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The Albatross and the Chameleon
I’ve never seen an albatross but I’m told the regal bird can glide for hundreds of miles without flapping his wings. On land, however, the large wings drag like “drifting oars” and cause him to walk rather clumsily. Charles Baudelaire related to this duality. For the French wordsmith, a poet away from his pen resembled the albatross on land: ridiculed, misunderstood and ugly. The poet may have a wily way with words but not much else.
Most people should relate to the albatross. An unfortunate feature of the mind is its tendency to be good at understanding something in one domain but quite bad at applying it to another. The term for this is domain dependence, and it describes an inability to extend what you’ve learned beyond the context in which you learned it.
Consider an experiment from a study conducted by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the early 1970s. They gathered professors of statistics and gave them a number of statistical questions dressed up to not look like statistical questions. Here’s the premise of one: in a large hospital about 45 babies are born each day and in a small hospital 15 babies are born. For one year each hospital keeps track of the number days on which more than 60 percent of babies were boys. Keeping in mind that on average 50 percent of all babies male, which hospital do you think recorded more such days: the larger hospital, the smaller hospital, or about the same? Kahneman and Tversky found that many statisticians (and students who took statistics classes) made the mistake of choosing option one, even though the larger a sample the less it fluctuates from the long-term average, making option two the correct one.
A similar mistake shows itself in the well-known bat-and-ball problem. Here’s the premise of this one: A bat and ball cost $1.10 and the bat costs one dollar more than the ball. The question is: how much does the ball cost? Most people go with the intuitive answer: 10 cents. But if you do the math you’ll see that if the ball costs 10 cents then the total is $1.20 (10 cents for the ball and $1.10 for the bat). Therefore, the correct answer is 5 cents. What’s shocking is over 50 percent of Harvard, Princeton and MIT students who tackled the bat-and-ball question provided the incorrect answered of 10 cents. Mind you, these well-endowed students are the same students whose SAT scores rank in the top percentiles.
For another illustration of the way we struggle with domain dependency consider a personal example. As a Manhattanite I enjoy long walks but sometimes I shock my friends when I tell them just how many blocks and avenues I traverse. They’re not walkers by my standards, which is fine except they pay around 50 dollars for gym memberships… and even more for cabs and a chance to run in the New York City Marathon. I shouldn’t criticize though. Just yesterday I was at the front door of my apartment about to run when I realized that I forgot my hat. I scoffed at the thought of having to walk up four flights of stairs to retrieve it so I ran without the hat. If you want to see domain dependency in action exercise is a good start.
The opposite of domain dependency is someone who can take what they’ve learned in one domain and apply it to any other. Here the animal equivalent is the chameleon, because unlike an albatross a chameleon naturally adapts to any circumstance (and looks good doing so). An incongruity of the mind is that we are chameleons socially but albatrosses epistemically.
Here’s the important part. If creativity is the ability to connect two unrelated ideas to produce a novel idea with use then we should strive to be what I term “epistemic chameleons.” An epistemic chameleon is an academic version of the most interesting man in the world (the one from the Dos Equis commercials). He shifts from one domain to another seamlessly and is good at applying what he learned in a textbook to the real world and vice versa despite the subject matter.
How can we adopt his personality? A slew of research from the psychology of creativity tells us that taking on different mindsets is helpful. For example, traveling abroad helps us see problems from multiple perspectives and alcohol and sleepiness improve tests of divergent thinking. There are reasons to be skeptical of these findings and the pop-science they influence. Tomorrow, a team of researchers might publish data that proves these results wrong. But it would not negate the benefit of adapting a mindset usually used in one domain to find a creative solution in another domain. This is a hallmark of the epistemic chameleon.
Consider a story from Steve Jobs’ famed Stanford commencement speech. Jobs favorite class was calligraphy. “I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great,” he said. None of it had a practical application until he and Steve Wozniak sat down to design to the first Macintosh ten years later. That’s when it all came back to him. He designed all the typography he learned from calligraphy class into the mac, which sold well.
The lesson here is that the brain uses different modules depending on the situation. There is no neural-CEO who controls an all-purpose hard drive. We struggle to connect what we learn in class with other aspects of life because the mind is composed of modules that often compete with each other. I’ve suggested that a creative mind acts like a chameleon because it moves from domain to domain seamlessly. The banal mind, in contrast, acts like the albatross because it depends on a domain, much like the Ivy-Leaguers and statisticians. If the purpose of education is to take what you’ve acquired in class and use it to succeed in the world then let’s learn from the chameleon, not the albatross.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
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Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.