Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College
August 30, 2010
Jonah Lehrer, the 27 year old author of How We Decide, gave the Opening Days convocation keynote at Willamete University last Friday. After being introduced by Willamette president M. Lee Pelton as "a humanist disguised as a neuroscientist", Lehrer offered a fun and fascinating whirlwind tour of neuroscience, psychology and sociology, in the context of a 5-point guide to how to succeed in (and through) college. Having attended several convocations both as a student and a faculty member, I would rank his keynote as one of the best I've ever heard, rivaled only by one I heard in 1986, by Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), when he received an honorary doctorate at the University of Hartford (so he really was a "doctor").
Leading off with a story demonstrating the ephemeral nature of many "great truths" (Oliver Wendel Holmes, Sr., discovering the great "truth" that the world smells like turpentine - specifically, "a strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout" - while on a nitrous oxide-induced hallucinogenic journey), Lehrer assured the new students that they will regularly encounter profound truths and discover new ideas ... few of which will have impact lasting beyond 72 hours, and nearly all of which will be forgotten soon after they finish college. The real value of a college education is learning how to think ... and to promote this process, he offered 5 tips.
Be an outsider
Innocentive.com is a platform for crowdsourcing research and development that succeeds primarily through the participation of outsiders. Companies post problem descriptions and offer prizes for solutions, and individuals and organizations outside the company submit potential solutions. Lehrer quoted a Harvard Business School study reporting that 60% of the posted problems are solved within 6 months, and that the key to solutions is being on the outside, i.e., being able to look at the problem from an outsider's perspective.
I'm not sure which study he is referencing (I haven't read his book yet), but I did find a related report on an Innovation Network conference:
InnoCentive now boasts 175,000 "solvers" from more than 200 countries around the world. About 90% are individuals, 10% are organizations and 60% have masters degrees or PhDs. Last year, nearly 50% of the "challenges" posted on InnoCentive's web site generated a solution that was put to use.
Academics who polled InnoCentive's winning solvers discovered something "both startling and intuitively obvious," said Spradlin. "What they found was that typically ... the background of the solver who solved the problem" was "no less than six disciplines away" from the subject area in which the problem emerged. "What that means is, if all the Stanford PhDs in your chemistry lab could have solved the problem, they would have solved it already."
Lehrer reported that English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge used to tell people he attended public lectures on chemistry in London "to improve my stock of metaphors", and encouraged students to take at least one class each semester outside of their field ... and "don't be afraid to be the lonely poet in chem class".
Learn how to relax
Lehrer described a study on people solving compound remote associates problems, for which Lehrer suggested the evocative acronym "CRAP". Another acronym, "RAT" (remote associates test), is more commonly associated with these kinds of problems - often posed on the Sunday Puzzle on NPR - in which three words are presented and the problem is to find a fourth word that relates to all of them (e.g., given the problem "broken, clear, eye", the solution is "glass"). The study revealed that the "flash of insight" or "Aha!" moment that occurs immediately before a solution can be reliably detected via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), and the alpha wave pattern closely resembles that of someone who has experience in meditation, i.e., someone who is able to achieve states of deep relaxation.
Contrary to the intuition many of us have when faced with a hard problem, which is to focus on the problem as hard as we can (I imagine this is why they are called "hard problems"), the solution in many cases is to simply relax and temporarily turn our attention to other things, and allow the solution to emerge more organically. I was reminded of one of my favorite lines of poetry, by Wallace Stevens:
Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around a lake.
Another observation by Lehrer - the brain knows more than you know, you just have to listen - reminded me of the way yet another poet, David Whyte, describes poetry:
Poetry is the art of overhearing yourself say things you didn't know you knew.
But I digress. Shifting from poetry to technology - and back to Lehrer's speech - Lehrer suggested that one of the most effective ways of listening to what you know is to turn off the gadgets that constantly inundate us with what others are saying ... reminding me of what Sherry Turkle, Kathy Sierra, James Surowiecki, Malcolm Gladwell, James Ogilvy, Dan Oestreich and other great thinkers have said about self-reflection vs. self-expression, and the recent New York Times article on digital devices deprive brain of needed downtime.
Make friends with lots of different people
Lehrer described the self-similarity principle (or perhaps homophily) as a natural tendency to associate with people who are like us (and avoid people who are not like us), and suggested that students guard against this tendency. A study by sociologist Martin Ruef and his colleagues at Princeton, in which they interviewed 600 entrepreneurs, revealed that the entrepreneurs with the highest informational entropy (i.e., most diverse social networks) were the most successful, and that the propensity to strike up conversation with potentially consequential strangers was a key indicator of this quality. The researchers estimate that entrepreneurs with highly entropic networks were 3 times more innovative than those with low entropy networks (though innovation is a notoriously difficult concept to measure).
College is a great place to forge new connections with a broad range of people, and so Lehrer encouraged students to take advantage of the opportunity to diversify their social networks ... which will seve them well long after they've forgotten all (or most of) the facts they will have learned while in school.
Don't eat the marshmallow
Another variation on the theme of intent focus vs. relaxation - or, at least, distraction - was illuminated through the story of the marshmallow task, which Lehrer wrote about in a New Yorker article on the secret of self control last May. Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel conducted experiments with four year olds at the Bing Nursery School, including one named Carolyn, to explore delayed gratification:
Carolyn was asked to sit down in the chair and pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Carolyn chose the marshmallow. ... A researcher then made Carolyn an offer: she could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned. He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second. Then he left the room [for about 15 minutes].
Only 30% of the children were able to delay gratification for the full 15 minutes; the average delay of gratification was about 2 minutes. 13 years later, Mischel conducted extensive followup surveys to discover how the 600+ children had fared. The high delayers - those who were able to distract themselves for the full 15 minutes - averaged 200 points higher on the SAT, on average, than the low delayers - those who were unable to shift their attention to anything but the marshmallow, and succumbed to temptation within 30 seconds.
Lehrer instructed the students that "your task for the next four years is to learn how to control your attention. You control the spotlight" - use it wisely.
Elaborating on a theme invoked by Dean Darlene Moore during the opening remarks to the event - in which she emphasized the primacy of the journey over the destination - Lehrer invited students to fully appreciate the experience of a college education. Highlighting the importance of embracing wrongology, Lehrer offered a great anecdote:
You get to share your opinion on Hamlet, and write long essays about how Plato, the guy who blew your mind last week, was actually wrong about everything.
In my own experience as a philosophy major years ago (and continuing ever since), education is about learning things, and then unlearning things; discovering a great truth, and then discovering that its opposite is [also] true. I can understand the appeal of fundamentalism, in clinging tenaciously to beliefs no matter what facts may present themselves, especially as fears, uncertainties and doubts are promulgated by those who would deign to decide for us, but I don't think we can learn much when we are not willing to be in the question(s).
Speaking of questions, during the question & answer period following his talk, my favorite question was by a student who asked how Lehrer figures out which questions to ask (or pursue). He answered that he wrote a book about decisions primarily because he is pathologically indecisive, and generally tends to begin with his own frustrations ... mirroring my own tendency toward what I like to call irritation-based research ... or what Eric Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, describes in the context of open source programming:
Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch.
In closing, I want to acknowledge that I have not yet read Lehrer's book, How We Decide, but as I noted in my earlier post on the warm welcome we enjoyed throughout Willamette Opening Days, my daughter, Meg, read the book over the summer, and after his speech she told me that many of the examples are covered more extensively in the book, which is next on my stack of "to-reads".
Finally, I want to loop back to some introductory remarks made by President Pelton, in which he quoted E. O. Wilson, the multidisciplinary scientist sociobiologist who contributed much to our understanding of ant colonies (and other societies and systems):
We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.
Lehrer, like Wilson, is clearly a great synthesizer, and I hope his convocation keynote - and the subsequent scope of a liberal arts education at Willamette - will help inspire a future generation of synthesizers, critical thinkers and wise decision-makers.