Category Archives: Psychology

Time Warped by Claudia Hammond

Review: Time Warped by Claudia Hammond (Harper Perennial, 2013)

Time Warped by Claudia HammondAs Einstein famously noted in reference to relativity, put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour but sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. Time is rigid, immutable. Immune to our machinations it marches by (or do we march through it?) with no regard for our attempts to manipulate it. Why then does it seem so flexible? Why, as I pass the halfway mark in my expected lifespan, does it seem that the minutes stretch out but the months vanish as if they were never there? In Time Warped: Unlocking The Mysteries of Time Perception Claudia Hammond, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind series takes a look at the working’s of our grey matter to discern what causes our subjective view of such a fundamental part of our existence to vary so wildly.

Thanks to her experience on the radio and psychology background, Hammond has a wealth of knowledge from which to draw when it comes to her subject matter. Through the course of the book she bombards you with study after study demonstrating just how precarious our grasp on time really is. For example, were you aware that if you believe that people have a high opinion of you then time will seem to pass far quicker? Yes, experimental evidence confirms that something as simple as our self-esteem can have a dramatic effect on subjective timespans.

Or consider this simple thought experiment. Imagine it’s the weekend. You had a meeting scheduled for Wednesday but you hear that it’s been “moved forward two days”. Is the meeting on Monday or Friday? Your answer determines whether you see yourself as moving through time or time as marching inexorably toward you. This in turn has quite the effect on your general outlook on life and mental well-being.

Through these and countless other examples, Time Warped does its best to get to the bottom of such strange findings. The subject matter is pretty expansive so it seems meandering at times but it’s always eventually dragged back to the point. And it’s not all just theoretical musings. In the closing chapter Hammond lists eight problems which people may experience in terms of their perceptions of time’s passing – passing too slowly, too quickly, etc – and suggests practical methods to counter them.

One minor niggle I had was with the author’s obsession with their own pet theory, the ‘holiday paradox’. You know how time flashes by while on holiday but once you’re back home it seems like you were away forever? Of course you do, everyone does. yet Hammond seems to think she just discovered it and rarely lets more than 10 pages go by without at least one mention of ‘her’ paradox. But hey, she’s the author so she gets to big herself up. It’s small beer when compared to the bulk of a book which does an admirable job of tackling a subject which could easily have taken up several books rather than just one. While I would have preferred a more in-depth treatment, Time Warped is a great read for anyone with a casual interest in how our brains handle the fourth dimension.

Buy Time Warped from Harper Collins

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How We Learn by Benedict Carey

How We Learn by Benedict CareyReview: How We Learn by Benedict Carey (Random House, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for providing the ARC of this title.

Teaching is a significantly more vexing job than the vast majority of non-teachers may assume. I’m not even a certified teacher, just an ESL drone in Taiwan slaving away at a cram school, but the task is onerous nonetheless. I mean aside from the lesson planning, the crowd control, the constant quest for variety, the caffeine addiction and daily having to deal with an onslaught of proto-humans and the feckless creatures who spawned them, there’s one burning question I face time and time again: “Why isn’t it bloody well sinking in???”

Okay, okay, I know the answers. Laziness, lack of interest, overschooling in a shoddy system and absentee parents cover most of my charges. But then I turn the question back on my own floundering attempts to gain some level of fluency in Mandarin. Why so many mental blocks when I’m so desperate to reach my goal? Why, despite my best efforts, does my brain seem so intent on jettisoning every new character, every grammatical construct I try to cram in there?

In How We Learn (The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens), NYT science reporter Benedict Carey peers behind the brain’s curtain to uncover just what goes on during the process of education. Keenly aware of the ocean of folk wisdom and old wive’s tales surrounding learning and retention he attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff and come out with a working model which will be useful to students and teachers alike.

The book kicks off with a brief, layman-friendly look at the neuroscience of learning. Without going into any scary detail, Carey gives us an enlightening tour of the physical mechanisms which come into play when trying to cram a new skill or set of dates into our crania. However, this is just by way of an introduction. Soon he gets on to the meat of the matter and the part in which most readers are doubtless interested: how do we make it work better?

Much of How We Learn takes the form of holding pieces of time-worn ‘wisdom’ up to the harsh light of scientific study (padded by Carey’s own enthusiastic personal anecdotes for some light relief) and seeing how they hold up. Take routine for example. Everyone and their gran knows that if you want to get some serious learning done you sit yourself down in your learning chair, turn off the music and totally immerse yourself in exactly the same way you did the day before. Bzzzt! Wrong! It transpires that a lack of variety in the learning environment can actually be an impediment to successful retention and recall of information. In the real world we’re seldom going to be using the information we ingest in exactly the same environment or on the same schedule. Injecting variety into the study schedule acknowledges this fact and strengthens our ability to dredge the subject matter back up whenever we need it.

And so it goes for myth after myth. It turns out that forgetting is actually good for you, strengthening the memory in a manner not unlike the tearing of muscle fibre being used to beef up the body. The repair system itself makes us stronger. Or what about cramming the night before an exam? Well, it does indeed work – in the short term. However, give it a few weeks and you’ll be struggling to even remember what was on the exam paper. What about doing your studies every day, simply pounding in those facts till they stay in place? Nope, spaced repetition is the key as any student who has attempted to use an online language learning tool will doubtless be aware.

To Carey’s credit, How We Learn is scrupulously backed up with references. This isn’t some flimsy, new-age book – it’s all based in hard science and experimentation. However it’s presented in such a way as to make it both immediately accessible to those needing a boost in their study endeavours and deep enough to satisfy the curiosity of educators. I’m already working on ways to incorporate his findings and advice into my classes, boss’s approval pending. Definitely worth a read no matter which side of the educational fence you’re currently occupying.


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Thinking, Fast And Slow

Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel KahnemanReview: Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)

Before we start, try a little experiment. You’re going to need some walking space, nothing more. Start walking, get a nice steady pace going. Now, try to find the answer to this sum: “2+2=?” Did you manage it? Unless you’re the kind of mouth-breather who has trouble manoeuvring a knife and fork at the same time then it should have posed no problem. Now, get your stroll on again. Try this one on for size: “23×42=?” Those of you with exceptional gifts for mental arithmetic may have managed it, for the rest of us mere mortals it caused us to at least break our stride and probably stop altogether. In fact, unbeknownst to us our heartrates increased and our pupils noticeably dilated.

In Thinking, Fast And Slow Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman gives us a guided tour of two distinct mental systems we constantly and unconsciously use for processing different kinds of data. System 1 gives us an up-to-date picture of our surroundings, dealing with easy problems and reacting at lightning speed – you might be tempted to call it ‘instinct’. System 2 on the other hand is concerned with the trickier situations and requires a great deal more energy, hence the discomfort caused when attempting the second calculation. It’s more aligned with what we’d call our logical and rational selves, as opposed to the more emotional character of System 1. Though we are aware of neither in our daily lives, nor of the switching between them, they guide our every action and, as Kahneman takes great relish in demonstrating, lead us into all manner of cognitive biases.

Kahneman orders his book into a series of discussions on the various heuristics, or mental shortcuts, which System 1 will take in order to keep us comfortable. It turns out that we always prefer to be lazy, no matter how diligent we profess to be. System 1 will always take whatever shortcuts it can to minimise effort, response times and anxiety. (And don’t worry if it sounds like we have two autonomous homunculi controlling our lives, it’s just easy shorthand to help us understand our mental operations.)

One of the easiest to demonstrate is the availability heuristic. A wonderful yet grisly  example of this heuristic at work is the United States immediately following the 9/11 attacks (taken from Dan Gardner’s wonderful Risk: The Science And Politics Of Fear). The media during that period was pushing one transport-related story only – planes are bad. The images of the burning towers were everywhere you looked. Everyone knows the death toll, the 3,000 who lost their lives that day. Few are aware that in the following year over half that number again died on America’s roads as a direct result of choosing to drive instead of fly.

In the terminology of Thinking, Fast and Slow, this was an error of System 1. It was asked the question, “Should I fly or drive to this meeting?” but instead of passing the work on to meticulous but labour-intensive System 2, it substituted another question instead. It asked “What information about flying is close to hand?” The answer was obvious, yet the information to hand failed to mention that flying remained a far safer option than driving. The results of 1,600 such errors speak for themselves.

Throughout the rest of the book Kahneman details several other such heuristics which lead us down alleyways of faulty logic. The framing heuristic determines how a slight and logically insignificant change in the wording of a statement or question can have massive differences in our reactions to it. Would you prefer a medical treatment which would give you a 90% chance of living or one which gives you a 10% chance of dying? Depends which system is at work. There is also loss aversion, a remarkably powerful heuristic whose operation results in the stunning and repeatedly demonstrated fact that optimists are healthier, happier and live longer that pessimists. (Unfortunately reading this made me even more of a pessimist. Thanks Daniel.). By combining studies of loss aversion, overconfidence and our tendency to simplify the world around us, Thinking, Fast And Slow manages to unite all manner of previously inexplicable human behaviour under one relatively simple explanation.

Don’t worry, though, it’s not all bad news. Kahneman is at pains to point out that for the vast majority of our lives Systems 1 and 2 perform their assigned tasks immaculately. Our continued existence is testament to their efficacy. The main point he wishes to drive home is that with some effort we can become more aware of their failings. With this in mind we can hope to reduce our own susceptibility to cognitive biases, although as a disclaimer he does note that it is far, far easier to notice these shortcomings in others and hence this book is aimed more at ‘gossips and critics’. Despite this warning, anyone interested in skepticism, critical thinking and psychology should devour this book and start spreading the word.

Then start annoying their friends with calls of “Ha, your System 1 is a jerk!”.

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