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Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
by Frans De Waal
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.98
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4.0 out of 5 stars and showing how easy it is to screw up evaluations of a species' ..., July 27, 2016
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This book is primarily about discrediting false claims of human uniqueness, and showing how easy it is to screw up evaluations of a species' cognitive abilities. It is best summarized by the cognitive ripple rule: "Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought."

De Waal provides many anecdotes of carefully designed experiments detecting abilities that previously appeared to be absent. E.g. asian elephants failed mirror tests with small, distant mirrors. When experimenters dared to put large mirrors close enough for the elephants to touch, some of them passed the test.

Likewise, initial observations of behaviorist humans suggested they were rigidly fixated on explaining all behavior via operant conditioning. Yet one experimenter managed to trick a behaviorist into demonstrating more creativity, by harnessing the one motive that behaviorists prefer over their habit of advocating operant conditioning: their desire to accuse people of recklessly inferring complex cognition.

De Waal seems moderately biased toward overstating cognitive abilities of most species (with humans being one clear exception to that pattern).

At one point he gave me the impression that he was claiming elephants could predict where a thunderstorm would hit days in advance. I checked the reference, and what the elephants actually did was predict the arrival of the wet season, and respond with changes such as longer steps (but probably not with indications that they knew where thunderstorms would hit). After rereading de Waal's wording, I decided it was ambiguous. But his claim that elephants "hear thunder and rainfall hundreds of miles away" exaggerates the original paper's "detected ... at distances greater than 100 km ... perhaps as much as 300 km".

But in the context of language, de Waal switches to downplaying reports of impressive abilities. I wonder how much of that is due to his desire to downplay claims that human minds are better, and how much of that is because his research isn't well suited to studying language.

I agree with the book's general claims. The book provides evidence that human brains embody only small, somewhat specialized improvements on the cognitive abilities of other species. But I found the book less convincing on that subject than some other books I've read recently. I suspect that's mainly due to de Waal's focus on anecdotes that emphasize what's special about each species or individual. Whereas The Human Advantage rigorously quantifies important ways in which human brains are just a bigger primate brain (but primate brains are special!). Or The Secret of our Success (which doesn't use particularly rigorous methods) provides a better perspective, by describing a model in which ape minds evolve to human minds via ordinary, gradual adaptations to mildly new environments.

In sum, this book is good at explaining the problems associated with research into animal cognition. It is merely ok at providing insights about how smart various species are.

Welcome to the Microbiome: Getting to Know the Trillions of Bacteria and Other Microbes In, On, and Around You
Welcome to the Microbiome: Getting to Know the Trillions of Bacteria and Other Microbes In, On, and Around You
by Rob DeSalle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.84
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3.0 out of 5 stars This book has many slightly interesting tidbits, mostly ideas ..., June 20, 2016
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This book has many slightly interesting tidbits, mostly ideas I either already knew, or that didn't seem important enough to remember.

Made-Up Minds: A Constructivist Approach to Artificial Intelligence (Artificial Intelligence Series)
Made-Up Minds: A Constructivist Approach to Artificial Intelligence (Artificial Intelligence Series)
by Gary L. Drescher
Edition: Paperback
Price: $24.00
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's odd to call a book boring when it uses the pun "ontology recapitulates phylogeny"[1], June 20, 2016
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It's odd to call a book boring when it uses the pun "ontology recapitulates phylogeny"[1]. to describe a surprising feature of its model. About 80% of the book is dull enough that I barely forced myself to read it, yet the occasional good idea persuaded me not to give up.

Drescher gives a detailed model of how Piaget-style learning in infants could enable them to learn complex concepts starting with minimal innate knowledge.

Drescher's model shows how a mind can start with only very low level concepts that correspond to momentary interactions of a single sense with an object (e.g. move hand left, or object seen at the upper left of the visual field), and build from that an understanding of object permanence and an awareness of how input from different senses can refer to a single object.

Drescher's model makes a clear prediction for Molyneux's Problem which has since been proven correct, but which may have been moderately controversial at the time.

It seems highly appropriate for some AI research to focus on problems that 1-week old humans find challenging but possible, in order to focus on building increasingly general-purpose models of the world.

I expect his model provides hints at how powerful AIs will develop, but I expect his system is not efficient or flexible enough to have much direct influence on AI research. So this book is a good deal less important than his other book, Good and Real.

Alas, large parts of this book appear designed mainly to get Drescher's PhD thesis accepted: they're detailed descriptions of how he implemented the model. The benefits of those details could have been better achieved by putting the source code on the web, but the book was published before the web was popular enough for that.

[1] - No, that's not just a careless spelling of the famous Haeckel quote or the less famous Quine quote.

Probably Approximately Correct: Nature's Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World
Probably Approximately Correct: Nature's Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World
by Leslie Valiant
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.99
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2.0 out of 5 stars Forgettable, May 29, 2016
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This book provides some nonstandard perspectives on machine learning and evolution, but doesn't convince me there's much advantage to using those perspectives. I'm unsure how much of that is due to his mediocre writing style. He often seems close to saying something important, but never gets there.

He provides a rigorous meaning for the concept of learnability. I suppose that's important for something, but I can't recall what.

He does an ok job of explaining how evolution is a form of learning, but Eric Baum's book What is Thought? explains that idea much better.

The last few chapters, where he drifts farther from his areas of expertise, are worse. Much of what he says there only seems half-right at best.

One example is his suggestion that AI researchers ought to put a lot of thought into how teaching materials are presented (similar to how schools are careful to order a curriculum, from simple to complex concepts). I doubt that that reflects a reasonable model of human learning: children develop an important fraction of their intelligence before school age, with little guidance for the order in which they should learn concepts (cf. Piaget's theory of cognitive development); and unschooled children seem to choose their own curriculum.

My impression of recent AI progress suggests that a better organized "curriculum" is even farther from being cost-effective there - progress seems to be coming more from better ways of incorporating unsupervised learning.

I'm left wondering why anyone thinks the book is worth reading.

The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth
The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth
by Robin Hanson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.30
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious questions, thoughtful and sometimes satisfying answers, May 24, 2016
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This book analyzes a possible future era when software emulations of humans (ems) dominate the world economy. It is too conservative to tackle longer-term prospects for eras when more unusual intelligent beings may dominate the world.

Hanson repeatedly tackles questions that scare away mainstream academics, and gives relatively ordinary answers (guided as much as possible by relatively standard, but often obscure, parts of the academic literature).

Hanson's scenario relies on a few moderately controversial assumptions. The assumptions which I find most uncertain are related to human-level intelligence being hard to understand (because it requires complex systems), enough so that ems will experience many subjective centuries before artificial intelligence is built from scratch. For similar reasons, ems are opaque enough that it will be quite a while before they can be re-engineered to be dramatically different.

Hanson is willing to allow that ems can be tweaked somewhat quickly to produce moderate enhancements (at most doubling IQ) before reaching diminishing returns. He gives somewhat plausible reasons for believing this will only have small effects on his analysis. But few skeptics will be convinced.

Some will focus on potential trillions of dollars worth of benefits that higher IQs might produce, but that wealth would not much change Hanson's analysis.

Others will prefer an inside view analysis which focuses on the chance that higher IQs will better enable us to handle risks of superintelligent software. Hanson's analysis implies we should treat that as an unlikely scenario, but doesn't say what we should do about modest probabilities of huge risks.

Another way that Hanson's assumptions could be partly wrong is if tweaking the intelligence of emulated Bonobos produces super-human entities. That seems to only require small changes to his assumptions about how tweakable human-like brains are. But such a scenario is likely harder to analyze than Hanson's scenario, and it probably makes more sense to understand Hanson's scenario first.

Wages in this scenario are somewhat close to subsistence levels. Ems have some ability to restrain wage competition, but less than they want. Does that mean wages are 50% above subsistence levels, or 1%? Hanson hints at the former. The difference feels important to me. I'm concerned that sound-bite versions of book will obscure the difference.

Hanson claims that "wealth per em will fall greatly". It would be possible to construct a measure by which ems are less wealthy than humans are today. But I expect it will be at least as plausible to use a measure under which ems are rich compared to humans of today, but have high living expenses. I don't believe there's any objective unit of value that will falsify one of those perspectives [1].

The style is more like a reference book than a story or an attempt to persuade us of one big conclusion. Most chapters (except for a few at the start and end) can be read in any order. If the section on physics causes you to doubt whether the book matters, skip to chapter 12 (labor), and return to the physics section later.

The style is very concise. Hanson rarely repeats a point, so understanding him requires more careful attention than with most authors.

It's odd that the future of democracy gets less than twice as much space as the future of swearing. I'd have preferred that Hanson cut out a few of his less important predictions, to make room for occasional restatements of important ideas.

Many little-known results that are mentioned in the book are relevant to the present, such as: how the pitch of our voice affects how people perceive us, how vacations affect productivity, and how bacteria can affect fluid viscosity.

I was often tempted to say that Hanson sounds overconfident, but he is clearly better than most authors at admitting appropriate degrees of uncertainty. If he devoted much more space to caveats, I'd probably get annoyed at the repetition. So it's hard to say whether he could have done any better.

Even if we should expect a much less than 50% chance of Hanson's scenario becoming real, it seems quite valuable to think about how comfortable we should be with it and how we could improve on it.

[1] - The difference matters only in one paragraph, where Hanson discusses whether ems deserve charity more than do humans living today. Hanson sounds like he's claiming ems deserve our charity because they're poor. Most ems in this scenario are comfortable enough for this to seem wrong.

Hanson might also be hinting that our charity would be effective at increasing the number of happy ems, and that basic utilitarianism says that's preferable to what we can do by donating to today's poor. That argument deserves more respect and more detailed analysis.

The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter
The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter
by Joseph Henrich
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.38
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book on human evolution, May 12, 2016
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This book provides a clear explanation of how an ability to learn cultural knowledge made humans evolve into something unique over the past few million years. It's by far the best book I've read on human evolution.

Before reading this book, I thought human uniqueness depended on something somewhat arbitrary and mysterious which made sexual selection important for human evolution, and wondered whether human language abilities depended on some lucky mutation. Now I believe that the causes of human uniqueness were firmly in place 2-3 million years ago, and the remaining arbitrary events seem much farther back on the causal pathway (e.g. what was unique about apes? why did our ancestors descend from trees 4.4 million years ago? why did the climate become less stable 3 million years ago?)

Human language now seems like a natural byproduct of previous changes, and probably started sooner (and developed more gradually) than many researchers think.

I used to doubt that anyone could find good evidence of cultures that existed millions of years ago. But Henrich provides clear explanations of how features such as right-handedness and endurance running demonstrate important milestones in human abilities to generate culture.

Henrich's most surprising claim is that there's an important sense in which individual humans are no smarter than other apes. Our intellectual advantage over apes is mostly due to a somewhat special-purpose ability to combine our individual brains into a collective intelligence. His evidence on this point is weak, but it's plausible enough to be interesting.

Henrich occasionally exaggerates a bit. The only place where that bothered me was where he claimed that heart attack patients who carefully adhered to taking placebos were half as likely to die as patients who failed to reliably take placebos. The author wants to believe that demonstrates the power of placebos. I say the patient failure to take placebos was just a symptom of an underlying health problem (dementia?).

I got more out of this book than a short review can describe (such as "How Altruism is like a Chili Pepper"). Here's a good closing quote: "we are smart, but not because we stand on the shoulders of giants or are giants ourselves. We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits."

The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression
The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression
by Scott B Sumner
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $36.05
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Impressive ideas, suboptimal delivery, May 6, 2016
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This is mostly a history of the two depressions that hit the U.S. in the 1930s: one international depression lasting from late 1929 to early 1933, due almost entirely to problems with an unstable gold exchange standard; quickly followed by a more U.S.-centered depression that was mainly caused by bad labor market policies.

It also contains some valuable history of macroeconomic thought, doing a fairly good job of explaining the popularity of theories that are designed for special cases (such as monetarism and Keynes' "general" theory).

I was surprised at how much Sumner makes the other books on this subject that I've read seem inadequate.

Sumner presents a good argument that previous attempts at analyzing monetary causes of the depression failed because they looked at the wrong evidence. The existence of a gold exchange standard means that looking at money supply figures from one or two countries can miss important changes in the supply of and demand for money. France's increase in gold holdings was large enough to create significant deflation in gold standard countries. Other histories have little more than obscure hints about that problem.

Now that I've absorbed Sumner's evidence, it's pretty clear that the depression originated in a combination of (1) stress on the gold exchange standard from WWI-related inflation, (2) ordinary business fluctuations, and (3) a moderate amount of mismanagement by central banks.

Sumner is rather hostile to a pure gold standard, but doesn't say much about it. He argues fairly convincingly that the gold exchange standard which the world had in the 1920s was less stable (and therefore more harmful) than a pure gold standard.

Sumner sheds some light on the mystery of what causes people to believe in liquidity traps, but still leaves me somewhat puzzled.

Part of the explanation is that people have developed a habit of measuring Fed policy by looking at interest rates. If your One True Equation of macroeconomics says the Fed can only affect the economy via altering interest rates, then it follows that the Fed can't do more to inflate than to force interest rates to zero [1] [2].

Another problem is that when the Fed is constrained by a gold standard, it can't produce as much inflation as it sometimes wants. (That's the point of holding an unreliable central bank to a supposedly rigid standard). Were economists careless enough that they effectively didn't notice that we abandoned the gold standard?

Another strange factor dates back to 1933, when the US temporarily left the gold standard in order to inflate back to conditions of the mid 1920s. Historians looking at quarterly (or less frequent) data see that as a failure. Sumner looked instead at monthly data [4], and saw a 3-4 month period of inflation in which economic activity recovered more than half of what it lost in the prior 3.5 years (probably the most dramatic expansion in US history).

A second reason that most historians see a liquidity trap where Sumner sees a dramatic recovery is that the recovery suddenly stopped in July 1933. Sumner provides evidence that this coincides with when markets realized the extent to which wages would be forced up by the NRA.

Many commentators have noted that the NRA was harmful, but Sumner is the first [5] to argue that the harm was large enough to halt a recovery that would have otherwise been complete by the end of 1934!

Sumner has some moderately good reasons for that claim, including a good comparison to the 1921 downturn. But I'm disappointed at how little evidence he uses. He glosses over evidence that the end of the NRA in 1935 caused only a mild improvement. And he hardly says anything about the international comparisons that should confirm his guess [6].

The Friedman and Schwartz history had led me to think that high real interest rates were an important problem. I was quite surprised when Sumner caused me to doubt that real interest rates were high in any relevant sense. He claims, quite plausibly, that (under a gold exchange standard) inflation was not predictably different from zero. It is only hindsight bias that makes us think deflation could have been predicted to continue at any stage of the depression. That means that interest rates weren't much of a deterrent to economic activity.

I find it refreshing that Sumner takes the efficient market hypothesis seriously, and puts more weight than other historians on evidence of how markets reacted to relevant news. He may go slightly overboard about rejecting the long and variable lags that other authors see, but it seems safer to err in that direction (authors who err in the other direction seem more able to rationalize away evidence that doesn't support their theory).

I'm a bit puzzled that Sumner is willing to describe 1936-1937 as a commodity bubble, but is reluctant to call the 1929 stock market peak a bubble. He gives plausible reasons for believing that market couldn't foresee the specific mistakes that caused the ensuing crash. But why should I believe that the market was sensible to be confident in the competence of governments?

The book is not as well organized as I'd hoped. Sumner encourages "specialists" to read the last chapter immediately after chapter 1. Anyone who has read another economic history covering that period, or a good book on macroeconomics, would be better off reading the last chapter before chapter 2.

Sumner only succeeding in making modest parts of the book readable by a wider audience. If you aren't willing to read the whole book, it's still valuable to read chapters 1 and the summaries at the ends of each chapter.

The book is a surprisingly large improvement on previous histories, and has some important criticisms of modern monetary economics.

Sumner's macroeconomic theories are somewhat more complex than those he attacks, but they better fit the details of the various downturns and recoveries.


[1] - It's often assumed to be obvious that the Fed can't set interest rates below zero. I'm pretty sure the Fed can cause negative interest rates, but I expect it always has better options.

[2] - But any respected economist will apparently admit (if pressed) that the Fed can do more. Maybe there's some secret rule saying that if the Fed drops money from helicopters, it has to drop enough money to create hyperinflation [3]?

[3] - Ok, technically the Fed can't drop money from helicopters without first begging congress for permission, and the Fed doesn't know how to beg. So if you want to be picky, assume I meant buy t-bonds or gold.

[4] - Economists have a fetish for using GNP/GDP data, which is only available on a quarterly frequency. Sumner uses industrial production data instead. After seeing the difference made by monthly data, I won't have much respect for people who ignore it.

[5] - Sure, I've seen some people who complain that FDR's policies were the main reason the economy didn't recover until World War 2. But Sumner is the first author I've seen who (1) connects the timing of halts in the recovery to specific policy changes, and (2) distinguishes the good FDR policies from the bad FDR policies. Sumner is somewhat pro-FDR, noting that FDR's worst policy was popular enough that most others in his place would have tried it, and his best policies had much less popular support.

[6] - Sumner has since cited a paper [...] which (according to my quick skim) suggests, based on evidence from a similar French mistake in 1936, that Sumner is only exaggerating a little bit.

The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable (MIT Press)
The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable (MIT Press)
by Suzana Herculano-Houzel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.27
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A big change for a neglected topic, April 17, 2016
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I used to be uneasy about claims that the human brain was special because it is large for our body size: relative size just didn't seem like it could be the best measure of whatever enabled intelligence.

At last, Herculano-Houzel has invented a replacement for that measure. Her impressive technique for measuring the number of neurons in a brain has revolutionized this area of science.

We can now see an important connection between the number of cortical neurons and cognitive ability. I'm glad that the book reports on research that compares the cognitive abilities of enough species to enable moderately objective tests of the relevant hypotheses (although the research still has much room for improvement).

We can also see that the primate brain is special, in a way that enables large primates to be smarter than similarly sized nonprimates. And that humans are not very special for a primate of our size, although energy constraints make it tricky for primates to reach our size.

I was able to read the book quite quickly. Much of it is arranged in an occasionally suspenseful story about how the research was done. It doesn't have lots of information, but the information it does have seems very new (except for the last two chapters, where Herculano-Houzel gets farther from her area of expertise).

Hive Mind: How Your Nationís IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own
Hive Mind: How Your Nationís IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own
by Garett Jones
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $27.02
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hive Mind is a solid and easy to read discussion of why high IQ nations are ..., February 4, 2016
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Hive Mind is a solid and easy to read discussion of why high IQ nations are more successful than low IQ nations.

There's a pretty clear correlation between national IQ and important results such as income. It's harder to tell how much of the correlation is caused by IQ differences. The Flynn Effect hints that high IQ could instead be a symptom of increased wealth.

The best evidence for IQ causing wealth (more than being caused by wealth) is that Hong Kong and Taiwan had high IQs back in the 1960s, before becoming rich.

Another piece of similar evidence (which Hive Mind doesn't point to) is that Saudi Arabia is the most conspicuous case of a country that became wealthy via luck. Its IQ is lower than countries of comparable wealth, and lower than neighbors of similar culture/genes.

Much of the book is devoted to speculations about how IQ could affect a nation's success.

High IQ is associated with more patience, probably due to better ability to imagine the future:
"Imagine two societies: one in which the future feels like a dim shadow, the other in which the future seems a real as now. Which society will have more restaurants that care about repeat customers? Which society will have more politicians who turn down bribes because they worry about eventually getting caught?

Hive Mind describes many possible causes of the Flynn Effect, without expressing much of a preference between them. Flynn's explanation still seems strongest to me. The most plausible alternative that Hive Mind mentions is anxiety and stress from poverty-related problems distracting people during tests (and possibly also from developing abstract cognitive skills). But anxiety / stress explanations seem less likely to produce the Hong Kong/Taiwan/Saudi Arabia results.

Hive Mind talks about the importance of raising national IQ, especially in less-developed countries. That goal would be feasible if differences in IQ were mainly caused by stress or nutrition. Flynn's cultural explanation points to causes that are harder for governments or charities to influence (how do you legislate an increased desire to think abstractly?).

What about the genetic differences that contribute to IQ differences? The technology needed to fix that contributing factor to low IQs is not ready today, but looks near enough that we should pay attention. Hive Mind implies [but avoids saying] that potentially large harm from leaving IQ unchanged could outweigh the risks of genetic engineering. Fears about genetic engineering of IQ often involve fears of competition, but Hive Mind shows that higher IQ means more cooperation. More cooperation suggests less war, less risk of dangerous nanotech arms races, etc.

It shouldn't sound paradoxical to say that aggregate IQ matters more than individual IQ. It should start to seem ordinary if more people follow the example of Hive Mind and focus more attention on group success than on individual success as they relate to IQ.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 18, 2016 6:46 PM PDT

The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition
The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition
by Gayle Hickok
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.00
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mildly valuable response to hype, October 13, 2015
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This book criticizes hype from scientists and the media about embodied cognition, mirror neurons, and the differences between the left and right brain hemispheres. Popular accounts of these ideas contain a little bit of truth, but most versions either explain very little or provide misleading explanations.

A good deal of our cognition is embodied in the sense that it's heavily dependent on sensory and motor activity. But we have many high-level thoughts that don't fit this model well, such as those we generate when we don't have sensory or motor interactions that are worth our attention (often misleading called a "resting state").

Humans probably have mirror neurons. They have some value in helping us imitate others. But that doesn't mean they have much affect on our ability to understand what we're imitating. Our ability to understand a dog wagging its tail isn't impaired by our inability to wag our tails. Parrots' ability to imitate our speech isn't very effective at helping them understand it.

Mirror neurons have also been used to promote the "broken mirror theory" of autism (with the suggestion that a malfunction related to mirror neurons impairs empathy). Hickok shows that the intense world hypothesis is more consistent with the available evidence.

The book clarified my understanding of the brain a bit. But most of it seems unimportant. I had sort of accepted mild versions of the mirror neuron and left-brain, right brain hype, but doing so didn't have any obvious effects on my other beliefs or my actions. It was only at the book's end (discussing autism) that I could see how the hype might matter.

Most of the ideas that he criticizes don't do much harm, because they wouldn't pay much rent if true. Identifying which neurons do what has negligible effect on how I model a person's mind unless I'm doing something unusual like brain surgery.

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