Intuition

“There is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court. Intuition is a domain-specific ability.”

The power and fruitfulness of intuition has had innumerable and celebrated champions — from Einstein, Anne Lamott, and Steve Jobs to some of history’s greatest scientists and philosophers. But what, exactly, lies behind this amorphous phenomenon we call “intuition”? That’s precisely what CUNY philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci explores in a chapter of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life.

First, Pigliucci offers a primer on what intuition is and isn’t, compared and contrasted with the history of understanding consciousness:

The word intuition comes from the Latin intuir, which appropriately means ‘knowledge from within.’ Until recently, intuition, like consciousness, was the sort of thing that self-respecting scientists stayed clear of, on penalty of being accused of engaging in New Age woo-woo rather than serious science. Heck, even most philosophers — who historically had been very happy to talk about consciousness, far ahead of the rise of neurobiology — found themselves with not much to say about intuition. However, these days cognitive scientists think of intuition as a set of nonconscious cognitive and affective processes; the outcome of these processes is often difficult to articulate and is not based on deliberate thinking, but it’s real and (sometimes) effective nonetheless. It was William James, the father of modern psychology, who first proposed the idea that cognition takes place in two different modes, and his insight anticipated modern so-called dual theories of cognition. Intuition works in an associative manner: it feels effortless (even though it does use a significant amount of brain power), and it’s fast. Rational thinking, on the contrary, is analytical, requires effort, and is slow. Why, then, would we ever want to use a system that makes us work hard and doesn’t deliver rapid results? Think of it this way: intuitions, contrary to much popular lore, are not infallible. Cognitive scientists treat them as quick first assessments of a given situation, as provisional hypotheses in need of further checking.

Citing recent research, Pigliucci presents an important debunking of the grab-bag term “intuition”:

One of the first things that modern research on intuition has clearly shown is that there is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court. Intuition is a domain-specific ability, so that people can be very intuitive about one thing (say, medical practice, or chess playing) and just as clueless as the average person about pretty much everything else. Moreover, intuitions get better with practice — especially with a lot of practice — because at bottom intuition is about the brain’s ability to pick up on certain recurring patterns; the more we are exposed to a particular domain of activity the more familiar we become with the relevant patterns (medical charts, positions of chess pieces), and the more and faster our brains generate heuristic solutions to the problem we happen to be facing within that domain.

Indeed, this notion of additive progress in developing intuition is the same concept known as “deliberate practice” in the development of any skill or “talent”. Pigliucci writes:

There is another aspect to the question of intuition versus conscious thinking that affects our quality of life, and that has to do with research showing how people get better at what they do or get stuck in it.

[…]

An ‘expert’ is someone who performs at a very high level in a given field, be it medicine, law, science, chess, tennis, or soccer. As it turns out, people become experts (or simply, much much better) at what they do when they use their intuition and conscious thinking in particular ways. Research on acquiring skills shows that, roughly speaking, and pretty much independently of whether we are talking about a physical activity or an intellectual one, people tend to go through three phases while they improve their performance. During the first phase, the beginner focuses her attention simply on understanding what it is that the task requires and on not making mistakes. In phase two, such conscious attention to the basics of the task is no longer needed, and the individual performs quasi-automatically and with reasonable proficiency. Then comes the difficult part. Most people get stuck in phase two: they can do whatever it is they set out to do decently, but stop short of the level of accomplishment that provides the self-gratification that makes one’s outlook significantly more positive or purchases the external validation that results in raises and promotions. Phase three often remains elusive because while the initial improvement was aided by switching control from conscious thought to intuition—as the task became automatic and faster—further improvement requires mindful attention to the areas where mistakes are still being made and intense focus to correct them. Referred to as ‘deliberate practice,’ this phase is quite distinct from mindless or playful practice.

Given the importance of networked knowledge and “associative indexing” in making sense of information, it is unsurprising that “structured knowledge” is what sets the expert apart from the amateur:

There are a variety of reasons, but two are especially important: one needs to develop the ability to anticipate problems, and this in turn is often the result not just of knowledge of a given field but of structured knowledge. … Not only is there a difference between naive and expert knowledge, but there is more than one way to acquire expert knowledge, guided not just by the intrinsic properties of the system but also by the particular kinds of interest that different individuals have in that system.

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TEDxRainier – Will Hewett – Singing Yourself Alive

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Art can change your brain

We’ve all heard about art’s psychological and physiological effects. Researchers have found, for instance, that a lunchtime jaunt to an art gallery can reduce work-related stress, and that creating art might even help cancer patients. But what about art’s neurological impact — can picking up a paintbrush actually change your brain? 

A study conducted on recent retirees in Germany suggests it might. Over 10 weeks, scientists at the University Hospital Erlangen had 14 men and women between the ages of 62 and 70 participate in hands-on art classes, while another 14 took an art appreciation course. Before the testing period began, retirees completed a test measuring their emotional resilience and also had their brains scanned. At the end, the tests were taken again and new brain scans conducted.

The results were published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, in an article titled “How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity.” Researchers discovered “a significant improvement in psychological resilience” among those who participated in drawing and painting classes; they did not find it in the art-appreciation group. What’s more, the fMRI scans of the art-class group also showed improved “effective interaction” between certain regions of the brain known as the default mode network. This area is associated with cognitive process like introspection, self-monitoring, and memory. Since connectivity in this area decreases in old age, it’s possible that art could reverse and even stop its decay. 

The question remains open as to why those who studied art history didn’t enjoy similar benefits. The researchers speculate:

The improvements in the visual art production group may be partially attributable to a combination of motor and cognitive processing. Other recent fMRI studies have demonstrated enhancements in the functional connectivity between the frontal, posterior, and temporal cortices after the combination of physical exercises and cognitive training … The participants in our study were required to perform the cognitive tasks of following, understanding, and imitating the visual artist’s introduction. Simultaneously, the participants had to find an individual mode of artistic expression and maintain attention while performing their activity. Although we cannot provide mechanistic explanations, the production of visual art involves more than the mere cognitive and motor processing described. The creation of visual art is a personal integrative experience – an experience of “flow,” – in which the participant is fully emerged in the creative activity … The visual art production intervention involved the development of personal expression and attentional focus on self-related experience during art creation.

Although the sample group is very small, the research suggests there could be some real concrete benefits to creativity, particularly as older populations boom. It could also offer new insight into the lives of artists who worked industriously into old age: Picasso and Matisse produced work until their deaths at ages 91 and 84, respectively, while Louise Bourgeois — whose artistic success only came in her 70s — worked steadily until she died at 98. Their art was driven by fervent creative passion, but what if it was also the thing keeping them lucid?

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Art and Smarts

FOR many education advocates, the arts are a panacea: They supposedly increase test scores, generate social responsibility and turn around failing schools. Most of the supporting evidence, though, does little more than establish correlations between exposure to the arts and certain outcomes. Research that demonstrates a causal relationship has been virtually nonexistent.artfest-hands2

A few years ago, however, we had a rare opportunity to explore such relationships when the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Bentonville, Ark. Through a large-scale, random-assignment study of school tours to the museum, we were able to determine that strong causal relationships do in fact exist between arts education and a range of desirable outcomes. Read more here: NYT

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hope begins in the dark

“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don’t give up.” Anne Lamott

DawnNZ

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Anxiety festival

anger-managementAnxiety 2014 is a new London-wide arts festival, curated by the Mental Health Foundation. Taking place at multiple venues throughout June 2014.  The festival explores anxiety, looking at its causes, how it affects all of our lives, and how it can act as a creative force. It brings together leading and emerging artists to address anxiety from different angles: from medical, social and historical perspectives to individual, collective and contemporary viewpoints.

Anxiety 2014 presents a dynamic program of visual art, film, performance, music, dance, theatre and talks spanning venues across London, including leading arts organizations, universities, health care institutions and community centers.

Anxiety festival explores how feeling anxious has become part of our contemporary condition.

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The Power of Compliments

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