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Humans are the animals that manipulate their cognitive environment.

I reported recently on an intriguing study involving an African people, the Himba. The study found that the Himba, while displaying an admirable amount of focus (in a visual perception task) if they were living a traditional life, showed the same, more de-focused, distractible attention, once they moved to town. On the other hand, digit span (a measure of working memory capacity) was smaller in the traditional Himba than it was in the urbanized Himba.

This is fascinating, because working memory capacity has proved remarkably resistant to training. Yes, we can improve performance on specific tasks, but it has proven more difficult to improve the general, more fundamental, working memory capacity.

Back in 2010, I read a charming article in the New York Times about a bunch of neuroscientists bravely disentangling themselves from their technology (email, cellphones, laptops, …) and going into the wilderness (rafting down the San Juan River) in order to get a better understanding of how heavy use of digital technology might change the way we think, and whether we can reverse the problem by immersing ourselves in nature.

One of those psychologists has now co-authored a study involving 56 people who participated in four- to six-day wilderness hiking, electronic-device-free, trips organized by Outward Bound schools. The study looked at the effect of this experience on creativity, comparing the performance of 24 participants who took the 10-item creativity test the morning before they began the trip, and 32 who took the test on the morning of the trip's fourth day.

Those few days in the wilderness increased performance on the task by 50% — from an average of 4.14 pre-trip to 6.08.

I was listening on my walk today to an interview with Edward Tufte, the celebrated guru of data visualization. He said something I took particular note of, concerning the benefits of concentrating on what you’re seeing, without any other distractions, external or internal. He spoke of his experience of being out walking one day with a friend, in a natural environment, and what it was like to just sit down for some minutes, not talking, in a very quiet place, just looking at the scene. (Ironically, I was also walking in a natural environment, amidst bush, beside a stream - but I was busily occupied listening to this podcast!)

Tufte talked of how we so often let words get between us and what we see. He spoke of a friend who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and how whenever he saw her after that, he couldn’t help but be watchful for symptoms, couldn’t help interpreting everything she said and did through that perspective.

Research; study; learning; solving problems; making decisions — all these, to be done effectively and efficiently, depend on asking the right questions. Much of the time, however, people let others frame the questions, not realizing how much this shapes how they think.

This applies particularly to public debate and communication, even to something that may appear as ‘factual’ as an infographic presenting data. But the data that are presented, and the way they are presented, govern the conclusions you take away, and they depend on the question the designer thought she was supposed to answer, not on the questions you might be interested in. But so much of the time, our thoughts are shaped by the presentation, and we come away having lost sight of our questions.

Michael Gove is reported as saying that ‘Learning facts by rote should be a central part of the school experience’, a philosophy which apparently underpins his shakeup of school exams. Arguing that "memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding", he believes that exams that require students to memorize quantities of material ‘promote motivation, solidify knowledge, and guarantee standards’.

Let’s start with one sturdy argument: "Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory, so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles, do we really have a secure hold on knowledge.”

Let’s talk about the cognitive benefits of learning and using another language.

In a recent news report, I talked about the finding that intensive learning of a very novel language significantly grew several brain regions, of which two were positively associated with language proficiency. These regions were the right hippocampus and the left superior temporal gyrus. Growth of the first of these probably reflects the learning of a great many new words, and the second may reflect heavy use of the phonological loop (a part of working memory).

There are several aspects to this study that are worth discussing in the context of using language learning as a means of protecting against age-related cognitive decline.

First of all, let me start with a general reminder. We now know that, analogous to muscles, we can ‘grow’ specific brain regions by working them. But an adult brain is confined by the skull — growth in one part is generally at the expense of another part. So, unlike body-building, you can’t just grow your whole brain!

Until recent times, attention has always been quite a mysterious faculty. We’ve never doubted attention mattered, but it’s only in the past few years that we’ve appreciated how absolutely central it is for all aspects of cognition, from perception to memory. The rise in our awareness of its importance has come in the wake of, and in parallel with, our understanding of working memory, for the two work hand-in-hand.

We must believe that groups produce better results than individuals — why else do we have so many “teams” in the workplace, and so many meetings. But many of us also, of course, hold the opposite belief: that most meetings are a waste of time; that teams might be better for some tasks (and for other people!), but not for all tasks. So what do we know about the circumstances that make groups better value?

A recent study involving some 700 people, working on a wide variety of tasks in small groups (two to five), found that much of the difference between groups’ performance (specifically, around 40% of the variation in performance) could be explained by a measure called “collective intelligence”.

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