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Just a science blog: "Why Our Brains Love Origins"

Discussion in 'Other Health News and Research' started by Esther12, Apr 15, 2012.

  1. Esther12

    Esther12 Senior Member

    I suspect that these sorts of factors have played an important role in determining the medical response to currently unexplained symptoms... but that could just be a narrative I've created for myself.


    (It starts with an image of Apple Computer's logo)

    Hunters of Myths: Why Our Brains Love Origins

    A stylized apple with a bite taken out of its right side: chances are, even if you dont own a single Apple product, you would still recognize the ubiquitous logo. But have you ever paused to consider the symbols origin?

    Perhaps its Adam and Eve and the quest for knowledge, the apple a symbol of new discovery, with subtle undertones of lust for ever-growing innovation. Or maybe, Isaac Newton, sitting under an apple tree when the apocryphal falling fruit prompted his theory of gravity. Or maybe, its another story entirely: that of Alan Turing, the shy British mathematician who is embraced as the founding father of computer science and artificial intelligence both.

    Two years after Turing was tried for indecency for a romantic liaison with a 19-year-old malethe exact same charge, incidentally, that was levied against his compatriot Oscar Wilde in 1895, over half a century earlierand then forced to undergo hormonal therapy to temper his indecent urges (the effective equivalent of male castration), he committed suicideby biting a cyanide-laced apple. Body and apple both were found the next day. Turing was just two weeks shy of his 42nd birthday.

    Turing was a brilliant man. He was instrumental to breaking the Nazis Enigma Code during World War II, an advance which shortened the war by any number of years. He put forth the vision of the universal computing machinethen nothing more than an abstract conceptthat served as the inspiration and blueprint for the development of the computer. He was the eponymous creator of the Turing Test, which marked the dawn of Artificial Intelligence. And all this, in just four decades of life. What better person to choose as the inspiration for a company based on visionary innovation, a force that forges ahead in its own idiosyncratic fashion regardless of public opinion? And the imagery of the rainbow stripes inside the original logocould it be any more perfect?

    Unfortunately, the story doesnt hold up. None of them do. The symbol was a creation of the mind of one art director, Rob Janoff. The tale of Turing as inspiration was never and had never been true. (In fact, Janoff had never even heard of Turing when he began work on the design.)

    But thats not the interesting part. Whats more striking to me is that Steve Jobs never denied the story of Turing-as-muse, even when asked about it head on. Instead, he just looked enigmatic.*

    Why did Jobs choose to keep silent, when it would have been so easy to respond? Why did he let the rumors keep circulating, the questions keep coming?

    Jobs, it seems, understood intuitively an important facet of our minds: we like to know where things come from. We like stories. We like nice tales. We need our myths, our origins, our creations. It would be disappointing to know that the apple was nothing more than an appleand the bite, a last-minute addition to clarify scale, so that it was clear that we were seeing an apple and not a cherry. And that rainbow? A representation of a screens color bars, since the Apple II was the first home computer that could reproduce color images on its monitor.

    How boring. How much of a letdown. Far better to have a storyand the better the story, the better for us.

    So uncomfortable is it for us if something doesnt have a cause that we strive to determine one, one way or the other, even absent the necessary evidence. In other words, no one even needs to suggest that Turing may have inspired the Apple logo for us to come up with that explanationor another one, for that matter, should our brain decide something else works best at the momentspontaneously. As philosopher David Hume observed in 1740, Causality is the cement of the universe.

    Psychologist Tania Lombrozo argues that such impromptu causal explanations are critical to our everyday cognition. They contribute to improvements in learning. They can foster further exploration and idea generation. They can help us form coherent beliefs and generalize about phenomenaand then use those beliefs to understand, predict, and control future occurrences and, in turn, form new beliefs. Gestalt psychologist Fritz Heider put it this way: If I find sand on my desk, I shall want to find out the underlying reason for this circumstance. I make this inquiry not because of idle curiosity, but because only if I refer this relatively insignificant offshoot event to an underlying core event will I attain a stable environment and have the possibility of controlling it.

    Explanations can even enhance our own comprehension: when we explain something to someone, we understand it better ourselves. Its called the self-explanation effect and has been demonstrated numerous times in the real world. For instance, students who explain textbook material perform better on tests of that material than those who study it twice. Students who are trained in self-explanation perform better on math problem-solving testsand are better able to learn new mathematical concepts. And hows this for a story: when Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman passed away in 1988, after a struggle with cancer, these words graced his blackboard: What I cannot create, I do not understand. His final injunction to his students and the world.

    But explanations may need no further explanation, so to speak, than themselves: they are just inherently so very satisfying. In fact, development psychologist Alison Gopnik has proposed that coming up with explanations may be so fulfilling in its own right that it motivates us to engage in more substantial reasoning. She compares the effect to that of an orgasm, writing From our phenomenological point of view, it may seem to us that we construct and use theories in order to achieve explanations or have sex in order to achieve orgasm. From an evolutionary point of view, however, the relationship is reversed: we experience orgasms and explanations to ensure that we make babies and theories.

    Explanation is natural, just as it is spontaneous. Children as old as eight give explanations for all matters of phenomena as a matter of course. Lombrozo calls them promiscuously teleological: explaining things by the purpose they serve instead of digging deeper for meaning (i.e., they are more likely to say that a mountain exists to be climbed and not because of some geological forces that happened to shape the earth a certain way). And we never really outgrow this childhood tendencyin fact, we revert to it if we suffer cognitive decline, with diseases such as Alzheimers, and even if we are simply feeling stressed or distracted. When in doubt, our brain takes the easiest route to determining causality, and it does so quickly and authoritatively.

    Some types of explanations are more satisfying to our minds than others. Simpler ones, as a rule, win out over more complicated: We will take the more direct of two equally good explanationsand may even overturn a slightly better but more complex one for a slightly worse but more straightforward one. And the more coherent, the more story-like and narrative-driven, the better especially if it also explains a number of factors at once. To go back to the Apple logo, the Alan Turing story is the most intuitively appealing because it has more of a narrative arc and can account for elements that are missing from both the Adam and Eve and the Newton explanations: the rainbow, in both cases, and the bite in the latter.


    Steve Jobss silence was truly perceptive. Sometimes, its just better to let natural human tendencies take over and start weaving tales, true or not, that will help people understand and relate to you better than anything you say ever could.

    Consider the ending of this 2007 piece on Turing at The Guardian:

    But my favourite tribute to Alan Turing may well be staring you in the face. Although never officially acknowledged, the Apple computer logo is often presumed to be not a reference to Adam and Eve, or even Sir Isaac Newton, but to the sad death of and great debt owed to Alan Turing.

    Now doesnt that make for a far more satisfying ending than the far more prosaic truth?

    2012 marks the centennial of Alan Turings birth. A number of events commemorate the occasion, including the Turing Centennial Celebration at Princeton, where he earned his PhD.

    *Reader Ian Watson has pointed out that in December 2011, Stephen Fry said, in an episode of the BBCs QI XL, that Jobs did tell him that the story wasnt true. Still, Jobs never went on record saying that; all we have is this reference to a private conversation. In public, as far as I know Jobs never debunked the myth.

    Lombrozo, T. (2011). The Instrumental Value of Explanations Philosophy Compass, 6 (8), 539-551 DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2011.00413.x

    Lombrozo, T. (2006). The structure and function of explanations Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10 (10), 464-470 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2006.08.004
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  2. ahimsa

    ahimsa Rarely on PR now

    Thanks for posting that story! I do remember the story about Turing and the apple from a wonderful play called "Breaking the Code" (made into a movie later). I did not know that some people thought the Apple symbol was a tribute to him.
  3. Merry

    Merry Senior Member

    Columbus, Ohio, USA
    Very interesting, Esther.

    I never wondered, however, about the "origin" of the Apple computer logo, never got beyond thinking of it simply as a pleasing design. That anyone would link that design to the suicide of Alan Turing strikes me as odd, morbid. But I have thought about how our brains constantly create stories. Yes, I'm sure you are right that doctors do this all the time when hearing a patient's list of symptoms.
  4. Esther12

    Esther12 Senior Member

    Yeah - but it's hard to know if we're now making stories about them making stories! It's difficult to stay sceptical and cautious about one's beliefs of others (and everything else!).

    Unsurprisingly, it's the narratives pleasing to those in power and authority which tend to get imposed upon others, so those of us fortunate enough to be without any power and influence can probably get away with a bit more speculation.
  5. Merry

    Merry Senior Member

    Columbus, Ohio, USA
    Yes, that is my understanding -- the story I've put together -- of the process doctors go through to make a diagnosis. It can be that a doctor is good at pulling together the clues in a short time, the elements of a possible narrative, and then may order appropriate tests that either expand the narrative with confirmation or contradict it. A diagnosis would be based on a template that the doctor learned in medical school or through experience. A very good doctor would be alert to elements in the patient's story that don't fit the doctor's preconceived notions; the doctor stops and thinks, "This is something new."

    My negative personal experience of doctors' tale telling is whenever I've looked at my medical records I've been annoyed at the jumping to conclusions and editorializing of the doctors, of taking my words (or mishearing) and assessing my demeanor (in a doctor's office I am hardly at my best!) and then constructing a story about my life that is off the mark. :eek:

    Is the doctor in a position of power to impose a narrative? Maybe. Sometimes. Often. I like this that you wrote: ". . . so those of us fortunate enough to be without any power and influence can probably get away with a bit more speculation." Funny.

    By coincidence, I started to read this afternoon The New Hate: Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right by Arthur Goldway, and not far into the book he writes:

    "People are pattern seekers and storytellers; it's a fundamental aspect of our nature. We ponder events and try to make sense of them; we transform otherwise dry chronicles into narratives with beginnings, middle, and ends, heroes and villains, and, most importantly, universally applicable lessons and morals." He goes on: "In its more objective manifestations, the systematic study of causes and effects, that same proclivity for storytelling provides a foundation for philosophy and science. At its least rigorous, it gives rise to sexist and racist pseudoscience -- to anecdote-driven studies that purport to prove that girls are bad at math or that black people are genetically disposed to low IQs. . . ."
  6. Xandoff

    Xandoff Michael

    Northern Vermont
    I always thought that the Beatles or John Lennon came up with the Apple as LOGO or ICON. The white album came out in 1969 with a green apple on one side of the label and a halved apple on the "B" side.

    A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.
    John Lennon


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