YANSS 039 – Unconscious learning, knowing without knowing, blind insight and other cognitive wonders with guest Ryan Scott

What is the capital of Bulgaria? If you don’t know, just take a guess. Seriously, any answer will be fine. Even Bolgonia – I won’t know, just say something so we can move on.

Ok, now, what is the capital of Italy? Are you sure about that?

Now take a moment and think about your own thinking. How confident are you right now that your guesses are correct? Very confident? What about being wrong? Can you feel an intuition about your own wrongness? If so, can you also feel the strength of that intuition? Maybe you don’t feel like one of your answers is a guess at all (especially if you live near Bulgaria). Maybe you feel that way about both answers. If you feel that way, how confident are you that you aren’t guessing and that you know for sure you know what you know and that you know what you know is a fact?

The guess, as a concept, is the fruit fly of cognitive science. Research into what goes on in your head when you guess has opened many doors, launched many explorations into how the brain works. It’s a perfect, simple, easy to produce metacognition. If you want to learn more about thinking about thinking, make people guess.

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For instance, in studies where subjects are shown a photograph of two people and asked which person they find more attractive, people will reliably choose one photo over the other. The experimenter will then perform some sleight of hand and remove the photo the person picked and pretend that the photo left behind, the one the subject didn’t pick, is actually the one she said she preferred. Most people don’t notice, and if you then ask a subject why she picked that photo (again, she didn’t), she will begin describing all the ways that person is more attractive than the person in the photo that was removed. In situations like this, you are unaware that you are guessing and just making things up. You assume you know why you feel the way you feel and think the things you think, but this sort of research suggests it’s often just a guess – and you often don’t know you are guessing.

Another way brain and mind scientists play around with guesses is through a system called artificial grammar learning. In studies that use this system, subjects are asked to memorize strings of letters that seem nonsensical and random. Those same subjects then learn that the strings of letters weren’t gobbledygook. They actually adhered to rules of grammar invented by the scientists. Their task is then to look at new strings and say whether or not those letter combinations are grammatically correct. Even though the people in such studies don’t consciously know the rules at play, they are still able to pick out the strings of letters that obey the alien grammar at a rate much better than chance. When asked how confident they feel about those guesses, their confidence ratings usually line up with their correct guesses. Consciously, they have no idea how they are accomplishing this task, nor can they pinpoint the source of their confidence.

You felt this earlier. The capital of the Republic of Bulgaria? It’s Sofia. The capital of Italy is Rome. If you knew these things, ask yourself how you knew them. Notice the invisibility of the process vs. the clarity of its output. If you guessed, right or wrong, ask yourself about your metacognitions – what inside you was whispering to the conscious part of your mind, creating feelings of confidence or notions of doubt?

Ryan ScottOur guest in this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast is Ryan Scott, a cognitive psychologist who is adding to a growing body of evidence revealing that our guesses and our confidence in those guesses don’t come from the same place in our minds, and separate still is our conscious awareness of these loops of thought feeding forward and back upon each other.

Scott and his colleagues recently uncovered a psychological phenomenon called blind insight, so named because they felt it was similar to neurological phenomenon known as blindsight. A person suffering from blindsight is unable to consciously see, but her eyes still transmit signals to her brain. Sufferers respond to smiles, turning up the corner of their lips and narrowing their eyes, but they aren’t consciously aware of why they are are doing so. The part of the brain that can still see is unable to speak, unable to communicate with the portion that can, but it still communicates with itself in other ways and with the body, and the portion of the brain that is conscious shares that body and notices the changes. If you ask a person with blindsight to navigate an obstacle course, she might tell you it’s impossible even though she can. She might later report a lack of confidence in her abilities even after successfully walking from one side of a room to the other and changing her path many times to avoid tripping. The portion of the brain that reports confidence is cut off from the knowledge that might alter her opinion.

In the podcast you will hear how Scott discovered something similar when he returned to the research using the alien grammar created by scientists. His team pulled aside people who seemed like peculiar outliers – they were terrible at picking out the new strings that adhered to the rules, but their confidence ratings were accurate. In other words, when they got it wrong, they seemed to know they got it wrong, but their intuition did them no favors while guessing. Something inside them seemed to know the answers, but that didn’t make them better at the task. How can that be? Scott explains in the interview. You’ll also hear why you should always guess if you don’t know the answers on a multiple choice test, and when you should go with your gut instead of your head.

In every episode, before I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of one of my books, and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Linda van Kerkhof who submitted a recipe for chocolate ginger crinkle cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

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Links and Sources


Transcript of the interview with Ryan Scott

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