Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The phenomenal power of the human mind

The phenomenal power of the human mind

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid! Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? Yaeh, and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt.

I received the above paragraph in an email today and was quite surprised at how easily I was able to read it. Whole words indeed. While the explanation may seem counter-intuitive, it actually fits well with my experience. As a crossword puzzle afficionado, I oftentimes find myself stuck for the longest time, only to realize that I had been misreading the clue. (“Imitate friendship?” What was I thinking?) Looking back, I’m sure that every time, I’ve always confounded the clue for another word with the same first and last letters. I’ll have to pay closer attention the next time it happens to me.

That mixed-up paragraph also reminded me of an article in Scientific American on the Expert Mind. The author, Philip Ross, discusses a study done by Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot that demonstrated that chess grandmasters could recall chessboard positions much better than novices.

De Groot also had his subjects examine a position for a limited period and then try to reconstruct it from memory. Performance at this task tracked game-playing strength all the way from novice to grandmaster. Beginners could not recall more than a very few details of the position, even after having examined it for 30 seconds, whereas grandmasters could usually get it perfectly, even if they had perused it for only a few seconds. This difference tracks a particular form of memory, specific to the kind of chess positions that commonly occur in play. The specific memory must be the result of training, because grandmasters do no better than others in general tests of memory.

While that may not seem at all surprising, the following study might. It starts to get to the heart of why grandmasters have such superior recall.

In the 1960s Herbert A. Simon and William Chase, both at Carnegie Mellon University, tried to get a better understanding of expert memory by studying its limitations. Picking up where de Groot left off, they asked players of various strengths to reconstruct chess positions that had been artificially devised--that is, with the pieces placed randomly on the board--rather than reached as the result of master play. The correlation between game-playing strength and the accuracy of the players' recall was much weaker with the random positions than with the authentic ones.

If this sounds confusing, or if you’re wondering what this all has to do with the shuffled-up words, perhaps this will explain.

Psychologist George Miller of Princeton University famously estimated the limits of working memory--the scratch pad of the mind--in a 1956 paper entitled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two." Miller showed that people can contemplate only five to nine items at a time. By packing hierarchies of information into chunks, Simon argued, chess masters could get around this limitation, because by using this method, they could access five to nine chunks rather than the same number of smaller details.

Take the sentence "Mary had a little lamb." The number of information chunks in this sentence depends on one's knowledge of the poem and the English language. For most native speakers of English, the sentence is part of a much larger chunk, the familiar poem. For someone who knows English but not the poem, the sentence is a single, self-contained chunk. For someone who has memorized the words but not their meaning, the sentence is five chunks, and it is 18 chunks for someone who knows the letters but not the words.

In other words, our brains are constantly using our experiences to create short cuts. We learn to recognize familiar patterns. When we later encounter the familiar pattern, our brains process it as a single bit of information, allowing us to streamline our thinking and be more efficient.

Hvae a wedrnoufl day!

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