Notes: Dave Snowden - 'Dealing with unanticipated needs'


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'Dealing with unanticipated needs – Dave Snowden'
[Dave Snowden]

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Inattentional blindness, heuristics

'Inattentional blindness' - we do not see what we do not expect to see.

The most anybody [...] will scan of the available data before you make a decision is about five percent. That’s on a good day, if you’re really focused. If you’re Chinese it is ten percent (there are actually different evolutionary processes in the brain as a result of symbolic as opposed to non-symbolic language).

You then make a decision based on a first-fit pattern match privileging your most recent experiences - that’s called conceptual blending. You scan five percent of the data, that causes trigger of memories of your own experience - things you were taught, things you learned from other people in narrative form - you blend that together and you come up with a unique form of action.

That’s how you make decisions - unless you’re fully autistic. The only people who make rational decisions by assessing all available data are autistic, which is why they can’t operate.

If you think about it in evolutionary terms, you can see why this happens. If you imagine the first hominids on the savannahs of Africa, something large and yellow with very sharp teeth runs toward you at very high speed. Do you want to autistically scan all available data, look up a catalogue of the flora and fauna of the African veldt, and having identified ‘lion’ look up best practice case-studies on how to avoid lions?

We evolved to make decisions very quickly based on a partial data scan, privileging our most recent experiences. 

In modern cognitive science we don’t call these biases, we call them heuristics. Evolution doesn’t produce things that have no utility. So-called biases are actually heuristics that allow us to make decisions faster.


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Art comes before language in human evolution. 

We drew and produced music before language happened. That’s unique to us as a species. That actually then continues to develop to the heights of modern art. If you look at modern fine art and music it’s usually sophisticated.

The reason that is so valuable to us in evolutionary terms is that if you move up a level of abstraction you see novel connections. Art has been critical to human inventiveness because it disconnects us from the material and moves us into the abstract.

Which is why the focus on STEM education is a potential disaster for the species, because if you don’t have art you don’t have inventiveness. You’re just connecting them with the material.


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If you want innovation forget people between the age of twenty-five and forty-five. 

They don’t innovate  (unless you put them under considerable stress and so increase brain plasticity). By the time you hit about twenty/twenty-five, you’ve locked down how you see the world based on what you need to do in the society you belong. It doesn’t really change until you reach your late forties/fifties.

You don’t see racism in kids before puberty. Racism comes in after puberty because by then the brain is starting this lock-down process to meets the needs of the society to which it belongs. Therefore it will assume the prejudices of that society.

Chemically triggered in the fifties, the same things happens - the brain becomes plastic again.

So if you look at innovation in the humanities its older people, in the natural sciences its younger people. In the older people innovation is synthesis, in younger people it is originality. 


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