Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Challenging Preconceptions

Maybe it's the result of being the youngest of seven kids, but for some reason I like finding out I'm wrong. Luckily I'm given the opportunity on a fairly regular basis, although thankfully now that I'm an adult, this is no longer accompanied by "atomic wedgies".

I'm used to actively reexamining some things, taking a proactive approach to maintaining intellectual health. But it's a lot harder to challenge preconceived notions that are so ingrained you don't even know you have them. You can't be proactive if you don't even know there's something there to be acted on.

For some reason, though, this last week gave me three separate chances to reexamine such deep-rooted ideas, in three different fields of inquiry. I'm not sure what to make of them, but I feel like I unearthed little treasures of self-knowledge here, and I wonder where they'll lead me.

The Quality of American Health Care

I've always taken it for granted that America has the best health care anywhere in the world, bar none, GO USA!! I tend to be patriotic and naturally assume that we're the best at pretty much everything. This article by Ezra Klein at the very leftist "American Prospect", however, made me rethink that by looking at the national health care systems offered in four other countries. Each system pays at most half of what America does for health coverage, and yet the service is at least as good (and in some cases better). I guess I always knew we paid more, but I just assumed that we were getting much, much more than they were. Now I'm not so sure.

Anorexia and Calorie Restricted diets (CR)

Lab experiments in mice seem to show that if you reduce your calorie intake (to as little as 2/3 of what's generally accepted as healthy), you can extend your healthy lifespan by up to half. That means you could, potentially, live to be 150 in reasonable health. Sounds great, right? That's what I thought, and I did some research into the concept, which now has some 2,000 adherents around the country. But then I read this article on Slate, asking the very sensible question "But how is this different than anorexia, which everyone says is a disease?". It made me take a real step back to reconsider the entire notion, not just of CR but of how we classify behaviors and conditions. I also was forced to realize just how much "framing" -- how an issue is put to you -- influences how I react to it ("Anorexia BAD, but Calorie Restriction GOOD!").

The Superiority of the Human Mind

Everyone knows that some animals are better at certain things than humans are -- leopards run faster, birds can fly, fish swim better, elephants are stronger, etc. But I alway assumed (without even realizing I was assuming) that humans were unquestionably at the top of the mental abilities ladder. I never thought an animal would prove to be better at any aspect of cognition than a human is -- but I was wrong. According to this article by John Noble Wilford, chimpanzees are clearly better at immediate memory tasks than people are:

Tetsuro Matsuzawa, a Kyoto primatologist, described a young chimp watching as numbers 1 through 9 flashed on the computer screen at random positions. Then the numbers disappeared in no more than a second. White squares remained where the numbers had been. The chimp casually but swiftly pressed the squares, calling back the numbers in ascending order — 1, 2, 3, etc.

The test was repeated several times, with the numbers and squares in different places. The chimp, which had months of training accompanied by promised food rewards, almost never failed to remember where the numbers had been. The video included scenes of a human failing the test, seldom recalling more than one or two numbers, if any.

“Humans can’t do it,” Dr. Matsuzawa said. “Chimpanzees are superior to humans in this task.”

Dr. Matsuzawa suggested that early human species “lost the immediate memory and, in return, learned symbolization, the language skills.”

“I call this the trade-off theory,” he continued. “If you want a capability like better immediate memory, you have to lose some other capability.”

So there you have it, three items in the last week that have challenged my preconceived notions and shown me once again how dangerous it is to think we have all the answers, even when we're just sure we do.


Adam H said...

i'm certainly no zoologist, but idk about the conclusions regarding the chimp thing. i think that if in life the only motivation that you really have is to make sure you get fed, you'll step things up to improve your chances of there being another meal. the chimp's motivation to get the number sequence would be much higher, since otherwise he won't get a treat. if john q public gets it all wrong, he can still stop and pick up some chocolate chip cookie dough on the way home. and who can blame him for doing some overeating? after all, i could easily be wrong, and he's just found out he was dumber than a chimp!


Anonymous said...

i think adam h is right on target, particularly since we have bred chimpanzees for immediate-memory task testing for dozens of generations, and have consequently. increased the selective pressure for those traits.

no, wait. what i meant to say is "that's stupid."

Computer Bruce said...

I had to do a literal transcription of a recorded conversation, and it was a real struggle, even though I am a moderately fast touch typist.

I would remember the gist of what was send, but doing an accurate and exactly literal version, and not just a paraphrase was almost painfully difficult.

Other people, however, do develop this skill quite easily -- court reporters and the like.

Maybe the key here is the months of training.

Jeff Hebert said...

I think it's entirely possible all three of you are right ... well, no, actually I don't think Anonymous is right, as we haven't been "breeding chimpanzees for immediate-memory task testing for dozens of generations." That's simply factually untrue.

HOWEVER, in spirit it's possible all three of you are right and this is more a matter of training than innate ability.

That is beside the point, however. The preconceived notion I had that this report disabused me of is that no animal, ever, anywhere, in any way, would be able to be superior to humans when it comes to mental tasks. The closest I thought any would get would be, for instance, the border collie who showed the kind of critical reasoning skills usually reserved to humans around the age of five.

All of the reports of animal mental acuity are like that -- tool use, reasoning skills, empathy, they all achieve a level that's just barely up to a human child. There's never been a suggestion that an animal could ever learn to do any mental task as well as an adult human could, and yet, these not only equaled our performance, they outdid us.

I'd always figured "Well they might be faster or stronger, but we win on the mental side!" And now that's simply not true. Granted it's one narrow slice of the mental world, and perhaps a human could learn to do it even better than these trained chimps. But for now, these animals are better at this particular mental challenge than fully functioning, adult humans. That's unprecedented. Whether it's because of training or not is irrelevant -- I didn't think it would ever -- COULD ever -- happen at all.

But it did. And that's kind of cool. I like it when I have the chance to unlearn something false that was so ingrained, I didn't even know I'd learned it at all.

Anonymous said...

I don't quite understand how the external framing of CR and anorexia matters as much as the internal framing.

Admittedly I'm not an expert on either, but from what I understand 'CR' is a dedicatedly precise dietary pattern, carefully calculating the exact proportions of nutrients, vitamins, etc. that the body needs to survive, and not a calorie more. The purpose of it is to extend life.

Anorexia, by contrast, has no standard dietary regimen, and people afflicted with it are not doing so for the purpose of greater health/extended life - but mostly for visual/cultural beauty standards or inherent body self-loathing i.e. "I'm too big."

Eating a minimal, strict restricted diet for the goal of improving one's health is inherently different than being incapable of not eating more than two sticks of gum and a diet coke because your ass looks fat even when you weigh 70 pounds.

Anonymous said...

Actually, there is another wrinkle to using a starvation diet to prolong life. Mice can lose a lot, about half, of the life extension benefit if they smell food, even if they don't eat it.

Anonymous said...

i am the first anonymous commenter. of course what i said was factually untrue, it is what is referred to as either "sarcasm" or "snark".

i congratulate you on realizing that American Humans are not the be-all-end-all pinnacle of existence in the universe. we need more of that.

Jeff Hebert said...

I think if you'd read my blog before, you'd understand that I'm not exactly humano-centric :-) I just thought that the one thing humans could claim a clear advantage in was on cognitive tasks.

Frankly, as an avid comic book fan I'm all for a "Gorilla Grod"-style scenario where a secret enclave of advanced apes hoard incredibly advanced technology. I think that'd be kind of cool.

Kimmitt said...

If you predicated whether or not they could eat on how well a person memorized the numbers, I guarantee you they'd put a chimp to shame.

Anonymous said...

kimmitt: most primate protocols do not allow the test subjects to be starved, in my experience. an IACUC board would typically not allow food or water restriction unless one was focusing research on the effects of food or water restriction, or some other experiment that absolutely required it. hence, the food rewards in this case were extremely likely (i havent read the actual paper, though) to be in addition to their regular monkey chow. also, your attempt at a witty rejoinder was not particularly witty. it was, however, profoundly ignorant and anthropocentric.

now stfu.

Jeff Hebert said...

Hey now, out here in the country we like to keep it civilized. I don't know if that's due to everyone having guns, or that everyone is going to end up depending on everyone else at some point, but I kind of like it that way.

Let's keep it polite.