YANSS 043 – The Science of Misremembering with Julia Shaw and Daniel Simons

The Topic: Misremembering

The Guests: Julia Shaw and Daniel Simons

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Blurry Williams Brian

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Did Brian Williams lie, exaggerate, or misremember?

If he originally reported the truth behind the events in Iraq more than a decade ago, and those events were filmed and broadcast on the nightly news, then why didn’t he fact-check himself before going on national television and recounting a false version of those same events? Surely, as a journalist, he knew the original video was out there for anyone to watch.

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YANSS Podcast – Episode Three – Confabulation

The Topic: Confabulation

The Guest: V.S. Ramachandran

The Episode: iTunes – Download – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York. Source: Sony Pictures Classics

As a motto for the sapient, “cogito ergo sum” is pretty fantastic. Every time I’m reminded of it, a twinge of pride flows through my veins. It makes me want to stand up straight and pronounce proudly to my cat, “I think, therefore I am,” and then take his blank stare and plaintive meow as confirmation of my vitality. To be human is to know you exist. It is to know you are, and to know you are you.

It’s fitting that Jules Cotard, a man who was a close friend of the philosopher Auguste Comte, would find a way to dull the edge of Descartes’ famous proclamation. In an era preceding automobiles and airplanes, Cotard transferred his interest in the philosophy of being into the medicine of being – neurology – and after serving as a military surgeon in 1870, Cotard joined a clinic that did what it could with the knowledge of the day. Cotard and others at the clinic treated those with what one lecturer at the time called “madness in all its forms.”

Cotard was one of the pioneers of neuroscience, connecting behavior to the physical locations in the brain. As he progressed in his career he became particularly interested in patients who exhibited aphasia, or difficulties with language. He would follow those patients past death to the autopsy table in search of the cause of their maladies, and he encouraged other doctors to do the same. Considering his background in philosophy, it must have been astonishing when he found a patient devoid of a sense of self. In 1880, Cotard introduced a newly identified medical condition to the world. He called it “delire des negations,” or negation delirium. Essentially, he had discovered a condition in which a person thought, “I think, therefore I’m not.”

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YANSS Podcast – Episode Two – The Illusion of Knowledge

The Topic: The Illusion of Knowledge

The Guest: Christopher Chabris

The Episode: iTunesDownloadStitcherRSS – Soundcloud

Remember when the United States stock market crashed a few years back? You know, the implosion famously featuring credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations? Does it seem strange to you that all those experts who couldn’t predict the economic collapse are still on television giving advice and offering predictions?

The people who were wrong continue to work because they provide you with an illusion of knowledge, a belief that the market can be understood by one person, and that person’s understanding can become your understanding. They continue to claim insight into chaotic, impossibly complex nebulae of shifting data, and they continue to profess powers of divination even though research shows they are slightly less reliable than a coin toss. They can still get paid to squawk because they continue to make their claims with confidence. No one wants a sage who deals in maybes.

Take a look at those bicycles at the top of this post. Which one would you say is the most accurate portrayal of a real bike? Psychologist Rebecca Lawson once put together a study that revealed even though most people are very familiar with bicycles and know how to ride them, they can’t draw one to save their lives, and they can’t even pick a proper one out of a lineup. Despite this, most people rate their knowledge of how a bicycle works as being very good. Remember that when someone claims to understand something a bit more complicated, like a sub-prime mortgage. (This is a picture of a real bicycle.)

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