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Hard wired?

[ 2010-09-07 14:07]     字号 [] [] []  
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Hard wired?Reader question:

Please explain “hard-wired”, as in: The human brain is hard-wired to recognize faces. Babies learn to identify their parents’ faces within hours of being born, and even in old age people can remember what their childhood friends looked like.

My comments:

“Hard-wired” must have been a byproduct of the computer age, as Dictionary.com dates its origin to 1975-80.

Anyways, wires refer to electric wires. Hardwiring refers to the connection between electrical and electronic components and devices by means of wires. This means they’re physically connected by “wires”, as distinguished from a “wireless” connection. Open your computer casing and look inside, and you’ll find clusters of electric wires. That means many components are linked with a “hard-wired” connection. Your mobile phone, on the other hand, is a wireless device.

In the above example, the human brain is likened to a bunch of electric wires – obviously inspired by the intricately tangled web of blood vessels and the even more intricate nervous system and so forth.

When it is asserted, therefore, that the human brain is hard-wired to recognize faces, the author means merely to say that this face-recognizing ability is innate, something that we humans are born with, not something we learn after birth.

Similarly, when you hear people say that women are from Venus, men are from Mars, they are merely saying the men and women behave differently because they are wired differently. In other words, the differences are biological, due to tens of thousands of years of evolution (change and adaption).

In mating and match-making, for instance, men are said to be turned on and attracted by physical attributes. The fair sex, on the other hand, are much more clever and subtle. They’re generally attracted to personality traits, such as confidence, sense of humor and such like. Very subtle issues, these, I know. Yet, in match-making shows, women always say they’re able to determine within a matter of seconds of meeting a man whether they want a second meeting with him or not.

Seconds, I mean. Gosh!

Well, men, especially those who are jilted shouldn’t begrudge women for this, though. I don’t think so. It’s all for the common good, you know, of the advancement of the human race. Obviously, women are just doing what they have to do. To them, with or without your contribution or participation, the race goes on.

Kidding aside, I think those assessments are by and large true. Sure, women are attracted to Brad Pitt or anyone extremely good looking, rich and famous but why should that be a problem? Jilted men should take heart in the fact that the Brad Pitts and extremely good looking, rich and famous men are extremely rare on this earth. So, don’t blame Brad Pitt for your problems, ok? Don’t sulk, either. Do something constructive. Cultivate a sense of humor, for starters, alright?

Alright, instead of turning this into a “star wars” between Mars and Venus, let’s read some examples of wiring and hard-wiring from the media:

1. You don’t mind admitting it: Your child is no more a Bill Gates than you are a Nobel Prize laureate. On the other hand, he is cheerful, creative, intelligent and curious about the world. Yet at school, he consistently underachieves and his report card says he’s inattentive and easily distracted.

So what gives?

It may be how he learns. Every child learns differently -- some just have a particularly unique learning style that doesn’t fit well with school standards, say Brock and Fernette Eide, world leaders in educational assessments for children and authors of The Mislabeled Child: How Understanding Your Child’s Unique Learning Style Can Open the Door to Success.

“We’re seeing a lot of kids not actually failing, but who are scoring in the mean or slightly below and who are clearly capable of much more,” says Brock. “And with the increased use of medication and broader definitions for diagnoses like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), kids who were previously just ‘acting up’ now have a label and what we call a ‘black hole diagnosis’.”

That verdict may help the three to 10 per cent of Canadian children assessed with ADD or ADHD get access to directed education. Yet for others, such a diagnosis fails to identify the real issue, says Fernette Eide.

“For example, children who are easily distracted by sights and sounds may have difficulty learning in a conventional classroom, yet learn well in a small class or home-school setting,” she writes. “One well-known study showed that successful entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom were five times more likely than the general population to have had reading problems as children and that 70 per cent ‘did not succeed’ in school.”

In short, your bright-but-underachieving child’s amazing ability to multi-task, do visual reasoning and keep a deep, narrow focus “may contribute to adult success,” she concludes, “but be poorly suited to many classrooms.”

To help them do better, the Eides advise parents to familiarize themselves with their children’s dominant learning strengths and weaknesses. Some can visually memorize an entire movie word for word, for example, yet have trouble relating the story coherently on paper. Others can write detailed essays, yet be unable to remember specifics verbally. And some can spend hours focused on one subject, but fail dismally when faced with a multiple-choice test. Whatever the issue, say the Eides, these children are simply “wired differently to learn.”

- Children are wired differently when it comes to learning and fitting into the classroom mould, Canada.com, August 18, 2010.

2. Over the past decade, two facts have become increasingly obvious – that our ever-increasing consumption is wrecking the planet, and that continually chasing more stuff, more food and more entertainment no longer makes us any happier. Instead, levels of stress, obesity and dissatisfaction are spiralling.

So why is our culture still chasing, consuming, striving ever harder, even though we know in our sophisticated minds that it’s an unrewarding route to eco-geddon? New scientific studies are helping to reveal why. It’s our primitive brains. These marvelous machines got us down from the trees and around the world, through ice ages, famines, plagues and disasters, into our unprecedented era of abundance. But they never had to evolve an instinct that said, “enough”.

Instead, our wiring constantly, subliminally urges us: “Want. More. Now.” Western civilization wisely reined in this urge for thousands of years with an array of cultural conventions, from Aristotle’s Golden Mean (neither too much, nor too little) to the Edwardian table-saying: “I have reached an elegant sufficiency and anything additional would be superfluous.”

Consumer culture ditched all that, though, constructing instead an ever more sophisticated system for pinging our primitive desire circuits into overdrive. It got us to the point where we created everything we need as a basis for contentment. Now it’s rushing us past the tipping point, beyond which getting more makes life worse rather than better. And it’s making our brains respond more weirdly than ever.

- Enough is enough: learn to want less, The Sunday Times, January 12, 2008.

3. Are women - but not men - hard-wired to be fat-phobes? Female brains react in a negative way when they view photos of overweight individuals, even when they’re of a normal weight themselves, according to a study from Brigham Young University.

“Even though they claim they don’t care about body issues ... [women’s] brains are showing that it really bugs them to think about the prospect of being overweight,” study researcher Mark Allen, a neuroscientist, told Fox News.

For the study of 10 normal-weight women and 9 normal-weight men between age 18 and 30, both groups viewed images of people of their own gender with various body shapes. As the subjects viewed each image and their brains were scanned using functional MRI, they were told to “imagine someone is saying ‘your body looks like hers/his.’ ”

The brain scans of the women who saw images of overweight individuals displayed a rise in activity in an area of the brain believed to be linked to self-reflection and the assessment of self-worth. When the women pictured themselves as slender, they did not have the same rise in brain activity.

Men showed no change in brain activity whether they imagined themselves thin or fat.

“These women have no history of eating disorders and project an attitude that they don’t care about body image,” Allen told the Daily Mail. “Yet under the surface is an anxiety about getting fat.”

- Women are hard-wired to worry about their weight: study, NYDailyNews.com, April 16, 2010.

4. In a recent New Yorker piece, Naomi Klein astutely observes that “The crash on Wall Street should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian Communism, an indictment of an ideology.” One hopes so. The financial system’s collapse in 2008 offers a rare opportunity to question certain underlying assumptions about our state capitalist economy and its neoliberal ideology.

For the last few years I’ve been writing about neuroscience research which shows that the human brain is hard-wired for empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. This is the discovery of the mirror neuron system or MNS, a finding some scientists believe rivals what the discovery of DNA meant for biology. The technical details showing how morality is rooted in biology, hardwired into our neural circuits via evolution rather than handed down from on high, lie beyond this article. But our understanding is increasing at an exponential rate and it’s compelling. Earlier this year, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni’s superb book, Mirroring People (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008, paper) made this important research accessible to the lay public.

However, this is not to underestimate the barriers to the public’s appreciation of these findings. At the apex of misunderstanding is the cynical, even despairing doubt about the existence of a moral instinct for empathy. From doctrines of original sin and Ayn Rand to Alan Greenspan and David Brooks, certain interpretations of human nature have functioned to override empathic responses. In the words of famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal “You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.”

We know that cultures are set up to reward some people and disadvantage others. Capitalists maintain domination, in part, through subtly but actively creating society’s prevailing cultural norms. Antonio Gramsci’s writing reminds us that this control is achieved through the mass media, education, religion and popular culture as subordinate classes assimilate certain ideas as “common sense.” It isn’t that individual deviations don’t occur within the interstices of society but generally they don’t threaten elite control.

If we assume that the human brain or more specifically, the aforementioned mirror neuron system, is the implicit target of elite propaganda, then the current economic meltdown provides an almost unprecedented opportunity for us.

Perhaps not since the 1930s have our citizens been more skeptical of received wisdom about our socioeconomic system. That is, the carefully manufactured narrative of market capitalist identity and its assumptions about human nature are now thrown into sharp relief.

Not only has economic reality made a shambles of the canonical model of Homo economicus but robust empirical evidence offers promising alternative responses to basic questions about human nature. Parenthetically, other highly regarded cross-cultural studies reveal that the self-interested behavior predicted by the selfishness axiom simply fail to materialize and cooperation is the norm.

Of course there are also predatory and cruel urges within our nature, complete with their own neural correlates and evolutionary origins. But now we know that organizing an alternative to our vicious system of “natural” hyper-individualism will enhance the opportunity for the empathic aspect of our nature to flourish. Social historian Margaret Jacobs captures my optimism with her insight that “No institution is safe if people simply stop believing in the assumptions that justify its existence.” Therein lies both our challenge and responsibility.

- Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring, by Gary Olson, CommonDreams.org, December 18, 2008.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


Equal to the challenge

Sweep it under the carpet

Curb appeal

Context, in and out

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)