The art of asking the right questions

What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?

  • Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed as having all the answers. When it comes to being innovative and forward-thinking, it turns out that being able to ask the right questions is an equally valuable skill.
  • The difference between the right and wrong questions is not simply in the level of difficulty. In this video, geobiologist Hope Jahren, journalist Warren Berger, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and investor Tim Ferriss discuss the power of creativity and the merit in asking naive and even "dumb" questions.
  • "Very often the dumb question that is sitting right there that no one seems to be asking is the smartest question you can ask," Ferriss says, adding that "not only is it the smartest, most incisive, but if you want to ask it and you're reasonably smart, I guarantee you there are other people who want to ask it but are just embarrassed to do so."

Study: Names change how an infant's memory encodes objects

A new study shows that naming conventions will change how infants represent objects in their memories.

  • Humans begin to encode for categories and individuals at an early age.
  • A new study shows that language, specifically naming conventions, plays a role in how infants' memories encode objects either within groups or as individuals.
  • Even before we speak our first words, the way words are used around us begin to shape our representation of the world.

The human mind brims with fascinating mental tools. One such tool is our ability to perceive and categorize the world for both groups and individuals. Because we are so accustomed to our minds, that may not seem remarkable but it's quite something. Even more remarkable, we develop this capacity at an incredibly young age.

Children understand, for example, that bunnies have long ears, fast feet, cotton-ball tails, and fluffy coats. But a child also understands that Sir Flops is both a bunny but an individual. He has a star-shaped patch on his rump, likes broccoli more than carrots, and enjoys a good scratch behind the ears. Children manage this distinction before they have acquired an encyclopedia's worth of names and details to check and cross-reference to ensure proper mental categorization. But how?

Drs. Alexander LaTourrette and Sandra Waxman, psychologists at Northwestern University, have proposed that language, specifically naming conventions, determine how infants encode objects into memory—whether as part of a group or as an individual. Their new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests they are on to something.

A parade of boffs

An image showing the stuffed animals introduced during the training phase followed by the new ones introduced in the test phase.

(Photo: Alexander LaTourrette and Sandra Waxman/PNAS)

To test their hypothesis, LaTourrette and Waxman did what all good scientists do: set up an experiment. They enlisted the help of 77 infants, each between eleven-and-a-half and twelve-and-a-half months old, and trained them to recognize stuffed animals. They showed the infants a parade of stuffed animals and introduced them with a novel name.

During this training phase, the infants were divided into three groups. The first group, the consistent name group, was introduced to the stuffed animals with a single signifier. For example, even though the stuffed animals were a piglet, kitten, duckling, and panda, each one would be referred to as a "boff."

The second group, the distinct name group, was also presented with the four stuffed animals. But this time, each one was given a unique signifier. The kitten would be called a "boff," but the duckling an "etch," the piglet an "arg," and the panda a "dov."

The third group was enlisted as the control. For this group, each stuffy introduction was paired with a monotone voice. This is because tone, unlike names, has been shown to not facilitate categorization.

The researchers' goal was to determine how each naming convention encoded the stuffed animals within the infants' memories over several training trials. When the stuffies were introduced as a "boff," then the infants' memories should encode them as a unified category. Like in our bunny example above, they would perceive the commonalities of "boffness"—big round eyes, soft fury, and cuddly tummies.

Conversely, when the stuffies were introduced by distinct labels, then the infants' memories should encode for individuation. As with Sir Flops, they would perceive distinguishing features and tag those in their memory for later recall—etch has yellow fur and wings while arg sports pink fur and a snout.

A boff by any other name?

Of course, LaTourrette and Waxman couldn't ask the infants how they remembered their colorful compatriots. So, they utilized a recognition memory test to find out. The researchers reintroduced the infants to the stuffed animals from the previous training alongside a never-before-seen fuzzy friend. The researchers then recorded the children's gazes.

They theorized that if infants stared equally at both "boffs," then they recognized the commonalities between them and had encoded for a category. However, if the infants stared longer at the new toy, that indicated that the infant recognized the original object and was spending time memorizing the new, individualized, object.

That's exactly what they found. Infants from the consistent name group stared at both stuffed animals for equal time, suggesting they recognized the commonalities at the expense of distinctive features. The distinct name group recognized the individuals more readily and turned their attention to the new stuffy. The control group only recognized the more recent stuffed animal.

"Our findings reveal a powerful and sophisticated effect of language on cognition in infancy: the way in which an object is named, as either a unique individual or a member of a category, influences how [twelve-month-old] infants encode and remember that object," the researchers write. "Hearing a consistent name applied to a set of objects focuses infants on the commonalities among them, while hearing distinct names applied to the same objects focuses infants on the uniqueness of each object."

The researchers expressed hope that their research would help cognitive psychologists gain a deeper understanding of how names influence people, from infancy to adulthood, in their conceptual representations. They also hope that this evidence opens further investigations, such as how familiar nouns (rather than novel names) influence infant representations.

They conclude, "Even a single naming episode can have a lasting impact, influencing how infants encode that object, represent it in memory, and remember it later."

Why are we fascinated by true crime stories?

Several experts have weighed in on our sometimes morbid curiosity and fascination with true crime.

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash
  • True crime podcasts can get as many as 500,000 downloads per month. In the Top 100 Podcasts of 2020 list for Apple, several true crime podcasts ranked within the Top 20.
  • Our fascination with true crime isn't just limited to podcasts, with Netflix documentaries like "Confessions of a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes" scoring high popularity with viewers.
  • Several experts weigh in on our fascination with these stories with theories including fear-based adrenaline rushes and the inherent need to understand the human mind.
Keep reading Show less

What is counterfactual thinking?

Can thinking about the past really help us create a better present and future?

Jacob Lund / Shutterstock
  • There are two types of counterfactual thinking: upward and downward.
  • Both upward and downward counterfactual thinking can be positive impacts on your current outlook - however, upward counterfactual thinking has been linked with depression.
  • While counterfactual thinking is a very normal and natural process, experts suggest the best course is to focus on the present and future and allow counterfactual thinking to act as a motivator when possible.
Keep reading Show less

Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.

  • Schools are places where learning happens, but how much of what students learn there matters? "Almost all of our learning happens through experience and very little of it actually happens in these kinds of organized, contrived, constrained environments," argues Will Richardson, co-founder of The Big Questions Institute and one of the world's leading edupreneurs.
  • There is a shift starting, Richardson says, in terms of how we look at grading and assessments and how they have traditionally dictated students' futures. Consortiums like are pushing back on the idea that what students know can be reflected in numbers and letter grades.
  • One of the crucial steps in changing how things are done is first changing the narratives. Students should be assessed on how they can apply what they've learned, not scored based on what they know.
Keep reading Show less