Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The loneliness of making sense

Connect the dots.
Click to enlarge. Source.
Jonah Lehrer in his book “Imagine” introduced me to an interesting study by Beeman and Kounios. They showed, in brief, by using fMRI imaging and EEG measurements of brain activity, that we possess two different modes of problem solving: One dominated by the left half of the brain, and one dominated by the right half of the brain.

The left-brain dominated problem solving is an analytical step-by-step procedure. It goes through the existing knowledge and applies known methods to a problem. Candidates solving a problem by this method have usually a feeling of making progress, of getting closer to a solution.

The right-brain dominated problem solving relies on pattern recognition and associations. It often kicks in after the left-brain method failed. Candidates solving a problem by this method have no feeling of making progress till they suddenly come up with a solution, often accompanied by an “aha-moment.” (Another study showed that brain activity indicates a solution has been found before people became consciously aware of that. The “aha” is produced just above your right ear.)

The problems that were used in this study, verbal puzzles and trick questions and so on, are highly artificial. In real life, most problems require a mixture of both approaches, though some more heavily rely on one or the other. If you are for example adding prices when shopping, that’s a very straight-forward left-brain problem. Figuring out how to fit the twin stroller and two baby seats plus two adults into a Renault Twingo (clearly a misnomer) will take forever if you’d indeed go through all possible options. Now visualize the space, or lack thereof, take off the stroller’s wheels and, aha, the trunk will close. I was very proud of my right brain.

But I am usually addressing problems exactly the way described in Lehrer’s book: First, search through existing knowledge and see if a method is known to solve the problem. If that doesn’t work, I have an intermediate step in which I try to come up with knowledge about where the solution can be found. If that fails too, I’ll try to match the problem to other problems that I know, simplify it, look at limiting cases, rewrite it, iterate, take off the wheels, and so on and so forth.

By and large my pattern searching mechanism seems to be somewhat overactive. It frequently spits out more associations than I’d want to, resulting in what the psychologists call divergent thinking. That, I’m afraid, is very noticeable if you talk to me, as I have the habit of changing topic in the middle of the sentence, making several loops and detours before coming back, if I come back. Needless to say, this makes perfect sense to me. In my experience (watch out, anecdotal evidence) most women have no problem following me. Most men get glassy eyes and either interrupt me, or patiently wait till I’ve made my loops and detours. I know at least one exception to this and, yes, I’m talking about you. So you should have no problem following the connections I’m about to draw from Lehrer’s book to some other books I’ve read recently.

Micheal Nielsen in his book “Reinventing Discovery” preaches that scientists should not only share their knowledge, but also share their ideas that are still under construction. In essence, his point is that our present knowledge is badly connected and has lots of unused potential. You might just have exactly that piece of knowledge that I am missing, but how will you know if I don’t tell you what it is I’m looking for? There are some prominent examples where this crowd-sourcing for knowledge matches has been successful, the Polymath project is often named.

Reading this, introspection reveals I rarely, if ever, blog about research I am working on. It’s not so much that I don’t want to, but that I can’t. I talk of course to my colleagues about what I am working on, people I have known and who have known me for a while. But they usually can’t make much sense of what I’m telling them. Heck, even my husband usually has no clue what I’m trying to say - till he has a finished paper in his hand that is. I mostly talk to them just for the merit of talking, and they know pretty well that their role is primarily to listen. I know this procedure from both sides, it’s quite common and clearly serves a purpose. But that purpose isn't sharing, it's improving the pattern seeking by bouncing loose connections off other people’s frowned foreheads.

Most often the problem I’m plaguing myself with is not the answer to a specific question, but to find a useful way to ask a question to begin with. And the way it feels to me, that’s mostly a right-brain task, a pattern-seeking, sense-making effort; a searching through the bits and pieces from papers and seminars, a matching and mixing, a blending and crossing. Once you have a concrete question, you can get out the toolbox and nail it to the wall, left-brain dominated.

Science needs both finding a question and finding an answer to that question, one can debate to which extent. But these two types of problems don’t communicate the same way. In fact, Sunstein in his book “Infotopia” points out it is very relevant for crowd-sourcing to work well that one has a well-posed question, the solution to which, if it is found, everybody will be able to agree on.

So I am thinking, there are problems we are plaguing ourselves with that we just can’t talk about. They are lonely problems.

Another connection I want to draw is to Michael Chorost’s book “World Wide Mind,” because that piece of information from Lehrer’s book had me realize just why I was so skeptic of the brain-to-brain communication method which is Chorost’s vision for the future.

Chorost suggests in his book to record each person’s pattern of neuronal activity for certain impressions, sights, smells, views, words, emotions and so on, which he calls “cliques.” An implant in your brain will pick up and decode your neural activity into “cliques” and transmit them to trigger the same cliques by somebody else’s implant in that person’s brain, which might have a different neuronal representation of the clique. That is, the cliques are essentially the basic units of brain-to-brain communication.

But what you cannot communicate this way is your brain’s attempt to find patterns in all the cliques. Neither can you, by this method, ever try to find patterns in other people’s cliques. Or, in the words that I used in my earlier post on “collective intelligence,” these are no examples for type-2 collective intelligence, the type in which the intelligence of the collective is not due to a shared and well-connected pool of knowledge, but to shared processes acting on that knowledge.

Finally, let us revisit an argument from Mark Pagel that we discussed recently. Pagel believes, in a nutshell, that we need fewer and fewer inventors because we are constantly improving the way we share ideas. The better we share the ideas we have, the fewer people we need to produce them. But what do we do with the part of the idea seeking that’s unshareable, at least for now? The better we share ideas the fewer similar ideas we need, but that leaves open the question how many people are needed to produce one shareable idea. And, distinguishing the two types of problem solving that we use, sharing doesn’t cut down the amount of necessary pattern seeking per idea. Sharing can improve the repository you search through, but taking into account that the problems are getting more involved too, it is far from clear that we need fewer people per idea.

If you’ve been following along all the way till here, thank you for your patience. If not, good to see you again in the last paragraph and either way, let me just come to the conclusion now. As I argued above, improvements in sharing and connecting ideas don’t work equally well for all types of thought processes. This bears the risk of smothering the lonely and unshareable sense-making, right-brain efforts. Much like a forest with two types of trees that receives a fertilizer which benefits only one type of trees, the shade of larger trees can cut off sunlight to the smaller trees. So I hope your lonely thoughts receive sufficient sunlight, and may you have many aha-moments right above your ear.


  1. I agree more or less. I always thought that the true fundamental degrees of freedom in Nature are men (meaning humans):-)

  2. This frowned forehead says that you've given a very left brain description of the way the left and right brain work (by the way, you have one right where it should be left - "If you are for example adding prices when shopping, that’s a very straight-forward right-brain problem."), it would be very interesting to read the right brain description of how the left and right brain work.

    And agreed, certain thought processes seem inconceivable to share. I also think Mark Pagel is wrong, we don't have an oversupply of good ideas.

  3. Being a right brained person often means existing in a lonely place because it usually means knowing an answer without the ability to communicate how you got there. The biggest problem is that the outsider can't discern the difference between what you are doing from those people that live in a delusional world of their own that are divorced from previously acquired knowledge. I'm sure we all know the type.

    Excuse me for mentioning my ah ha moment. I've kept it to myself for seven years just because I thought people weren't ready for it and would mistake me for a lune. The basic idea is that since the Poynting Vector can be represented as a planar magnetic field during acceleration (not my idea, but others,) then one should treat it explicitly as a magnetic field. In other words since it only relates to acceleration then that means the vacuum energy is a random electromagnetic field in
    nature. When you accelerate you are invoking a planar magnetic field in the vacuum. Again, not original to me.

    My idea is that since a magnetic field is invoked you should treat the quarks in a nucleon as responding to that field like all charges do. It will bring the spin plane of all the quarks in all the nucleons in an object parallel to the vector. Once this occurs the increasing energy of an accelerated particle has to do with it's spin angular momentum. In other words, as each quark spins into this planar magnetic field it cuts across the lines of force and will accelerate it's spin angular
    momentum. That is, the higher energy of an accelerated massive composite particle has to do with with the absorption of photons (mass) in the gluons that results in increased angular momentum.

  4. The part that has kept me from talking about this idea since I introduced in a paper at the Space Technology Applicatioms International Forum in 2005 is because of the implications derived from the idea that the higher kinetic energy is due to angular momentum. If you hold the spin plane of quarks parallel to the plane of the Poynting Vector during acceleration then no lines of force will cut across these lines of force. All the energy driving the impulse of the object would then go into aligning the energy in the vacuum to the constant energy pf the object instead of increasing the energy of the object. That is, you would not be required to carry the increased energy of the object with you and the standard limit of c would not be invoked. At least it wouldn't from other frames.

    All you would need to do is circulate a charge around the object so that it's magnetic field would curl around it in a way that would counteract the planar Poynting Vector. This magnetic field would hold the quark spin plane parallel to this invoked magnetic field. The effect would to create a skidding effect of perfectly aligned and polarized pathways in quantum vacuum and gravity around the accelerated object would not increase.

    The problem, and it's really a problem of emotions that this idea invokes, is the similarity to standard flying saucers. Is it possible they really exist? One can understand physics but some ideas are just beyond the pale to most people, even if they make sense from extending the current knowledge in physics. People are basically afraid and can be irrational about these things.

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  6. "My idea is that since a magnetic field is invoked you should treat the quarks in a nucleon as responding to that field like all charges do. It will bring the spin plane of all the quarks in all the nucleons in an object parallel to the vector. "

    Sorry to be confusing in my first post. It will bring the spin plane parallel to the acceleration vector, not the Poynting Vector.

    We now return to your regularly scheduled program. Please treat this message as if it never existed. (if you can)

  7. I am once again reminded of Einstein's surprising comment:

    "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

    Roughly speaking, the rational/intuitive distinction corresponds to the left/right distinction in thinking.

    Not only is the quest for pattern recognition solutions a lonely one, there is also the problem that no one believes you when you succeed because they judge the results according to the rational criteria of the prevailing worldview.

    Two cases in point might be the strong initial rejection of Mitchell Feigenbaum's work in chaotic systems, and the gauntlet of negativity that Mandelbrot faced before he overcame the resistance to fractal geometry in nature.

    Come to think of it, there was vigorous and angry resistance to virtually every major right brain discovery throughout the history of science, and yet these discoveries are the ones that lead science out of deep ruts and cul de sacs.

    Same as it ever was.

    Discrete Scale Relativity

  8. Hi Arun,

    Thanks, I've fixed the typo. And, yes, good point, it is questionable actually that the separation is as neat as this classification suggests. They it is intriguing that studies of patients with brain damage suggests that the left and right half operate indeed pretty much autonomous. Which makes me wonder what Plato would have to say about his.

    In any case, the way I understand it Pagel doesn't actually say we have an oversupply of ideas, but that we would have one if we would continue to produce ideas at the same rate. Since we adapt to the demand however, we just produce less, and instead become better at copying others' ideas. Be that as it may, I think he has oversimplified the question so much that his argument is just wrong, seeing that in his argument all ideas are basically the same, random products of your brain, regardless of their complexity. Best,


  9. Hi Robert,

    I am not sure actually that Einstein's remark still applies to today's societies. Do you really think our societies "honor" rationality? Best,


  10. Hi Bee,

    Certainly a thought provoking piece, which had me looking around for connections myself to have it all crystallize into a coherent thought. However I see Robert has already expressed it for the most part with his quoting of Einstein. That is for scientists and one could argue many others the left brain being the place where much of what they recognize as science exists and the right is the place of philosophy. The lonely place however I would argue is that space that no one has as of yet seemed been able to pin down, with that being where the conscious resides as this is the place which cares.

    “A scientist, an artist, a citizen is not like a child who needs papa methodology and mama rationality to give him security and direction, he can take care of himself, for he is the inventor not only of laws, theories, pictures, plays, forms of music, ways of dealing with his fellow man, institutions, but also entire world view, he is the inventor of entire forms of like.”

    -Paul Feyerabend, “Science in a Free Society” p.38



  11. Speaking only of the field of physics, I can unequivocally claim that credulous trust in analytical thinking and mistrust in intuitive thinking are widespead and dominant today. Some of this is quite justified, but some is not.

    Maybe Einstein was thinking of the "shut up and calculate" attitude, and/or Bohr's assumption that we cannot realy know how nature works, but only how to Platonically model empirical results. Einstein rejected both of these attitudes.

    I would definitely agree that for most humans and most human activities, rational thought takes a back seat to emotional blundering.

    Fractal Cosmology

  12. "By and large my pattern searching mechanism seems to be somewhat overactive. It frequently spits out more associations than I’d want to, resulting in what the psychologists call divergent thinking."

    You mean something like this?


  13. Favoring tall canopy shades smaller trees to death, opening niches for saprophytes. Death-eaters are winners, for who dares disdain advocacy?

    Two geometric parity Eotvos experiments. Test spacetime geometry with orthogonal matter geometries. Results are unaccceptable both ways. Enjoy the shade.

  14. Hi Bee,
    I made several mistakes in referencing the Poynting Vector. Chalk it up to not not looking at my notes in years. The PV vector would be collinear with any acceleration vector of an charge. It represents the cross product of the magnetic and electric field. Since in a vacuum objects only have resistance to acceleration many people, myself included, think that the resistance to acceleration, I.e. Inertia, can be viewed as charge encountering a magnetic field invoked from the electromagnetic quantum vacuum.

    The fact that energy in the form of photons is released when two opposing accelerated objects collide seems to corroborate the fact that photons are taken up from the quantum vacuum during acceleration. It would also give circumstantial evidence that gravity around accelerated objects is due to a reduction in electromagnetic pressure around objects that have removed energy from that electromagnetic random field. This fact would require though that the energy of combined matter and the field is finite. Otherwise no deficit in pressure would occur around a highly accelerated object.

  15. /*..even my husband usually has no clue what I’m trying to say - till he has a finished paper in his hand that is..*/

    It's not surprising, because contemporary physicists don't actually understand their stuffs. What they're doing is similar to programming: the mechanical combinations of known equations and finding their common solutions is what makes the contemporary physics. How do you want to explain the computer program, until it doesn't work and generates no meaningfull output? Therefore their work has no meaning, until this program is not complete.

    The understanding is just the ability to describe the solution with another (more general) way, than with the solution itself. It requires higher level of abstraction, than the formal math.

  16. /*..we need fewer and fewer inventors because we are constantly improving the way we share ideas...*/

    Do we? IMO the people have problem with sharing information the more, the larger pile of information they're sharing. They're overflooded with informations and as the result, the modern people are more religious, then the people of medieval era. They've simply no time, no mental capacity to understand the meaning of all these informations. The abstract character of contemporary science (physics in particular) doesn't help such an understanding at least a bit. Best of all, when someone brings a new idea, it's simply censored and banned: the people don't want listen, but to be listened.

  17. Hi Robert,

    I don't share your impression. Physicists have always relied on their intuition, thereby often cutting short mathematical proof which was only later to follow. Yau and Nadis' recent book on the connection between string theory and mathematics delivers a bunch of examples for this. This is so well known that it's like a standard complaint among mathematical physicists (who are usually part of the department of mathematics, not physics) that physicists are "sloppy", meaning they often rely on plausibility arguments that come from physical intuition. These arguments are typically expectations about the behavior of certain quantities that you couldn't know if you wouldn't use a physical interpretation. Best,


  18. Quantum gravitist Carlo Rovelli: Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking.

    Unfortunately, the more reliable theory is, the more fuzzy it becomes in its predictions. Such a theory is right at 99% situation, but only to 55%. Whereas the very exact theories are of narrow validity scope.

  19. Bee,
    I think your example of Yau and Nadis' book is a particularly poor example of mathematical intuition.
    Basically the whole Calibi Yau manifold is based on "another" mathematical abstraction, that space must have 10 or 11 dimensions that has never been proven. It would be one thing to have proven that there certifiably is that many dimensions in the physical world, but it is total supposition. Also, if the variety of Calbi Yau manifolds were constrained to only that nimbler of physical models we see in the universe it would then be convincing. As it is it is not convincing in the slightest as an example of physical intuition. It seems more like just another example of mathematical physics that is completely divorced from physical reality.

    What are you thinking when you say such things? I often think you are the most left brained person I know of but that you don't know yourself. Not that there is anything wrong with left brained people. It is just that they should know where there expertise lies, otherwise they will lead themselves and others astray.

    I don't in anyway claim to be a good sequential thinker, that is, left brain thinking is not at all my forte. I would almost consider it be megalomaniacal to claim that I was. Why then do so many people who really have no claim whatsoever on right brain thinking then think that they are good at it?

  20. Hi Eric,

    Your comment makes me think you probably didn't read Yau and Nadis' book. There have been several mathematical theorems that were anticipated by physicists before they could be rigorously proved, for details see the book. Whether or not Calabi-Yau manifolds have some relevance for the description of nature is irrelevant for the point I was making in reply to Robert was just that his impression that physicists do not rely on their intuition is imo not accurate.

    "What are you thinking when you say such things? I often think you are the most left brained person I know of but that you don't know yourself."

    Well, to begin with you're confusing me with my blog as I can't recall we have ever met. It is also astonishing you believe that you know me better than I know myself, and that from reading the occasional paragraph that I produce. But more important, there's no such thing as left-brained or right-brained people. Unless you speak of the unfortunate group of people with an actual brain damage. We all normally use both parts of our brain, and we all use left-brain and right-brain dominated processes under normal circumstances.

    Which one you use more is to some extend simply a matter of the type of problems you are faced with, or are facing yourself with. It is also a question of habit or practice. I don't know if it is known to which extend it's a physical predesposition, but I haven't come across evidence for this. It is known that you can enhance or damp some types of brain activity with certain drugs, hormones, or sleep deprivation.



  21. Hi Bee,
    It is true I wasn't able to finish more than a quarter of the book. Nothing grabbed me about it before that point so i quit reading. I just have the feeling nobody would give much credit for any peripheral insights that might be in the book without the overarching importance of Calibi Yau manifolds in string theory. So it just wasn't enough to hold me and he did not come off to me as a particularly physically insightful person in the book.

    It is true that I haven't met you personally. Perhaps sometime in the future that can be remedied, but it would most likely have to happen accidentally as I'm somewhat reclusive in lifestyle. Like everyone, I can only go by the impressions from the evidence I'm presented with and it may be far from complete without having met you in person. So i could be wrong but I'm only going by the evidence I'm presented with. Don't get me wrong. I think you are very gifted in your analytical skills. You have abilities in many areas way beyond what I would be capable of. But I see gaps...

    Also, you are right that no one is completely right or left brained but I think you were right in the premise of your post that we all have predispositions that put us a little to one side or the other. I consider myself a bit extreme on the right side and I've gotten a lot of corroborating confirmation from annoyed family members, so you may be somewhat predisposed to be right brained and you might seem to me to be leftbrained from my own vantage point. YMMV.


  22. Hi Eric,

    Well, the whole point of this post was to explain that there are aspects of the way we think that do not communicate well. So maybe you might want to take this into account when you try to assess the way I express myself in writing. Also, you're right in that Yau and Nadis' book isn't particularly grabbing. Best,


  23. Yes, I get your point. Your English writing ability is impeccable, better than 95% probably of native English speakers. But it is still a second language to you. Some of the ideas you want to communicate would have to be limited by not being a native speaker. Actually, your writing ability in English is so good it doesn't even seem like like a non-native speaker so you might be judged by me on some things more harshly than you deserve.



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