Hot Thought

Psychology meets philosophy: knowledge, reality, morality, meaning

Take the Cognitive Science Quiz

Myths and surprising truths about the mind and intelligence

I’m back in the classroom after a pleasant summer of writing and travel. In addition to Biomedical Ethics, I’m teaching Introduction to Cognitive Science. This class provides the students with an overview of how the mind works from the perspectives of the diverse fields of cognitive science, including psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, and artificial intelligence. To get the students thinking, I give them a quiz consisting of questions whose answers are surprising to many of them. I suggest you take the quiz now, writing down your answers as TRUE, FALSE, or DON’T KNOW.

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1. People only use 10% of their brains.

2. The brains of 18-year olds are fully developed.

3. People grow new brain cells every day.

4. Computers can read people’s minds.

5. Emotions help people to be rational.

6. Dreams indicate your deepest wishes.

7. Robot cars can drive well on their own.

8. People have free will.

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Now let me tell you what I think are the right answers.

1. People only use 10% of their brains.

False. Many (not most) of my students thought this is true, but it’s just a slogan concocted by a self-help writer in the 1930s. Brain scans show that neurons are firing all over the brain.

2. The brains of 18-year olds are fully developed.

False. Students mostly know from news reports that development of the prefrontal cortex continues into the early 20s.

3. People grow new brain cells every day.

True. Many students were surprised that thousands of brain cells are generated every day in the hippocampus, a process that contributes both to learning and emotional functioning.

4. Computers can read people’s minds.

True. A few years ago, I would have said that this isn’t feasible, as most students currently think. But research at Berkeley led by Jack Gallant has used a combination of brain scanning and machine learning to identify what movies people are watching.

5. Emotions help people to be rational.

True. Contrary to the widespread view that emotions only get in the way of rationality, research by Antonio Damasio and others makes a convincing case that people need emotions to make good decisions.

6. Dreams indicate your deepest wishes.

False. Hardly any students accept this Freudian thesis for which there was never any evidence. The best current account of dreaming that I’m aware of is that it is just a side effect of neural processes that consolidate memories of the day’s important events.

7. Robot cars can drive well on their own.

True. Most students were surprised to learn that researchers at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon University have developed autonomous vehicles that drive competently, and Google now has a self-driving car that is licensed for use in the state of Nevada.

8. People have free will.

Don’t know. Most students think this is true, but rapid progress in understanding the neural mechanisms that produce intentions and actions convince me that this is probably false, but it’s still too soon to say.

 

 

Paul Thagard, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

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