Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Open the Phone Booth Door

Sharon Wildwind

Remember Candid Camera?

Periodically, from 1948—yes, that long ago—until the early 1990s, Allen Funt and his crew filmed classic street comedy. They set up situations such as having a man come out of a phone booth and carefully close the door. What people waiting in line didn’t know was that as he came out he activated a strong electromagnet that prevented the booth door from opening.

The next person in line stepped up to use the phone, pulled on the door handle and—nothing. The comedy happened as people in line, and sometimes a passerby planted by the Candid Camera crew, struggled with a door that had opened easily for one man, but was impervious to being opened by anyone else.

The people struggling with the door had been conditioned to believe a simple premise—phone booth doors open—not only because they had just seen a man open the door, but because every other phone booth door they ever encountered had opened.

The anterior cingulate cortex, a collar of tissue located in the center of the brain, was responsible for the increasingly desperate, and in some cases funny, antics as people tried to open the door.

The ACC is the part of the brain that recognizes errors and contradictions. When we experience something that we KNOW to be wrong, the ACC gets a squirt of blood to tell us that something in this situation doesn’t match what we expect to happen.

Perception of what’s right and wrong in a situation is also affected by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC. This interesting brain bit is just behind the forehead. It doesn’t fully develop until young adulthood, and its function is to suppress information that doesn’t square with our preconceptions.

Phone booth doors open. This phone booth door is not opening. DLPFC kicks in. I will ignore the idea that this door can’t open. If must find the latch, key, or right place to put my fingers, and then the door will open.

Eventually, Allen Funt would come along to say, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera,” and the people would stop trying to batter the poor phone booth.

“The DLPFC is constantly censoring the world, erasing facts from our experience. If the ACC is the “Oh shit!” circuit, the DLPFC is the Delete key. When the ACC and DLPFC ‘turn on together, people aren’t just noticing that something doesn’t look right. They’re also inhibiting that information.’”
~Dr. Kevin Dunbar, director of the Laboratory for Complex Thinking & Reasoning; University of Toronto quoted in Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up by Jonah Lehrer, December 21, 2009.

Dr. Dunbar goes on to compare two laboratories where scientists were trying to figure out why proteins weren’t behaving in the expected way and were, in fact, screwing up the experiment.

One of the labs had scientists from a variety of backgrounds. The other had people very specialized in one area. Both groups eventually hit on the same solution. The specialized group took several weeks, and a lot of lab experiments, to find the answer. The multi-discipline group found the same answer in 10 minutes, sitting around a conference table.

“When Dunbar reviewed the transcripts of the meeting, he found that the intellectual mix [of having team members with very different backgrounds] generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves. . . .These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions. Having to explain the problem to someone else forced them to think, if only for a moment, like an intellectual on the margins, filled with self-skepticism. . . . This is why other people are so helpful: They shock us out of our cognitive box.”

As writers (a specialized trade), and mystery writers (an even more specialized trade), we spend a lot of time interacting with our own kind. I live in a state of perpetual gratitude toward my co-writers who so generously share their critiques and suggestions.

Occasionally, I feel that writers, as a group, are as perplexed as those people trying to open the phone booth door. We beat our heads against the same problems to the point that we lose perspective. We’re looking for that latch, key, or right place to put our fingers that will magically open up our writing.

If those two parts of our brain busy revising and deleting information, maybe sometimes we need to ask non-writers, even non-readers to look at our work. Maybe I should show my problem scenes to my dental hygienist, or the Mohawk-haired kid with iPod buds in his ear waiting at my bus stop, or the seniors’ walking group at the mall. I’d even pay them a couple of bucks to read it and give me their first impressions. Ten minutes over coffee and crullers at the mall seems such a better idea than multiple rewrites, and the multi-focus input might solve the problem.
Quote for the week [If we substitute “draft,” “book,” or “short story” for the word “experiment” below, these same truths hold true for writers as well as scientists.]:

Too often, we assume that a failed experiment is a wasted effort. But not all anomalies are useless. Here’s how to make the most of them.

Check Your Assumptions: Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

Seek Out the Ignorant: Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

Encourage Diversity: If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

Beware of Failure-Blindness: It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.
~Jonah Lehrer, Wired article, 2009 December 21

Quotes in this blog used with the kind permission of the author, Jonah Lehrer (jonah.lehrer@gmail.com).


Lonnie Cruse said...

Great post, Sharon! I well understand the "banging head on keyboard" syndrome!

Sheila Connolly said...

Very interesting post. And I think you're right about writers--we get too close to our plots and lose sight of simple logic. That's when that unbiased outside reader becomes so important.

I'd be interested to learn how "talking" through problems like this affects our thinking. Sometimes just putting something into spoken words with another person can clarify an issue in surprising ways.

Ann Elle Altman said...

I belong to a reviewing site where different writers and readers review others. So, a romance writer may review a mystery work or a SF writer may review a memoir. I find it helpful because I get feedback from different perspectives. It has made my writing stronger.


Julia Buckley said...

Fun post. And thanks for the title of my next book: The Cognitive Box. :)

Interestingly, many shows have tried to recapture the candid camera idea, but they've all failed. I never feel that the things they staged are true surprises to the "victims," but I did feel that way with Allen Funt's show.