The Friday Fillip: A Prefrontal Infusion

Thinking runs in ruts and it takes a whole lot of effort to get it back on the tarmac again. Habit’s what does it, I’d say: we get used to picking up notions with the same old mental toolset, with the result that our views remain fairly fixed no matter what the world may lay at our feet. As the saying goes, we wind up holding a hammer so everything looks pretty much like a nail.

Getting a new mind tool can be wonderfully liberating. Which is why, although it’s a Friday, I’m going to point you to a box of these, even though it might end up with your doing some thinking. The particular tool collection I’ve come across is found at the Edge “World Question Center,” where the Edge Question for 2011 is “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” They hasten to reassure you that:

The term ‘scientific’ is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A ‘scientific concept’ may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or ‘in a phrase’) but has broad application to understanding the world.

163 thinkers responded, so you’ve got a huge supply of concepts to roam around it. Let me get you started with a few that caught my mind’s eye for one reason or another:

  • Howard Gardner –

      “Thanks to Karl Popper, we have a simple and powerful tool: the phrase ‘How Would You Disprove Your Viewpoint?!'”

      What I like about his, apart from the obvious grounding of argument in provably fact, is the way it invites the proposer to describe the limits of a position.

  • W. Danliel Hillis –

      “Possibility spaces can be difficult to get your head around, but once you learn how to use them, they are a very powerful way to reason, because they allow you to sidestep thinking about causes and effects.”

      This one’s a real toughie. It explains, for instance, the really counterintuitive solution to the Monty Hall problem. I have not yet got my head more than a third of the way round this wrench.

  • Clay Shirky –

      “The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto undertook a study of market economies a century ago, and discovered that no matter what the country, the richest quintile of the population controlled most of the wealth. The … Pareto Distribution…”

      If we ever want to do something about this, we should understand the power of the Pareto Principle, and yet we seem to keep expecting different curves.

  • John McWhorter –

      “In an ideal world all people would spontaneously understand that what political scientists call path dependence explains much more of how the world works than is apparent. Path dependence refers to the fact that often, something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice, because once established, external factors discouraged going into reverse to try other alternatives.”

      Like the QWERTY keyboard, for example.

  • Bruce Hood –

      “Haecceity is originally a metaphysical concept that is both totally obscure and yet very familiar to all of us. It is the psychological attribution of an unobservable property to an object that makes it unique among identical copies.

      I like this first of all because the word itself is so strange — and then because it comes from a Latin declension for “this” that I was made to learn by rote: hic, haec, hoc / hunc hanc hoc etc. Haecceity is the name, then, for the way your clone creeps you out, and the reason why if your Monet turns out to be a fake, you don’t like it anymore.


  1. “prefrontal infusion” adds layer of meaning to Dr. Demento’s

    “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than to have a prefrontal lobotomy”

    OK, there’s no “pre” in the original version.



  2. The youtube link might not have embedded properly. Here is is

  3. I read yesterday that Dean Martin (supposedly) varied the line to

    “I’d rather have a free bottle in front of me, than have a pre-frontal lobotomy”.

    More light reading to celebrate the arrival of warm weather here in Toronto.