Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

I absolutely love catching a glimpse of the brain in action, sneaking up on it actually doing one of those things we take for granted most of the time. Thinking, joking, jumping to conclusions, making connections…

A couple of weeks ago I caught it taking a short-cut. I was reading about the German E-coli outbreak in the online edition of the Guardian, and my eye glanced at the right-hand column which shows the most-read stories of the 24-hour period. I could have sworn I saw an article entitled “deadly tomatoes hit Massachusetts”.

Hurrying over to read the story, I found mere ordinary tornadoes. Which would probably have occurred to me first, had I not been softened up by fatal fruit and veg on the other side of the screen. Oddly, I just checked, and I’m still reading ‘tomatoes’ for ‘tornadoes’ when I do a Google search on that story.

So to today. This morning I read on the BBC site about a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh that has now been identified as probably in fact a painting of his brother Theo. Here they both are:

My brain went on processing the images, clearly, long after I’d moved on to other tasks. Later in the day, I decided to catch up with what was happening at Wimbledon, and I have to say, I was pretty surprised to see Vincent sitting in the crowd.

Or maybe it was Theo. The jury’s out. The outfit definitely looks like Vincent’s, but the coloring is more Theo, and I’m not sure about the ear…

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That’s not-my-cat, sleeping on the sofa, looking as if he were at home.
I call that cat a wonder, now. The placing of a feeding bowl,
Worked cunningly a year, and there he lies.

His people did not pass the test of pet-worthiness, in the end, and so, while I haven’t stolen Oscar, I have been less concerned about the proprieties of subverting his affections. I used to feel bad about feeding him, and refrained from doing so except on very rare occasions, as a very special treat, when I had something suitable that I would otherwise be throwing away. Then, I met his people and while I’m not going to indulge in a tempting ‘they-deserve-to-be-hanged’ rant, and I’m not going to tell the whole sorry tale, I do now feel able to admit that shortly after meeting them I lost my moral squeamishness with regard to them, and happily moved on to a somewhat Machiavellian strategy of enticing him with little treats on fairly rare occasions, but just often enough to keep him interested.  This is known in psychology as a [positive reinforcement] variable ratio schedule, and it’s the most lethally addictive pattern of behavior reinforcement known to Man. Or beast. It’s what keeps gamblers at the slot machines, and Oscar at my door. The fact that my fridge released delights only infrequently only makes the whole thing more devious.

Of course, as Oscar appears only intermittently, and sometimes makes himself scarce for considerable periods (which may or may not coincide with episodes of building work here), it is possible that he is also doling out his presence to me on a similarly variable ratio schedule, and I have to admit that he may have outsmarted me. After all, I did buy actual official cat treats a couple of weeks back, and yesterday, I think I finally showed my soft underbelly: he got a second dish, so that he can have a wee dram of milk with his overpriced gourmet cat snacks.

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The more we understand about the natural world, the more we discover that it is full of patterns, generated perhaps in random ways, but retained by nature for their strength and robustness. What it is about patterns that causes the human brain to love them nearly as much as nature does, and to find them almost infinitely pleasing. They’ve been causing sleepless nights in our house recently though.

I’ve been thinking about this as I watch my youngest child – aged two and a bit – develop a fascination with puzzles. He’s suddenly able to find patterns in what looks like chaos, and is learning to reconfigure and organize the world around him. Interestingly (and this was something I’ve observed before, and forgotten) the toddler gestalt for puzzles is completely different from an adult’s. We keep saying, “look at the picture; find the edges; start with the corners” but he’s engaging with the elements in other ways – it’s another case of the way the toddler’s limited knowledge of the world creates different categories of same/different/alike. For puzzle-solving this works OK. It doesn’t matter if you know you’re looking for Bambi’s nose or saying to yourself “gold bump and dent facing out… gold bump and dent facing in, let’s try that.” I know that puzzles are only partly to do with pattern recognition, but I’m certain that’s a big part of the thrill. And either way, boy oh boy, the boy is certainly thrilled. What can I tell you? He’s completely, utterly smitten and obsessed. He wants to take the puzzles to bed with him at night (we vetoed, on the grounds that puzzles need to be worked on a flat surface); he wakes up and chants “puzzles, puzzles” (actually “puddles”, of which the blessed wetness that is Wales also has its fair share again this week) until he get down the stairs and into action. Breakfast can wait. As can lunch, dinner, getting dressed, going out and any other activity a two-year-old might be expected to engage in. I haven’t specifically tried the straight choice of puzzle or chocolate yet, but I’m getting curious. Now I’m amused by all this, but I sure as hell can’t claim I don’t understand it. I know he goes to sleep and sees puzzles all night. And wakes up in the night and thinks about puzzles for a bit, and then goes back to sleep and thinks about them a bit more. Or – as he did last night – wakes up and just can’t for the love of all that is holy, go back to sleep because there are puzzles downstairs, waiting to be done NOW!. I know because for months I have closed my eyes and gone, “knit, knit, knit, knit, knit”. Or thought about glass.

Last night I’d have loved to close my eyes and go “knit, knit, knit, knit, knit”. Instead I was being hounded by imaginary fruit flies, and by number patterns on the clock. The fruit flies are the corollate of one nice day. One. That’s all we had, one day of sunshine, and now we’re overrun with fruit flies enough for a full-on summer. I’ve had to put the fruit bowl in the fridge, which I hate doing, and set out little fruit fly traps (plastic cups of balsamic vinegar for them to drown sweetly in), which I enjoyed more than I would have predicted. Only they are being revenged on me in the night and pursued me through my dreams, which were anyway distressingly few and far between.

I know how far between because of the clock. I do try not to look at the alarm clock in the night, but some nights, it just won’t be ignored. And that’s where the patterns came in again. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this in public, but I find it relatively pleasurable (to use a nice measured term) to look at the clock and see a “special number” rather than an ordinary one. A special number is any number in which I can discern a pattern. Obvious ones are palindrome numbers, like 10:01 (one I rarely see from my bed) or 04:40 (frequently spotted, and peculiarly horrid). Repeat patterns – 05:05 – are good, and runs – 02:34 – are allowed. There are a couple of basic rules. Principally, no number may be ‘stalked’ (i.e. it’s cheating to look at 03:44 and lie in wait for a minute). You have to spot the number ‘in the wild’. My cunning plan – to lift the curse – is to get as many numbers as possible into the special category, in the hope that my mind will stay more relaxed and sleep-ready if I’m not trying to find patterns in the middle of the night. In an ideal world, they would all be special and then I could ignore them. I’m sure if I were a crazy maths geek, I could do it, but I’m not and I just can’t. I’ve tried to convince myself that increasing in threes is a pattern, but my brain just isn’t buying (so 05:31 is good, but 02:58 remains a washout). It has accepted 03:14 (pi) at a theoretical level, but without real enthusiasm. On a really bad night I have ‘collected’ 02:02 thru 06:06 and a matching set of 02:20 thru 05:50 –  a negative triumph or pyrrhic victory if ever there was one. But the brain does love a pattern, and it was, I suppose, marginally better than a night of 01:13’s and 06:21’s.

Of course, I would have had an altogether better night of it – depite the puzzles, and the patterns on the clock, and the fruit flies – if I hadn’t allowed myself to be dictated to by my Inner Puritan. My Outer Puritan is bad enough. My Outer Puritan believes that it is only permissible to suck a throat sweet in the daytime if you are considering immediate self-harming with a sharp knife as a direct distraction from swallowing and only permissible at night if the effort of swallowing is waking you up seconds after you have drifted off or keeping you awake. The Inner Puritan simply rules that “you’ve had one”. I whine that it was 23 hours ago and the Puritan tells me to put a sock in it. I plead: the Outer Puritan would let me have one. The Inner Puritan is unmoved. I had one. 23 hours ago. Don’t ask me why I listened to the Inner Puritan until 06:37, but I did. Then the 24 hours were up. Whew. With nights like that, who needs torture techniques?

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I’ve been thinking a fair amount about Canada recently. I think Canada is cool. Now, obviously, a lot of the time, it is very, very cool, frighteningly cool, actually, but that is not what I mean. In fact, I may have developed a crush on Canada. I’ve never had a crush before, but I think I recognize the symptoms. To begin with, you think that so-and-so is funny, interesting, smart, cool, whatever it might be, then you start to think that you know what they are like, and guess what? That turns out to be just like you. You determine that if only they knew you better/met you/ knew you existed, they would like you back, and want to be your friend too. In the case of the celebrity crush, you dream about this person meeting you and actually! becoming your friend!!*

After I first stumbled upon her (about three days into knitting) I thought my crush might be on the Yarn Harlot (whose blog was the first I think I ever consciously bookmarked or returned to), but soon I realized I was much more far gone than that. Good as the Yarn Harlot is, my crush – if it is a crush – is on Canada. Since I picked up knitting, I have encountered  a number of knitting blogs, and many of them are aesthetic, literate and witty.  In fact, on the record, it astounds me quite how many smart people appear to be out there, busily knitting away and writing about it coherently. But of all the nicely written blogs I come across, those written by people I instantly, intuitively feel I would like to be friends with, are disproportionately (ahem, possibly 100% so far, but  there is a confidence interval to be calculated here) written by Canadians. I am assuming that there may be some genuine correlation between that civilized chunk of north America, with its civilized health service, and civilized education system and its decidedly uncivilized climate which predisposes its citizenry to turn out acres of interesting thoughts about wool.

So, exactly how cool are Canadians? Immensely. Immeasurably. May their brethren over the border take note, not only can they knit, beautifully, in droves, but they do the most perplexing of cool things: for instance, they can use metric (i.e. count in base ten), and I bet they can cope with the 24-hour clock, as well. Hey – sort of like Europeans, only more spread out than us (which I’m sure aids civility). Anyway, amongst all this thinking, I eventually decided that the resourceful, intelligent knitting bloggers who bring such honor to their country should make the following humble representation to their parliament: namely that the flag of the nation be changed to something more representative and appropriate –


It’s only a minor tweak, after all. (They might also consider renaming it Intarsia, while they’re at it: it has a certain romantic ring, don’t you think?)


*Apparently a good few million people had Lady Diana dreams like this; it was key to her mystique that she could induce an “ordinary person just like me!” fantasy. Perhaps by being manifestly as dim and uneducated as ordinary people ? (only a heightened, airbrushed, touched-up expensively turned-out fantastical one). Hence the carefully nurtured myth- or more accurately, technicality, that she was ” a commoner”.

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Recently the little ones have been engaged in more equal struggles. Child Three has suddenly got verbal, and therefore is better able to defend his position, and express his desires to his sister, who used to just issue decrees about what he was going to play with, and what she was going to do (not that she’s stopped with the fiats, just that he now offers more resistance). He is also deeply at the ‘mini-me’ stage of wanting to do exactly whatever she is doing, whenever she is doing it. So they play with – say – the dolls, and fight – in a rolling cycle – over who gets the doll du jour, who gets to push the pushchair, who wears my shoes and now also who gets to be the mummy. The middle one – the puppydog-eyed -pintsize tyrannical one – will declare herself to be the mummy, and he will immediately chime in that he wants to be the mummy too, and is now as likely as anyone to burst into tears if told he can’t be. I try to leave them to sort out their own turf wars, but if the noise levels get too high (we went to the zoo once, and heard ruff-tailed lemurs screeching at each other, and they sound exactly like that), or if a bloodbath appears imminent, I might sweep in and make them take turns, or if I can get them to settle for it, both be mummies.

This actually rarely satisfies them, and I’m really beginning to think the whole point is to squabble over the limited resource. It’s not that they don’t get on – they do, and frequently play and giggle very nicely together for, ooh, several minutes at a time, rushing from one end of the house to the other, screaming with pleasure and working themselves into paroxysms of silliness. It’s also not that they don’t have plenty of toys and books, because it goes without saying that they do. The strategy of semi-identical items has been tried, on occasion, but I’m not a big fan of it. I think it misses the point. Why have two of anything, when they’ll both want the same one anyway?

A case study, then, to illustrate the point. We have in our possession a certain cushion with a giraffe pattern on it (known to posterity as the “‘raffe cushion” and, it is worth pointing out, rejected as a less-desired-object of two when first introduced to the Commission for Juvenile Fickleness) which has made its way into the car (no, I don’t know how, either. There used to be nothing in the car, except people and maps, but that was a while ago). It is primally fought over, “bagsied” and negotiated around endlessly. In an effort to quell the disputes engendered by the ‘raffe cushion, shoals of other things have followed it into the car, including (but not limited to) a train, several animals, a wooden Miffy book, a doll or two and another cushion (donated by Child One), strategically introduced to pander to the One Each party among the parentforce. Paff. One each. As. If. In the interests of a fair experiment, the other cushion was made as enticing as possible. It is an object of prior and proven covetedness, having been out of bounds on Child One’s bed throughout all of known history*. It is a breathtakingly lurid, Disney-merchandising hideousness of the first water, representing Snow White (I think) complete with the added attraction of a detachable bird on a string. Normally, they would definitely go for it ahead of the rather beige ‘raffe†. I’d stake my life on it. But naturally, in the context of the car, where the ‘raffe cushion is the Designated Object of Desire, the Disney Craptacular is Poison. Untouchable, shrink-from-it, shriek-inducing poison. Personally, I’m inclined to agree, but once again, this is not the point. Eventually, when I could endure no more, I decided to end the experiment early (before they reached the age of eighteen) and take everything else out of the car, leaving only the ‘raffe cushion and enforce strict turn-taking until such time as one or both of them stop caring about it (however, when I went on my trip to Nottingham, I artfully circumvented the issue by bringing one rag-doll, a special favorite of Child Two, for her, and induced her to relinquish her turns with the ‘raffe cushion “because I can let you have it, but you’d have to let him borrow Wollipops”. Hee, hee. They don’t call me Mammachiavelli for nothing.)

Exept for exceptional cases (like the time we bought them each a fireman’s hat at the firestation charity carwash), when near-death toy-rage is a racing certainty, I really don’t go with the One Each principle because I don’t think it teaches the crucial life-skill of negotiation (aside from the crucial life-lesson that Mummy and Daddy have limited resources), which is a skill I do see them gradually learning. They are much better now at sharing custody of the ‘raffe – and it turns out, quite simply, that communication – both being able to talk – is the real key to it. And I think that half the reason that they go for the same thing in the first place is because they are actively seeking out situations where the can learn how to manage the complexities of negotiation and conflict-resolution, which is knowledge we all need, and that being given One Each, or having the Security Council step in is bad for their development, because it deprives them of the opportunity to learn in a context where we still call it ‘turn-taking’ and not ‘warfare’ and where the costs of failure are still low. At its simplest expression, they may occasionally try to beat the crap out of each other now, but I’m hoping it’s their way of preparing for a lifetime of getting along (including a lifetime of sharing the limited resource of their parents’ time and energy).


*a period akin to, but much longer than the statutory “previously sold for” price shops display on their sale tags, next to a tiny asterisk admitting that this was for not less than ten minutes in one special, overpricing stalking-horse store no-body has ever frequented and actually the owners use it as a dummy operation in order to legally justify their “sale” prices. But I digress, slightly.

†At the risk of digressing even further, and more dangerously, I can’t help thinking that the back of my car is some elaborate divine analogy for the Middle East: we have our our own mini-Palestine, once spurned and unattractive, now capable of triggering armaggedon. But hey, now they’re talking, so there’s hope.

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Last week I started a pattern from the incomparable Ravelry. It was called ‘spring beret’ and stated it was “worked in the round using an easy to memorize lace pattern.” Now, leaving aside the fact that I have never previously worked anything in the round except for the famous Serengeti Socks of the Beloved, and therefore struggled a litttle with that part, I nearly had a heart attack when I saw the instructions for the ‘easy’ lace. There were eight rows, and four of them were simple enough (two were absolutely plain knitting, two were K9, purl 1). Fine. So far, so good. The other four appeared at the first uninitiated glance to be a) very complicated and b) completely different from one another. I thought, ‘how can that be called easy to memorize?’ and then I was struck by something from my psychology degree about human working memory.

It’s now a pretty well-worn cognitive psychology ‘fact’* that we can hold around seven items (“The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two“) in our immediate short-term working memory, as is the idea that the key to memory feats, and to a lot of expertise, is simply what – how much information – constitutes an ‘item’ in working memory terms. working memory: a chunkLet’s take a row of this pattern as an example. The first time I looked I saw:  yarn over, knit three,  slip one, knit two together, pass slipped stitch over, knit  three, yarn over, knit one, and that was, to me, eight items. For the record, I could not actually hold the eight reliably in memory and had to check where I was a couple of times as I was going along the row (Nul points for my working memory). After a while, I realized that ‘slip one, knit two together, pass slipped stitch over’ coalesced very nicely into a single piece of information. I had produced what psychologists call a ‘chunk’: several elements rolled up to make one item. Which in turn made remembering pattern row two easier. After a while I also worked out that the different rows were in fact far less different than they had first appeared. Essentially, what they were doing was just shifting the yarn overs along one towards the center of each pattern repeat. After that realization dawned, I was flying. My chunks grew longer, and by the end of four pattern repeats, each chunk was effectively a full row. So, once I understood the pattern, it was indeed easy to memorize: I’d finally reduced it to the magical – memorable -number of items.

Now, this is where expertise comes into it. One of the things, famously, that distinguishes a good chess player from a poor one is the ability to see much longer segments of the game as a single item: it takes me forever to plot a single move since one move is one item. I have to calculate all the permutations of my opponent’s response, and then my possible response to that… and my working memory very quickly becomes exhausted, as does my opponent’s patience. I do actually understand -and I apologize to anyone who has ever played chess with me: I assure you I have completely given it up- that you shouldn’t be able to whip up a three-course meal while waiting for black to consider the options in response to the traditional queen’s pawn opening (see here for an illustration of how the chess brain does things differently). But I digress. Chess players learn the moves and the counter-moves, and lots and lots of patterns. The better they get, the better able they are to remember the patterns (longer and longer chunks), and the more they can build on that knowledge. In short, they develop expertise.

But expertise can be acquired in any field, not just chess. Expertise experts reckon the number of hours it takes to build an expertise is around 10,000. So that’s, what? An hour a day for nineteen and something years, or two hours a day for ten years. Generally, allow ten years of fairly solid daily commitment to get genuinely good at something. This is why most people aren’t that good at a lot of stuff: we’re a bunch of dilettantes. This is also why people are motivated to get their kids music or dance lessons from a very early age: to have a chance of competing seriously in such an area, you need to get expert pretty young. This is exactly why the former Communist countries enrolled kids for intensive athletic training at the age of four or five (the consequences on their adult bodies be damned) and they walked off with all the gymnastics medals for years. One of the things that really struck me as I knit this beret though, was just how many truly expert knitters are out there, any one of whom would have taken one glance at that pattern and known exactly what it was going to do, and why. They wouldn’t have had to refer to it twice.

I assume she’s not unique, but the Yarn Harlot is one particularly spectacular -or at least well-documented-example of the expert knitter. She certainly fits the profile: she was taught to knit at the age of four, and has put in 36 years since (presumably not at a steady two hours a day throughout that time, but certainly a lot). Have you seen her knit? If not, check out some video on YouTube. It’s extraordinary. Truly.

  • Like everything else in science, including the Descent of Man, not everyone will agree with this statement.

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