Sunday, July 23, 2023

Body Mass Index --Is the BMI For Real, or is the B for Baloney?

The Controversy:

The Body Mass Index is a common graph used for determining what a patient’s “normal” weight should be, based on their weight and height. Nevertheless, some have claimed it to be outdated, unscientific, inaccurate and even racist. Yet many doctors and weight loss authorities still use it and feel it is reliable. What is it and is it accurate?

 I recently had a visit with my new doctor. Some people dread going to the doctor, but I’ve always looked forward to it. I’m generally pretty healthy. I used to be an athlete, and I still try to keep in pretty good shape. Not great, but pretty good, and usually a little better than my age bracket. A visit to the doctor is normally uneventful, and sometimes even complementary. (Full disclosure: I carry a bit more belly fat than I’d like to, which I credit to years of working long hours, and I’ve got a touch of osteoarthritis from an old car injury). When the COVID lockdown ended, I started hitting the gym nearly every day for an hour or two, and I put on a good bit of muscle, even if I didn't burn much fat.

 I wasn’t surprised when the doctor told me, “You have to lose weight!” In fact, I heartily agreed, “I know! After a year in lockdown I could certainly stand to lose about 20 pounds.”

 “NO! You have to lose 50 pounds! You’re almost morbidly obese!”

 Obese?! For once, I was at a loss for words. Was he even looking at me? There was no one else in the room, but what he was saying didn’t make sense. I’m not a terribly large person, I’m only 5 foot 5”. Twenty pounds lighter and I’d look pretty good. 25 pounds would be pushing it a bit, but FIFTY POUNDS? I’d look like skeleton. Sure I’m a bit chubby, but obese? Morbidly obese?!  

 “It’s THE BMI! BODY MASS INDEX!” he snapped, “It’s your body composition!”

 I thought quickly. “Are you looking at the scale for women, maybe?” I asked, even though he was quoting out of his head. He told me it was the same for men and women. The only factors to consider, he said, were weight and height, but that didn’t make any sense to me. A woman my height might reasonably be much lighter than I am, if she had delicate bone structure and very little muscle or fat. Aside from my spare tire, I’d added enough muscle to my chest and shoulders since the COVID lockdown that the new jacket I bought only a year ago didn’t fit over my shoulders anymore.

At this point, red flags were going up in my mind. I’d never had a doctor say anything like this to me before, and for me, his judgement was coming into question, because what he was saying didn't sound scientific. “You know muscle is heavier than fat?” I felt compelled to ask. He insisted that it didn’t matter. It was all the same, he said, only height and weight mattered. I was flummoxed. 

As far as he was concerned, there was no more to discuss. BMI was everything there was. All of this shook my faith in the doctor, but maybe he was right and I was wrong. He was the doctor after all. Could I actually be the thinnest obese man in history?

As I left the office, I suppressed the urge to eat an entire pizza in protest, and decided to learn a bit about the BMI when I got home.

I Have to Educate Myself
As a motivational coach, I’ve dealt with a lot of weight loss clients. I deal with their feelings and motivations, but I leave the technicalities of weight and diet to their health care professionals. I can help the clients get over their mental and emotional hurdles, but I don’t tell them what goals to reach for. So I knew about the Body Mass Index (BMI), but I didn’t know the specifics.

What little I did know was that the very concept of “body composition” is the ratio of muscle to non-muscle tissue, and for practical purposes of weight loss, what mattered was the percentage of fat versus non-fat, and it’s common knowledge that muscle weighs more than fat of the same volume.

I also knew there were other variables involved. Gender matters. Males tend to have denser bone and muscle than females as a result of hormonal changes at puberty. Another thing to be considered is age. A 20-year old is usually going to have a stronger metabolism and naturally fitter body than a 40-year old, even if the 40 year old exercises a whole lot more, and I’m 60! (I don’t look a day over 58, though). Race and genetics are another issue that has to be factored in. Different ethnicities store fat in different ways and in different parts of the body, and may not offer the same weight/height ratios.There are probably other specific variables as well.

There it is, the BMI chart. And sure enough, It says I’m vastly overweight. But you know what? It might say you’re overweight too! You’ll notice there’s no accounting for any of those other, obvious, variables. I thought there might be a more sophisticated version of the chart and searched for it on the web, but there aren’t any. Maybe the doctor was right, but to my mind, simple common sense says this chart is both incorrect and also unscientific--two variables, height and weight, simply aren’t enough to accurately gauge a person’s health. 

It didn’t take me long to discover a whole lot more. There’s a lot of material about the BMI available, but it wasn’t the dry science I was expecting.

The Quetelet Scale
Are you Belgian? Are you more than 150 years old? If you answered “no” to these questions, the the BMI may not be right for you!

The BMI, was originally known as The Quetelet Scale, after it’s creator was Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet (1796-1874). Quetelet was possessed of one of those brilliant, inquisitive, scientific minds which this period in history produced so many of. He focused his considerable mental powers on many aspects of the natural sciences and the arts, but his two greatest passions were astronomy and mathematics. Stars aside, He felt that numerical statistics could capture and describe the idealized perfection of nature (which he believed to be graphed as a bell curve). He further felt that once that mathematical ideal was established from a small pool of data, it could be generalized out reliably to a much larger population. To that end, he compiled statistics on all kinds of things, including crime rates, marriage rates and, since he was artistically inclined, perfect human proportions. He came up with the formula for the ideal human body based on the formula: weight x height2. In other words,  'the weight increases as the square of the height' This formula was based on measurements from the humans he happened to have at hand, and is sort of the way you's measure the volume of a milk bottle. He published his findings in 1830, and the numbers have not been revised since. 

He was not a doctor. He didn’t know much about medical or structural variations or about human anatomy, and he didn’t intend the Quetelet Scale to be a diagnostic tool. It was more of a philosophical exercise.

The Quetelet Scale enters a New Century
Ancel Benjamin Keys (1904 – 2004) was another brilliant scientist of a different century, and a trailblazer in the field of nutrition. We can credit him for the our modern understanding of the relationship of cholesterol to heart disease, the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, and a number of other discoveries which have become the cornerstones of modern nutritional science. He helped formulate special meals for the soldiers in WW2 based on their caloric needs and it’s rumored the (in)famous K-Ration of WW2 got the “K” in Keys’ honor. 

One of his grandest research projects was the Seven Country Study, which charted the relationship of diet and longevity (particularly heart disease) in seven different countries over a period of several decades. He followed the health histories and measurements of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people over the years in order to get a large sampling of data. In order to process and quantify all the data he was collecting, he chose the Quetelet scale out of convenience, because out of all the existing scales for body mass, he felt the Quetelet Scale was mathematically the most complete, and therefor, convenient for his purposes. When he published some of his findings in 1972, he included the Quetelet Scale, which he renamed The Body Mass Index. But he was clear that it was really only useful for processing large amounts of demographic data, not for use on individuals. 

So there we have it. An academic exercise conducted by Belgian astronomer nearly 200 years ago in the search for mathematical perfection, picked up in 1972 as a convenient demographic tool. It does not figure things like muscle vs. fat, activity level, age, gender, nutrition habits or an individual’s genetic variations. It simply calculates the volume of a human body as if it’s a jam jar. 

So why on earth would modern doctors today, people of science, take up this bit of outdated ephemera when modern tools and methods could provide better data? To be fair, a lot of medical experts neither use nor endorse it. Many have come up with better alternatives. Yet some doctors have accepted it without questioning it’s obvious flaws. Many sources on the internet present it as simple fact without any discussion of it’s failings. According to what I’ve been able to glean, many medical schools are still teaching it, and the students are accepting and absorbing it (even though their own eyes are probably giving them contradictory data!). So why would medical schools promote something that one’s own sense contradicts?

I don’t know. According to some of the sources below, the BMI was picked up and endorsed not by medical experts, but by health insurance companies who felt is assessed the health risks of their customers accurately (and with a good safety margin for the company, I’d imagine). Apparently, a lot of people who teach it never even thought to question it. It’s just been passed along by tradition.  

Are There Better Ways To Measure Fat?
If you want to get an accurate gauge of your weight and health, it goes without saying that you should consult with a health care professional who is trained and qualified. They will know the best course of action for you regarding testing, and for helping you reach your own health and fitness goals.

 There are a number other more thorough body mass indices. One that attempts to address the shortcomings of the BMI is the ABSI (A Body Shape Index). The ABSI was created at City College of New York, with an initial pool of test subjects that included over 14,000 people, and it has since been reaffirmed with even larger sample groups. It is still a generalization, but at least it includes more of the obvious, important variables: age, gender, waist diameter as well as height and weight. If more exacting tests are needed, there are a number of them. I’ve listed the common ones below.

Body Composition Testing Methods
Skinfold Caliper Test-- This is a very common test with athletes and body builders, and is considered to be an easy and fairly accurate test for measuring subcutaneous (beneath the skin) fat. It uses a special caliper which pinches the skin in several specific places around the body to measure the thickness of the fat underneath. The thicker the pinch, the more fat. These measurements are then calculated to get an overall average. It can also indicate which parts of the body have the most or least fat stored in them (which can be an important finding in certain situations). There are several obvious shortcomings of this test. It can’t measure fat stored deep inside the body, only under the skin. It can also be inaccurate if too much or too little pressure is applied with the calipers, or if the pinch is too big or too small. Individuals may also have more or less dense skin, regardless of the fat beneath.  

Bioelectric Impedance Analysis-- This utilizes a device that sends an imperceptible electric current through the body, and measures the amount of electrical resistance the body offers. Since fat has a greater electrical resistance than muscle or water, measuring the resistance will tell how much fat is conducting the current. For the test, several electrodes are attached to various parts of the body. The test itself can be done fairly quickly. Some sources feel it’s reliability is questionable, just because there are so many things that can potentially throw off the results--exercising before the test, dehydration, skin temperature, room temperature, medication, etc. Nevertheless its fast and convenient and a good starting point. There are even home devices you can hold between your hands, although their accuracy seems questionable. 

Hydrostatic Weight Measurement--  This is also considered a very accurate measurement of body composition, though some sources indicate it’s considered a bit old fashioned, perhaps due to the complexity of test. An individual’s weight is measured before the test (dry), and then the individual is submerged in a tank of water and weighed again. The theory behind it is that fat is more buoyant than non-fat, so the individual will weight less when submerged. By noting the difference between the wet and dry weight, they can get a pretty accurate measurement of the actual amount of fat by weight.

Dual-energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DXA or DEXA)-- This involves a special scanner that creates an X-ray imaging of the entire body that also measures the density of the various structures--bones, organs, fat and muscle. This is obviously an extremely accurate way of measuring and seeing the fat in different places, and it can also measure density of bones and other organs. It generally takes about 15 minute or less to do.

Thoughts About The Other Controversial Points
In fairness, the BMI isn’t entirely inaccurate, either. It was based on measurements taken from “average” (not physically active) 19th century Belgian men, who tended to be somewhat smaller, and lighter due to the their diet and living conditions. So while modern 20-21st century American and European people across the board are a bit bigger and heavier, the BMI does seem to be more accurate with younger, less physically active women (physical activity tends to add muscle mass and throw off the accuracy).

A number of sources (including a few of the links cited below) state the BMI to be “racist.” By now we’ve established it isn’t a reliable index for any other group except 200 year old Belgians. I don’t know if Quetelet even knew that different human genetic groups had different anatomical specifics, but most likely, he didn’t know or consider it. He wasn’t a medical man. However it’s fair to say it’s application by modern medicine to a broad range of race and body types is, at least, misguided.

When I was discussing this with someone, they asked why the gender discussion is only in terms of male and female and ignores more of the gender variations that are accepted in the 21 century. I have no answer to that, since I didn’t find any data about that. I imagine that this is why it’s important to have qualified professionals interpret the data, and that we’ll see more variation in the future.


Note that this article is purely for information and perhaps entertainment value, and is not intended to provide medical advice or diagnose anything. Always consult with the appropriate, qualified professionals about all your health concerns.


Quetelet and the BMI
(This excellent article has a much more detailed historical and scientific discussion than most)

BMI And Race 

 Ancel Keys and the Seven Country Study

Better Body Weight Measurements

Fat Calipers
(web page has built in calculators for six different methods)

Bioelectric Impedance Analysis

X Ray Imaging

Hydrostatic Weight Measurement





Friday, July 21, 2023

Book Report: Training Manual for Sight Without Eyes - Through Mind Sight and Perception by Lloyd Hopkins c.1988/2008

 You can't get more straightforward of a book title than the title of this book. It's a 2008 reprint of a booklet originally published in 1988, and apparently it was a free handout at the author's Mind Sight and Perception Research Center in Washington State. (The author, Lloyd Hopkins, died in 1994, and his center is no longer in operation, but his work seems to have inspired others to continue his explorations, including author Sean McNamara in his book "Mind Sight" I believe he is also giving workshops). Hopkins' center seems to have been in operation from 1970 to 1988, and produced a number of successful students and teachers). The book has been reproduced with all the typos intact but that detracts nothing from the material.

In a nutshell, the author taught people, particularly blind people, to be able to see without the use of their eyes!

This work itself is fairly brief, but still covers a lot of ground. After a health issue in 1968, Hopkins' decided to withdraw from business and devote himself to exploring metaphysical topics that interested him. He doesn't go into any great detail about his beliefs, but seems to have been somewhat influenced by Christianity and he also specifically cites Max Freedom Long's book The Secret Science Behind Miracles, which covers elements of Huna, a system of Hawaiian mysticism. 

The book touches on every aspect of Hopkins' Mind Sigh Center, including practice, philosophy, anecdotes about the students and the school, including a number of public demonstrations they gave to various schools, organizations and even the press, which included reading without use of the eyes, being able to perceive events at great distances, and even driving a car sightlessly! The author doesn't attempt to explain how Mind Sight works, but that doesn't appear to have been particularly important.

The practical part of the book presents a series of beginner advanced exercises. Some of his explanations are a bit sparse and vague, but later in the book he includes some short autobiographies of his outstanding students and some go into greater detail about the training methods. He insists that with intense commitment and practice, almost anyone can achieve some lever of success.

If you have an interest in Huna, Psychic skills or Remote Viewing, this book will be a fun and perhaps useful addition to your training materials.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Book Report: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (c)2008

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (c)2008

Background Information: "Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers — The Tipping Point, Blink,Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. He is also the co-founder of Pushkin Industries, an audio content company that produces the podcasts Revisionist History, which reconsiders things both overlooked and misunderstood, and Broken Record, where he, Rick Rubin, and Bruce Headlam interview musicians across a wide range of genres. Gladwell has been included in the TIME 100 Most Influential People list and touted as one of Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers." (from the Author's web page:

"Outliers" are those people and things that are outside of the normal range of things, the statistically improbable, the rarities. There are a lot of books highlighting the stories of successful people, their struggles and skills and luck, but here, the author has noticed that in every sphere there are some small coincidences. Why were Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and other revolutionaries of the microcomputer age all born within a few years of each other? Why are all the great hockey players born in the Spring, why was Germany vital to the Beatles' success, and why is it so important to consider the events surrounding plane crashes in figuring all this out?

Here's a hint: success isn't just a matter of genius or hard work (although you're read about why the famous "10,000 hour rule of mastery is so important). A person has to enter the scene at the right time and place for that genius to have an opportunity to take root. and that situation has to have the resources to nurture that talent, too. If you're not sure if this is so, be sure to read about the worlds smartest man that you never heard of to put it in perspective.

Not only is the topic clearly presented and researched, but Gladwell's writing skills are both powerful and entertaining. The book is enormously entertaining and readable, and hes careful to continue to fit all the facts he presents into one solid, continuous discussion. There are some books that present facts in a way that you feel you need to keep notes from the previous chapters, but in Gladwell's books, it's a continual build up and reflection so that it's an effortless read.

This book will expand your understanding of how these outliers are both unique talents and products of their environment at the same time.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Book Report: Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow (C)2012

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow (c) 2012

About the Author: Mlodinow is a bestselling author, theoretical physicist, researcher, inventor and screenwriter. He even coauthored a book with Steven Hawking, and has authored episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and McGuyver. He currently teaches at Caltech.

I probably would have bought this book for the cover design alone. In addition to the straightforward title and description on the eye-catching hot green cover, "How your subconscious mind rules your behavior" there's a clever and funny "subliminal" messge printed in glossy, clear varnish all over the book. It's entirely transparent and only seen when the lights hits it in the right way (you can see it in grey on the picture left: Psst... Hey There, Yes, You, Sexy, Buy This Book Now. You know You Want it." The Spine and back cover are overprinted with "BUY! BUY! BUY!"). As a long time Ad-man, myself, this appeals to me enormously. 

You can expect the same kind of wry humor throughout the book, and happily it's used to make the science he's presenting readable and fun. The topic of this book is, as you may have guessed, how the subconscious mind works with the conscious mind in ways we're usually unaware of. Now, the subconscious is far to big a topic for any one book or author to cover completely (even if it were possible to know and understand it completely, but new discoveries are being made every day). But there's no question that this book is a valuable and fun addition to the library of anyone serious about getting a better understanding about the mind. 

Coming from a scientist, it's no surprise that he's start with history and hard science, and he quickly brings us up to date with the different ways the mind was perceived by scientists as the science rapidly developed. We're also introduced to the way brain structures and neurology affect our perceptions (did you know there's a non-visual part of the brain wired directly to the eyes that recognizes faces even if the visual portion od the brain is totally non-functional? It is possible to recognize facial expressions even if one cannot see the face! It's called the "Fusiform Face Area").

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Book Report: Fundamentals of Psychology in Context, Third Edition by Kosslyn and Rosenburg (c) 2007


Fundamentals of Psychology in Context, Third Edition
by Kosslyn and Rosenburg (c) 2007

I don't know how you spent your lockdown, but (after a long period of doing not very much) I decided to use the time to take some on-line classes, and one of them was revisiting Psych 101, and this was the textbook. Right from the top, it should be noted that this is the third edition. There is a more recent fourth edition, renamed Introducing Psychology: Brain, Person, Group. 

When I took classes like this on college, textbooks were a source of dread. They were heavy, expensive, boring, and for all of that, never seemed to provide answers so much as confusion, since they never quite agreed with what the teachers taught, leading us to wonder if they even read these things themselves. Well, times change, and now I'm an old weirdo who actually likes to read textbooks and academic materials, no matter how dry they might seem. And so, as soon as I got the book, I started from page one and read the whole thing. 

A great deal of thought seems to have gone into the structure of this book. Every Intro to Psychology course outlines the basics of this discipline, including history, neurology, and different theories, and this book is no different. To it's credit, it's written in a very readable style. Each chapter explores an element of the mind sciences, and each chapter builds on the information in the chapter before it, so it's very logical, and the examples of behavior are taken from examples we all know about including sports movies and public figures, like Tiger Woods and Jackie Chan. Starting with chapters on basic neurology, there are chapters which attempt to clearly define and explain sensation and perception, memory, motivation and emotion, etc. At the end of each chapter there's a 15 question multiple choice quiz (with answers) as well as some topics to inspire further discussion. I probably would have hated that in college, but I found the quizzes very helpful for reviewing the information. on top of that, the publisher offers additional, downloadable material on MP3 to listen to on the go (I have not accessed any of that). every page also highlights key phrases, and marginal notes synopsize important points to make studying easy.

A novel approach (as far as I know) is the book's stress on evaluating ever element of mind and behavior from The Three Levels of Analysis-- brain, person, and group. It's an excellent way of analysis because most things work on all three of these levels at the same time. The level of the Brain is or course neurological and neurochemical, the level of the Person deals with, of course, the person, their behaviors and feelings, and the level of the Group, which involves how those psychological elements help (or hurt) the individual interact with the society around them. Too often we can develop a microscopic or macroscopic view and lose sight of the whole picture, so the frequent use of this model through the chapters is excellent training for thinking in this discipline. 

The authors have extensive credits and credentials in their field both in neurology and psychology on staff at Harvard and several others Ivy League institutions. They also have extensive book credits for psych text books.

A few gripes: As a hypnotist, I'm always a little disappointed at how dismissive, if not actually hostile, many psychologists are (except the ones who have learned hypnosis. They usually love it). This book touches on hypnosis only very lightly and in an off hand way. They mention that it might help with memory, it might help with sports performance. No serious discussion of it as a scientific therapeutic modality (though in fairness, that may be more appropriate for a more advanced course).

While the various principles and studies the authors give are all extensively backed by scientific data, as you would expect for a science text, some of it seems a bit.. rushed? Remember when you had a deadline for a paper and you threw in a bunch of examples but didn't really document or explain them them clearly? I kind of got the feeling the authors were working against a deadline. with the advent of Google and the internet, I, or you, can now fact check for inaccuracies (for example getting the dates wrong for Kohlberg's Dilemma, a study of morality and emotional development. They reference related data from 1969 and 1994, while the actual study was from the mid 50s, and that one decade is makes a huge difference. The 1950s was for the most part still the paleolithic era, and it is apparent in some of the roughness of the way the data was organized. The following decade or so would be literally revolutionary, in the sciences as elsewhere). There are minor things and probably corrected in the more recent edition of a book that covers a lot of ground.

A more general gripe, is not with the book but with the standard "academic" way this subject is taught. Looking back at it now, and with years of experience tiptoeing through people psychs, as well as years of experience trying to appeal to people's feelings when working in advertising, I'd much rather hav a class that explored the concepts first, and left all that history and mechanics to more advanced classes. For one thing, the history is a lot more interesting when you have a firm grasp of where the practice is today. For another a person has better retention of the facts when they can fit all that into a fleshed out concept. Save the history and the minutia for later.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Book Report: The Invisible Gorilla by Chabris and Simons (c)2009

The Invisible Gorilla by Chabris and Simons (c)2009

The famous Invisible Gorilla video has been a favorite of people studying cognitive behaviors, as well as just a really fun and interesting video to share with your friends. If you haven't seen the video, or if you want to watch it again, I've embedded it below. There's also a second, follow up video, in case you'd like to see the effect applied with some variation, or if the first video didn't work for you. Go ahead and click on it now, and then I'll continue the discussion below. It's short, so be sure to give it your full attention and follow the directions for best results.



There you go. Were you surprised, or did you catch it? In a nutshell, we are always presented with more data than our mind can consciously process. Nevertheless, we always think we can catch it all.

(I have to say I had some frustrations with this book, but I'll get to those later in this article. First let's explore what the book covers). 

The gist of the book is that we can fall victims to various "illusions" that compromise our ability to make good decisions, and we don't even know it. Just as many people fail to see the gorilla, many people are unaware of the illusions that affect our judgement, and these illusions actually make us think we're making better decisions than we are. (Fans of the mental sciences know of these as "cognitive biases" and there are over 200, but the authors only deal with the most prevalent ones). 
The Gorilla video, introduces us to what they call the Illusion of Attention. We assume the more closely we pay attention, the more accurate our perceptions will be, but the videos demonstrate that close attention can actually foil our complete perceptions of a situation.  

There are several of these "illusions" that are explored very thoroughly, with historical cases and experimental data to illustrate how these illusions are responsible for making us deviate from the right decisions while believing we are correct. We learn about the Illusion of Memory, whereby we assume the more detailed our memories are, the more accurate we think they are, the Illusion of Confidence, whereby we assume the more confident person to be the more correct one, when in fact, sometimes the less correct a person is, the more confident they are, and several other cognitive illusions which are good to know. The book concludes with presentations of situations where we are encouraged to spot the illusions at work and a strong case for making deliberate, well thought out, scientifically based decisions in our everyday life.

My Issues with This Book
There were three big klinkers that stuck out about this book:
--Denial of the Existence of the Subconscious Mind
--Reduction of All Decisions into Right and Wrong
--Overemphasis of Experimental Procedures

Denial of the Way The Subconscious Works
This is a book that, like a number of other popular books (including Vedantam's The Hidden Brain and Malcolm Gladwell's Blink covered elsewhere in this blog) uses elements of cognitive sciences shine a light on our everyday thinking. 
 But while the other two books seek to shine a light on the sometime mysterious processes of the subconscious mind, the authors of these book really deny the existence of the subconscious entirely, and, in a manner which reminded me of several of my older, stuffier, college professors, insist that any decision that is not made with slow, conscious deliberation, is simply wrong, and for me, as a hypnotist runs counter to what I know to be demonstrably true. 

When I picked up this book, I expected to be reading a rather dry examination of cognitive and perceptual sciences, perhaps with a dose of neurology thrown in, so I was surprised that they used the "invisible gorilla" as a metaphor for several cognitive biases. Moreover, Malcolm Gladwell, and his books are mentioned a number of times, and by the end of the book, it seems that at least one of the purposes of this book is a refutation of Gladwell's Blink. (In a nutshell, Blink examined how those instantaneous, subconscious decisions are made. Gladwell, is a careful, insightful writer, and researches and explains everything. There is nothing we have to take on faith. His book offers both situations where these fast decisions work when even science has failed, and also cases where intuitive decisions failed badly. (Gladwell's examples include the Getty Kouros, a celebrated "ancient" work of art discovered to be a fraud based on one expert's intuition, as well as the tragic case of Amadou Diallo, shot 40+ times by undercover cops whose instincts went horribly wrong). The book Blink explains the mental mechanics behind these and other situations, what works, what doesn't and how they can be improved. 

The Invisible Gorilla keeps stressing that any quick, intuitive decision is going to be less accurate, but they don't really explore why in any great depth. We are led to understand that conscious, well deliberated, decisions are reliable when nothing else is.

Why is this problematic? In a perfect (may I even say, academic?) world, we could deliberate on every decision before committing to action, but in real life, we'd never survive. So many of our most necessary decisions have to be fast, and are often done under stress. Imagine you're driving on a busy street and a child darts out in front of you. Do you hit the breaks and risk the car behind you smashing into your rear, or turn your car into another lane and possibly collide with another car? There's no time to evaluate the options! 

The Invisible Gorilla dismisses unconscious decision as baseless, emotional or the result of an unconscious bias, but in fact, subconscious functions of the mind are very specific and have their own logic, different from the conscious mind. Most pertinent, the subconscious mind can maintain and process and enormous amount of simple data at the same time without the conscious mind being aware of it (right now, your subconscious is monitoring all kinds of environmental data, like room temperature, the feeling of the chair you're sitting on, the things around you, etc. It's also aware of internal things, like the operation of your internal organs, but won't bring that information to your conscious mind until something needs attention, like your stomach needing filling or your bladder needing emptying. On top of that, it also maintains all kinds of thoughts and memories and the associations between them). The subconscious mind doesn't handle many complicated or abstract thoughts, but it does compile sets instantaneous behaviors based on conscious behaviors and their results. Going back to our example of driving, a beginning driver has to consciously deliberate on everything he does behind the wheel, from parking brake to steering wheel, but with practice, all those behaviors and their results get compiled into instantaneous actions that most experienced drivers never really even think about anymore. 

Reduction of All Results Into Right or Wrong
Since instinctive decisions are short and fast, they can't be as all-encompassing as a consciously deliberated decision. They may not always be the best possible decision, but many times, we don't need the perfect solution, just good enough. The book tends to view all outcomes as either right or wrong (like a professor grading exams!) even when the data they quote shows a broader range of results. In my earlier example of the child running out in front of your car, lets suppose you were afraid there was a car behind you, so you turned into the next lane and had a minor collision. Not a good outcome, but you avoided hitting the little kid in front of you, so you still achieved your goal, albeit at the cost of your fender. Even when you reexamined the scene and discovered there was actually no car behind you, and you would probably have been better off stopping short, you still didn't make the wrong decision, just the best possible one in the time alloted. The only wrong decision would have been to hold off making a decision while you examined all the possibilities. 

Overemphasis of The Experimental Method
Fairly early in the book, they compare data collected from actual events ("empirical") versus data taken from controlled experiments, and decree that only experimental data is reliable and valuable due to the controls scientists have in the lab. HUH? Experiments are usually based on empirical data. If you can't observe something already extant (or at least hypothesize it), you cant set up an experiment to examine it further. It's generally accepted that both are important sources of information and both have a certain value, and each has it's limits. For me, this idea was the most unexpected and questionable part of the whole book, and smacks of academic ideology as opposed to science.The authors are correct when they say that experimental data can be very accurate, since the experimenters can control all the elements of the experiment. But one of the most obvious failings of the experimental method is that the researchers can't factor in any element that they're not aware of, even if it's a major influence (For example, once upon a time, scientists didn't even know of the existence of germs. Scientists like Pasteur, Lister and Semmelweis experienced a lot of condemnation from their scientific peers for trying to justify basic sanitary practices). Weirdly, later in the book, they offer several other situations where experiments would be impossible to construct, wither due to ethical reason, magnitude, or the number of variables. 

This all comes around the the finale of the book where they advise that the only sensible decisions we should make in our lives are the fully thought out sort. Sure, but when the traffic is bad, we don't always have that opportunity.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Book Report: Psychonavigation Techniques for Travel Beyond Time by John Perkins (c) 1990

Psychonavigation: Techniques for Travel Beyond Time, by John Perkins (c) 1990

Background Information: Many of the books on this blog are a bit unusual. Many of the authors of these books are a bit unusual. The author of this book may be a bit more unusual than most of those. Many of John Perkins' books discuss metaphysical traditions and the indigenous cultures he learned them from. But his main claim to fame is his book "Confessions of an Economic Hitman," in which he describes his rise from a Peace Corps dropout and butterfly collector to an agent of the NSA utilizing economic incentives to manipulate third-world leaders. It's a fascinating and thought provoking book, even if the NSA has denied a lot of his claims. He has founded several non-profits devoted to environmental issues and indigenous cultures, and offers speaking engagements around the world.

 The core of this slim book is a meditational method to move around in your imagination in order to reach and communicate with some sort of a spirit or ancestral guide. It's a fun and potentially useful practice. But just as engaging is the story of the cultures from which the author has learned these methods. They include South American Tribal cultures and East Asian societies.