Friday, January 1, 2010

Blind Spots

Happy New Year!

Maybe you've had this experience. You get a notice from an airline frequent flyer program that you'll lose your miles unless you either fly or extend their life by using some for a magazine subscription. Since you're not a real frequent flyer, but someone who's accumulated a few miles from the occasional trip, you go for the magazine subscription. Thus I became a Wired subscriber.

I'm loving it. Tho I don't have the quals to be a card-carrying geek, I have the nerd's love of things of the mind and have found many wonderful articles in Wired, including this one about the neuroscience of illusion, staring Teller of "Penn & Teller" fame.

An aside: It's a great article, and I still have a fondness for reading paper rather than a computer screen, but there are clear advantages of the net as is illustrated by the embedding in the online version of the article of YouTube videos showing Teller performing the illusions/magic which are only described/pictured in the paper version.

Teller is now a co-author of an article in a neuroscience journal on the new field of "magicology, the mining of stage illusions (magic) for insights into brain function." Not only is the hand quicker than the eye; the brain is so enamored of its perceptual heuristics that it still can't perceive/understand what's happening when the secrets of some illusions are revealed. As Jonah Learner, the author of the article and the books How We Decide, and Proust Was a Neuroscientist, writes:

What's surprising is just how limited the repertoire of magical illusions actually is. The Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper lists nine fundamental "conjuring effects" of modern magic, from the vanish and the restoration to telekinesis and ESP. While these basic tricks have been varied endlessly—you can "restore" a cut rope, a sawed-in-half assistant, a shredded piece of paper—each of the effects relies on a specific perceptual phenomenon. This may be why exposing the "secret" of a magic trick is so often deflating. Most of the time, the secret is that we're gullible and our brains are riddled with blind spots.
OK, you who have been reading this blog for a while know what's coming. I read the above and immediately thought about the implications for interviewing and examining. Good design is critical for examinations precisely because "our brains are riddled with blind spots" and cognitive frames that are usually functional but sometimes misleading. We interview in groups partially in hope of reducing our blind spots and confirmation biases (ignoring evidence contrary to our beliefs), but then we risk group polarization, the tendency of people with shared beliefs to become more certain of those beliefs when they congregate.

Knowing these limitations to human perception and understanding encourages the spiritual practice of humility. In this new year, may we wear our beliefs like comfortable old garments, soft to the touch and with room for growth.

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