Friday, December 31, 2010

A Letter to Discover Magazine


I was very disappointed to see that you convened a panel on women in science and engineering and included no experts on the issue from the appropriate fields ("Bridging the Gap", Discover, Jan/Feb 2011). Where was the representation from psychology, anthropology, or sociology? There is excellent science being done to study this issue in these fields. You should have had the scientists doing this work on your panel. It's fine for your magazine to prefer the natural sciences, but if you're going to cover psychological and social issues, you should include people from the social sciences. Just because someone is a woman and a scientist does not make her an expert on women in science any more than a weightlifter is an expert on muscle function.

Institute of Cognitive Science
Carleton University

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Our Brain Is Ready For This

I thought that would be a better title than my first idea: "The Difference Between the Baldwin Effect and Neuronal Recycling." Please don't let either title scare you, the concepts are easy to understand and fascinating.

A Baldwin effect is when the brain evolves not a specific behaviour, but the ability the learn some specific kind of thing. For example, our ability to learn language might be a Baldwin effect. I didn't evolve to speak English, but I evolved to be able to speak something. Evolution provided children with the ability to quickly learn whatever languages we are exposed to. It was able to do this because a language-using culture was reliably present during development.

Walking might be another example. Are we evolved to walk, or are we evolved to learn to walk? If it's the latter, which seems likely, it's possibly a Baldwin effect.

I have recently been reading about another interesting idea that might be confused with the Baldwin effect. Neural recycling (Dahaene & Cohen, 2007) is when a cultural artifact (e.g., writing) reliably takes advantage of the best part of the brain for it. Let me explain.

Writing only appeared about 5400 years ago. This might seem like a long time, but scientists accept that this is too short a time for a species to evolve a new brain structure. It's only 270 generations. Many scientists see this as evidence that we have a general-purpose learning system. After all, if we all can learn to read, and our ability to read could not have evolved, then a generic learning mechanism must be in place.

The mystery is this: the same part of the brain* ends up getting used to read, no matter who it is! This is very curious. If we have a general purpose learning system, and I think we do (Stanovich 2004), then where reading ends up should be in different places in different people. No one place would be better than any other.

The neural recycling idea is that things like reading end up in the parts of the brain that they do because those parts were evolved to learn things that are kind of like reading. That's the recycling part. To make an analogy, mug handles were not designed to keep tea bag strings from falling into the cup, but many people use it that way.

What might the reading area have evolved for? One possibility is that it specializes in detecting patterns of two or three lines. To quote Dahaene and Cohen (2007):

Changizi and collaborators have recently demonstrated two remarkable cross-cultural universals in the visual properties of writing systems (Changizi and Shimojo, 2005; Changizi et al., 2006). First, in all alphabets, letters are consistently composed of an average of about three strokes per character (Changizi and Shimojo, 2005). This number may be tentatively related to the visual system’s hierarchical organization, ...

The difference between these two effects is that a brain area made with the Baldwin effect was evolved for a particular learning experience (the historical origin of language occurred long before the creation of written language). In neural recycling, a cultural artifact is taking over something evolved for another purpose (perhaps with the Baldwin effect).

* the occipito-temporal area

Pictured: Tea of different colors. 


Changizi, M.A., and Shimojo, S. (2005). Character complexity and redundancy in writing systems over human history. Proc Biol. Sci 272, 267–275.

Changizi, M.A., Zhang, Q., Ye, H., and Shimojo, S. (2006). The structures of letters and symbols throughout human history are selected to match those found in objects in natural scenes. Am. Nat. 167, E117–E139.

Dehaene, S., & Cohen, L. (2007). Cultural recycling of cortical maps. Neuron, 56(2), 384-398.

Stanovich, K. E. (2004). The Robot's Rebellion. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, London.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Top Five Rap Albums

How do I get sucked into these things?

I love hip hop, and when I saw this Facebook question about the top five hip hop albums of all time, I could not resist voicing my opinion.

Mine is a list of ultimates.

Ultimate Production: Paul's Boutique (Beastie Boys)
    A vast, dense production that will never be equalled, primarily due to the stiffening of sampling laws. The best production on any album, ever, non-rap included. No honorable mentions because, frankly, nothing comes close. The only album on this list and the list of my top five albums of all time in any genre.

Ultimate Defining of an Era: Fear of a Black Planet (Public Enemy)
    The ultimate PE album, and the ultimate political rap album, with no weak tracks. Holds up better than almost any album on repeated listenings. Honorable mentions: Raising Hell (Run-D.M.C.), Paid In Full (Eric B. and Rakim), and, of course, It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Public Enemy), To The East, Blackwards (X-Clan).

Ultimate Cool: The Low End Theory (A Tribe Called Quest)
    If this album is not in your top 20, at least, you obviously do not own it. Buy now. If you do own it, there is nothing that needs to be said. Tribe changed the face of hip hop with the native tongue school; this is the best of the bunch. Honorable mentions: A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing (Black Sheep); 3 Feet High and Rising (De La Soul). 

Ultimate Creativity: Mouse & The Mask (Dig) by Danger Doom
   A toss-up, for me, between this and Dr. Octagonecologist for lyrical surrealism and humor. Combined with innovative and catchy production, Mouse & The Mask is an underrated classic. 

Ultimate Influence: Straight Outta Compton (N.W.A.)
   Although Ice-T invented gangsta rap, N.W.A. refined it and made it much what it is today. It was hugely influential in style, content, and bringing the west coast into the spotlight. Honorable mentions (for being hardcore, not for being influential): The Marshall Mathers LP (Eminem), and the most underrated rap album of all time, Guerillas in tha Mist (Da Lench Mob).

Pictured: Chuck D and Flavor Flav from Public Enemy. Thank you. Terminator X is a member of the group.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Write In: How Can I Get More Writing Done?

Question: Dr. Davies, how can I get a lot of writing done? I tend to procrastinate.

The solution to your problem is clear: you must write for half an hour every day, preferably first thing in the morning.

Here are the benefits:
  •   When you work on writing every day, the ideas never really leaveyour mind. Your unconscious works on it while you do other things during the day. You see connections you otherwise would not. People often say "I need a few good hours to get into writing." This is simply not true if you get to the same document every day. See Boice (1989) for an empirical shattering of this myth.
  •   The routine keeps you doing it.
  •   You are more productive. Boice (1989) found a 70% increase in
    writing productivity by doing this, when it was enforced. You also
    come up with more good ideas (Boice, 1983).
  •   Because it's such a short time, you are more willing to commit to
    it. For the first week or two, don't let yourself keep working after
    the half hour is over, else you will not believe yourself when you try
    to get your ass in the seat for "only a half hour."
  •   If you only allow half an hour a day, you feel the fear of God in you, and you work.
  • You have more willpower in the morning. Write with it before you waste it on other things.

Try it, it's amazing.

Recommended reading:

Since I started writing this way in 2005, I've written three books (as
of yet unpublished), a full-length play, and numerous other things in that time.


Boice, R. (1989). Procrastination, busyness and bingeing. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 27(6), 605-611.
Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil nimus. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Boice, R. (1983). Contingency management in writing and the appearance of creative ideas: Implications for the treatment of writing blocks. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 21(5), 537-543. 

Pictured: Death found an author writing his life.. Designed & done on stone by E. Hull. Printed by C. Hullmandel. London, Dec. 1827.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Talk by Jim Davies at Google, August 3, 2010

Thanks to my man Anthony G. Francis for editing my talk last summer at the Google campus in Mountain View, California (buy his awesome novel Frost Moon for a friend this Christmas). The talk is 44 minutes long, followed by questions. In total the video is 53 minutes long.

My webpage for this talk can be found at:

It's a longer and more technical version of my TEDxCarletonU talk:

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Swing Dancing at The Gladstone's "It's A Wonderful Life" (Ottawa)

My wife and I will will be swing dancing on stage as a part of "It's A Wonderful Life," a theatrical performance at the Gladstone Theatre. The performance will be staged as though the audience were the studio audience of a 1940s radio show. We performed last year. The show was great and it was a lot of fun. We dance at the start, as the audience files in, and during intermission.

There are evening performances and matinees. We will be performing on the following shows:
Evenings 2010: Dec 10, 12, 11, 17, 18
Matinee 2010: Dec 11

Click here for reservations:
The Gladstone Theatre

Pictured: The Gladstone, where I gave my TEDxCarletonU talk. In case you missed it, you can see the talk at

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

Write In: How to Deal With Anger

Someone emailed me a question recently about how to deal with anger. In this case, the anger was at another person's inconsiderate behavior.

My answer:

Dealing with anger is tricky. I think the general advice is to focus on other things and don't let yourself ruminate on what you're angry about. This is the main reason I meditate-- to gain this control.

Buddhists say you should be accepting of your anger, but not let it control you. Think of it as a baby that's crying. You need to soothe it to quiet, but you can't stuff it in a closet. You have to love it, and understand it, but try to have some distance from it. One strategy for this is to try to visualize where in your body the anger is, and remind yourself that your entire being is not angry, just that part of you. The visualization makes this a little more concrete when you try to distance yourself from it.

Unnoticed beauty is all around you, always. Take moments to experience it, especially when experiencing negative emotions.

Another strategy I've come up with lately is to tell myself that I don't have time to live other people's lives for them. You have a mission on this Earth, and spending too much energy trying to control other people is foolhardy. They are on their own path, get back to yours.

Expressing anger, contrary to popular belief, makes it worse. The following quote is from Skeptic Magazine (

...more than 40 years of research reveals that expressing anger directly toward another person or indirectly toward an object actually turns up the heat on aggression.[1] In an early study, people who pounded nails after someone insulted them were more critical of that person.[2] Moreover, playing aggressive sports like football results in increases in aggression,[3] and playing violent videogames like Manhunt, in which participants rate bloody assassinations on a 5-point scale, is associated with heightened aggression.[4] Research suggests that expressing anger is helpful only when it’s accompanied by constructive problem-solving designed to address the source of the anger.[5][6]
  1. Bushman, B.J., Baumeister, R.F., & Stack, A.D. 1999. “Catharsis, Aggression, and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 367–376; Tavris, C. 1988. “Beyond Cartoon Killings: Comments on Two Overlooked Effects of Television.” In S. Oskamp (Ed.), Television as a Social Issue (189–197). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  2. Hornberger, R. H. 1959. “The Differential Reduction of Aggressive Responses as a Function of Interpolated Activities.” American Psychologist, 14, 354.
  3. Patterson, A.H. 1974. Hostility Catharsis: A Naturalistic Experiment. Paper presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, New Orleans.
  4. Anderson, C. A., Gentile, D. A., & Buckley, K. E. 2007. Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Littrell, J. 1998. “Is the Re-Experience of Painful Emotion Therapeutic?” Clinical Psychology Review, 18, 71–102.
  6. Lohr, J. M., Olatunji, B. O., Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. 2007. “The Pseudopsychology of Anger Venting and Empirically Supported Alternatives.” Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 5, 54–65.

Recommended books:

Teachings On Love


Pictured: Bananas. Be happy about them, if you can't think of anything else.
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