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The mouth: the brain's indispensable third hand

January 18, 2013

 

 

One day, back when my son was in the crawling phase, he honed in my wife's grandmother's antique comb and brush set. I found him delightedly motoring around the living room floor clutching the fragile comb in one hand and brush in the other. Recognizing that taking these away would launch him into tears, I devised a plan. 


I picked up his favorite ball, got down on my hands and knees and presented him with the new option. I figured he'd undoubtedly chose the ball and surrender one item of his current booty. Then I simply had to find one more toy, repeat the process and I would come away with both heirlooms, tear-free, allowing general happiness and world peace to ensue.


Clever, right?


However. My son, when confronted with this third choice, looked at his left hand holding the comb, glanced down at his right hand, which held the antique brush, and then leaned forward and opened his mouth, making it clear where I should deposit his favorite ball. Like the cartoon Wile E. Coyote, I was left in my son's dust as he scooted away from me, his diapered bottom growing smaller in the distance.


In Nassim Nicholas Talib's book, The Black Swan, he argues that catastrophic unforeseen events (the 2008 financial crises is an example), render forecasting and strategizing on the outcome of future events  largely a waste of time. I found this out in miniature in my own simple experiment with my son.


Still, despite the numerous times our plans fall apart, just like the epic battles between the Roadrunner and Wiley Coyote, we can't help but scheme, plan and strategize. Black Swans aside, according to Geroge Dvorsky's article, "12 Scientific Reasons Human Beings are Wildly Irrational", our cognitive biases create numerous problems when it comes to forming strategies for the future.


The bias I fell prey to that fateful day is called the Projection Bias. Dvorsky explains in this way: "As individuals trapped inside our own minds 24/7, it's often difficult for us to project outside the bounds of our own consciousness and preferences. We tend to assume that most people think just like us — though there may be no justification for it. This cognitive shortcoming often leads to a related effect known as the false consensus bias, where we tend to believe that people not only think like us, but that they also agree with us. It's a bias where we overestimate how typical and normal we are, and assume that a consensus exists on matters when there may be none..."


In the case of my son, I assumed he would think the way I did. After all, we share some DNA. But his infant mind, far more nimble than mine, saw a third possibility when my vision was binary. The then-eight-month-old Casey, unhampered by conventional wisdom, saw his mouth as a third hand. 


The older I get, the more weary I find myself of predicting outcomes. I'm not sure it's wisdom as much as finding myself squarely behind the Acme truck of experience. And experience has taught me, when confronted with the impossible-to-open hermetically sealed bag of peanuts found on most airline flights, the mouth is indeed an indispensable third hand.

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