Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Wegner’

Head In The Cloud

November 18, 2016

“Head In The Cloud” is an important book by William Poundstone.  The subtitle is “Why Knowing Things Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up.”  Psychologists make the distinction between information that is accessible in memory and information that is available in memory.  Information that you can easily recall is obviously accessible in memory.  However, there is other information that you might not be able to recall now, but that you know that you know it.  This information eventually becomes accessible and can appear suddenly unsummoned in consciousness.

Transactive memory refers to information you can get from our fellow humans or from technology.  Most information available in technology can readily be summoned via Google searches.  An extreme view argues that since all this information is available, we do not need to remember the information itself as long as we know how to search for the information.  Whenever we encounter new information we are confronted with the question as to whether we need to commit this information to our biological memory.  This is a nontrivial question as committing information to memory requires cognitive effort, thinking, or in terms of Kahneman’s Two Process Theory, engaging our System 2 processes.  The healthy memory blog  has a category devoted to mnemonic techniques explicitly designed to assist in memorizing information as well as other discussions regarding how to make information memorable.  But all of this involves effort, so why bother if it can simply be looked up?  “Head in the Cloud” explains the benefits of moving some information from the cloud into our brains.

Poundstone describes an experiment done in 2011 by Daniel Wegner.  He presented volunteers with a list of forty trivia facts—short, pithy statement such as “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain.”  Half of the volunteers were told to remember the facts.  The other half were not.  Within each of these groups half were informed that their work would be stored on the computer, and half were told that their work would be immediately erased after the task’s completion.    All these volunteers were later given a quiz on the facts they typed.  It did not matter whether they had been instructed to remember the information or not.  It only mattered if they thought their work was going to be erased after the task.  These volunteers remembered more regardless of whether they were told to remember the information.

The following is directly from the text “It is impossible to remember everything.  The brain must constantly be doing triage on memories, without conscious intervention.  And apparently it recognizes that there is less need to stock our minds with information that can be readily retrieved.  So facts are more often forgotten when people believe the facts will be archived.  This phenomenon has earned a name—the Google effect—describing the automatic forgetting of information that can be found online.”

HM does not disagree with any of the above quote.  However, he is alarmed by what is omitted.  That omission regards a conscious decision as to whether the information should be further processed to increase its accessibility without technology and whether it is related to other information that might require further research.  It is true that we are time constrained, so that depending on the situation the time available for such consideration will be important.  But as Poundstone will show, it is important to get some information out of the cloud and into the brain, and we can consciously alter the processing we give to the retrieved information.  Sans attention, it will likely remain in the cloud.

Poundstone reports an enormous amount of research conducted by a new type of polling called an Internet panel survey.  These are conducted by an organization that has recruited a large group of subjects (the panel)  who agree to participate in surveys.  When a new survey begins, the software selects a random sample of the panel to contact.  E-mails containing links are sent to the selected participants, typically in several waves to achieve a demographic balance closely approximating the general populations.  The sample can be balance for sex, age, ethnicity, education, income, and other demographic markers of interest to the research project.

A prior healthy memory blog post appropriately titled “The Dunning-Kruger Effect” discusses the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  Dunning is a psychology professor and Kruger was a graduate student.  The effect is that “Those most lacking in knowledge and skills are least able to understand their lack of knowledge.”  The flip-side of this effect is that those most knowledgeable are most aware of any holes in their knowledge.

“Actor John Cleese concisely explains the Dunning-Kruger effect in a much-shared You Tube video:  ‘If you’re very, very stupid how can you possibly realize that you’re very, very stupid?  You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are…And this explains not just Hollywood but almost the entirety of Fox News’”

The chaos and contradictions of the current political environment can perhaps best be characterized as a glaring example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Just a few moments of contemplation should reveal the potential danger from this effect.  Poundstone’s book reveals the glaring lack of knowledge in many important areas by too many individuals.  He also provides ample evidence of the benefits of moving certain information from the cloud and into our brains.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



The Mind Club

May 9, 2016

The title of this post is the title of an interesting and provocative book by Daniel M. Wegner and Kurt Gray.  The subtitle of the book is “Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters.”  Dr.Wegner is the creator of the concept of Transactive Memory, which is one of the categories of the Healthymemory Blog.  Transactive memory refers to memories of our fellow human beings and to information held in technology.  This information can be stored in paper or digitally.  I have been an admirer of most of Dr. Wegner’s work, so news of his death was quite disturbing.  He died of ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  This degenerative disease slowly destroyed his ability to walk, to stand, to move, to talk, to eat, and eventually to breathe.  Dr. Wegner had only begun writing this book when he was diagnosed.  He asked his graduate student, Kurt Gray, to finish the work.  Fortunately he did a highly credible job.  Should you find these topics to be especially interesting, it is strongly recommended that you read the original book.

The mind is a difficult concept.  We only have direct access to our own minds, and even then only a small percentage of our mind (see the healthy memory blog post “Strangers to Ourselves”) So we need to develop models of the minds of our fellow humans.  And as there are different types of humans we need to develop models of these different types.  Then there are animals, and many different species of animals.  There are machines.  The different types of minds were developed on the basis of a large scale survey regarding how people thought about other minds.   Analyses of these data found that people see minds in terms of two fundamentally factors, sets of mental abilities that were labeled experience and agency.  Quotes from “The Mind Club” follow:

“The experience factors captures the ability to have an inner life, to have feeling experiences.  It includes the capacities for hunger, fear, pain, pleasure, rage, and desire, as well as personal consciousness, pride, embarrassment, and  joy.  These facets of mind seemed to capture “what it is like” to have a mind—what psychologists and philosophers often talk about when they discuss the puzzle of consciousness.”

“The agency factor is composed of a different set of mental abilities:  self-control, morality, memory, emotion recognition, planning, communication and thought.  The theme for these capacities is not sensing and feeling, but rather thinking and doing.  The agency factor is made up of the mental abilities that underlie our competence, intelligence, and action.  Minds show their agency when they act and accomplish goals.”

Healthy memory apologizes for being so cryptic.  The meaning should emerges as each type of mind is discussed.  Nine types of mind will be discussed.  The first six types of minds are well discussed.  The last three are seriously flawed.  All this follows in the subsequent healthy memory blogs.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Thought Suppression

August 17, 2011

The title of Daniel Wegner‘s Invited Address for receiving the 2011 Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award at the APA meeting was “Setting Free the Bears: Escape from Thought Suppression.” The title of the address comes from a challenge by the novelist Dostoevsky to try not to think of three bears. This is very difficult to do except for a very short period of time. Although this is a challenging mind game, it relates to the more serious psychological problem of trying not to think unwanted thoughts. Wegner’s Ironic Process Theory provides an explanation of why this is so difficult to do. According to Ironic Process Theory there are two opposing mechanisms at work. The first process unconsciously and automatically monitors for occurrences of the unwanted thought. The second is the conscious operating process. When there is an increase in the cognitive load with which your mind is dealing, your unconscious monitoring process supplants your conscious operating process and the unwanted thought becomes conscious.

Most regard the Ironic Process Theory as providing a good theoretical explanation of the phenemonon. But the obvious question is, what can be done about it. Wegner presented a detailed and thorough discussion of possible remedies for thought suppression. But the remedy that he personally found most effective, and the one that I think is most effective, I shall call meditative breathing. This involves trying to focus on one’s breathing to the exclusion of all extraneous, intruding thoughts. Doing this for five to ten minutes can be effective although proficient meditators can do this for many hours.

The general benefits of this type of meditation go far beyond thought suppression. More information can be found in the following Healthymemory Blog Posts: “The Relaxation Response,” “Does Meditation Promote a Healthy Memory?” “Continuing to Be Positive After Thanksgiving,” and “Costly Gadgets or Software Not Required for a Healthy Memory.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Joy of Theorizing

June 19, 2011

“The Joy of Theorizing’ was the title of Daniel Wegner‘s William James Fellow Award Address, which he presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). Wegner’s forte is developing theories and, as the title implies, he enjoys it. He has developed four theories of note. Action Identification is a theory of what people think they are doing. Ironic Process Theory is a theory about how our minds turn against us to produce unwanted thoughts. Apparent Mental Causation is a theory of how our minds create the feeling of conscious thought. Clearly Wegner’s thinking on this topic is at odds with Michael Gazzaniga‘s (See the Healthymemory Blog Post “We Are the Law: The Human Mind, Free Will, and the Limits of Determinism”). In my view his most valuable is his theory of transactive memory.

It should not be a surprise that transactive memory is my favorite theory as it is one of the healthymemory blog categories. Wegner proposed two types of transactive memory. One type refers to external technical storage (note pads, books, journals, computer files, the internet, etc.) The other type refers to our fellow humans. Now both types of transactive memory are important, and the healthymemory blog discusses both types. But it is only the second type of transactive memory, fellow humans, that he has developed. Moreover, this is the only type of transactive that has received attention from other researchers.

I have taken it upon myself to develop the former concept of transactive memory as I think it is an important concept, particularly in our technological age. Historically, technical transactive memory has undergone several stages. One of the first steps was the development of the alphabet. Few people realize that Socrates  fought against the development and adoption of the Greek alphabet. For Socrates, it was only human transactive memory that mattered, and the reliance upon this external crutch would depreciate human transactive memory. Socrates was wrong about this, as external storage allowed the advancement of the human intellect to new levels. The printing press was another technical development that caused a major leap in transactive memory and the enhancement of the collective human intellect. Today we have the internet which comprises yet another major leap in transactive memory.

I think it worthwhile to distinguish different types of transactive memory. Accessible transactive memory refers to information that we cannot recall, but know how to find quickly. This information can be resident in other humans, in a library, or in cyberspace, but we can access it quickly. Available transactive memory refers to information that we know exists, but cannot find it quickly. So we need to find someone who know the information, or search for it via technical means or on the internet.

Whenever we encounter new information we need to decide is this worth knowing. If it is, then we need to decide whether to commit it to memory or to some form of external storage. Bookmarking, or Favorites, provide a means of making this information accessible if we do not need to remember it. If we don’t take these actions, then we are confronted with the possibility of knowing the information exists, but being unable to find it so we have to search for it.

Potential transactive memory refers to all the information and knowledge resident in other humans or available in some technical storage medium. I term it potential as this information offers the potential for cognitive and social  growth.

I have been disappointed that Wegner never developed his concept of technical transactive memory. I have also wondered why he did not develop what I regard as a valuable concept. Now I think I understand. Wegner’s strength lies in his breadth of theorizing, not in its depth. He prefers moving on to new areas rather than mining further the brilliant concepts he has developed.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.