Week 19 (12 – 16 March) Problem Solving & Decision Making

Problem Solving & Decision Making

This has been a subject that has long fascinated me, but any time I delve into the literature, I am left feeling deeply bored. I guess, I want more to solve puzzles and problems than read about how psychologists have dissected how we solve problems.

That is until recently. Two years ago in an airport bookstore in Bangkok, I found the the book, How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. It is a fascinating volume, quite outside of the AP Psychology syllabus, which is too bad because it sheds more light on problem solving and decision making than the dry discussions of expertise and heuristics and biases found in our textbook does.

In the book, Lehrer reviews the recent findings in neurocognitive psychology regarding both problem solving and decision making. He takes the, by now, conventional approach of relating an interesting personal narrative of someone experiencing the topic of the chapter, and then, he discusses the neurology and cognitive psychology that explains the behavior.

Problem Solving

Victims of the Mann Gulch Fire (from http://www.honoringheroes.com)

He relates the story of Wag Dodge who as a smokejumper in 1940’s and 1950’s had jumped with his crew into the Mann Gulch river valley to fight a small fire. Upon their arrival, however, they found that the fire had gotten out of control. Dodge did not trust the fire; it was much larger than they were told but heading away from them.

Since they were too few to effectively fight a fire of such a size, the men moved down into the gulch and simply watched the blaze. As evening fell, the wind shifted and started blowing the fire towards them. At this point, the flames began leaping 60 meters into the air, and the fire grew to 1,500 meters wide, and almost 1,000 meters deep. At its center, the fire was over 1,000° Celsius — hot enough to melt rocks. Dodge ordered his men to drop their gear and retreat up the steep side of the gorge.

At this point the fire covered 1,200 hectares in 10 minutes. The fire was now a firestorm, moving at over 60 km/hr and roaring like a freight train. The rising heat started sucking the air in front of it causing the men to run into a head wind slowing them even further. Dodge could feel the heat of the fire scorching his back.

Diagram of the Mann Gulch Fire (from http://wildfiretoday.com)

Dodge yelled for his men to stop and follow his directions, but they could not hear him over the roar of the flames and wind. He realized they could not outrun the fire. There was no escape. Then, he took out his matches and lit a grass fire. After the flames burned an area large enough to lie in, he covered himself with his fire blanket (designed to resist flame and heat), and waited for the fire to pass over him.

Thirteen of the sixteen men there died. The fire overtook them as they climbed the ridge. Dodge lived through the ordeal because the flames could not touch him because there was nothing left around him to burn. The buffer was enough to allow his blanket to insulate against the terrific heat. Two others did essentially the same thing as he did: they had wedged themselves into rocky outcroppings and covered themselves with their fire blankets.

How did Dodge come up with his unique method of surviving the fire? He had no algorithm or heuristic to guide him, although smokejumpers now learn his technique as part of their training. First, he contained his panic which causes you to experience perceptual narrowing where you begin to focus only on the essentials. He realized that their initial instinct to run from the fire, even if fueled by their adrenaline, would not save them. Then, his limbic system (seat of emotions) stopped interfering with his thoughts allowing him to use his prefrontal cortex to evaluate his options. Once he thought of his solution, he realized he had nothing to loose.

Ariel photo of Mann Gulch showing where the bodies were found (from http://www.fireleadership.gov)

A body of one of the smokejumpers is carried from Mann Gulch (from http://www.bozeman-magpie.com)

Robert Sulley in 2005, the last survivor of the fire (from http://www.whitefishpilot.com)

Week 18 (5 – 9 March): Language

English: Basic sketch of brain areas involved ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of my greatest loves is language. I am constantly amazed at how language can move me emotionally, my adoration of well crafted phrase, or the perfection with which a scene or a character can be described. Language can capture our thoughts, desires, emotions. Yet, it can be so inadequate for the task also.

Watching my now seven year-old daughter learn French, English, and Vietnamese has very aptly demonstrated the critical period of language. Starting at about the age of two, she has been a language sponge. She absorbs words, meaning, concepts, and phrases. Her pronunciation of each language is perfect. She also is the perfect demonstration of productive versus receptive language: she understands far more in Vietnamese than she is able to express.

During the naming explosion, she was a Krakatoa of words. She spewed so many words so fast that she figuratively lit up our home with parental pride. She acquired grammar at an amazing rate. She overgeneralizes like all children do, but responds quickly, accurately, and even almost permanently to correction. Her time spent in telegraphic speech was very short. She went almost directly from one word to three words to grammatical speech.

My own experience learning foreign languages has taught me that after the critical period it is not easy at all to learn language. My ability to decode tones (Wernicke’s area) is quite limited. You may have noticed my struggles with spelling during class. In part, these problems are due to my inability to distinguish vowel sounds very easily. I also have trouble detecting the subtle differences that doubling a consonant makes when pronouncing a word. Consequently, I am reduced to guessing or remembering the spelling of words. Thank goodness for spell checkers!

Once I’ve learned the pronunciation of a specific word or phrase, though, I can repeat it with amazing accuracy. In Korea, I often fooled the Korean spouses of my friends by calling them up and asking for them in Korean. I often would hear the following exchange, “Honey, it’s for you!” “Who is it?” “I don’t know… some Korean.” Once past the greeting and request, though, my pronunciation gave me away.

I accept that the languages we speak do not significantly alter our thinking, but they do influence our thoughts. Mostly in social ways: how do you define or recognize a problem? What do you consider for solutions. Who do you ask for help? By living in non-American cultures, I directly experience the definition of a problem by individuals on an almost daily basis. For example, I am not always happy with how my housekeeper responds to situations in our home. She will leave light bulbs unchanged and tissue boxes unreplaced. As long as there is light from somewhere and tissue somewhere, they are not pressing problems.  Or, she may just be waiting for me to ask her to do them. However, I look at them as obvious things that I would want her to replace without me asking her to. It seems to me that any and every housekeeper would be safe in assuming that these are things to be done as a normal progression of her job in caring for our house.

The problem is, of course, is it the culture that shaped the thinking and language, the language that shaped the thinking and culture, or the thinking that shaped the language and culture. And, does it matter?


Week 17 (27 March – 2 April): Memory

I really like memory as a psychology topic; it is something we can all relate to. After all, we all are conscious of trying to remember things, the strategies we use to remember things, forgetting, and what memory does for us. It’s weird reflecting on how much is going on in our brains to support doing the simplest things; it never fails to leave me awestruck and feeling a little foolish since I feel like we waste so much of our potential doing trivial things like remembering all the movies that Justin Bieber has been in but not being able to remember the seven sins of memory!

With a little work, though, we can improve our memories. I remember being in university and being very frustrated by constantly loosing my keys in my house and spending too much time searching for them. One day, I stood there in my apartment and thought, all I need to do is be aware of where I put them. The next time I put my keys down, I paused, looked at them, and said, “they’re right there!” I remembered where they were. Then, I made a place for them by the door. I put them there every time and I don’t misplace them nearly as much.

I extended this practice. I often put something down nowadays and pause and think, “I could easily forget where this is, but now I’ll remember it is right here.” Just that pause and focus on what it is and where it is helps me fix it in my memory just long enough to find it again. This is a good example of absent-mindedness and how to overcome it. It takes concentration and a bit of discipline.

It is funny that for me, just saying to myself, “I’m not going to forget this,” I don’t forget it. I do this often with appointments and deadlines. Somehow that clarity of mind helps me consolidate the memory and then retrieve it. Perhaps it also creates a cue concerning the date, time, or place so that when I think of the date, time, or place, I remember that I have something to remember and retrieve it. Does that make sense?

Another thing I like to do is rehearsal. I go over things over and over and over again. It helps that I run distance. You have a lot of time. I run for an hour or more five times a week. That is five to ten hours a week where all I have to do is THINK. It is great rehearsal time. I go back over the events from my day, upcoming plans, everything. This kind of review and rehearsal helps me fight transience and later blocking. I can produce meaningful organization in my thoughts by linking things together and figuring out how they are similar and how they are dissimilar. I find that the strength of these links helps me to recall and not just recognize.

Just now I ran through the Seven Sins of Memory. Know what I used? Our method of loci: the alphabet:

  • A: Absent-mindedness
  • B: Blocking
  • C: Creative memories (suggestibility)
  • D: Distortion
  • E: pErsistence
  • F: Fading (transience)
  • G: George Harrison (misattribution)

One last thing, reconstructive! The idea of memory being reconstructive gets me every time because it gives me that image of “chaining” through your mind. Chaining being following on link in a chain to the next. So, you go from the visual image that is part of the memory, to the auditory, to the sensation, to the thoughts that are associated with it. Using each link to get to the next. The image for me of taking the disparate parts of a memory that are stored in the various cerebral cortices and then reconstructing the memory in my pre-frontal cortex helps me remember things. Maybe it gives me confidence that I can do it. Or maybe the image helps me strengthen the links.

Reconstruction of memory then makes each memory vulnerable to distortion. All you have to do is make a small mistake in the pieces that you are putting together and you’ve distorted or misattributed or suggested something to yourself and then the memory is inaccurate.

Don’t be in such a hurry to “learn” all of this stuff about memory that you don’t take a moment to have fun with it!