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Neurohacking - Basics
Written by Spock   
Tuesday, 02 March 2010 18:47
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Cognitive science - Formal Reasoning & Truth-Detection -The Basics
Logic and Rational Thinking
Linguistic and Semantic Issues
Critically Thinking and Reading
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Constructively Critical Reading

“Humans do have an amazing capacity for believing what they choose and excluding that which is painful.”

(Spock, ‘And the Children Shall Lead’)


You’ve been using critical thinking in all the exercises so far, so now we’re going to take a look at critical reading. This is a great skill to learn because it gives you the ability to discriminate the truth from rumors, gossip, propaganda or outright lies. And critical reading IS a skill that can be learned. To do it well requires the ability to concentrate, and it is an active rather than passive process; you have to think critically about something as you are reading it. You need both to understand the author’s position and to check whether they have put forward a coherent case for that position.

This involves analyzing arguments. However, the arguments that authors use when writing books and articles are not often as clearly stated or straightforward as the ones we’ve been considering so far.

In this section of the tutorial we’ll be looking at two pieces of writing; both are extracts from articles in online scientific publications. I am throwing every reader in together at the deep end here regardless of your experience, and some people may find these next exercises very difficult. If you’ve never done anything like this before don’t worry if it takes you a long time to do or even if you can’t do it at all; once you see a few examples the process gets much clearer with practice.


DO IT NOW: Critical Reading Extract 1

This first piece is an extract from N C Andreasen’s article “Dissecting the Urge to Create” (1). Read through the extract on its own first a couple of times (without going on to the questions below) and decide what you think it is generally about and whether you think it seems convincing. Then go on to the questions.


“What causes some minds/brains to achieve awe-inspiring artistic or scientific achievements? We cannot help but be fascinated by the fact that Shakespeare—a merchant's son with “small Latin and less Greek”—could emerge from the “nowhere” of rural Stratford to create the richest literary treasure in the English language. We wonder how Michelangelo—a stonecutter's son who also came from a rural nowhere—found within himself the vision to see the shape of David in a block of discarded marble or the apolcalyptic fresco of The Last Judgment on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. What genetic influences shaped their brains to create—and to create these very specific wondrous things? How did their environments promote or impede them? Would Michelangelo have been great without the patronage of the Medicis or the competitive edge induced by Leonardo? Great art and great science are indeed often forged in the smithy of pain—with the fire fueled by self-doubt, obsessive preoccupation, sorrow, depression, competition, or economic needs.”



  1. Why, according to the author, does creativity arise?
  2. What conclusion is stated about the kind of conditions that creativity is assumed to parallel?
  3. Why has the author put quotation marks around the word “nowhere”?
  4. What is the unstated premise about creativity itself?
  5. Does the author present a valid argument that there is a link between creativity and mental illness?
  6. Does the author present a valid argument that genetics modulated by environment are responsible for creativity?
  7. Does the author present a valid argument that rural locations are in fact inferior?

Answers at end of tutorial

Once you are sure you have understood not only what the author is saying, but also what hidden premises their words are implying, there are three basic questions that you should apply to everything non-fictional that you read or hear: 

  1. What is the author’s main conclusion? 
  2. What reasons does s/he give in support of this conclusion? 
  3. How good is the author’s argument?


In order to see how this works in practice, we shall apply these questions to Andreasen’s passage on creativity:

  1. What is the author’s main conclusion?

Creativity is associated with environments considered inferior, and with mental illness. “Great art and great science are indeed often forged in the smithy of pain”.


  1. What reasons does s/he give in support of this conclusion?

Genetic influences and environmental moderation. Two examples are given (Shakespeare and Michaelangelo). In both cases the same consideration about impoverished backgrounds is applied. There is an unspoken premise that the same genes that ‘cause’ creativity also ‘cause’ mental illness.


  1. How good is the author’s argument?

It is a fallacy. The author’s examples of creative individuals from backgrounds considered ‘inferior’ makes a convincing case that in at least some cases creativity and these backgrounds are correlated. But applying individual cases to ‘everybody’ is unfounded extrapolation and this is a fallacy. It is the equivalent of saying:

  1. Shakespeare had fleas, and Michaelangelo had fleas.
  2. Great art and great science were indeed often forged by people with fleas.
  3. To be creative, people often have to have fleas.


What constructive criticism can be made of Andreasen’s argument? One criticism is that the examples are sparse, very old, and differ significantly from the lives and backgrounds of many creative people. Another is that the article misses the possibility that all persons may be creative sometimes.

But the main objection is that it is fallacious. It is a rehash of the ‘no pain no gain’ cliche (which is itself a fallacy). We cannot assume that persons from non-rural backgrounds with no mental illness cannot be creative, or that all creative people conform to these conditions (or even that environmental experience is linked to creativity at all, from the evidence given). Even if both premises were true, the conclusion does not follow.

When you find a fallacy, you have found a non-workable structure. This means that whatever the content; regardless of what is being said, regardless of the writer’s eloquence or emotive power, you have immediate proof that the argument does not make sense. It is not logical. No useful conclusion can be reached from this structure and you know ahead of time that the truth cannot be determined by considering it.

Did you have a different opinion of the validity of this article before and after considering these questions? Do you see how you can avoid wasting a lot of time and bypass an enormous amount of complicated content just by understanding when you are looking at a workable structure and when you are looking at a non-workable structure?


DO IT NOW: Critical Reading Extract 2

Our second extract is from Ewen Callaway’s article, “Damaged brains escape the material world” (2).

“Increased feelings of transcendence can follow brain damage, a study of people with brain cancer suggests.

As feelings of transcending the physical world can be part of some religious experiences and other forms of spirituality, the finding may help explain why some people seem more prone to such experiences than others.

The brain region in question, the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation.”



Summarize the passage above using no more than 25 words. Compare your summary with mine at the end of the tutorial.

  1. What is the author’s main conclusion?
  2. What reasons does s/he give in support of this conclusion?
  3. How good is the author’s argument?

Answers at end of tutorial


Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

“It is not a lie to keep the truth to oneself.”

(Spock; ‘The Undiscovered Country’)

 Perhaps the biggest con trick that fools most of the people most of the time is that of information being pulled out of context so that in the literal sense it seems true, but the deception lies in what is hidden.

The best way of grasping this is by comparing the ‘ideal’ to the ‘real’. People are given an ‘ideal’ concept that gives a false impression out of context. Here are some examples (the upper case statements are the ‘ideals’ we are given, the lower case bracketed statements put them back into context by revealing the hidden reality): 

  • CONTAINS EXTRA VITAMINS (none of which you can digest)
  • CONTAINS AGENT ‘X’ THAT WHITENS TEETH (and causes bone disease)
  • AS AN AIR HOSTESS, PONGO DEODORANT KEEPS ME DRY ALL DAY (as an actor dressed up as an air hostess, I’ve never heard of Pongo but I’m getting $50 an hour.)
  • 90% OF THE POPULATION VOTED FOR GENERAL FULLASHITE (once they understood that their families would be shot otherwise)
  • 8 OUT OF 10 PEOPLE BELIEVE... (8 out of 10 people who did this survey claimed to believe)
  • LOW IN FAT (and extremely high in stuff that turns into fat right after you’ve eaten it)
  • NINE OUT OF TEN PEOPLE WHO TRIED BOTH DRINKS SAID THEY LIKED ‘X’ BEST (even though all testers agreed that both drinks were pretty awful)
  • FANTASTIC ROBOT TOY ONLY $10 (plus $20 worth of batteries every twenty minutes)



Try some hidden truth spotting yourself. What information could be missing in the claims below?


See my suggestions at end of tutorial


Mistranslation, Semantics and Reflexive Thinking 

“Those who hate and fight must stop themselves, Doctor, otherwise it is not stopped.”

“I suggest that good spirits might make an effective weapon”

(Spock, Day of the Dove)

Sometimes we are led astray from the truth by other people’s different translations or interpretations of the information given. This is why it is always preferable to go as far as you can to the source of data that has led to conclusions and assertions. This (often unrealized) disagreement in interpretation leads to confusion of understanding, as we will see.

Sometimes mistranslation is blatantly deliberate; to invoke the ‘scandal factor’ that journalists love to exploit to provoke warmongering and controversy (this is what journalists do best).

Let us use an example from above; here’s the short extract from Ewen Callaway’s article again; “Damaged brains escape the material world”:

“Increased feelings of transcendence can follow brain damage, a study of people with brain cancer suggests.

As feelings of transcending the physical world can be part of some religious experiences and other forms of spirituality, the finding may help explain why some people seem more prone to such experiences than others.

The brain region in question, the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation.”

Now imagine I am a journalist trying to cause a stir with this information. I could create something much more controversial; such as this:


Religious People May Be Brain Damaged, Scientists Discover

Scientists have discovered that people with brain damage get more religious. The part of the brain affected gives us physical awareness, eg helps ‘keep our feet on the ground’, but people with brain cancer found their ability to do this decreases and religious feelings increase. Praying and meditation uses this part of the brain. Does this mean science has finally reached its goal of disproving God, or that all religious people have brain damage of some sort or other, or that religion itself is some sort of mental illness or mind control? Certainly not, unless you assume the majority of the population (including many scientists) to be seriously mentally disturbed! But despite laughing himself, this author bets the anti-religious lobby will be laughing their ass off at this one.


Hopefully you can see various ways how I have misinterpreted the original information to make it appear to mean something that it doesn’t. I have misused the term ‘Religion’ to make it appear that the people reported feeling ‘religious’, which we have no proof that they actually did (“transcendent feelings” was the original term used.)

My main conclusion as this unpleasant journalist comes out as “Religious people may be nutters” and my ‘proof’ for this conclusion is basically “Scientists said so”. I suggest this possibility repeatedly and then cover my own ass by saying ‘certainly not,’ implying that scientists are talking rubbish. I then reverse direction by saying I’m amused and so are the anti-religious, but I don’t associate my humor with theirs directly, giving enough leeway for readers to hear what they want to hear. Religious readers will assume I side with them and am laughing at the scientists, atheists will assume I’m laughing at the religious. Oh what an asshole I am.

Now imagine if my nasty journalist’s report were the only place you had seen this information!

With no access to the original, this sort of thing is what most people are given as ‘news’. The more it is edited, the less accurate it gets. Scientific data starts with the original research report, which is edited for a main science magazine, edited a second time for popular science magazines, edited again for serious news publications, edited again for popular newspapers, and every time it’s edited it could be twisted as badly as I have twisted the information above.


Aside from deliberate misinterpretation in order to cause a stir, the vast majority of poor understanding comes from assumed semantics. Put simply, we believe that when other people use the same words we use, they mean the same things. Most of the time, we are completely mistaken.

This assumption is the cause of a great deal of relationship problems, international diplomacy disasters and unsuccessful team work.

For some reason, people find this concept particularly hard to grasp when it comes to matters of the mind; most notably emotion. There may be as many interpretations of the meaning of the word ‘love’ as there are humans saying it, half of whom have not experienced it yet despite claiming to be ‘in it’.

Not getting clear definitions of what somebody means (or not remembering them when they are given) will impede your understanding of anything you read or hear. Always try to define clearly what the author means by a term, not what you think it means but evidence for what they think it means.

To narrow the problem down to our field there are several classics that can trip you up; so in NH we always work with the clinical meaning because this leads to most accurate understanding and results. If you forget these, you are likely to misunderstand the tutorials and much that you read on the subjects.

I list ‘the classics’ here:

  1. Shock. Clinical meaning: A physiological state inducing a collapse of circulatory function, can be caused by sensory overload, electrocution, poisoning, allergic reaction, blood loss, or disease, and characterized by pallor, sweating, weak pulse, and very low blood pressure.

Colloquial use: People use the word ‘shock’ for alarm, fear, trauma, panic, surprise, scandal and the sudden or unexpected .

  1. Stress. Clinical meaning: A specific (beneficial) response by the body to a challenging physical, emotional or mental stimulus, including the release of hormones & neurotransmitters according to the nature of the stimulus. In PTSD, the response repeats chronically without the stimulus.

Colloquial use: People use the word ‘stress’ for strain, anxiety, hassle, pressure, panic, trauma, inability to cope and coercion.

  1. Emotion. Clinical meaning: A specific (beneficial) mental, physiological and physical response subjectively experienced as feeling and physiologically involving changes that prepare the mind and body for relevant behavioral interaction.

Colloquial use: People use the word ‘emotion’ for sentiment, reaction, dependent attachment, melodrama and histrionics.

  1. Intellect. Clinical meaning: A conscious function of intelligence focusing on calculation and analysis, measurable by IQ tests, enabled mainly by one of six brain networks (N5) which has its cell-body nexus in the left and left frontal hemisphere.

Colloquial use: People use the word ‘intellect’ to mean intelligence, ‘common sense’, declarative memory, cleverness, academic, and cognitive thinking.



Semantic Problem Spotting

Suggest some contrary things different authors might mean by the following words and phrases:

  • Affect
  • I bought a house/ car/ supercomputer
  • Complementary
  • Confidence
  • Controls
  • Education
  • Fear response
  • Hallucinating
  • Hysteria
  • I couldn’t live without...
  • It’s the truth, honest...
  • Pride
  • Psycho
  • Scared
  • Schizo
  • Starving
  • Theory

Suggestions are at end of tutorial

Sometimes the fault in clarity of reason is our own, and we should learn to recognize the traps that lead to sloppy thinking and reading. Following the practice of rational thinking will help you to refine your own clear definitions and apprehend the misunderstandings of others.

It is part of a developing intelligence to educate yourself, and reflexive thinking and refining your own definitions is important because if you don’t have clear association categories in your own mind, your memory can accidentally reinterpret someone else’s meanings before storage. Let’s check that assertion:



Memory Accuracy Check

Try this exercise: without looking back, underline or highlight which of the following words appeared in the first extract you read (Andreason’s “Dissecting the Urge to Create”)

  • Amazing
  • Bipolar disorder
  • DNA
  • Family
  • Genes
  • Genius
  • Gifted
  • Grief
  • Hardship
  • Heredity
  • Inherited
  • Literature
  • Masterpiece
  • Painting
  • Poverty
  • Statue
  • Upbringing

Answers at end of tutorial.


What Was That Again?

"My guess doctor, would be valueless. I suggest we refrain from guessing and find some facts."

(Spock; ‘That Which Survives’)


A small but overlooked area of misunderstanding in spoken argument is pronunciation. This problem was brought to my attention by a Professor of Ancient History who constantly has to ascertain whether lecturers/students are discussing ‘law’ or ‘lore’, due to the fact that they pronounced these two words identically. (He went on to notice that they also pronounced ‘raw’ as’ roar’ and ‘draw’ as ‘drawer’). This can, quite naturally, cause confusion; especially if he had guessed at their meaning rather than asking. It’s easy for someone to hear the wrong word because of your (or their) accent, especially if they are not speaking in their first language.

Remember those early computer speech interpretation programs that translated “Recognise Speech” as “Wreck a nice beach”? Don’t fall prey to the same misunderstandings yourself. If you are not sure of someone’s accent or pronunciation, ask for definitions of key issues. Only when you have the true facts can you proceed to true conclusions about what is being said. Never guess what you think is being said! Your memory will forget it was a guess and proceed on the assumption it is true.


The Great Debate

“Change is the essential process of all existence.”

(Spock, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield")

“What does it mean, 'exact change'?”
(Spock; 'The Voyage Home')


Debating different arguments is an essential skill, because it leads to our discovering the truth. Although very few people know how to voice effective and relevant arguments, we should be able to debate effectively and defend our points with conviction and relevance.

The purpose of debate is to present opposing, paradoxical or different views on an issue or event and subject them to rational analysis; for example the observations:

“Light behaves like waves”

“Light behaves like particles”

Have, after debate, yielded to the conclusion, “Light can behave like either waves or particles depending on circumstances.” Without such debate, we can fall into the trap of trying to make facts fit theories, rather than the other way round. The map is not the territory and we are not here to defend the map; we are here to defend the territory, which is ‘the truth’.

Preparing Your Own Arguments

You are explaining why a certain point should be accepted. That is the definition of an argument. Things to use in your argument as premises: facts, demographics, theories, statistics, references, quotations, personal experiential reports, ideas, physical evidence; all of these can provide ‘weight’ behind your argument.

To make sure you have constructed a good argument, use the mnemonic: SPOCK

  • S = Structure: when planning and on ending, check that what you are saying presents the structure of a valid argument.
  • P = Premises: Present your premises with clarity and make sure of their relevance, giving definitions for terms you are using. Remember, your job is to help people to understand exactly what you think and why you think it.
  • O = Order: Make effective use of evidence by presenting information in a coherent order and with clarity so that people can see how you made your associations.
  • C = Conclusion: Make sure your conclusion follows from your premises, if it does then you know you have a valid argument.
  • K = Kick out any personal abuse, attacks, sentiment, rudeness & irrationality. They have no place in rational argument and they cannot help us find the truth. If you are too anxious to argue rationally without being rude, don’t join in until you have fixed that problem first. This does NOT mean there is no emotion in debate; and nobody loves a passionate argument more than I do. It means there is no sentiment. Learn the difference; it is the hallmark of a healthy and mature intelligence.


Countering Argument in Debate

This is called ‘rebuttal’, and is a very important part of debate. All points made will stand if you do no rebuttal; even if someone’s hypothesis is very weak, it will still stand if uncontested and unexplored.

If someone presents the conclusion; “The sun goes round the earth”, it is of no use saying, “No it doesn’t”. We have to ask the speaker WHY they conclude this and then show if we can evidence why their premises are mistaken or their argument is not valid. We can present contrary evidence for another theory, and sometimes this is sufficient to disprove the argument, but as in the particle/wave situation sometimes proving a second thing correct does not necessarily prove the first thing wrong.

An argument may be wrong in content or form. If so, say how and why. An argument may also be true but irrelevant. Watch out for this, it is important.

Remember that it is not necessary to rebut everything, only what is relevant. All that you need to counter in a valid argument are the premises. Take care of these, and the conclusion will take care of itself.

Last Updated on Friday, 02 August 2013 13:40