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I've hear both claims 1) people (in general) talk faster than listeners can process the meaning of the words being said 2) people can process what's being said faster than a person can talk
I think 2) comes from the fact that sometimes you can predict the end of a sentence before it is spoken. Have there been any studies that verify that people speak faster than can be understood or vice-versa?
Study Finds Male And Female Brains Respond Differently To Visual Stimuli
The emotion control center of the brain, the amygdala, shows significantly higher levels of activation in males viewing sexual visual stimuli than females viewing the same images, according to a Center for Behavioral Neuroscience study led by Emory University psychologists Stephan Hamann and Kim Wallen. The finding, which appears in the April edition of "Nature Neuroscience," demonstrates how men and women process visual sexual stimuli differently, and it may explain gender variations in reproductive behavior.
The study adds to a growing body of research in animals and humans that indicates the amygdala plays a central role in male sexual behavior, Hamann says.
"This study helps us get closer to understanding the fundamental functions of this area of the brain," Hamann says. In addition to adding to basic neuroscience knowledge, the findings potentially could have applications that could help scientists develop therapeutic measures to help people overcome sexual addictions and other dysfunctions, he says.
In the study, 14 male and 14 female participants viewed several types of sexual and social interaction images for 30 minutes. Their brain activity was then compared using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technology that measures neural firing through changes in blood flow.
The fMRI scans revealed significantly higher levels of activation in the amygdala, which controls emotion and motivation, in the brains of the male subjects compared to the females, despite the fact that both males and females expressed similar subjective assessments of their levels of arousal after viewing the images.
Hamann and Wallen had a separate group pre-select the images to ensure they would be equally arousing to both males and females.
"If males and females found the pictures equally arousing, you would assume they would have similar patterns of brain activation," said Hamann. "But we discovered the male brain seems to process visual sexual cues differently."
The scientists' discovery also is consistent with an evolutionary theory that natural selection spurred the development of different sexual behaviors in males and females.
"There is an advantage for males in quickly recognizing and responding to receptive females through visual cues," explains Hamann. "This allows them to maximize their mating opportunities, which increases their chances for passing on their genes."
Materials provided by Emory University Health Sciences Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
3 of the most important ideas when we use words every day
The skill of asking questions: “What would you do?”
When I read this, I realized I totally suck at it. Journalist-turned-entrepreneur Evan Ratliff put it like this “all that’s really saved me (so far) from madness is being able to formulate questions that deliver useful answers.”
He points out that any questions that start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why” are likely to get great responses. To be avoided are “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think,” as they can limit how people respond to you a lot.
His advice is to practice questions that begin with the 5Ws in order to have more meaningful conversations.
Removing “is” from your language
This next one is super interesting. Alfred Korzybski, the creator of General Semantics was firmly convinced that the ‘to be’ verbs like “I am, he is, they are, we are” promoted insanity. Why? Quite simply because things can’t be exactly equal to something else. Douglas Cartwright explains further:
This X = Y creates all kinds of mental anguish and it doesn’t need to because we never can reduce ourselves to single concepts. You believe yourself to have more complexity than that, don’t you? Yet unconsciously accepting this languaging constrains us to believe we operate as nothing more or less than the idea we identified ourselves with.
Read the following list of examples and you’ll see immediately how different the outcome of the statements is:
- “He is an idiot” vs. “He acted like an idiot in my eyes”
- “She is depressed” vs. “She looks depressed to me”
- “I am a failure” vs. “I think I’ve failed at this task”
- “I am convinced that” vs. “It appears to me that”
You, Because, Free , Instantly, New – The 5 Most persuasive words in English
In a terrific article, Gregory Ciotti researched the top 5 words in English. His list is not surprising and yet the research behind it is extremely powerful.
“You” – or your name is something that’s so easy to be forgotten and yet so important for great communication:
“Free” – Gregory explains Ariely’s principle of loss aversion. All of us naturally go for the lowest hanging fruit and free triggers exactly that:
“Because” – Because is probably as dangerous as it is useful. Creating a causal relationship is incredibly persuasive:
“Instantly” – If we can trigger something immediately, our brain jumps on it like a shark, says Greg:
Check out the full post from Greg here.
Why Can Some Blind People Process Speech Far Faster Than Sighted Persons?
SAN DIEGO&mdashBooks fly from the shelf as Superman fans the pages in a blur devouring the information at blinding speed. Superhuman mental powers, including his extraordinary sense of hearing and blazing speed-reading, are as vital to Superman as his bullet-beating velocity and steel-bending strength. But it seems Superman isn't the only being with the gift of quickness. Neuroscientists reported in November at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in San Diego that they have found an interesting group of real individuals with such superhuman mental abilities&mdashblind people. Moreover, functional brain imaging now reveals how they achieve their extraordinary cerebral feats.
A popular notion is that blind people sharpen their remaining senses to compensate for lost vision. Blind musicians, such as Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, may excel in music because of their highly developed sense of hearing. Researchers from the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research at the University of Tübingen in Germany have found scientific support for this belief. Blind people can easily comprehend speech that is sped up far beyond the maximum rate that sighted people can understand. When we speak rapidly we are verbalizing at about six syllables per second. That hyperactive radio announcer spewing fine print at the end of a commercial jabbers at 10 syllables per second, the absolute limit of comprehension for sighted people. Blind people, however, can comprehend speech sped up to 25 syllables per second. Human beings cannot talk this fast. The scientists had to use a computerized synthesizer to generate speech at this speed. "It sounds like noise," Ingo Hertrich, one of the scientists involved in the research told me. "I can't understand anything&hellipmaybe it sounds like some strange foreign language spoken very rapidly." (To hear what speech at 16 syllables per second sounds like, listen to a sample recording the scientists used in their experiments.)
Hertrich and his colleagues Hermann Ackermann and Susanne Dietrich wanted to find out what was going on inside the brains of blind people that gives them this "superpower" to understand speech at ultrafast rates. Examining brain regions activated by blind and sighted people while they listened to ultrafast speech and laid inside a (functional magnetic imaging, or MRI) brain scanner revealed that in blind people the part of the cerebral cortex that normally responds to vision was responding to speech.
No wonder blind people seem to have superhuman powers of high-speed listening comprehension. Normally, this brain region, situated at the back of the skull and called V1, only responds to light. Vision is such an important sense for humans that a huge portion of the brain is devoted to visual processing&mdashfar more gray matter than is dedicated to any other sense. In blind people all this brain power would go to waste, but somehow an unsighted person's brain rewires itself to connect auditory regions of the brain to the visual cortex.
Ackermann explained that the age at which a person loses sight is likely to be critical in rewiring brain regions controlling hearing to the region that normally processes vision. In people who are born blind the visual cortex is completely unresponsive to any auditory or visual stimulation. This region of the brain becomes functionally disconnected because visual input is necessary early in life to wire up visual brain circuitry properly. Younger people who lose sight after these connections formed, however, are able to reroute them to process auditory information after becoming blind. On the other hand, people who lose sight late in life are also less able to rewire their brains, because the critical period during which visual experience can influence this process is limited to earlier years in life. (All the subjects in this study had lost their sight between two and 15 years of age.)
But how do brain regions connected to the ears get rewired to brain regions that are normally connected to the eyes? The fact is that most of our senses have some interacting circuitry between them, which is called cross modality. There are some connections between the brain's auditory and visual regions, because the two senses must work together. Seeing a person's lips move helps comprehension of speech. We also need to orient our visual and auditory attention to the same events and to the same place in space, so there is an exchange of information between the auditory and visual cortices. Nerves from muscles that control our eye movements, for example, connect to the brain's hearing centers as well. These connections between visual and auditory regions of the brain become strengthened after losing sight. Also, some regions of cerebral cortex that border visual and auditory cortices&mdashthe left fusiform gyrus, for example&mdashexpand territory in blind people to make use of the idle circuitry in visual cortex.
Interestingly, the researchers found that blind people only use the right visual cortex for understanding ultrafast speech. Ackermann suspects that this may be because the right brain is specialized for processing low-frequency information, which is typical of speech, but this theory is still unproved. What blind people might use the left visual cortex for is something the group is investigating and hopes to report at next year's meeting.
The main interest of the researchers is in brain stroke. By investigating how the blind brain rewires itself to compensate for lost function, the researchers hope to discover new information that can be helpful to patients recovering from stroke. But Ackermann also stresses that an important outcome of this research is the help it can provide the blind. Whereas it is always better to be sighted than not, people who have lost vision do have certain extraordinary abilities that can give them advantages over sighted people. He finds that blind people are able to turn up the rate of text-to-speech converting computer programs to read three books in the time it would take a sighted person to read one. This extraordinary ability will benefit blind people in processing large amounts of written information in textbooks for study at school, and perhaps open new job opportunities to exploit their high-speed reading skills for translation or other auditory comprehension at blazing speeds that to Lois Lane and the rest of us mere mortals sounds like babble.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
R. Douglas Fields is a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health's Section on Nervous System Development and Plasticity. He is author of Electric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads Minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the Better (BenBella Books, 2020).
In a seminal study of group effects on individual performance, Ringelmann (1913 reported in Kravitz & Martin, 1986) investigated the ability of individuals to reach their full potential when working together on tasks. Ringelmann had individual men and groups of various numbers of men pull as hard as they could on ropes while he measured the maximum amount that they were able to pull. Because rope pulling is an additive task, the total amount that could be pulled by the group should be the sum of the contributions of the individuals. However, as shown in Figure 10.7, “The Ringelmann Effect,” although Ringelmann did find that adding individuals to the group increased the overall amount of pulling on the rope (the groups were better than any one individual), he also found a substantial process loss. In fact, the loss was so large that groups of three men pulled at only 85% of their expected capability, whereas groups of eight pulled at only 37% of their expected capability.
Figure 10.7 The Ringelmann Effect
Ringelmann found that although more men pulled harder on a rope than fewer men did, there was a substantial process loss in comparison with what would have been expected on the basis of their individual performances.
This type of process loss, in which group productivity decreases as the size of the group increases, has been found to occur on a wide variety of tasks, including maximizing tasks such as clapping and cheering and swimming (Latané, Williams, & Harkins, 1979 Williams, Nida, Baca, & Latané, 1989), and judgmental tasks such as evaluating a poem (Petty, Harkins, Williams, & Latané, 1977). Furthermore, these process losses have been observed in different cultures, including India, Japan, and Taiwan (Gabrenya, Wang, & Latané, 1985 Karau & Williams, 1993).
Process losses in groups occur in part simply because it is difficult for people to work together. The maximum group performance can only occur if all the participants put forth their greatest effort at exactly the same time. Since, despite the best efforts of the group, it is difficult to perfectly coordinate the input of the group members, the likely result is a process loss such that the group performance is less than would be expected, as calculated as the sum of the individual inputs. Thus actual productivity in the group is reduced in part by these coordination losses.
Coordination losses become more problematic as the size of the group increases because it becomes correspondingly more difficult to coordinate the group members. Kelley, Condry, Dahlke, and Hill (1965) put individuals into separate booths and threatened them with electrical shock. Each person could avoid the shock, however, by pressing a button in the booth for three seconds. But the situation was arranged so that only one person in the group could press the button at one time, and therefore the group members needed to coordinate their actions. Kelley and colleagues found that larger groups had significantly more difficulty coordinating their actions to escape the shocks than did smaller groups.
However, coordination loss at the level of the group is not the only explanation of reduced performance. In addition to being influenced by the coordination of activities, group performance is influenced by self-concern on the part of the individual group members. Since each group member is motivated at least in part by individual self-concerns, each member may desire, at least in part, to gain from the group effort without having to contribute very much. You may have been in a work or study group that had this problem—each group member was interested in doing well but also was hoping that the other group members would do most of the work for them. A group process loss that occurs when people do not work as hard in a group as they do when they are alone is known as social loafing (Karau & Williams, 1993).
Differentiating Coordination Losses from Social Loafing
Latané, Williams, and Harkins (1979) conducted an experiment that allowed them to measure the extent to which process losses in groups were caused by coordination losses and by social loafing. Research participants were placed in a room with a microphone and were instructed to shout as loudly as they could when a signal was given. Furthermore, the participants were blindfolded and wore headsets that prevented them from either seeing or hearing the performance of the other group members. On some trials, the participants were told (via the headsets) that they would be shouting alone, and on other trials, they were told that they would be shouting with other participants. However, although the individuals sometimes did shout in groups, in other cases (although they still thought that they were shouting in groups) they actually shouted alone. Thus Latané and his colleagues were able to measure the contribution of the individuals, both when they thought they were shouting alone and when they thought they were shouting in a group.
The results of the experiment are presented in Figure 10.8, which shows the amount of sound produced per person. The top line represents the potential productivity of the group, which was calculated as the sum of the sound produced by the individuals as they performed alone. The middle line represents the performance of hypothetical groups, computed by summing the sound in the conditions in which the participants thought that they were shouting in a group of either two or six individuals, but where they were actually performing alone. Finally, the bottom line represents the performance of real two-person and six-person groups who were actually shouting together.
Figure 10.8 Coordination and Motivation Losses in Working Groups
Individuals who were asked to shout as loudly as they could shouted much less so when they were in larger groups, and this process loss was the result of both motivation and coordination losses. Data from Latané, Williams, and Harkins (1979).
The results of the study are very clear. First, as the number of people in the group increased (from one to two to six), each person’s individual input got smaller, demonstrating the process loss that the groups created. Furthermore, the decrease for real groups (the lower line) is greater than the decrease for the groups created by summing the contributions of the individuals. Because performance in the summed groups is a function of motivation but not coordination, and the performance in real groups is a function of both motivation and coordination, Latané and his colleagues effectively showed how much of the process loss was due to each.
Social loafing is something that everyone both engages in and is on the receiving end of from time to time. It has negative effects on a wide range of group endeavors, including class projects (Ferrari & Pychyl, 2012), occupational performance (Ülke, & Bilgiç, 2011), and team sports participation (Høigaard, Säfvenbom, & Tønnessen, 2006). Given its many social costs, what can be done to reduce social loafing? In a meta-analytic review, Karau and Williams (1993) concluded that loafing is more likely when groups are working on additive than non-additive tasks. They also found that it was reduced when the task was meaningful and important to group members, when each person was assigned identifiable areas of responsibility, and was recognized and praised for the contributions that he or she made. These are some important lessons for all us to take forward here, for the next time we have to complete a group project, for instance!
As well as being less likely to occur in certain tasks under certain conditions, there are also some personal factors that affect rates of social loafing. On average, women loaf less than men (Karau & Williams, 1993). Men are also more likely to react to social rejection by loafing, whereas women tend to work harder following rejection (Williams & Sommer, 1997). These findings could well help to shed some light on our chapter case study, where we noted that mixed-gender corporate boards outperformed their all-male counterparts. Simply put, we would predict that groups that included women would engage in less loafing, and would therefore show higher performance.
Culture, as well as gender, has been shown to affect rates of the social loafing. On average, people in individualistic cultures loaf more than those in collectivistic cultures, where the greater emphasis on interdependence can sometimes make people work harder in groups than on their own (Karau & Williams, 1993).
- In some situations, social inhibition reduces individuals’ performance in group settings, whereas in other settings, group facilitation enhances individual performance.
- Although groups may sometimes perform better than individuals, this will occur only when the people in the group expend effort to meet the group goals and when the group is able to efficiently coordinate the efforts of the group members.
- The benefits or costs of group performance can be computed by comparing the potential productivity of the group with the actual productivity of the group. The difference will be either a process loss or a process gain.
- Group member characteristics can have a strong effect on group outcomes, but to fully understand group performance, we must also consider the particulars of the group’s situation.
- Classifying group tasks can help us understand the situations in which groups are more or less likely to be successful.
- Some group process losses are due to difficulties in coordination and motivation (social loafing).
Exercises and Critical Thinking
- Outline a group situation where you experienced social inhibition. What task were you performing and why do you think your performance suffered?
- Describe a time when your performance improved through social facilitation. What were you doing, and how well do you think Zajonc’s theory explained what happened?
- Consider a time when a group that you belonged to experienced a process loss. Which of the factors discussed in this section do you think were important in creating the problem?
- In what situations in life have you seen other people social loafing most often? Why do you think that was? Describe some times when you engaged in social loafing and outline which factors from the research we have discussed best explained your loafing behavior?
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Allan Paivio's dual-coding theory is a basis of picture superiority effect. Paivio claims that pictures have advantages over words with regards to coding and retrieval of stored memory because pictures are coded more easily and can be retrieved from symbolic mode, while the dual coding process using words is more difficult for both coding and retrieval. Another explanation of the higher recall in picture superiority is due to the higher familiarity or frequency of pictured objects (Asch & Ebenholtz, 1962).  According to dual-coding theory (1971, 1986), memory exists either (or both) verbally or through imagery. Concrete concepts presented as pictures are encoded into both systems however, abstract concepts are recorded only verbally. In psychology, the effect has implications for salience in attribution theory as well as the availability heuristic. It is also relevant to advertising and user interface design.
Paivio – Dual coding theory Edit
Picture stimuli have an advantage over word stimuli because they are dually encoded they generate a verbal and image code, whereas word stimuli only generate a verbal code. Pictures are likely to generate a verbal label, whereas words are not likely to generate image labels. 
Nelson – Sensory semantic theory Edit
Pictures hold two encoding advantages over words. Pictures are perceptually more distinct from one another than are words, thus increasing their chance for retrieval. In experiments when similarity among pictures was high, no picture superiority effect was present. Pictures are also believed to assess meaning more directly than words. Levels of processing theory apply when words and pictures are compared under semantic study instructions (rate the pleasantness of each item), recall is very similar for pictures and words, as both were encoded at deeper levels. 
Picture superiority results from superior encoding for pictures as opposed to words, which facilitate greater recollection for pictures. 
Weldon and Roediger-transfer appropriate processing theories Edit
Greater overlap of processing at study and test result in increased performance. TAP accounts for picture superiority by an interaction of encoding and retrieval. If items are encoded during a semantic task, performance should be higher for a memory test that relies on concepts related to the items for retrieval than a test that relies on perceptual features. 
This effect has been shown to occur in recognition memory tasks, where items studied as pictures are better remembered than items studied as words, even when targets are presented as words during the test phase.  Whether the picture superiority effect influences the familiarity and/or recollection processes, according to the dual-process models, thought to underlie recognition memory is not clear. 
In experiments of associative recognition memory, participants studied random concrete word pairs, and line drawing pairs. They had to discriminate between intact and rearranged pairs at test. The picture superiority effect continued to express a strong effect with a greater hit rate for intact picture pairs. This further supports encoding theories  More recent research in associative recognition shows support that semantic meaning of nameable pictures is activated faster than that of words, allowing for more meaningful associations between items depicted as pictures to be generated. 
Pictures have distinctive features that enable to distinguish pictures from words and such discriminability increase memory ability in comparison with verbal cues (Jenkins, Neale & Deno, 19  67). Picture Superiority effect was also evident for memory recall during semantic procession (Childers & Houston, 1984  ). Moreover, pictures in pairs or group were better organized in our memory than words thus resulting in superiority in recall (Pavio & Csapo, 1973  ). The picture superiority effect is also present in spatial memory, where locations of items and photographs were remembered better than locations of words. 
The advantage of pictures over words is only evident when visual similarity is a reliable cue because it takes longer to understand pictures than words (Snodgrass & McCullough, 1986  ). Pictures are only superior to words for list learning because differentiation is easier for pictures (Dominowski & Gadlin, 1968  ). In reverse picture superiority it was observed that learning was much slower when the responses were pictures (Postman, 1978  ). Words produced a faster response than pictures and pictures did not have an advantages of having easier access to semantic memory or superior effect over words for dual-coding theory (Amrhein, McDaniel & Waddill 2002  ). Similarly, studies where response time deadlines have been implemented, the reverse superiority effect was reported. This is related to the dual-process model of familiarity and recollection. When deadlines for the response were short, the process of familiarity was present, along with an increased tendency to recall words over pictures. When response deadlines were longer, the process of recollection was being utilized, and a strong picture superiority effect was present.  In addition, equivalent response time was reported for pictures and words for intelligence comparison (Paivio & Marschark, 1980  ). Contrary to the assumption that pictures have faster access to the same semantic code than words do all semantic information is stored in a single system. The only difference is that pictures and words access different features of the semantic code (te Linde, 1982  ).
Across the lifespan, a gradual development of the picture superiority effect is evident. Some studies have shown that it appears to become more pronounced with age,   while others have found that this effect is also observed among younger children (Whitehouse, Mayber, Durkin, 2006  ). However, the major contribution in picture superiority in recognition memory among children was familiarity (Defeyter, Russo & McPartlin, 2009  ). During childhood, specifically among seven-year-olds, the picture superiority effect is lesser in magnitude than in other age groups.  This could be due to the lack of inner speech among younger children supporting the dual coding theory of Paivio. In healthy older adults, the picture superiority effect was found to be greater than it was for younger adults, in comparison to recognition for words, which was disadvantaged for older adults.  In that regard, seniors can benefit from using pictorial information to retain textual information (Cherry et al., 2008  ). While memory for words is impaired for older adults, pictures help restore their impaired memory and function properly (Ally et al., 2008  ). In addition, older adults have shown the same level of capability for identifying correct items in comparison with young adults when items were accompanied with pictures (Smith, Hunt & Dunlap, 2015). In populations with Alzheimer's disease, and other mild cognitive impairments, the picture superiority effect remains evident.  ERP activity indicates that patients with amnesic mild cognitive impairment utilized frontal-lobe based memory processes to support successful recognition for pictures, which was similar to healthy controls, but not for words. 
Of 2 Minds: How Fast and Slow Thinking Shape Perception and Choice [Excerpt]
To survive physically or psychologically, we sometimes need to react automatically to a speeding taxi as we step off the curb or to the subtle facial cues of an angry boss. That automatic mode of thinking, not under voluntary control, contrasts with the need to slow down and deliberately fiddle with pencil and paper when working through an algebra problem. These two systems that the brain uses to process information are the focus of Nobelist Daniel Kahneman's new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC., 2011). The following excerpt is the first chapter, entitled "The Characters of the Story," which introduces readers to these systems. (Used with permission.)
Understanding fast and slow thinking could help us find more rational solutions to problems that we as a society face. For example, a commentary in the March issue of the journal Nature Climate Change outlined how carbon labeling that appeals to both systems could be more successful than previous efforts to change consumer habits. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) Understanding how we think can also guide more personal decisions. Last month, Kahneman highlighted in a lecture given at the National Academy of Sciences "The Science of Science Communication" conference how realizing the limitations of each system can help us catch our own mistakes.
To observe your mind in automatic mode, glance at the image below.
Your experience as you look at the woman&rsquos face seamlessly combines what we normally call seeing and intuitive thinking. As surely and quickly as you saw that the young woman&rsquos hair is dark, you knew she is angry. Furthermore, what you saw extended into the future. You sensed that this woman is about to say some very unkind words, probably in a loud and strident voice. A premonition of what she was going to do next came to mind automatically and effortlessly. You did not intend to assess her mood or to anticipate what she might do, and your reaction to the picture did not have the feel of something you did. It just happened to you. It was an instance of fast thinking.
Now look at the following problem:
You knew immediately that this is a multiplication problem, and probably knew that you could solve it, with paper and pencil, if not without. You also had some vague intuitive knowledge of the range of possible results. You would be quick to recognize that both 12,609 and 123 are implausible. Without spending some time on the problem, however, you would not be certain that the answer is not 568. A precise solution did not come to mind, and you felt that you could choose whether or not to engage in the computation. If you have not done so yet, you should attempt the multiplication problem now, completing at least part of it.
You experienced slow thinking as you proceeded through a sequence of steps. You first retrieved from memory the cognitive program for multiplication that you learned in school, then you implemented it. Carrying out the computation was a strain. You felt the burden of holding much material in memory, as you needed to keep track of where you were and of where you were going, while holding on to the intermediate result. The process was mental work: deliberate, effortful, and orderly&mdasha prototype of slow thinking. The computation was not only an event in your mind your body was also involved. Your muscles tensed up, your blood pressure rose, and your heart rate increased. Someone looking closely at your eyes while you tackled this problem would have seen your pupils dilate. Your pupils contracted back to normal size as soon as you ended your work&mdashwhen you found the answer (which is 408, by the way) or when you gave up.
Psychologists have been intensely interested for several decades in the two modes of thinking evoked by the picture of the angry woman and by the multiplication problem, and have offered many labels for them. I adopt terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and will refer to two systems in the mind, System 1 and System 2.
&bull System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
&bull System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
The labels of System 1 and System 2 are widely used in psychology, but I go further than most in this book, which you can read as a psychodrama with two characters.
When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book. I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps. I also describe circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. You will be invited to think of the two systems as agents with their individual abilities, limitations, and functions.
In rough order of complexity, here are some examples of the automatic activities that are attributed to System 1:
&bull Detect that one object is more distant than another.
&bull Orient to the source of a sudden sound.
&bull Complete the phrase &ldquobread and . . .&rdquo
&bull Make a &ldquodisgust face&rdquo when shown a horrible picture.
&bull Detect hostility in a voice.
&bull Answer to 2 + 2 = ?
&bull Read words on large billboards.
&bull Drive a car on an empty road.
&bull Find a strong move in chess (if you are a chess master).
&bull Understand simple sentences.
&bull Recognize that a &ldquomeek and tidy soul with a passion for detail&rdquo resembles an occupational stereotype.
All these mental events belong with the angry woman&mdashthey occur automatically and require little or no effort. The capabilities of System 1 include innate skills that we share with other animals. We are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice. System 1 has learned associations between ideas (the capital of France?) it has also learned skills such as reading and under- standing nuances of social situations. Some skills, such as finding strong chess moves, are acquired only by specialized experts. Others are widely shared. Detecting the similarity of a personality sketch to an occupational stereotype requires broad knowledge of the language and the culture, which most of us possess. The knowledge is stored in memory and accessed with- out intention and without effort.
Several of the mental actions in the list are completely involuntary. You cannot refrain from understanding simple sentences in your own language or from orienting to a loud unexpected sound, nor can you prevent yourself from knowing that 2 + 2 = 4 or from thinking of Paris when the capital of France is mentioned. Other activities, such as chewing, are susceptible to voluntary control but normally run on automatic pilot. The control of attention is shared by the two systems. Orienting to a loud sound is normally an involuntary operation of System 1, which immediately mobilizes the voluntary attention of System 2. You may be able to resist turning toward the source of a loud and offensive comment at a crowded party, but even if your head does not move, your attention is initially directed to it, at least for a while. However, attention can be moved away from an unwanted focus, primarily by focusing intently on another target.
The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away. Here are some examples:
&bull Brace for the starter gun in a race.
&bull Focus attention on the clowns in the circus.
&bull Focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room.
&bull Look for a woman with white hair.
&bull Search memory to identify a surprising sound.
&bull Maintain a faster walking speed than is natural for you.
&bull Monitor the appropriateness of your behavior in a social situation.
&bull Count the occurrences of the letter a in a page of text.
&bull Tell someone your phone number.
&bull Park in a narrow space (for most people except garage attendants).
&bull Compare two washing machines for overall value.
&bull Fill out a tax form.
&bull Check the validity of a complex logical argument.
In all these situations you must pay attention, and you will perform less well, or not at all, if you are not ready or if your attention is directed inappropriately. System 2 has some ability to change the way System 1 works, by programming the normally automatic functions of attention and memory. When waiting for a relative at a busy train station, for example, you can set yourself at will to look for a white-haired woman or a bearded man, and thereby increase the likelihood of detecting your relative from a distance. You can set your memory to search for capital cities that start with N or for French existentialist novels. And when you rent a car at London&rsquos Heathrow Airport, the attendant will probably remind you that &ldquowe drive on the left side of the road over here.&rdquo In all these cases, you are asked to do something that does not come naturally, and you will find that the consistent maintenance of a set requires continuous exertion of at least some effort.
The often-used phrase &ldquopay attention&rdquo is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail. It is the mark of effortful activities that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once. You could not compute the product of 17 × 24 while making a left turn into dense traffic, and you certainly should not try. You can do several things at once, but only if they are easy and undemanding. You are probably safe carrying on a conversation with a passenger while driving on an empty highway, and many parents have discovered, perhaps with some guilt, that they can read a story to a child while thinking of something else.
Everyone has some awareness of the limited capacity of attention, and our social behavior makes allowances for these limitations. When the driver of a car is overtaking a truck on a narrow road, for example, adult passengers quite sensibly stop talking. They know that distracting the driver is not a good idea, and they also suspect that he is temporarily deaf and will not hear what they say.
Intense focusing on a task can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention. The most dramatic demonstration was offered by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla. They constructed a short film of two teams passing basketballs, one team wearing white shirts, the other wearing black. The viewers of the film are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white team, ignoring the black players. This task is difficult and completely absorbing. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and moves on. The gorilla is in view for 9 seconds. Many thousands of people have seen the video, and about half of them do not notice anything unusual. It is the counting task&mdashand especially the instruction to ignore one of the teams&mdashthat causes the blindness. No one who watches the video without that task would miss the gorilla. Seeing and orienting are automatic functions of System 1, but they depend on the allocation of some attention to the relevant stimulus. The authors note that the most remarkable observation of their study is that people find its results very surprising. Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there&mdashthey cannot imagine missing such a striking event. The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.
The interaction of the two systems is a recurrent theme of the book, and a brief synopsis of the plot is in order. In the story I will tell, Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine&mdashusually.
When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment. System 2 is mobilized when a question arises for which System 1 does not offer an answer, as probably happened to you when you encountered the multiplication problem 17 × 24. You can also feel a surge of conscious attention whenever you are surprised. System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains. In that world, lamps do not jump, cats do not bark, and gorillas do not cross basketball courts. The gorilla experiment demonstrates that some attention is needed for the surprising stimulus to be detected. Surprise then activates and orients your attention: you will stare, and you will search your memory for a story that makes sense of the surprising event. System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior&mdashthe control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night. System 2 is mobilized to increased effort when it detects an error about to be made. Remember a time when you almost blurted out an offensive remark and note how hard you worked to restore control. In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.
The division of labor between System 1 and System 2 is highly efficient: it minimizes effort and optimizes performance. The arrangement works well most of the time because System 1 is generally very good at what it does: its models of familiar situations are accurate, its short-term predictions are usually accurate as well, and its initial reactions to challenges are swift and generally appropriate. System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. As we shall see, it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off. If you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you will read it&mdashunless your attention is totally focused elsewhere.
Figure 2 is a variant of a classic experiment that produces a conflict between the two systems. You should try the exercise before reading on.
You were almost certainly successful in saying the correct words in both tasks, and you surely discovered that some parts of each task were much easier than others. When you identified upper- and lowercase, the left-hand column was easy and the right-hand column caused you to slow down and perhaps to stammer or stumble. When you named the position of words, the left-hand column was difficult and the right-hand column was much easier.
These tasks engage System 2, because saying &ldquoupper/lower&rdquo or &ldquoright/ left&rdquo is not what you routinely do when looking down a column of words. One of the things you did to set yourself for the task was to program your memory so that the relevant words (upper and lower for the first task) were &ldquoon the tip of your tongue.&rdquo The prioritizing of the chosen words is effective and the mild temptation to read other words was fairly easy to resist when you went through the first column. But the second column was different, because it contained words for which you were set, and you could not ignore them. You were mostly able to respond correctly, but overcoming the competing response was a strain, and it slowed you down. You experienced a conflict between a task that you intended to carry out and an automatic response that interfered with it.
Conflict between an automatic reaction and an intention to control it is common in our lives. We are all familiar with the experience of trying not to stare at the oddly dressed couple at the neighboring table in a restaurant. We also know what it is like to force our attention on a boring book, when we constantly find ourselves returning to the point at which the reading lost its meaning. Where winters are hard, many drivers have memories of their car skidding out of control on the ice and of the struggle to follow well-rehearsed instructions that negate what they would naturally do: &ldquoSteer into the skid, and whatever you do, do not touch the brakes!&rdquo And every human being has had the experience of not telling someone to go to hell. One of the tasks of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control.
To appreciate the autonomy of System 1, as well as the distinction between impressions and beliefs, take a good look at figure 3.
This picture is unremarkable: two horizontal lines of different lengths, with fins appended, pointing in different directions. The bottom line is obviously longer than the one above it. That is what we all see, and we naturally believe what we see. If you have already encountered this image, however, you recognize it as the famous Müller-Lyer illusion. As you can easily confirm by measuring them with a ruler, the horizontal lines are in fact identical in length.
Now that you have measured the lines, you&mdashyour System 2, the conscious being you call &ldquoI&rdquo&mdashhave a new belief: you know that the lines are equally long. If asked about their length, you will say what you know. But you still see the bottom line as longer. You have chosen to believe the measurement, but you cannot prevent System 1 from doing its thing you cannot decide to see the lines as equal, although you know they are. To resist the illusion, there is only one thing you can do: you must learn to mistrust your impressions of the length of lines when fins are attached to them. To implement that rule, you must be able to recognize the illusory pattern and recall what you know about it. If you can do this, you will never again be fooled by the Müller-Lyer illusion. But you will still see one line as longer than the other.
Not all illusions are visual. There are illusions of thought, which we call cognitive illusions. As a graduate student, I attended some courses on the art and science of psychotherapy. During one of these lectures, our teacher imparted a morsel of clinical wisdom. This is what he told us: &ldquoYou will from time to time meet a patient who shares a disturbing tale of multiple mistakes in his previous treatment. He has been seen by several clinicians, and all failed him. The patient can lucidly describe how his therapists misunderstood him, but he has quickly perceived that you are different. You share the same feeling, are convinced that you understand him, and will be able to help.&rdquo At this point my teacher raised his voice as he said, &ldquoDo not even think of taking on this patient! Throw him out of the office! He is most likely a psychopath and you will not be able to help him.&rdquo
Many years later I learned that the teacher had warned us against psychopathic charm,and the leading authority in the study of psychopathy confirmed that the teacher&rsquos advice was sound. The analogy to the Müller-Lyer illusion is close. What we were being taught was not how to feel about that patient. Our teacher took it for granted that the sympathy we would feel for the patient would not be under our control it would arise from System 1. Furthermore, we were not being taught to be generally suspicious of our feelings about patients. We were told that a strong attraction to a patient with a repeated history of failed treatment is a danger sign&mdashlike the fins on the parallel lines. It is an illusion&mdasha cognitive illusion&mdashand I (System 2) was taught how to recognize it and advised not to believe it or act on it.
The question that is most often asked about cognitive illusions is whether they can be overcome. The message of these examples is not encouraging. Because System 1 operates automatically and cannot be turned off at will, errors of intuitive thought are often difficult to prevent. Biases cannot always be avoided, because System 2 may have no clue to the error. Even when cues to likely errors are available, errors can be prevented only by the enhanced monitoring and effortful activity of System 2. As a way to live your life, however, continuous vigilance is not necessarily good, and it is certainly impractical. Constantly questioning our own thinking would be impossibly tedious, and System 2 is much too slow and inefficient to serve as a substitute for System 1 in making routine decisions. The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people&rsquos mistakes than our own.
You have been invited to think of the two systems as agents within the mind, with their individual personalities, abilities, and limitations. I will often use sentences in which the systems are the subjects, such as, &ldquoSystem 2 calculates products.&rdquo
The use of such language is considered a sin in the professional circles in which I travel, because it seems to explain the thoughts and actions of a person by the thoughts and actions of little people inside the person&rsquos head. Grammatically the sentence about System 2 is similar to &ldquoThe butler steals the petty cash.&rdquo My colleagues would point out that the butler&rsquos action actually explains the disappearance of the cash, and they rightly question whether the sentence about System 2 explains how products are calculated. My answer is that the brief active sentence that attributes calculation to System 2 is intended as a description, not an explanation. It is meaningful only because of what you already know about System 2. It is shorthand for the following: &ldquoMental arithmetic is a voluntary activity that requires effort, should not be performed while making a left turn, and is associated with dilated pupils and an accelerated heart rate.&rdquo
Similarly, the statement that &ldquohighway driving under routine conditions is left to System 1&rdquo means that steering the car around a bend is automatic and almost effortless. It also implies that an experienced driver can drive on an empty highway while conducting a conversation. Finally, &ldquoSystem 2 prevented James from reacting foolishly to the insult&rdquo means that James would have been more aggressive in his response if his capacity for effortful control had been disrupted (for example, if he had been drunk).
System 1 and System 2 are so central to the story I tell in this book that I must make it absolutely clear that they are fictitious characters. Systems 1 and 2 are not systems in the standard sense of entities with interacting aspects or parts. And there is no one part of the brain that either of the systems would call home. You may well ask: What is the point of introducing fictitious characters with ugly names into a serious book? The answer is that the characters are useful because of some quirks of our minds, yours and mine. A sentence is understood more easily if it describes what an agent (System 2) does than if it describes what something is, what properties it has. In other words, &ldquoSystem 2&rdquo is a better subject for a sentence than &ldquomental arithmetic.&rdquo The mind&mdashespecially System 1&mdashappears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits, and abilities. You quickly formed a bad opinion of the thieving butler, you expect more bad behavior from him, and you will remember him for a while. This is also my hope for the language of systems.
Why call them System 1 and System 2 rather than the more descriptive &ldquoautomatic system&rdquo and &ldquoeffortful system&rdquo? The reason is simple: &ldquoAutomatic system&rdquo takes longer to say than &ldquoSystem 1&rdquo and therefore takes more space in your working memory. This matters, because anything that occupies your working memory reduces your ability to think. You should treat &ldquoSystem 1&rdquo and &ldquoSystem 2&rdquo as nicknames, like Bob and Joe, identifying characters that you will get to know over the course of this book. The fictitious systems make it easier for me to think about judgment and choice, and will make it easier for you to understand what I say.
SPEAKING OF SYSTEM 1 AND SYSTEM 2
&ldquoHe had an impression, but some of his impressions are illusions.&rdquo
&ldquoThis was a pure System 1 response. She reacted to the threat before she recognized it.&rdquo
&ldquoThis is your System 1 talking. Slow down and let your System 2 take control.&rdquo
Reprinted from Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Kahneman. All rights reserved.
Listen Like a Lawyer
You could certainly accuse this blog of idealism about listening. In contrast to e-mail, for example, just go and talk to the person. Through listening to their words and observing their body language, you can pick up so much more subtle and complete information: How do they feel about the subject? What are their expectations and how can you adjust your own work in light of those expectations? How important is this to them, anyway?
The downside of all that additional information you get from listening is . . . all that additional information you get from listening. People speak at about 140-180 words per minute, but on average, a listener can comprehend about 400 words per minute. Different sources offer slightly different numbers, but a common thread runs across all version of this statistic: the listener thinks faster than the speaker thinks.
That “thought-speech differential” or “listening gap” means the brain has extra capacity and WILL process information using that extra capacity. For example, the listener can process lots of non-verbal cues. Great listeners will observe such cues and use them to guide the conversation to fit their communication goals.
But the difference in how fast people talk and how fast they listen also creates the opportunity for the brain’s cognitive biases to operate and shape how the listener’s perception. I have previously written about some of the cognitive biases that may arise in particular when listening is involved. See Listen Like a Lawyer blog posts here and here and here covering cognitive biases such as the well-known confirmation bias.
To use Daniel Kahneman’s framework, the difference between the speed of thought and speed of speech is a space where “System 1” can roam. System 1 is the automatic, always-on system and also the one with all the cognitive biases (in lay terms, mental shortcuts). The more thoughtful “System 2” is where you find the careful “thinking slow” of his great book’s title, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Whatever the task, the most effective communicators are able to use the speech/thought differential for custom listening, not listening fueled by standard cognitive biases based on the Kahneman formula “WYSIATI”—What You See Is All There Is. Effective listeners are able to suss out what is not happening, and what they need to ask. Effective lawyers in particular will use their excess cognitive capacity to both attend to non-verbal cues and how the speaker presents, while also ignoring the cues and presentation to focus on the information and what else they need to know. As with all other lawyering skills, the most effective lawyer-listeners perform the task in a way that is both standardized to what they need to know and do as well as customized to the particular situation including strictly relevant facts and all the other seemingly irrelevant but highly important background and emotional factors affecting the communication experience.
Note: The original version of this post cited to sources no longer available, an article by Rita Hedley on Medium, and Ken Grady’s project for Seyfarth Shaw at Seytlines. Ken now teaches at Michigan State and writes on Medium here.
The science of how we talk to ourselves in our heads
Studying the ways people talk to themselves in their own minds is incredibly tricky because as soon as you ask them about it, you’re likely interfering with the process you want to investigate. As William James said, some forms of introspective analysis are like “… trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.”
For many years Russell Hurlbert and his colleagues have used a technique that they believe offers the best way to study what they call “pristine” inner speaking, unaltered by outside interference. They provide participants with a beeper that goes off randomly several times a day, and ask them to record in precise terms their mental activity that was happening just before the beeps. Early in the process, this “descriptive experience sampling” (DES) approach also involves cooperative interviews between the participants and a trained researcher, so that the participant can learn to identify true instances of inner speaking from other mental phenomena.
Now Hurlbert’s team has documented some of what they’ve learned so far about the ways that we talk to ourselves in our own minds. Our inner voices usually sound to us like our external spoken voice – instances of inner speaking occurring in another person’s voice are very rare. Just like our spoken voice, the voice of inner speaking can also express degrees of volume and emotion.
Inner speaking is perceived as wilful – something done, rather than experienced passively. There is huge variation in the frequency with which people speak to themselves in their mind. In one study with 30 participants that involved ten beeps a day for three days, some reported no instances of inner speaking at all, while others reported inner speaking for 75 per cent of the beeps. On average inner speaking was reported at 23 per cent of beeps, although note that doesn’t mean people are speaking to themselves 23 per cent of the entire time.
Another curious variation in inner speaking is where people report its location. Some people describe it as occurring in a particular location in their head others say in their head but are no more specific still others say their inner speaking occurs in their chest.
Also notable is some people’s descriptions of inner speaking occurring while they are speaking aloud – with the two voices saying different things. There are also reports of inner speaking that has no meaning, and inner speaking that is at a much faster rate than would be physically possible for aloud speaking.
Hurlbert’s team say it is also important to outline what inner speaking is not. They say it is different from “inner hearing,” which is when an inner voice is experienced passively, even if it is one’s own voice. This can give rise to a situation where a person has an inner discussion between their inner speaking voice and their heard voice. The researchers give this example from their records, of a man eating dinner in a restaurant, who then notices a woman:
Innerly speaking voice: Why are you bringing this woman to my attention?
Innerly heard voice: She’s pretty (spoken in a matter of fact tone). Innerly speaking voice: Uh huh (“in a that’s-bullshit tone of voice”) [Beeper goes off]
Inner speaking is also different from “unsymbolised thinking” according to the researchers. Unsymbolised thinking is a “thoughty experience” about a distinct concept or issue but does not involve words, pictures or symbols. Inner speaking also is not “sensory awareness” – when we’re focused on a specific sensory aspect of the outside world or our bodies.
Hurlbert’s group believe their approach has advantages over the questionnaire methods used by other researchers, which obviously rely on people remembering their past mental lives, and are often vague in what they mean by inner speaking. And Hurlbert’s group think their method is more trustworthy than simple armchair introspection, because if you sit back and deliberately attempt to analyse your own inner speaking you will immediately interfere with the natural course of your mental activities.
They conclude by outlining many puzzles that remain to be investigated, including why some people appear to experience so much more inner speaking than others (some people report that they experience inner speaking 100 per cent of the time, yet others report none). Also, are there cross-cultural differences in inner speaking? And when and how does inner speaking first appear in life?
Hurlburt RT, Heavey CL, and Kelsey JM (2013). Toward a phenomenology of inner speaking. Consciousness and cognition, 22 (4), 1477-94 PMID: 24184987
Smart People Really Do Think Faster
This colorful brain image is like a map of mental speed. The bright spaghetti structures represent the pathways connecting different brain cells. David Shattuck/Arthur Toga/Paul Thompson/UCLA hide caption
This colorful brain image is like a map of mental speed. The bright spaghetti structures represent the pathways connecting different brain cells.
David Shattuck/Arthur Toga/Paul Thompson/UCLA
This DTI brain scan shows more of the brain's wiring. Thompson says not only are these brain scans beautiful but "these images really give you a picture of the mental speed of the brain." David Shattuck/Arthur Toga/Paul Thompson/UCLA hide caption
This DTI brain scan shows more of the brain's wiring. Thompson says not only are these brain scans beautiful but "these images really give you a picture of the mental speed of the brain."
David Shattuck/Arthur Toga/Paul Thompson/UCLA
The smarter the person, the faster information zips around the brain, a UCLA study finds. And this ability to think quickly apparently is inherited.
The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, looked at the brains and intelligence of 92 people. All the participants took standard IQ tests. Then the researchers studied their brains using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI.
Capturing Mental Speed
DTI is a variant of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that can measure the structural integrity of the brain's white matter, which is made up of cells that carry nerve impulses from one part of the brain to another. The greater the structural integrity, the faster nerve impulses travel.
"These images really give you a picture of the mental speed of the brain," says Paul Thompson, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at UCLA School of Medicine.
They're also "the most beautiful images of the brain you could imagine," Thompson says. "My daughter, who's 5, says they look like little flowers at each point in the brain."
Thompson says DTI scans of the 92 participants in the study revealed a clear link between brain speed and intelligence.
"When you say someone is quick-thinking, it's genuinely true," Thompson says. "The impulses are going faster and they are just more efficient at processing information, and then making a decision based on it."
Thompson's study also found that genetic factors played a big role in brain speed.
The team was able to figure this out because the 92 people in their study were all twins. Some were identical twins, who share all the same genes. Others were non-identical twins, who share only certain genes.
By comparing the groups, the researchers were able to tease out genes associated with the structural integrity of white matter. And it turned out many of these genes were also associated with intelligence.
Richard Haier, Ph.D., emeritus professor at the University of California, Irvine, says this may explain something scientists have been wondering about for a long time.
"We know that intelligence has some genetic component," he says. "And what the Thompson study is showing is that a large part of the genetic aspect of intelligence has to do with the white matter tracks that connect different parts of the brain."
Don't Give Up Just Yet
Haier says the good news is that we're not necessarily stuck with the brain, or the brain speed, we inherit. He says thinking is like running or weightlifting. It helps to have certain genes. But anyone can get stronger or faster by working out.
The brain is like a muscle, Haier says: "The more you work it the more efficient it gets."
So people who practice the violin, or do math problems, or learn a foreign language are constantly strengthening certain pathways in their brains.
And Thompson notes that our brains, unlike our bodies, peak relatively late in life.
"The wires between the brain cells, the connections, are the things that you can modify throughout life," he says. "They change and they improve through your 40s and 50s and 60s."
Thompson says there are practical, as well as academic, reasons to measure brain speed.
The technique can spot problems such as Alzheimer's disease, which slows down the brain. And because the scans are so sensitive, they can show whether new drugs for Alzheimer's are actually working.