Posts Tagged ‘aloof’

This first appeared on January 7, 2010, as a feature at ScientificBlogging.com.

“Respected expert and director of the institute…” These are the words you hear as you are being introduced at a black-tie speaking engagement. You are an inventor, scientist, or artist, and this flattering introduction is music to your ears; had you seen these words written in the paper you would have saved a copy to show Mom. Finally, you are at the place every creative mind wishes to reach. The words wash back over you. “Respected”: The members of your community appreciate you. “Expert”: Your more than twenty years of dedication to the field have not gone unnoticed. “Director”: You have powerful tools and competent personnel to support your efforts. And “Institute”: Your work has attracted the funding of government, benefactors or investors.

You are liked, smart, powerful and rich! You’ve really made it!

Or have you? As an artist, scientist or inventor, success is defined in terms of your ideas – how many did you have that panned out, and how many were big? Being liked, smart, powerful and rich may be nice, but one can have these things and not have had the ideas that count toward the successful creative life. In fact, these seemingly nice things – being respected in one’s community, being an expert, having powerful tools, and having financial support – are a scourge on one’s creative potential. In order to harvest your full creative potential one must be…indifferent.

Indifferent to one’s community, indifferent to one’s previous talents or successful endeavors, indifferent to the tools one might have thus far accrued, and indifferent to sources of funding. Masters of ceremonies at black-tie events are unlikely to introduce a speaker as “the not particularly well-respected jack-of-all-trades and luddite penny-pincher,” but that is the signature of the creative individual extraordinaire. The actual introduction by the master of ceremonies sounds much nicer than this, but it is the signature of a creativity that was long-ago crushed; it is a eulogy for the dynamic idea-generating person you never came to be.

But why would indifference be helpful to creativity? Indifference helps an individual’s creativity because it helps the brain act more like a community of brains, and it is communities of brains where we find the greatest success stories for idea generation. Scientific, artistic and engineering communities are fantastically creative because there are many individuals working in parallel, each competitively striving for the next great idea.

Although most individuals in a community may not be successful at finding the next big idea, there will inevitably be some individuals who will be successful, even if only by accident. Individual scientists, artists and engineers tend to be utterly unlike these dynamic communities. Individuals tend to work serially, not in parallel; and individuals tend to concentrate their digging in one spot, rather than many. These tendencies for individuals are fine for the health of a creative community, but if one wants to be a creative individual, then one must ensure that one’s strategy for digging optimizes one’s own chance at hitting gold.

That sounds simple enough: in order for an individual to act like a community of idea-seekers, one must just carry out multiple directions of idea-generation in parallel. Dig many holes, not just one. However, it is exceedingly difficult for people to actually do this. The difficulty is not intellectual – we are, in principle, able to act like a (small) community of idea-generating individuals. The difficulty, instead, is psychological. We may be the smartest animals on Earth, but we are still animals, great apes in particular.

As such, we come with a suite of psychological attributes that, although especially helpful for surviving and reproducing among other humans in our ancient evolutionary environment, handicap us as idea hunters. Our handicaps center around the fact that we cannot help but desire to be the “respected expert and director of the institute,” a desire that inevitably kills the internal community needed inside a creative individual, and, instead, places our mind firmly within an external creativity-smothering community. The cure is to become indifferent, detached, aloof. … from communities, money, tools and even oneself.

(See also this ScientificBlogging piece on the benefits of being aloof: http://www.scientificblogging.com/mark_changizi/value_being_aloof_or_how… .)

Aloofily yours,

Mark Changizi

Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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Benchfly’s Alan Marnett hit me with an in-depth interview Dec 16, 2009. In addition to getting into the science, the nice thing about the interview was the opportunity to talk about different ways of being a scientist. As you’ll see, I suggest being an aloof son-of-a-bitch, something I also talk about in this piece titled “How Not to Get Absorbed in Someone Else’s Abdomen“.


As research scientists, many of us spend a very large amount of time working on a very small subject.  In fact, it’s not unusual for a biochemist to go through their entire career without ever physically observing the protein or pathway they work on.  As we hyper-focus on our own niche of science, we run the risk of forgetting to take the blinders off to see where our slice of work fits in to the rest of the pie.


For Dr. Mark Changizi, assistant professor and author of The Vision Revolution, science starts with the pie.  We spoke with Dr. Changizi about why losing focus on the big picture can hurt our research, how autistic savants show us the real capacity of the brain and what humans will look like a million years from now.

BenchFly: Your book presents theories on questions ranging from why our eyes face forward to why we see in color.  Big questions.  As a kid, was it your attraction to the big questions that drew you into science?

Mark Changizi: I sometimes distinguish between two motivations for going into science. First there’s the “radio kid,” the one who takes apart the radio, is always fascinated with how things work, and is especially interested in “getting in there” and manipulating the world. And then there’s the “Carl Sagan kid,” the one motivated by the romantic what-does-it-all-mean questions. The beauty of Sagan’s Cosmos series is that he packaged science in such a way that it fills the more “religious” parts of one’s brain. You tap into that in a kid’s mind, and you can motivate them in a much more robust way than you can from a here’s-how-things-work motivation. I’m a Carl Sagan kid, and was specifically further spurred on by Sagan’s Cosmos. As long as I can remember, my stated goal in life has been to “answer the questions to the universe.”

While that aim has stayed constant, my views on what counts as “the questions to the universe” have changed. As a kid, cosmology and particle physics were where I thought the biggest questions lied. But later I reasoned that there were even more fundamental questions; even if physics were different than what we have in our universe, math would be the same. In particular, I became fascinated with mathematical logic and the undecidability results, the area of my dissertation. With those results, one can often make interesting claims about the ultimate limits on thinking machines. But it is not just math that is more fundamental than physics – that math is more fundamental than physics is obvious. In a universe without our physics, the emergent principles governing complex organisms and evolving systems may still be the same as those found in our universe. Even economic and political principles, in this light, may be deeper than physics: five-dimensional aliens floating in goo in a universe with quite different physics may still have limited resources, and may end up with the same economic and political principles we fuss over.

So perhaps that goes some way to explaining my research interests.

Tell us a little about both the scientific and thought processes when tackling questions that are very difficult to actually prove beyond a shadow of a doubt.

This is science we’re talking about, of course, not math, so nothing in science is proven in the strong mathematical sense. It is all about data supporting one’s hypothesis, and all about the parsimonious nature of the hypothesis.  Parsimony aims for explaining the greatest range of data with the simplest amount of theory. That’s what I aim for.

But it can, indeed, be difficult to find data for the kinds of questions I am interested in, because they often make predictions about a large swathe of data nobody has. That’s why I typically have to generate 50 to 100 ideas in my research notes before I find one that’s not only a good idea, but one for which I can find data to test it. You can’t go around writing papers without new data to test it. If you want to be a theorist, then not only can you not afford to spend the time to become an experimentalist to test your question, but most of your questions may not be testable by any set of experiments you could hope to do in a reasonable period of time. Often it requires pooling together data from across an entire literature.

In basic research we are often hyper-focused on the details.  To understand a complex problem, we start very simple and then assume we will eventually be able to assemble the disparate parts into a single, clear picture.  In essence, you think about problems in the opposite direction- asking the big questions up front.  Describe the philosophical difference between the two approaches, as well as their relationship in the process of discovery.

A lot of people believe that by going straight to the parts – to the mechanism – they can eventually come to understand the organism. The problem is that the mechanisms in biology were selected to do stuff, to carry out certain functions. The mechanisms can only be understood as mechanisms that implement certain functions. That’s what it means to understand a mechanism: one must say how the physical material manages to carry out a certain set of functional capabilities.

And that means one must get into the business of building and testing hypotheses about what the mechanism is for. Why did that mechanism evolve in the first place? There is a certain “reductive” strain within the biological and brain sciences that believes that science has no role for getting into questions of “why”. That’s “just so story” stuff.  Although there’s plenty of just-so-stories – i.e., bad science – in the study of the design and function of biological structure, it by no means needs to be. It can be good science, just like any other area of science. One just needs to make testable hypotheses, and then go test it. And it is not appreciated how often reductive types themselves are in the business of just-so-stories; e.g., computational simulators are concerned just with the mechanisms and often eschew worrying about the functional level, but then allow themselves a dozen or more free parameters in their simulation to fit the data.

So, you have got to attack the functional level in order to understand organisms, and you really need to do that before, or at least in parallel with, the study of the mechanisms.

But in order to understand the functional level, one must go beyond the organism itself, to the environment in which the animal evolved. One needs to devise and test hypotheses about what the biological structure was selected for, and must often refer to the world. One can’t just stay inside the meat to understand the meat.

Looking just at the mechanisms is not only not sufficient, but will tend to lead to futility. An organism’s mechanisms were selected to function only when the “inputs” were the natural ones the organism would have encountered. But when you present a mechanism with an utterly unnatural input, the meat doesn’t output, “Sorry, that’s not an ecologically appropriate input.” (In fact, there are results in theoretical computer science saying that it wouldn’t be generally possible to have a mechanism capable of having such a response.) Instead, the mechanism does something. If you’re studying the mechanism without an appreciation for what it’s for, you’ll have teems and teems of mechanistic reactions that are irrelevant to what it is designed for, but you won’t know it.

The example I often use is the stapler. Drop a stapler into a primitive tribe, and imagine what they do to it. Having no idea what it’s for, they manage to push and pull its mechanisms in all sorts of irrelevant ways. They might spend years, say, carefully studying the mechanisms underlying why it falls as it does when dropped from a tree, or how it functions as crude numchucks. There are literally infinitely many aspects of the stapler mechanism that could be experimented upon, but only a small fraction are relevant to the stapler’s function, which is to fasten paper together.

In explaining why we see in color, you suggest that it allows us to detect the subtleties of complex emotions expressed by humans – such as blushing.  Does this mean colorblind men actually have a legitimate excuse for not understanding women?!

…..to see my answer, and the rest of the interview, go to Benchfly.

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Male anglerfish are born with an innate desire to not exist. As soon as a male reaches maturity, he acquires an urge to find a female, sink his teeth into her, and grow into her. This evolved because anglerfish live in the dark ocean abyss with few mating opportunities. By giving up his life to be part of the female, the male can reproduce more often. It’s not clear he can appreciate all the sex he’s getting, however, because much of his body and brain atrophies and fuses with her body. Nevertheless, that’s where male anglerfish want to be – that’s a full male anglerfish life. And you thought you had problems. At least you’re not partially absorbed in someone else’s abdomen. Let’s toast our fortune: We are not male anglerfish!

See http://powerfodder.tumblr.com/post/292745035/will-carey-anglerfish-changizi-community

Creative community of anglerfish trying to absorb you. (Will Carey)

Or are we? Although we have no innate drive to stick our heads into the sides of other people, we do have a drive to stick our heads into groups of people – into communities, tribes, villages and clubs. We’re social primates, and a full human life is centered on the communities we’re in, and our place within them. There aren’t many hermits, and most that are probably wish they weren’t. Communities of people have bulls-eyes on them that are irresistible to us humans. Although communities are necessary for a full life – e.g., family, bowling league, and civil war reenactment society – there are some communities that are especially damaging to one’s creative health. Creative communities – they are the creativity killers. For scientists, for example, their female anglerfish is the community of scientists, a community which is creative as a whole, but which tends to snuff out the creativity of individuals within it. Not only are these creative communities dangerous to one’s creativity, but they seductively attract creativity-seeking individuals into them like moths to a creativity-scorching flame.

That creative communities are alluring to the aspiring creativity maven is not surprising: we all want friends who understand what we do and appreciate our accomplishments. What is surprising, and is not widely recognized, is the extent to which these creative communities are destructive. The problem for the male anglerfish is that his entire world becomes shrunken down, from a three-dimensional world of objects and adventures to a zero-dimensional world of gamete-release. The problem for us is that we’re equipped with a brain that, upon being placed within a community, reacts by severely shrinking its view of the world. Once the psychological transformation has completed, one’s view of the world has become so radically constricted that one cannot see the world beyond the community.

The source of this shrinkage is something called “adaptation,” or “habituation.” When you walk from a bright sunny street to a dimly lit pub, the pub initially feels entirely dark inside. After a while, however, your eyes habituate to the low light level, and you see it as highly varied in light level: it looks dark inside that mouse-hole in the wall, bright where the uncovered light bulb is, and, scattered around the room, you see dozens of other light-levels spanning the dark-light range. This is clearly advantageous for you, because you effectively began as blind in the pub, and minutes later could see. In order to make it happen, though, you underwent a kind of “world shrinkage,” in particular a kind of “luminance shrinkage,” where luminance refers to the amount of light coming toward your eye from different directions around you. When you first entered the pub, all the differing luminance levels in the pub were treated by your visual system as pretty much the same, namely “very very dark”; at that point in time your eyes were habituated to the wide world of luminances found on a sunny day outside. The “sunny” world of luminances differs in two respects from the “pub” world of luminances. First, the average luminance in sunny world is much higher than that in pub world. Second, and more important for our purposes here, sunny world has a much wider range of luminances than in pub world – from the high luminance of a sun-reflecting car windshield to the low luminance of the gaps in a sewer grating. Our eyes have the ability not only to adapt to new light levels (e.g., high versus low), but also to new levels of variability (e.g., wide versus narrow). When you habituate from sunny world to pub world, your eyes and visual system treat the tiny range of luminance levels found in pub world as if they are just as wide as the range of luminances found in sunny world. Your entire perceptual space for brightness has shrunk down to apply to what is a miniscule world in terms of luminance. This kind of world shrinkage is one of the many engineering features that make mammals like us so effective. All our senses are built with these adaptation mechanisms at work, and not just for simple features like luminance or color, but also complex images like faces.

In fact, our heads are teeming with world-shrinking mechanisms that go far beyond our senses, invading the way we think and reason. When we enter a creative community, varieties of adaptation mechanisms are automatically elicited inside us, helping to illuminate the intellectual world inside the community. Ideas within the community that were impossible for us to distinguish become stark oppositions. Similar mechanisms are played out for our social world – the hierarchies we care to climb, and the people we care to impress. At first we don’t appreciate the status differences within the hierarchy, even if we abstractly know them; but eventually we come to “feel” the gulf between each tier. While having these mechanisms is fundamental to our success in tribes, and was thus selected for, our creative integrity was not on the evolutionary ledger. Creative communities are dank pubs, and once we’ve optimized ourselves to living on the inside, our full range of reasoning is brought to bear on a narrow spectrum of ideas, a spectrum that we’re under the illusion is as wide as it can be. And so we don’t realize the world has shrunk at all.

Mark Changizi is Professor of Cognitive Science at RPI, the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella, 2009) and The Brain from 25,000 Feet (Kluwer, 2003), and is aloof.

[A nice story somewhat related to this in ScienceDaily.]

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