Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

09 AUGUST, 2012

Why Success Breeds Success: The Science of “The Winner Effect”

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Biochemistry and the self-reinforcing upward spiral of winning.

The past century of science has demonstrated the pivotal role of biochemistry in such human phenomena as love, attraction, and lust. But to consider that individual neurobiology might impact things as rational and complex as, say, stock markets seems rather radical. Yet that’s precisely what trader-turned-neuroscientist John Coates explores in The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust (public library) — an ambitious look at how body chemistry affects high-stakes financial trading, in which Coates sets out to construct — and deconstruct — a “universal biology of risk-taking.”

One particularly fascinating aspect of risk-taking has to do with what is known as “the winner effect,” a self-reinforcing osmosis of the two key hormones driving the biochemistry of success and failure — testosterone, which Coates calls “the hormone of economic bubbles,” and cortisol, “the hormone of economic busts.” In traders — as in athletes, and in the rest of us mere mortals when faced with analogous circumstances — testosterone rises sharply and durably during financial booms, inducing a state of risk-seeking euphoria and providing a positive feedback loop in which success itself provides a competitive advantage. By contrast, the stress hormone cortisol spikes during financial downturns; traders with sustained high levels of cortisol become more risk-averse and timid, ultimately being less competitive.

Coates explains:

The euphoria, overconfidence and heightened appetite for risk that grip traders during a bull market may result from a phenomenon known in biology as the ‘winner effect.’

[…]

Biologists studying animals in the field had noticed that an animal winning a fight or a competition for turf was more likely to win its next fight. This phenomenon had been observed in a large number of species. Such a finding raised the possibility that the mere act of winning contributes to further wins. But before biologists could draw such a conclusion they had to consider a number of alternative explanations. For example, maybe an animal keeps winning simply because it is physically larger than its rivals. To rule out possibilities such as this, biologists constructed controlled experiments in which they pitted animals that were equally matched in size, or rather that were equally matched in what is called ‘resource holding potential,’ in other words the total physical resources — muscular, metabolic, cardiovascular — an animal can draw on in an all-out fight. They also controlled for motivations, because a small, hungry animal eating a carcass can successfully chase off a larger, well-fed animal. Yet even when animals were evenly matched for size (or resources) and motivation, a pure winner effect nonetheless emerged.

An intriguing correlation, certainly, but what is the causal mechanism at work? Scientists have suggested that there are several elements at play: First, testosterone levels rise when animals face off, producing anabolic effects on muscle mass and hemoglobin, quickening reactions, improving visual acuity, and increasing the animal’s persistence and fearlessness. Then, once the fight is over, the winning animal emerges with even higher levels of testosterone, and the loser with lower ones. Coates sums it up thusly:

Life for the winner is more glorious. It enters the next round of competition with already elevated testosterone levels, and this androgenic priming gives it an edge that increases its chances of winning yet again. Through this process an animal can be drawn into a positive-feedback lop, in which victory leads to raised testosterone levels which in turn leads to further victory.

So does this winner effect also occur in humans? Coates thinks so. He cites a study, in which researchers rigorously examined a database of 630,000 professional tennis matches and found that the winner of the first set had a 60% chance of winning the second one and, since the win in these matches comes down to the best of three sets, winning the match itself. (Anecdotally, a quick glance at Michael Phelps’s Olympic scorecard would suggest a similar conclusion.)

The precompetitive surge in testosterone has been documented in a number of sports, such as tennis, wrestling and hockey, as well as in less physical competitions, such as chess, even medical exams. Winning athletes in sports experience a postgame spike in testosterone, suggesting that a positive-feedback loop is indeed the physiological substrate to winning and losing streaks. Incidentally, these testosterone-driven sporting victories appear to be more common when an athlete is on home turf, the so-called home-field advantage. Athletes on a winning streak may thus have a very different body chemistry than those on a losing streak. IN all these experiments, with both animals and humans, the winners experienced a self-reinforcing upward spiral of testosterone.

Tying the research back to the human condition itself, Coates puts it rather poetically:

We hold the keys to victory within us, but usually cannot find them.

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf goes on to examine how this intricate exchange of information between body and brain coalesces into what we call “gut feelings,” reminding us that we are, after all, remarkable and complicated machines.

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08 AUGUST, 2012

The Role of “Ripeness” in Creativity and Discovery: Arthur Koestler’s Seminal Insights, 1964

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“The Latin verb cogito for ‘to think’ etymologically means ‘to shake together.'”

What a wonderful Rube Goldberg machine of discovery literature is, the countless allusions and references in a book guiding you to yet more great works. This was the case with the recent Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity, which first flagged the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas and now brings us to The Act Of Creation (public library) — a seminal treatise on creativity, penned by Hungarian-British journalist and author Arthur Koestler in 1964. In this magnificent 700-page tome, Koestler itemizes the principles of creativity — “the conscious and unconscious processes underlying scientific discovery, artistic originality, and comic inspiration” — and sets out to outline a common pattern that can be trained and perfected.

Koestler’s insights and conclusions resonate deeply with my own beliefs about the combinatorial nature of creativity — this notion that all ideas are, as Mark Twain put it, “second-hand,” born as we constantly copy, transform, and combine old ideas, synthesize existing information, combine eclectic influences, remix material, build on what came before, and connect the seemingly disconnected.

But, Koestler argues, there is one necessary condition for this combinatorial creative fusion — which he terms “bisociation” — to take place. In this passage from the end of Chapter V, he describes that condition beautifully, articulating the backbone of creativity:

But for that fusion to take place a condition must be fulfilled which I called ‘ripeness.’

Concerning the psychology of the creative act itself, I have mentioned the following interrelated aspects of it: the displacement of attention to something not previously noted, which was irrelevant in the old and is relevant in the new context; the discovery of hidden analogies as a result of the former; the bringing into consciousness of tacit axioms and habits of thought which were implied in the code and taken for granted; the uncovering of what has always been there.

This leads to the paradox that the more original a discovery the more obvious it seems afterward. The creative act is an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It creates something in heaven and projects in onto the world becoming a new mind. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole. Man’s knowledge of the changes of the tides and the phases of the moon is as old as his observation that apples fall to earth in the ripeness of time. Yet the combination of these and other equally familiar data in Newton’s theory of gravity changed mankind’s outlook on the world.

‘It is obvious,’ says Hadamard, ‘that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas. . . . The Latin verb cogito for ‘to think’ etymologically means ‘to shake together.’ St. Augustine had already noticed that and also observed that intelligo means ‘to select among.’

The ‘ripeness’ of a culture for a new synthesis is reflected in the recurrent phenomenon of multiple discovery, and in the emergence of similar forms of art, handicrafts, and social institutions in diverse cultures. But when the situation is ripe for a given type of discovery, it still needs the intuitive power of an exceptional mind, and sometimes a favorable chance event, to bring it from potential into actual existence. On the other hand, some discoveries represent striking tours de force by individuals who seem to be so far ahead of their time that their contemporaries are unable to understand them.

Thus at one end of the scale we have discoveries which seem to be due to more or less conscious, logical reasoning, and at the other end those due to sudden insights which emerge from the creative mind or the unconscious. The same polarity of logic and intuition will be found to prevail in the methods and techniques of artistic creation. It is summed up by two opposite pronouncements: Bernard Shaw’s ‘Ninety per cent perspiration, ten per cent inspiration’, on the one hand, Picasso’s ‘I do not seek — I find’ (je ne cherche pas, je trouve), on the other.

The Act Of Creation is superb in its entirety, essential reading for a holistic creative mind.

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07 AUGUST, 2012

Creative Evolution: French Philosopher Henri Bergson on Intuition vs. the Intellect, 1907

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“That which is instinctive in instinct cannot be expressed in terms of intelligence, nor, consequently, can it be analyzed.”

“The intellect by itself is the seat of trouble,” wrote Anaïs Nin in her diary in 1942.

A recent passing mention in a chapter on the origin of “nothing” in Jim Holt’s excellent new book on why the universe exists reminded me of Creative Evolution (public library; public domain) by French philosopher and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Henri Bergson (1859-1941) — an alternative account of the mechanisms underpinning Darwin’s evolution, originally published in 1907, which went on to become an enormously influential work in the philosophy of science.

In this particular excerpt, Bergson takes something we’ve previously explored in the context of the individual’s creative process — the role of intuition and its supremacy over rationality — and uses it as the lens on science and nature as a whole:

We see that the intellect, so skillful in dealing with the inert, is awkward the moment it touches the living. Whether it wants to treat the life of the body or the life of the mind, it proceeds with the rigor, the stiffness and the brutality of an instrument not designed for such use.

[…]

The intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life.

Instinct, on the contrary, is molded on the very form of life. While intelligence treats everything mechanically, instinct proceeds, so to speak, organically. If the consciousness that slumbers in it should awake, if it were wound up into knowledge instead of being wound off into action, if we could ask and it could reply, it would give up to us the most intimate secrets of life. For it only carries out further the work by which life organizes matter–so that we cannot say, as has often been shown, where organization ends and where instinct begins. When the little chick is breaking its shell with a peck of its beak, it is acting by instinct, and yet it does but carry on the movement which has borne it through embryonic life. Inversely, in the course of embryonic life itself (especially when the embryo lives freely in the form of a larva), many of the acts accomplished must be referred to instinct. The most essential of the primary instincts are really, therefore, vital processes. The potential consciousness that accompanies them is generally actualized only at the outset of the act, and leaves the rest of the process to go on by itself. It would only have to expand more widely, and then dive into its own depth completely, to be one with the generative force of life.

[…]

[I]t is impossible for intelligence to reabsorb instinct. That which is instinctive in instinct cannot be expressed in terms of intelligence, nor, consequently, can it be analyzed.

A man born blind, who had lived among others born blind, could not be made to believe in the possibility of perceiving a distant object without first perceiving all the objects in between. Yet vision performs this miracle. In a certain sense the blind man is right, since vision, having its origin in the stimulation of the retina, by the vibrations of the light, is nothing else, in fact, but a retinal touch. Such is indeed the scientific explanation, for the function of science is just to
express all perceptions in terms of touch. But we have shown elsewhere that the philosophical explanation of perception (if it may still be called an explanation) must be of another kind. Now instinct also is a knowledge at a distance. It has the same relation to intelligence that vision has to touch. Science cannot do otherwise than express it in terms of intelligence; but in so doing it constructs an imitation of instinct rather than penetrates within it.

“Real science,” as Stuart Firestein keenly observed, “is a revision in progress, always” — as is real life itself. How frequently we forget — rationalize away — the role of instinct in that ceaseless revision.

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