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How The Human Mind Works

By Lawrence Galton (1958)

How The Human Mind Works

Note To Psychology Students

This fun, interesting and easy to read article by Lawrence Galton was first published in 1958. With this in mind (no pun intended) don't forget to keep asking yourself whether the stated findings and claims made stand up to scientific scrutiny. Also some of the questions raised by Galton would be a great starting point for a research project or final year dissertation!

The Article in Full

How much energy do you use when you think? At what time of day is your mental performance best? Does talking to yourself help your thinking? Are your thoughts influenced by body position? If you have an exam to take, or some problems to solve, how can you let the human mind work, without your realizing it, to find the answers?

Of all things known in the universe, the human brain is by far, the most complex. As a subject for scientific study it presents infinite intricacies and difficulties. Wide differences of opinion exist among investigators who are trying to probe its mysteries to establish basic facts. But recent research provides some new facts about how our brains work.

How Much Energy Does Brainwork Take?

One of the most surprising recent discoveries is that you apparently use little more energy when you think than when you don't. University of Pennsylvania investigators believe this is so after checking on brain-energy requirements by measuring oxygen consumption in a group of subjects while they idled, did problems or slept. The finding: virtually no change throughout. The conclusion: Your brain, unlike a machine, uses most of its energy "merely in keeping its circuits alive and sensitive," and needs insignificantly little more when you use the circuits.

At What Stage of Problem-Solving Does The Human Mind Work Hardest?

Here's another surprise finding: You do more brainwork preparing to solve a problem than in actually solving it. So believe Michigan State University psychologists who tested 60 volunteer students by ringing a doorbell at various times while they were reading a set of problems, again later as they worked on the answers. There were many more errors when the distraction came during the reading time than when it came during the solving period. Actually, ringing the bell during the answer period speeded responses, apparently because of increased tension.

Does Your Body Become Tense When The Human Mind is Busy?

A Lehigh University psychologist used an electrical device to measure activity in muscles and found that during severe mental effort - for example, when you're doing arithmetic problems - "tensions seem to flow over the muscular system like the waves of the sea. One muscle is in a state of rise while another is subsiding, at a very slow rate." Most likely to be most tense: the arm muscles.

Is There A Best Time of The Day For Mental Performance?

Yes, although it may vary with the individual. Scientists at The University of Chicago have found that fluctuations in mental performance seem to be related to variations in body temperature. Generally, the temperature tends to be falling when you go to sleep and to be on the rise when you wake, and top mental performance seems to occur when body temperature is at its peak. But peak temperature time may vary with the individual which may explain why some people are "early birds," keen first thing in the morning, while others are late starters. On the average, the peak of body temperature and mental acuity, according to the Chicago studies? occurs in the middle of the waking period.

Do You Think Faster Than You Talk?

Much faster, according to studies in the Pennsylvania State University psychology department, which indicate that the average person speaks at a rate of 125 to 169 words per minute while thinking four times more rapidly.

Do You Talk To Yourself When You Think?

Probably, yes. The measure of human intelligence, suggests Dr. Albert Goss, University of California professor of psychology, may be based on how broadly we can converse with ourselves.

You may not talk out loud - although some people do on occasion. But verbal cues - verbal instructions we give ourselves - provide the basis for most of our learning, according to Goss. For example, if you drive to work, for the first several times you take a new route you tell yourself to turn left at the green house and right at the gasoline station. Afterward, the route becomes automatic. Similarly, when you choose a tomato at the market, you generally follow instructions you've given yourself. The color, you've told yourself, should be a certain shade of red; size may be important; there should be a certain degree of firmness. Children, the California scientist reports, seem to learn faster once they learn to talk to themselves - that is, make use of verbal cues.

How Much Storage Capacity Does Your Brain Have?

Although, on the average, brain weight at birth is only about 12 ounces and even in an adult only about three pounds - usually a few ounces more in men than in women - its storage capacity is phenomenal. According to one estimate reported in The Human Brain, by John Pfeiffer, the brain is capable of storing more impressions, facts and total information than are in all the Library of Congress' nine million volumes.

How Much of Your Brain Do You Actually Need

Apparently, you could get along well with as little as half of it if necessary. The medical journal Modern Medicine has called attention in a recent editorial to a number of reports of even professional men - doctors, lawyers, and others - who have been able to go on with their regular work after removal of much of one side of the brain because of tumor. Reported a few months ago, too, was a study of 62 soldiers who suffered penetrating head wounds during World War II. When those men were retested for intelligence, they showed little or no change in the scores they had made in the Army General Classification Test upon first entering service some 10 years earlier.

Although, at various times, psychologists have believed that the brain is highly departmentalized, with specific area for specific functions, some recent studies indicate that when what appears to be a specific area is damaged, another brain area may be able to take over its functions. And at its last annual meeting, the American Psychological Association witnessed an unusual demonstration. A 39-year-old man had had to undergo an operation to remove the entire right half of his brain. Tape recordings of psychological tests given to him before and after the operation were played at the meeting, providing clear evidence that the man's intellectual capacity continued virtually unimpaired.

Do Intelligence and Hand Dexterity Go Together?

Yes. The popular idea that children who fail in the three R's will excel in use of their hands is wrong, according to Dr. M. H. Fouracre of Columbia University, who has recently reported studies showing a high correlation between Intelligence and manual dexterity.

Can You Learn While You Sleep?

Although many claims have been made that you can, latest scientific evidence is against the possibility. In a careful study made by Dr. C. W. Simon and W. H. Emmons of California, 21 men were tested on 96 factual questions on history sports, science, etc. Then recorded questions and answers were played to them at five-minute intervals throughout the night while continuous brain-wave measurements were made.

The waves showed that drifting off to sleep involves a definite progression through light-drowsy, drowsy, and deep-drowsy states before the line between being awake and asleep is approached, after which there is first light, then deep and finally very deep sleep, each state marked by its own brainwave pattern.

Next morning, when the men were tested again to determine which questions previously missed could be answered correctly, it was found that those questions and answers played during the drowsy levels as shown by the brain-wave recordings could be recalled by the men, but those played during actual sleep could not be recalled. Conclusion: Learning is possible during a drowsy state but not during actual sleep.

Is There Any Relationship Between Baldness and Brains?

If there is, no generally acceptable scientific proof has been found. However, a theory recently offered by Dr. Wharton Young, professor of anatomy at Howard University, will be flattering to all men and especially to those who are bald. It holds that in men, the brain is constantly growing, expanding the cranium and stretching the top of the scalp so that the fat layer under the scalp is squeezed, depriving the hair roots of adequate blood and nourishment. This can reach a point where the hair falls out.

Women, according to Dr. Young, tend to keep most of their hair because their brains, which are smaller to start with, grow more slowly.

Are Women's Mental Abilities Any Greater or Less than Men's?

No. Most scientists agree that men and women are fairly equal in mental ability. There are, however, some specific differences between the sexes. A Stanford University study for the Office of Naval Research shows that, other factor being equal, men are as much as 50 percent better than women in solving complicated problems.

However, mental ability, or intelligence, is an aggregate of many special abilities, and problem-solving is only one. And while many studies have shown that men also excel in information subjects such as history and science, and in others that demand numerical reasoning and spatial aptitude, women are superior in reading, language, spelling, and arithmetic.

Is There A Close Relationship Between Genius and Insanity?

Not according to a 17-year study in Germany by Dr. Adele Juda. It covered 294 geniuses and their families. One hundred thirteen were artists; 181 scientists. Out-of-the-ordinary personality traits were frequently found. There was a higher incidence of psychoneurosis than in the general population, too. But severe mental illness was relatively rare - under four percent.

Some other findings: The greatest number of geniuses come from thickly populated areas and racially mixed groups. Geniuses show a definite tendency to be first or second-born children. Seldom are both their parents especially young or especially old, although one often is. Rarely does extremely high endowment appear suddenly in a family; ancestors as a rule show parallel talents (high manual dexterity for the artist group, for example, and successful professional career for the scientific group). Brothers and sisters of genius and their children and grandchildren have high endowment too. Wives of geniuses also show a high incidence of superior intellectual and artistic talents. And, on the whole, marriages of geniuses are happy.

Is It True That Someone Else Can Read Your Mind?

Definitely not, according to a Michigan State University psychologist, Professor Milton Rokeach, although something resembling mind reading can be done with practice, by "muscle reading."

In fact, one of history's most outstanding muscle readers was Clever Hans, a horse which performed amazing feats in Germany at the turn of the century. Owned by a man who believed sincerely that higher animals had intelligence equal to men, the horse was carefully schooled in arithmetic, spelling, other subjects, and could tap out correct answers to questions with his hoofs After many scientific investigations, Hans was found to be clever in only one respect: He had learned to watch for small, almost invisible movements, chiefly of the head, which the questioner unintentionally and unconsciously gave when he knew the answer and which the horse followed in tapping out his answer. Well known to psychologists all over the world, Clever Hans has contributed a psychological principle called the "Clever Hans error," referring to the unintentional effect that an observer can have on an animal.

Determined mind readers can take advantage of the same principle with humans, Professor Rokeach reports. As an example, if a person concentrates on the letter "P." his lips, in spite of himself, might form a different shape than if he were concentrating on "Q." And illustrating the influence of small, unconscious body motions, there is the parlor trick in which the "mind reader" leaves the room while the subject hides an object, then returns, blindfolded, and grasps a handkerchief tied to the subject's wrist. Told to concentrate on the hiding place, the subject literally leads the performer to it by imperceptible movements.

Are Your Thoughts Processes Influenced By Your Body Position?

Yes, in the belief of Dr. Hugo C. Beigel of Long Island University. He has charted responses to various situations by a group of subjects while in different positions.

When you recline, if Dr. Beigel is right, your thinking Is more complacent, you tend to have more associations and to let your mind range wider for ideas. In standing position, your energies are stimulated toward action, the thinking field is narrowed, influx of new suggestions is partly blocked, decisions come faster and are more vigorous. Sitting seems to favor a compromise between the opposing tendencies of standing and lying down.

Do Mental Warm-Up Exercises Aid Problem Solving?

Recent investigations suggest that they may. In one study made by three UCLA psychologists - Dr. I. Maltzmar, Lloyd Brooks and Stanley Summer - a group of people were given, as a warm-up, a written test in which they were asked to suggest uses for unrelated objects such a table leg, piece of balsa wood, and string. After this, they were presented with a problem involving two strings suspended from the ceiling in opposite corners of a large room, a screwdriver, and a piece of balsa wood.

The problem was to grasp the two strings - one in each hand - without detaching or breaking them. The solution was 1) to tie the screw driver to the end of one string, 2) swing it, 3) then grab the other string and extend it to its maximum length, and catch the first string on its upswing. Subjects who'd experienced the written test solved the problem significantly faster than a control group with no warm-up.

What Will Happen To Your Mental Ability As You Grow Older?

It will probably be greater at 50 that it was at 20. This finding, at variance with many previous conclusions comes from a new study by the Office of Naval Research.

In previous studies, the same tests have been given to various age groups and the scores compared. Results have suggested that a peak of intelligence comes at 20 years and declines to something like a 14-year level by age 55. But this procedure, many scientists have thought, is erroneous. In recent years, young people have had more and more formal education. And it can be shown that the same individuals make higher scores on mental tests after a college education than before. Therefore, older people who generally have had less formal education are handicapped in testwise competition with younger ones.

In the new study, 127 men, who had taken the Army Alpha Examination when they entered Iowa State College after World War I, were retested 30 years later. They were competing against their younger selves. The results showed that actually they were intellectually more able at mean age 50 than they had been at mean age 19 when they were college freshmen.

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