Muck and Mystery
   Loitering With Intent
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February 20, 2011
More Divergence

There have been many posts here over the years that pointed out that the plague of priggish dwarfs that infest our institutions, especially in education, were dumbing down society and selectively advancing the least capable among us: the "grinds", the uncreative but disciplined automatons beloved by authoritarians. They confused conformism for cooperation, and made a host of other cognitive errors leading to the wholesale drugging of children who did not fit the desired template.

There is mounting scientific evidence of the error in such behavior.

The scientists measured the success of 60 undergraduates in various fields, from the visual arts to science. They asked the students if they'd ever won a prize at a juried art show or been honored at a science fair. In every domain, students who had been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder achieved more: Their inability to focus turned out to be a creative advantage.

And this lesson doesn't just apply to people with a full-fledged disorder. A few years ago, scientists at the University of Toronto and Harvard gave a short mental test to 86 Harvard undergraduates. The test was designed to measure their ability to ignore irrelevant stimuli, such as the air-conditioner humming in the background or the conversation taking place nearby. This skill is typically seen as an essential component of productivity, since it keeps people from getting distracted by extraneous information.

Here's where the data get interesting: Those undergrads who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as "eminent creative achievers" based on their previous accomplishments. (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.)

According to the scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness. Because these people struggled to filter the world, they ended up letting everything in. They couldn't help but be open-minded.

Such lapses in attention turn out to be a crucial creative skill. When we're faced with a difficult problem, the most obvious solution—that first idea we focus on—is probably wrong. At such moments, it often helps to consider far-fetched possibilities, to approach the task from an unconventional perspective. And this is why distraction is helpful: People unable to focus are more likely to consider information that might seem irrelevant but will later inspire the breakthrough. When we don't know where to look, we need to look everywhere.

See the earlier post Kids for an interesting short video on this subject which notes the mismatch between the methods and structure of our educational institutions, and the needs of many children.
This doesn't mean, of course, that attention isn't an important mental skill, or that attention-deficit disorders aren't a serious problem. There's clearly nothing advantageous about struggling in the classroom, or not being able to follow instructions. (It's also worth pointing out that these studies all involve college students, which doesn't tell us anything about those kids with ADHD who fail to graduate from high school. Distraction might be a cognitive luxury that not everyone can afford.)
I find it somewhat amusing that such mealy mouthed disclaimers often follow discussions of new findings that reveal the defects of current thinking about attentional issues. It may not be advantageous to struggle in the classroom, but there is mounting evidence that this is a defect of classrooms rather than kids. Following instructions isn't always, or even often, about education, it's about the assembly line approach to mass education designed to produce assembly line workers for Fordist industries that are an ever diminishing part of our manufacturing infrastructure.

It isn't just that this is aesthetically or ethically repugnant, it is also that it has contributed to our current dearth of innovation. This is always self sabotage but it has increased relevance at this time due to the numerous economic or even existential threats that we face.

Update: Science Process

If you want to learn to do science, with all the thrills of actually discovering anything, you are probably best to pick an area where people don’t already know all of the cheap answers … Does decreasing the length of my skirt increase the propensity of the cool students to talk to me? Does learning the piano as a child really make people happier later in life? Does Father Christmas exist? Do the other children hate me or are they just indifferent? What factors best cause my brothers to leave me alone? How much do my grades change if I do half an hour more or less homework each night? Does eating sugar all evening really keep me awake? How often will I really be approached by potential kidnappers if I hang out at the mall by myself after school? …

Most children and teenagers disagree with their parents, teachers and other adults on a large number of issues. Investigating those issues scientifically might have the added benefit of getting students in the habit of keeping their opinions related to reality. (more)

Given the typical expression on the typical student’s face, it is amazing that schools present themselves as sanctuaries of personal fulfillment, and sacred founts of creativity and innovation. School advocates imply: “All the great artists, scientists, etc. did well at school, and without school they’d be so much less.” But in fact schools arose with industry to get folks to accept the regimentation and ranking of the industrial workplace, and to curb natural human creativity, exploration, and challenging of authority. As Katja’s proposal’s illustrates, schools could in fact teach folks how to question common beliefs “scientifically,” if in fact authorities wanted common folks doing that sort of thing.
I would add that in the past, until very recently, schools had the books and for those who were truly capable that was very important. Schools were also where one could encounter other people to converse with about interesting subjects. With the advent of peer to peer ICT that is changing rapidly. In fact, there is so much new information being archived that there aren't enough people to examine and understand its significance. A lot of science can be done by mining that new data, and mining can be done by anyone from any place so long as the data is accessible.
The rapid growth of the flood of information in the last ten years made Wikipedia possible, and the same flood made twenty-first-century science possible. Twenty-first-century science is dominated by huge stores of information that we call databases. The information flood has made it easy and cheap to build databases. One example of a twenty-first-century database is the collection of genome sequences of living creatures belonging to various species from microbes to humans. Each genome contains the complete genetic information that shaped the creature to which it belongs. The genome data-base is rapidly growing and is available for scientists all over the world to explore. ...

A similar turning point was reached about the same time in the science of astronomy. Telescopes and spacecraft have evolved slowly, but cameras and optical data processors have evolved fast. Modern sky-survey projects collect data from huge areas of sky and produce databases with accurate information about billions of objects. Astronomers without access to large instruments can make discoveries by mining the databases instead of observing the sky. Big databases have caused similar revolutions in other sciences such as biochemistry and ecology. ...

The vision of the future as an infinite playground, with an unending sequence of mysteries to be understood by an unending sequence of players exploring an unending supply of information, is a glorious vision for scientists. ...

It isn't only academic scientists who can and will play with the unending supply of information. The scientific way of thinking is a tool that can and should be used by everyone, everyday.
Posted by back40 at 07:53 PM | cognition

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