Archive for the ‘Cognition’ Category

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

July 4, 2005

I just finished listening to an audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Overall it was pretty mixed in its content, but what was good was really, really good.

One story he repeatedly shared—the book is a collection of individual essays and documents from Feynman’s life so it’s replete with repetition—is about the walks through the woods that he used to take as a child with his father, a uniform salesman. Other boys in his peer group would ask him if he knew what some bird or tree was called and mock him when he didn’t know because their fathers taught them such things. The difference was that his father taught him that knowing what something is named tells you absolutely nothing about the thing itself, only what words humans use to refer to it.

His father would ask him how a squirrel moves and Feynman (the child) would reply that it was by using his muscles. His father would say, “Nope, it’s because the sun shines.” Feynman would look at him quizzically and his father would then ask a series of questions that delved deeper into each succeeding premise until the ultimate cause was clearly that the sun was shining. His father had no scientific training, but he wanted his son to become a scientist. (I must confess now that I may have gotten the specifics of this story—and any others I relate—incorrect since I can’t readily go back and verify my memory. I do, however, know the gist of them.)

On another walk, they were really studying trees and Feynman’s father told him that on all these walks they had really only gotten to know half of the forest’s workings. Feynman was again curious and his father pointed out that they had been focusing solely on living things. Death was an important process in the forest and so he proceeded to search for evidence of chains starting with things dying. They found rotting trees, animal carcasses, and so on.

The last story about the interaction between the Feynmans that struck me was how Feynman’s father used to tell him bedtime stories from different perspectives and Feynman the child had to guess who his father was using. Sometimes it might be a Martian, other times it was a bug in the carpet. Feynman related that these stories exerted a powerful influence on him at the time because they seemed so vivid as his father described the world as viewed from an ant’s perspective.

These stories (and there were many more that I enjoyed) illustrated the power of showing rather than telling. Feynman’s father could have delivered extensive tales of biological processes or everyday bedtime stories. Instead, he took the opportunity to present lessons—in stepping out of your own way of looking at things, in looking beyond the obvious workings of our world, in getting to the root causes of the way things are. He did it through means a child could understand, which made it accessible.

The main thing that Feynman says his father instilled in him was that the world was full of wonder. This curiosity manifested itself in his interest in physics, but it could also show up in his forays into psychology and his generally skeptical manner. He emphasized that curiosity was its own reward.

These are the things I want for my children, things that I have enjoyed throughout my life. I hope that I can do it in a similarly inspiring fashion, rather than a clumsy, lecturing style that turns them off. Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is an excellent source for the former and well worth it for any parent who desires the same.


Seeing Without Seeing

February 3, 2005

This story about a blind painter who gets surprisingly close to reality is astounding. He paints shadows, gets perspective right, and paints animals that he could never have seen.

The one thing I am most curious about is how prevalent such a capability is among the blind. As the article notes, artistic ability is not fostered or developed in blind children like this guy was. If it is common (though unrefined due to lack of encouragement), then sight may not be as vital as I thought.

I would also be interested in this guy’s background. He might have learned about shadows and perspective through books about art and painting. A lot of nature guides are quite descriptive about their subjects. Still, though, the nature of concepts is that you acquire the referents from reality and the language of such descriptions is inevitably couched in visual terms.

On Languages

August 12, 2004

My earlier entry got me to thinking about language in general. Learning a new language is extremely difficult for adults because it requires a completely new vocabulary; kids don’t have as deep or broad a vocabulary so it is quite a bit easier for them to pick new languages up.

Learning a new language is made more difficult when the base alphabet is different (as in Cyrillic), still more when the grammar is different as well. The most difficult languages for Westerners to learn are Chinese and Japanese because they not only have a different vocabulary, alphabet, and grammar, they have a completely different notion of language. As I understand it, each character in those languages is a word. This is fundamentally alien to the Western phonetic languages.

This is analogous to programming languages. It is fairly easy to pick up programming languages whose only difference is in their grammars (like Java, C#, and Python), harder to learn languages where the vocabulary is all new (like assembly or Applescript), and harder still to master languages where the base alphabet, grammer, and vocabulary are different (like machine language).

After my experience in C#, I could probably move right into programming Java but I would have a hard time getting into assembly. The idiom and concepts are just too foreign. I wonder if there is an analogue here for the inverse ratio between age and ease of natural language acquisition.

Commercial Trompe l’Oeil

June 4, 2004

Two new commercials developments in technology and visual cognition debuted recently: Nokia’s Wave Messaging {via} and subway ads in Japan {via}. Both rely on visual tricks to display information in unique ways. I particularly like the elegance and utility of the latter, since subway tunnels are underused and the ads rely solely on the subway’s motion for the effect.

The Unseen

May 8, 2004

This could have been a post over on Found on the Web, but it seemed generally interesting:

Watch this video and count the number of times the people in white shirts pass the basketball. I promise this isn’t any sort of disgusting trick (i.e., no goatse). Now watch it again without counting anything, just watch it straight through. Did you notice anything different?

I sure did. I can’t believe I didn’t spot the object the first time. I wonder whether it shows the blindness towards things not focused on or the power of distraction. In the former case, it’s pretty clear that when you focus on a specific item or activity much of the other objects or activities go unnoticed. In the latter case, there are so many elements in motion that it’s easy to miss something unusual. Moreover, you have to wonder whether such a visual omission would have occurred if you were actually watching in person rather than in a postage-stamp-sized video clip. I don’t think you would.

In conclusion, interesting demonstration but probably too muddled experimentally to be of any cognitive value.