• Steven Johnson on Serendipity

    08/24 2012

    An oldie but a goodie:

    I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student. Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the “binding.”) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books. With music blogs and iTunes, I’ve discovered more interesting new bands and albums in the past year than I did in all of my college years. I know radio has gotten a lot worse, but really — does anyone actually believe that radio was ever more diverse and surprising in its recommendations than surfing through the iTunes catalog or the music sites? It’s no accident that BoingBoing is the most popular blog online — it’s popular because it’s an incredible randomizer, sending you off on all these crazy and unpredictable paths.
    Steven Johnson

  • When something suddenly goes terribly wrong

    11/06 2011

    Here’s what airplane pilots are told to do when something suddenly goes terribly wrong with the plane: Don’t do anything. Just sit there and think about what’s happening. Whatever you think is going on, and whatever you feel like doing right away in response, you’re probably wrong. Take your time, and it will make sense soon enough, and you’ll know the right thing to do.

  • How to Pack for Two Years, One Bag at a Time

    10/10 2011

    Over the next two years, I’m going to be on the road.

    A lot.

    Entering the world of the road warrior, I frequented the Flyertalk forums, among others, and discovered the cult of One Bag. Remember George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air? (If not, go watch it right now.) As a frequent business traveler, he offered some practical advice to his rookie co-worker, who’d packed way too much. He glided through the airport as though a champion on ice; she stumbled, carrying too many things, losing a battle with her high heels and oversized luggage.

  • The Neuroscience of First Impressions

    09/26 2011

    Getting a single job in the voice over business is a question of patience and playing the odds. But just one moment or role can make a career. In Dave Calabrese’s case, it came when he visited Edge Studios to record an online tutorial for a corporation.

    “He thanked us for bringing him in. Then he did a great job. And when he left, he thanked us again,” explains Dave Goldberg, the owner of Edge Studios, one of the entertainment industry’s leading agencies of voice overs. “After he left the studio, the receptionist” (who had been working at Edge Studios for about five years) “said, ‘you know, that’s the first person who has ever thanked me…. not a single talent has ever thanked me before. I’d like to hire that guy all the time.’”

    “We hire this guy so often now, we put his kids through college. And all he did was say thank you.”

    Girl at mirror
    What processes are at work when people first meet? Source photo

    Last year, a team of researchers at New York University led by Daniela Schiller examined the neuroscience of how people form impressions of others. While their brains were being scanned in an fMRI machine, subjects were shown a photograph of a face and read six sentences about that person.

    Three sentences revealed positive traits about the profile (“He picked his roommate’s package up for him on the way home from work”), and three illuminated negative traits (“He told the other student that he wasn’t smart enough”). Afterwards, the subject was asked for their overall impressions of each profile.

    The amygdala is one of the few areas that receives information from all of the senses, making it complex enough to process the nuances of social stimuli. It controls and moderates our motivations, telling us where to go and why, navigating our social world. Damage to the amygdala in humans creates a total loss of fear, an inability to differentiate between harmful and harmless stimuli. Without it, we simply can’t learn that it’s bad to hit on the boss’s wife or drink arsenic. (Lab animals with damaged amygdalae are usually rejected by their peer groups, with tragic consequences.)

    The posterior cingular cortex is the seat of autobiographical memory, attention, and the emotional influence in memory; it’s also important for spatial memory; patients with damage to the PCC show significant difficulty locating themselves or even navigating familiar terrain. Self-monitoring and self-reflection become impossible. Patients don’t know what they’re supposed to pay attention to. But the PCC is also active when we assess the value of objects, possible choices, make risky decisions and calculate bets. Stimulation of the PCC predicts exploration of a previously unexplored option: inferring the value of an alternative, whether or not we deem the change to be worth it, and what we’d have to do to get there.

    Together, the PCC and amygdala help us compute first impressions of others. “These regions sort information on the basis of its personal and subjective importance and summarize it into an ultimate score, a first impression,” says Schiller. In forming those first impressions, we automatically attend to and parse relevant information about somebody, based on how important they are to our own motivations. Our split-second reactions to other people are assessments of their value to our own social world. Outside of the lab, our impressions factor in everything from what we’ve heard about them to how often they blink.

    To recap, at the risk of oversimplification: meeting people activates the same region of the brain responsible for assigning prices to objects–and after we’ve assigned a value to a person, we make the decision about how to orient ourselves to someone else. Do we want to get closer? Knowing what this person’s value is to us, how to we want this person to be involved in our network?

    Takeaway lessons:

    1. Be specific. Yes, even if you’re asking for an internship, you should be prepared to make a specific proposition, or give a clear idea of what you can do for others. When you’re assigning a price to something and deciding whether or not you want to buy it, specificity always rules. “A job” won’t get as many clicks as ‘Wanted: Online Marketing Specialist.’
    2. Give people a reason to trust you. Social proof can take the form of shared LinkedIn connections, number of Twitter followers, or a sincere, Duchenne smile. Remember, you’re doing this to work around more primitive (and therefore faster!) areas of the brain.
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