Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lehrer On Plasicity Vs Specialization

He discusses it here, a month ago:
Expertise might also come with a dark side, as all those learned patterns make it harder for us to integrate wholly new knowledge.  Consider a recent paper that investigated the mnemonic performance of London taxi drivers. In the world of neuroscience, London cabbies are best known for their demonstration of structural plasticity in the hippocampus, a brain area devoted (in part) to spatial memory....

The problem with our cognitive chunks is that they’re fully formed – an inflexible pattern we impose on the world – which means they tend to be resistant to sudden changes, such as a street detour in central London....

The larger lesson is that the brain is a deeply constrained thinking machine, full of cognitive tradeoffs and zero-sum constraints. Those chess professionals and London cabbies can perform seemingly superhuman mental feats, as they chunk their world into memorable patterns. However, those same talents make them bad at seeing beyond their chunks, at making sense of games and places they can’t easily understand.

A beautiful exposition. However, I think the trade-off can be found more generally than in just the human brain. Indeed, most evolving biological systems impose limits on plasticity because of the costs. This suggests new minds or systems we might design will probably deal with this trade-off too. But this is all still hotly debated.