When the Going Gets WEIRD

In the New York Times Daniel C Dennett reviews a book by Joseph Henrich called The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Sounds like an interesting book, and the review itself is engaging. I just wanted to note a few points.

First, we have the acronym WEIRD, which stands for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.” Apparently being WEIRD makes us weird, in psychological terms. Non-WEIRD and WEIRD people have differences that can be observed, measured.

I was intrigued by this quote:

To point to just one striking example: Normal, meaning non-WEIRD, people use left and right hemispheres of their brains about equally for facial recognition, but we WEIRD people have co-opted left-hemisphere regions for language tasks, and are significantly worse at recognizing faces than the normal population. Until recently few researchers imagined that growing up in a particular culture could have such an effect on functional neuroanatomy.

– Daniel C Dennett, Why Are We in the West So Weird? A Theory

I wonder if this can apply on an individual scale: are people whose focus has been language less able to recognise faces? Answering just from within my own head, I’d say maybe? I’ve been what my Dad used to call a compulsive reader all my life, as well as being at least somewhat interested in writing, and I’m very poor at facial recognition. Bordering on prosopagnosia, I sometimes think (though far from anything like the poor woman in this story, who can’t even recognise herself in a mirror).

If my experience suggests that, I have counter examples right in my own family. My beloved and our daughter are both linguists, and both border (to my mind) on being super recognisers1, which is the complete opposite of me.

None of which tells us anything useful, except maybe that the ability to recognise faces, like many things, exists on a scale.

More interestingly, Dennett introduces (to me, at least) the delightful term ‘Occam’s Broom’:

A good statistician (which I am not) should scrutinize the many uses of statistics made by Henrich and his team. They are probably all sound but he would want them examined rigorously by the experts. That’s science. Experts who don’t have the technical tools — historians and anthropologists especially — have an important role to play as well; they should scour the book for any instances of Occam’s broom (with which one sweeps inconvenient facts under the rug).

– Daniel C Dennett, Why Are We in the West So Weird? A Theory

Occam had a famous razor; why wouldn’t he have a broom as well?


  1. There’s a professional body of super recognisers. Who’d have thought? ↩︎


Brain Explain

Interesting article on psychology wherein Robert Epstein tells us that “Your brain does not process information and it is not a computer.”

It is, as I say, interesting. But it’s also profoundly annoying in the way he asserts that the human brain is not an information processor, but then makes no attempt to explain what it is, instead. 

He asserts that the brain does not hold a copy of a song it has learned, for example, but instead “is changed in a way that allows the person to sing it” (I paraphrase).

But isn’t that just another way of saying that it has stored a copy? If that change does not in some sense denote making a copy, then what exactly does it mean? What is the brain doing when the singer recalls the song? Inventing it anew, exactly (or not) as the original composer intended?

I don’t doubt that what he calls “[t]he information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence” has its limitations; but he has completely failed to explain them or provide an alternative explanation.

The truth is we don’t understand much about how the brain does what it does; and this guy knows more than most of us. But he’s a psychologist. He no doubt has a deep understanding of the workings of the human mind. But I think if you want someone to explain what we understand of the workings of he human brain, then you want that person to be a neuroscientist.