, and I said to myself, ‘If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.’ And under that thread, I started writing.” That’s certainly one approach to getting your writing done on time.

He embraced writing. He explains that “It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing.” Although it seems that he was sometimes able to sit down and write prolifically for hours (at one point he refers to an “explosion of writing”), he also shares his lulls. His book A Leg to Stand On gave him prolonged trouble, taking almost 10 years to complete.

These are not necessarily traits that we can force ourselves to have. Oliver Sacks was a truly unique person who produced insightful and inspiring work. But knowing a little more about the person behind this phenomenal physician and writer may help us to embrace our own oddities and see the ways that they contribute to our unique successes as well.

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