Monday, April 28, 2014

Write-In: Can we have goals independent of our environment?

Hello Dr. Davies,

   I am currently working on my bachelor degree in psychology, and I am in
learning and cognition.  I found my way to your articles, due to my needing
to find an answer to choice and mental processes.  I tend to side with the
behaviorist view that experience and memory play a huge role in our power of
choice, but I am looking for an answer to the thinking about thinking
dilemma.  Thorndike seems to have had a huge influence on my concept of
mental processes, as well as Hebb, Skinner, and Alder.  I guess I am looking
for someone, who can tell me that we have higher mental processes that are
free of environmental stimuli and memory, which we can form our choices
randomly.  Am I looking for some pie in the sky?  Can you offer me some
direction, because I ultimately want to believe that we can master our
Universe through the power of our mind.  In other words, we can direct our
lives in accordance with our dreams and our goals, instead of being subject
to environmental stimuli.

My response: 

For the most part psychologists don't think that we have any goals that are not products of either our environment, our genes, or some combination. However, there are goals we didn't learn, such as the goal to eat, sleep, etc. But from your letter it sounds like what you're interested in aren't evolved goals, but goals that are chosen deliberately. In those cases I think all goals are still a product of evolution and environment, but they interact in such complex ways that individuals can have very interesting, even strange goals that appear to be, and feel, very idiosyncratic. 

So, for example, someone might have a dream to create a play that captures the feeling of social ostracism in a foreign country. This is individual and interesting, but there's no way a desire to make a play is free from the environment--she had to have heard of a play in the first place. And so on.

So to answer your specific questions, we can form choices randomly--we could use coin flips. We can direct our lives in accordance with our dreams and goals, and I think that's great, but to ask that they be independent of our environment is impossible--and not even preferable. In fact, you probably realize that your desire to be able to master your own world is a product, in part, of the education and experience you've had talking to people and reading.

Pictured: Fishermen in Mexico. From Wikimedia Commons.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

How Many Papers Should I Review For This Conference?

My field's main conference is the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, or, as it's commonly called, "Cognitive Science." People submit 6-page papers. Each one needs to be reviewed by three people for a decision to be made. It's a part of a scholar's civic duty to review papers. It's natural to review papers for the conferences you submit to. But how many should you agree to review?

One way to think about it is that you should be pulling your weight, and not taking advantage of the system. So if every paper needs three reviewers, then maybe you should agree to review 3 papers for every one you submit.

There are two things wrong with this simple calculation--not all papers are single authored. If you're submitting a paper with 6 authors, maybe the pain should be spread out a bit.

The other factor is that there are freeloaders out there, and you might want to do your part to make up for them.

So what I do is say I'm going to review 5 papers for every one I submit. But this is divided by the number of authors I have on each paper-- so it's 5/n for each paper, where n is the number of authors per paper.

This summer Cognitive Science is in Quebec City. Nice and close! So my laboratory is submitting lots of papers. For papers with my name on it got two I'm the sole author on, three with two authors, and one with 6 authors.

So I'm going to review (5/1) + (5/1) + (5/6) + (3 * (5/2)) papers this summer. That's 18.33.

That's a lot of papers, but it's proportional to the amount of work I'm putting on everybody else in the community, so I'm doing my fair share.

It's easy to calculate using

Pictured: A charolais in Venezuela. From Wikimedia Commons.

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book Round-Up 2013

Below are the books I read in 2013.

Near the end of the year I started using which is great. For a yearly subscription, I get credit for one book per month, for $10 per month, cheaper than most audio books. And I get through about a book a month. Between that and podcasts I have lots to listen to.

I didn't get audible for a long time because I bike and I didn't want to bike with headphones. I found I didn't have much time to listen to books. But my beloved got a Bose bluetooth headset for Christmas. It can be used like most, but also can be used as a normal headphone. So now I can listen to books while I bike. It's only in one ear, so I can hear traffic and get that important situational awareness. The fact that it's bluetooth is great because I don't have lots of cords getting caught up in everything. This was especially a problem in the winter, with a coat, scarf, facemask, hat, etc. The bluetooth makes it so nice.

Anyway, happy reading! If you want to see my complete list of books read, see my webpage for it:

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (audible)
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam M. Grant (audible)
Blood Rock: Book Two of the Skindancer series by Anthony Francis
The Player of Games by Ian M. Banks
Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion by Scott Atran
Gone Girl*** by Gillian Flynn
The Ragged Astronauts by Bob Shaw
Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey
Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett
A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd
Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Anyone Can Cook? How the Film "Ratatouille" Undermines Its Own Message

In the charming Pixar film Ratatouille, a rat named Remy is inspired by a famous cook who says that "anyone can cook." In the end, the rat is vindicated, and becomes the chef at a French restaurant. 

The story evokes the American value that with hard work even someone from a lower class can achieve greatness. The theme of the film, "anyone can cook," resonates when even a rat, with sufficient ambition and wiles, can make it big. 

What most people ignore about the film, though, is the complete inability of the other main character, Alfredo, to learn to cook, in spite of having the same ambition, and, indeed, extensive exposure to good cooking practices. 

In the story, Remy secretly uses Alfredo as a puppet to cook (see the picture). In this way Remy's cooking gains acceptance--nobody would give a rat the same chances they'd give a human. But even by the end of the movie, Alfredo is incapable of making a decent meal on his own. 

What's the difference between Alfredo and Remy? It appears to be some kind of in-born talent, which is at odds with the theme of the film. 

Anyone can cook. Except you, Alfredo. You just don't have the right stuff. 

Pictured: A screenshot from the trailer. From Wikipedia.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Publishing with Nautilus Magazine

I've been busy editing my book, Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One With the Universe, which comes out August 5, 2014. As such I've missed some announcements concerning my publications in a new science magazine, Nautilus.

When I sold my book to Palgrave MacMillan, my editor there, Luba Ostashevsky, championed my proposal. But then she left to help start Nautilus. My agent said that losing your editor is a rite of passage in publishing; it just happened to me early.

Luckily for me, the publisher still wanted the book, and I got a new editor, and also luckily, my old editor Luba wanted me to write for Nautilus. I've developed a good relationship with her and their blog editor, Amos Zeeberg. I've published several articles and one short story with Nautilus, and hope to publish more in the future. It's a great magazine, kind of like Omni was back in the 1980s, and trying to be the New Yorker of science. Check it out at

Here are my hyperlinked Nautilus publications:

Davies, J. (2013). So Human, So Beautiful. Nautilus December 11 blog entry.

Davies, J. (2013). Iron curtain of the mind—Our tangles thoughts on geography. Nautilus December 6 blog entry.

Davies, J. (2013). Education Is a Waste of Effort—But It Doesn’t Have to Be. Nautilus November 26 blog entry.

Davies, J. (2013). Informal Assessment and Asking Questions in Class. Guest blog post on the Carleton University Educational Development Blog. October 28.

Davies, J. (2013). Fame is a magnet that reveals our weak hold on realityNautilus, September 5 blog entry.

Davies, J. (2013). Why people get lost in good books. Nautilus July 15 blog entry.

July 16 blog entry.

Other Links:

Pictured: A nautilus, from Wikimedia Commons

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

My Professional Blog Entry on Nautilus: Don't Waste Student Work

I have published a blog entry for the great new science magazine, Nautilus. It's based on my teaching philosophy.

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Monday, September 09, 2013

Advice for Students: Radio Interview

I am back to school after a sabbatical year, and I was interviewed by the wonderful Meg Wilcox on CBC on advice from cognitive science on how to best get through school.

You can hear it here:
(4 minutes and 12 seconds.)

Pictured: management students. From Wikimedia Commons.
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