The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human NatureThe Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This book is for people who wonder where the taboo against human nature came from and who are willing to explore whether the challenges to the taboo are truly dangerous or just unfamiliar.”

Pinker wrote those words in 2002, but the taboo of acknowledging human nature unfortunately continues today, making The Blank Slate as necessary as ever.

Pinker is always fun to read—informative, witty, and thorough. The Blank Slate is no exception. The Blank Slate is an invaluable resource for those looking to understand (and defend) the reality and far-reaching effects of human nature. Minds are not merely blank slates upon which lived experiences mold our traits; people are not born as "noble savages" only to become corrupted by societies; and we are not merely bags of meat controlled by a “ghost inside the machine.” Instead, our minds come pre-wired with features that largely define our individual personalities, desires, character traits, etc. It’s our genes that do almost all of the legwork in making us who we are.

The motivations behind those who would like to treat human minds as blank slates are understandable. A blank-slate mind, the proponents surmise, means we can have a truly even playing field, and that to the extent that the field is uneven it is because of factors that can be remedied by the right public policies. A blank-slate theory of the mind (i.e., a denial of human nature) makes us feel in control (as leaders, parents, and members of society). But, as Pinker lays out, a blank slate is a very bad metaphor to use for the mind.

Proponents of the blank-slate position fight hard against findings that show the innateness of human nature in molding individual behavior. Their aversion to human nature is based on a misguided notion that states that if differences among individuals are due to genetically inherited traits, then this fact could be weaponized by racists and other bigots to justify discriminatory practices and perpetuate policies that they see as causing systemic inequality.

The truth, however, is almost completely the opposite. Denial of human nature is not only unnecessary to avoid discriminatory policies and behaviors, but actually serves to promote certain types of unwanted discrimination. For example, blank-slate proponents equivocate when confronted with science about heritable traits that bolsters progressive policies, like findings showing the innateness of homosexuality. I.e., they seem to say that it’s fine to say his gayness is an inborn trait, but not his intelligence or temperament. Pinker satisfyingly eviscerates these contradictory notions and others like them, explaining how a theory of mind that fully embraces human nature is best equipped to promote equality—creating a default where we treat each individual as an individual.

For me, the most readily “usable” content is Pinker’s chapter on children. Pinker describes a particularly negative and lasting effect of the blank-slate position as follows: “The theory that parents can mold their children like clay has inflicted childrearing regimes on parents that are unnatural and sometimes cruel. It has distorted the choices faced by mothers as they try to balance their lives, and multiplied the anguish of parents whose children haven’t turned out the way they hoped.”

While motivated largely by laudable goals (e.g., fairness, equality), the denial of human nature is, and always has been, bad science. And it turns out that pretending that our minds are blank slates doesn’t actually help achieve those goals anyway.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and BusinessSmarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Duhigg is a compelling storyteller. Here he uses memorable stories to teach useful lessons on how to increase personal productivity. That said, he could have done more to convince the reader of the universality of the principles that he extrapolates from these stories.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens  By: Benedict Carey

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

By: Benedict Carey

There are some good tips in here. But even for a short book, it's a little too long. Subtract the fluff and you have a handy pamphlet of advice that looks something like the following:

Information Retention and Retrieval

1. It can be useful to temporarily forget what we learn. The act of later trying to remember information thought to be forgotten is a "desirable difficulty" that ultimately works to hardwire that information more permanently in our memories and make it easier to recall. Forgetting also helps the mind filter out the irrelevant parts of the information. 

2. Retention of information is significantly greater when we force ourselves to try to remember what we've learned rather than just reviewing the information itself. 

3. Writing down what we've learned from memory, even if it's not perfectly accurate at the moment, before immediately referring to our past notes or the material itself is significantly more effective in terms of retention and future retrievability than just reviewing. For example. highlighting text, reviewing those highlights and reviewing previously prepared outlines are only somewhat effective (these are very passive approaches) compared to forcing ourselves to actually reproduce / write down what we know.

4. We recall information better when the contextual cues are the same as those when we learned the information. E.g., students test better when listening to the same music as when they studied that information. Contextual cues act as a sort of hint toward the right information. 

5. We should very the times and places that we study. One reason this may help is that our minds will associate more contextual cues with the information studied.

6. Breaking up study time into short sessions over several days, weeks and months, produces long-term retention levels significantly greater than studying the content for the same amount of time over one or two long study sessions. 

7. For certain subject matters, taking a test before learning any of the content significantly aids comprehension and retention of that information after studying it. Recognizing in advance what we don't know helps us to hold onto that information once we learn it.

Problem Solving

1. "Incubation" time is important. Time away from the puzzle while it lingers in the back of the mind helps us see connections and possibilities that aren’t apparent in the moment of focusing on the problem.

2. Puzzles that require multiple attempts before achieving an a-ha moment (especially spatial relationship problems) are best solved by taking a break away from thinking about them after the first few unsuccessful attempts. 

3. It's actually beneficial to be interrupted in the middle of trying to solve a problem. The brain will keep the problem in memory and be more prone to find solutions in day-to-day experiences. The details of a solution to a problem already solved are much more easily forgotten than the working details of a solution to a problem not yet solved.

4. Varied practice (applying several different applications/approaches of a skill) is more beneficial than focused practice. E.g., practicing different kinds of shots versus just free-throws makes you shoot better free throws over the long run (but not necessarily or the short term). 

Subconscious Learning

1. Chunking pieces of information into meaningful groups increases understanding. E.g., a good eye in sports, the ability for a chess master to memorize the board after a glance, or linking squiggles to letters to words to paragraphs to ideas, etc. Benefiting from this type of grouping of information comes after a lot of experience with that type of information. 

2. Sleep, particularly REM sleep, is how the brain organizes and categorizes useful information obtained while conscious, and filters out less relevant information. Failing to get enough REM sleep significantly decreases one's ability to retain and retrieve information and solve complex problems.

Overall rating: 3/5

This review also appears in Goodreads