Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell
Mind Time : The Temporal Factor in Consciousness
by Benjamin Libet
The basic premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Blink, is that everyone has an innate ability to make decisions in the “blink” of an eye—to “thin-slice” in his words—based on seemingly little evidence; but some individuals have trained themselves, whether deliberately or through the accumulation of specialized knowledge, to tune this ability to incredible levels of fidelity. He certainly marshals a lot of evidence and interesting anecdotes, but this book is not really putting forward anything particularly profound.
As examples of decision-making fidelity he tells of a researcher who can predict with 90% accuracy whether a couple will remain married after some number of years by simply watching a 15 minute dialog between them. Another interesting example is the phenomenon of taste triangulation: if you ask an individual to discern the difference between two closely matched items, such as 2 colas, most individuals will have no trouble telling them apart. But they have a hard time if 2 of one type and 1 of the other are compared. Professional tasters on the other hand, have no problem with this.
Some of the inferences are a bit strained though: he makes the interesting point that improvisational actors follow what is termed The “Rule of Agreement.” The rule dictates that one actor should never turn down the suggestion of another actor on stage otherwise it can kill the flow of the developing conversation. No matter what the point on actor makes, the other actor shouldn’t disagree with it, but accept the premise and move on. While this is an interesting notion, and one that I have never really considered before, he uses this to suggest why loosely-couple decision making can be successful; people should be allowed to operate without having to explain themselves. The problem here is that improv acting doesn’t necessarily seek to achieve a specific end-goal, while generally a decision making process does.
Perhaps the most fundamental idea that he puts forward is that stressful situations can lead to autism-like levels of what he terms “mind-blindness” where the ability to thin-slice breaks down. The best trained or gifted individuals won’t let themselves reach this level of over-excitement; they reach a point of peak awareness but don’t fall of the cliff into autistic-like misreadings. He uses two examples of police confrontations, both highly stressful, one of which led to tragedy because of what he felt was the officers’ mind-blinded inability to read the intentions of a suspect. In the other situation, a more experienced officer remained calmer, was able to discern the suspect’s intent and allowed the situation to de-escalate.
This is a very enjoyable book that I would recommend to anyone interested in the workings of the mind, but in the end, he doesn’t say anything that most people wouldn’t already feel is innately true.
Mind Time on the on the other hand is really about what is physically happening in the brain in the half-second or so before Gladwell’s “blink.” In many ways I found Mind Time to be a much more interesting work, although Libet’s writing style pales in comparison to Gladwell’s.
Libet has found through experimentation that people perceive consciously that they initiate an action about 200 milliseconds before they actually do it. However his direct brain stimulus measurements show that the initiation event occurs about 550 milliseconds before. In other words, the decision to do something is made 350 milliseconds before there is any conscious awareness of it. This is actually a disturbing finding and undermines the notion of free will. He gives evidence that the brain uses a form of subjective timing to make it seem as if an action occurs at the same time it is perceived.
He also shows that stimulation below the level of perception can still trigger responses in individuals. This directly parallels evidence that Gladwell shows in his book. In one of Libet’s experiments, three levels of electrical stimulation are given to subjects: perceptible, border-line and imperceptible. Individuals are asked to select a button depending on what they feel. Even at the imperceptible level, subjects select the correct button more than chance would allow. Gladwell relates an experiment in which card players are rewarded based on certain relationships between the cards. Better card players pick up on the rules earlier than regular players even though they don’t recognize the rules consciously at first. In Libet’s case, physical stimulation is acting upon the unconscious; in Gladwell’s the unconscious is working out relationships, but both show there is a lot happening below the level of direct perception.
Libet has some rather odd theories, but he always offers experimental means of testing them. Perhaps his oddest is his notion of the Conscious Mental Field or CMF. He finds it amazing that split-brain patients perceive themselves as single individuals even though experiments show the different halves of the brain to be working independently. He wonders if perhaps the two sides are bound by some higher level field that allows the patient to feel “whole.” While this is a bizarre notion he is a true materialist; even if the CMF exists it would arise as emergent behavior of the underlying physical processes of the neurons. So he offers a possible experiment that could be conducted on the brains of epileptic patients who need to have a portion of the brain excised. It would test if the section, if left in place, though severed, when stimulated artificially could trigger a response in the surrounding tissue.
The prose in Mind Time can be a bit difficult to parse at times, but it provides interesting insight into what is happening before you Blink.