Michael Buice on the dress

Read former LBM fellow Michael Buice’s explanation of the dress colour illusion.

Huffington Post: …In the case of the dress, one’s assumptions about lighting have a strong impact on the perceived color. In particular, your perception will be affected by whether your visual system sees the dress as being in bright light or in shadow. Comic book coloristNathan Fairbairn put together the following in order to illustrate these two different potential hypotheses about light and color in the picture.

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So what happens if we try to remove contextual information? It so happens that these average colors are close to being inverses of one another. Inverting them gives us:

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Inverting the colors in the original photo should approximately “swap” the two colors on the dress, as well as remove contextual information (or perhaps render it nonsensical). The color inverted dress looks like:

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I see white-and-gold here, and I saw white-and-gold in the original. My wife is a die hard Black-and-bluer, and she sees the inverted dress as light-blue-and-gold. Notice that the image now has artifacts that look (to me anyway) like damage in an old photograph. This is a sample size of one, so I’m curious to know if this inversion changes the perceptions of any other black-and-bluers out there.

We know that training can alter the “light-from-above” prior, and it seems plausible that people’s differing perceptions of the photo are due to their different experience, and in particular their experience with light, shading, material, and overexposed photographs.

Our brains have to make guesses, but they don’t always make the same guesses, even though we live in the same world. One of the hardest inference problems our brains have to solve is figuring out how everyone else sees the world. Perhaps with some very hard work, I can be a Black-and-bluer, too.

Michael Buice is a scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. His research interests are in identifying and understanding the mechanisms and principles that the nervous system uses to perform the inferences which allow us to perceive the world.

 

News as entertainment

This is an obvious observation but it struck me one day while watching the evening national news on multiple channels that the only thing that can differentiate between different programs cannot be news because true news is reported by everyone by definition. Half of all the news programs are identical and the other half covers random human interest stories. Given that the true news will have likely to have taken place earlier in the day, the actual news stories will not be novel. This clearly indicates that the national nightly news is doomed for extinction. Based on the commercials aired during the programs, the average demographic are senior citizens. Once they are gone, so will the nightly news, “and that’s the way it is“.

Is abstract thinking necessary?

Noted social scientist, Andrew Hacker, wrote a provocative opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday arguing that we relax mathematics requirements for higher education. Here are some excerpts from his piece:

New York Times: A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.

…There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)

…The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

The expected reaction from some of my colleagues was understandably negative. After all, we live in a world that is becoming more complex requiring more mathematical skills not less. Mathematics is as essential to one’s education as reading. In the past, I too would have whole heartedly agreed. However, over the past few years I have started think otherwise. Just to clarify, Hacker does not (nor I) believe that critical thinking is unimportant. He argues forcefully that all citizens should have a fundamental grounding in the concepts of arithmetic, statistics and quantitative reasoning. I have even posted before (see here)  that I thought mathematics should be part of the accepted canon of what an educated citizen should know and I’m not backing away from that belief. Hacker thinks we should be taught a “citizen’s statistics” course. My suggested course was:  “Science and mathematics survival tools for the modern world.”  The question is whether or not we should expect all students to master the abstract reasoning skills necessary for algebra.

I’ll probably catch a lot of flack for saying this but from my professional and personal experience, I believe that there is a significant fraction of the population that is either unable or unwilling to think abstractly.  I also don’t think we can separate lack of desire from lack of ability. The willingness to learn something may be just as “innate” as the ability to do something. I think everyone can agree that on the abstract thinking scale almost everyone can learn to add and subtract but only a select few can understand cohomology theory.  In our current system, we put high school algebra as the minimum threshold, but is this a reasonable place to draw the line? What we need to know  is the distribution of people’s maximum capacity for abstract thinking. The current model requires that  the distribution be  almost zero left of algebra with a fat tail on the right. But what if the actual distribution is broad with a peak somewhere near calculus?  In this case, there would be a large fraction of the population to the left of algebra. This is pure speculation but there could even be a neurophysiological basis to abstract thinking in terms of the fraction of neural connections within higher cortical areas versus connections between cortical and sensory areas. There could be a trade-off between abstract thinking and sensory processing. This need not even be purely genetic. As I posted before, not all the neural connections can be set by the genome so most are either random or arise through plasticity.

To me, the most important issue that Hacker brings up is not whether or not we should make everyone learn algebra but what should we do about the people who don’t and as a result are denied the opportunity to attend college and secure a financially stable life. Should we devote our resources to try to teach it to them better or should we develop alternative ways for these people to be productive in our society? I really think we should re-evaluate the goal that everyone goes to college. In fact, given the exorbitant cost and the rise of online education, the trend away from traditional college may have already begun. We should put more emphasis on apprenticeship programs and community colleges. Given the rapid rate of change in the job market, education and training should be thought of as a continual process instead of the current model of four years and out. I do believe that a functional democracy requires an educated citizenry. However, college attendance has been steadily increasing the past few decades but one would be hard pressed to argue that democracy has concomitantly improved. A new model may be in order.

The rise and fall of Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer , staff writer for the New Yorker and a best selling science author, resigned in disgrace today.  He admitted to fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan in his most recent book:

New York Times: An article in Tablet magazine revealed that in his best-selling book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” Mr. Lehrer had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, one of the most closely studied musicians alive. Only last month, Mr. Lehrer had publicly apologized for taking some of his previous work from The Wall Street Journal, Wired and other publications and recycling it in blog posts for The New Yorker, acts of recycling that his editor called “a mistake.”

…Mr. Lehrer might have kept his job at The New Yorker if not for the Tablet article, by Michael C. Moynihan, a journalist who is something of an authority on Mr. Dylan.

Reading “Imagine,” Mr. Moynihan was stopped by a quote cited by Mr. Lehrer in the first chapter. “It’s a hard thing to describe,” Mr. Dylan said. “It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”

Lehrer was a regular on Radiolab and he seemed to always really know his science. I have linked to his articles in the past (see here). His publisher is withdrawing his book and giving refunds to anyone returning it. I haven’t read the book, but from the excerpts and his interviews on it, I think the science is probably accurate. I don’t really know what he was thinking but my guess was that he was just trying to spice up the book and imagined a quote that Dylan might say. The fabricated quote above is pretty innocuous. He probably didn’t think anyone would notice. Maybe he felt pressure to write a best seller. Maybe he was overconfident. In any case, he definitely shouldn’t have done it. It is unfortunate because he was a gifted writer and boon to neuroscience and science in general.