Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink"

I like Malcolm Gladwell's stuff - it's always thought-provoking. He's most famous of course for The Tipping Point but he also has a whole lot of essays on his website that are worth reading. He has a recent article in the New Yorker about plagiarism and copyright that is well worth reading. Also on his website are excerpts from his upcoming book Blink which certainly seems like it'll be a worthwhile buy.

From "The Second Mind":
[Gladwell describes a psychological experiment]...right around the time their palms started sweating, their behavior began to change as well. They started favoring the good decks, and taking fewer and fewer cards from A and B. In other words, the gamblers figured the game out before they figured the game out: they began making the necessary adjustments long before they were consciously aware of what adjustments they were supposed to be making.


...our brain uses two very different strategies to make sense of the situation. The first is the one we're most familiar with. It's the conscious strategy. We think about what we've learned, and eventually come up with an answer. This strategy is logical and definitive. But it takes us eighty cards to get there. It's slow. It needs a lot of information. There's a second strategy, though. It operates a lot more quickly. It starts to kick in after ten cards, and it's really smart because it picks up the problem with the red decks almost immediately. It has the drawback, however, that it operates--at least at first--entirely below the surface of consciousness. It sends its messages through weirdly indirect channels, like the sweat glands on the palms of our hands. It's a system in which our brain reaches conclusions without immediately telling us that it's reaching conclusions.
This sounds interesting because of its potential relationship to language acquisition. After all, a lot of language acquisition is done subconsciously - the vast majority of us never formalize our knowledge of, say, the phonotactics of our mother tongue or the syntactic rules of agreement. When asked to explain why I thought a certain construction was ungrammatical when I was little, I would just shrug and say "It sounds wrong" (this was in an English class where not everyone was a native speaker of English - that's how it is in Singapore). The knowledge is there but it's subconscious. And moreover our brains acquire this language with what seems like insufficient evidence - the classic "poverty of the stimulus". But what if we actually need very little information to construct theories of grammar on a subconscious level? Even if our "logical" brains would be unable to derive the rules of syntax based on what evidence was presented to us in the first five years of life, perhaps this subconscious level of learning just takes what it gets and manages to produce something approaching the correct answer anyway.

All this is just speculation, of course, and there are probably serious problems with the comparison. Not least that, in all probability, this subconscious level of reasoning is something that belongs to most species, while the conscious level is what sets humans apart. (On the other hand, it could be that we're just better at the subconscious reasoning, and therefore we have language, and therefore we can reason at the conscious level...but I'm starting to get out of my depth here.) The excerpt just got me thinking, which of course is why I like reading Gladwell's work in the first place. I encourage you to go take a gander at this excerpt in particular and then wander around his website a little. You're bound to find plenty of food for thought.


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