Daphne Bavelier: Your brain on video games


Daphne Bavelier studies how the brain adapts to changes in experience, either by nature or by training


Fears over children playing video games is leveraged by the media for many headlines. While most children play games, most gamers are adults. Daphne is a brain scientist, so has studied the impact of video games on the brain. She notes that excessive gaming is hazardous to the health, but in reasonable levels is generally beneficial. With the amount of time people can play games, she is looking at ways to leverage this power to solve health problems.

Her main focus for these studies were violent first person shooter action games – such as Call of Duty, which in previous tests showed much greater benefits than other games. Her findings were

  1. Gamers have better vision. This is counter to the old story that too much screen time will harm your eyes – gamers could make out small details better and could distinguish between shades of grey (useful for driving in foggy conditions). Games are now being developed to improve patients with poor vision.
  2. Gamers are better at focussing their attention. Again this is counter to the myths, but gamers can track more objects at a time and focus on tests for longer.
  3. Gamers are better multi-taskers: they can switch from one task to another with minimal cost. They performed better in the multitasking tests than ‘multimedia taskers’ – students who report chatting while listening to music and studying.

Most of these findings fly in the face of common wisdom, and show that scientific testing is necessary to test common knowledge.

Daphne used this to try and improve the brains of non-gamers. She assigned them to play first person shooters for 10hrs over 2wks and tested their ability to mentally rotate shapes before and after. They showed a significant improvement after gaming, and maintained that improvement 5 months after the study.

She is now working with game publishers to better integrate the elements of games that improve our brains while still keeping the games fun. This is not an easy or quick thing to do – since people are wary of past efforts at educational software.

My Thoughts

I must admit I am skeptical of some of the studies shown. During the shape rotation one for example she didn’t mention a control group – is it possible the brain is improving as it gets exposed to the same test multiple times? I had a look through her publications (http://cms.unige.ch/fapse/people/bavelier/publications/publication-video-games/) and couldn’t pick out the exact study she was referring to. I hope I am wrong though – it is an interesting result if it is correct.

I am curious about how her work with the gaming companies will end up. If shooting games are already showing these benefits, is she aiming to tweak the games to focus more on the most beneficial points? Or is she trying to build more of these elements into non-shooter games?

Regardless, love the talk. Gaming often gets a bad rap from the media and other old wives tales (of the sort she debunked). It is good to know this is just another round of fear that strikes every generation as the world changes.


Elizabeth Gilbert: Your elusive creative genius


Elizabeth Gilbert is an American author, essayist, short story writer, biographer, novelist and memoirist. She is best known for her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love.


People associate creative works with mental health issues and a fear that their work won’t be good enough, or not as good as their past work. Indeed a lot of writers in the 20th century have committed suicide or suffered depression. After the massive success of her book “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth believes that her greatest work is now behind her, which is a scary thought. She looked at how to construct barriers between her work and this anxiety about how it will be received.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that an artist had a spirit that helped their work – called a daemon or a ‘genius’. This idea insulated the artist from criticism and narcissism – the work was not theirs and they could not take all the credit or blame. In the Renaissance the language shifted slightly so that instead of possessing a genius the artist was a genius – this makes the artist responsible to their critics. It distorts egos, creates unmanageable expectations, and has been killing artists for 500 years.

Why can’t we go back to the classical period? Does their understanding of creativity make any less sense than our own? Elizabeth describes an explanation of a poem coming to a poet like an approaching train, and having to sprint to a pencil to write it down before it passed never to be seen again. This look at creativity (that ideas just come to you) is common, and it does make it sound as if the artist isn’t fully in control of their works.

A musician (Tom Waits) took a different approach when he was driving down the road and a song just came to him. He couldn’t write it down and didn’t have a tape recorder to sing to, so instead of panicking that he would lose it, he started talking to his daemon. “Can you not see I’m driving”… “If you really want to exist come back at a more opportune moment”… “Otherwise go bother someone else today. Go Bother Leonard Cohen”. Elizabeth tried a similar approach while feeling anxious – telling her daemon she’s doing everything she can, and if the daemon wants a better book he should turn up to work to do his bit.

Elizabeth uses this concept of an external daemon to keep working through the anxiety, or the fear that her next book won’t be as successful as her last. She has to keep showing up to work, and if the daemon on loan to her doesn’t, than so be it.

My Thoughts

I like her idea to dissociate an artist from their work – someone frustrated and tormented constantly is unlikely to keep producing creatively. She speaks convincingly on the subject, and her anecdotes are helpful.

Jeremy Howard: The wonderful and terrifying implications of computers that can learn


Jeremy Howard is the CEO of Enlitic, an advanced machine learning company in San Francisco.


Traditional programming of a computer means telling it in absolute detail how to achieve a task. This is difficult unless the programmer is an expert in the task he is teaching, and prevents the computer being better than the programmer. Machine learning allows a computer to learn on it’s own – as Arthur Samuel programmed a computer to beat himself at checkers. Nowadays machine learning has been successfully commercialised. Google is based on machine learning, LinkedIn and Facebook have learnt how to recommend friends, Amazon can recommend products using machine learning.

Deep learning is an algorithm inspired by how the human brain works, so assuming enough computation time and learning time, there are no limits. For example, deep learning can:

  • Drive cars
  • understand English, translate to Chinese, and read back in Chinese.
  • Image recognition through Deep Learning has an error rate down to 6% – better than human levels.
  • look at an image and identify similar images
  • write a caption for an image
  • understand sentence structure and language.

These are very human-centric that humans are now able to do.

Computers are also exceeding and enhancing human performance. In cancer diagnosis, a computer analysed tumours and discovered some features unknown to human doctors that can help predict survival rate and treatment. Computer predictions of survival were more accurate than humans and the discoveries improved the science of cancer treatment. This system can be developed with no background in medicine, and replaces the data analysis and diagnostics of the medical process. This leaves doctors more time to gather input data and apply treatments. The number of doctors in the developing world is 10 – 20 times less than what is needed, and will take many generations to train enough. If computers can learn to fill these roles, lives will be saved.

On the flipside, computers will wipe out a service industry whose role is to read documents, drive cars, talk. This is >80% of the jobs in the developed world. In the past (eg industrial revolution) a large number of jobs were obsolete at the same time as new jobs came into being, but computer learning is much more disruptive than this since it takes very few people to develop and roll out the algorithms. Once fully rolled out, computers will far surpass humans at an exponential rate – when computers can redesign themselves to be better and better.

To fix the high unemployment, better education and incentives to work will not help if there are no jobs to do. We need to look at this problem differently – by decoupling labour from earnings or moving to a craft based economy. Jeremy asks us all to think about how to adjust to this new reality.

My Thoughts

Google emailed me a Youtube update suggesting I watch this video. As someone who watches a lot of TED talks and an interest in Artificial Intelligence, Google knew I would watch it.

Jeremy makes a lot of good points. Personally I think he used too many examples and it was a little disorienting to follow. Nonetheless, he pulls out the important points. To me his final point is the most important: this massive change in our economy is coming and very few people seem prepared for it. How will we deal with a world with 80% unemployment, where all those jobs are no longer necessary for us to maintain the same standard of living?

ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese … with ease!


ShaoLan is an entrepreneur, investor, writer, and creator of ‘Chineasy’.


Chinese characters are part of a beautiful language, but to outsiders can be difficult to learn. A Chinese person would know 20,000 characters, but only 1,000 are used frequently. Knowing 200 will let a traveller get by, to work out road signs, menus, timetables. Shaolan goes through 8 basic characters and explains how to chain them together to form more complicated characters.

8 basic hanyu

From top left, left to right

  • Fire – think of a person flailing their arms while on fire
  • Tree
  • Sun
  • Moon
  • Person
  • Mouth – open wide
  • Door – looks like a Wild West saloon door
  • Mountain

Put 2 people next to each other and it represents follow. Put 3 people in the same character and they are a crowd. You can continue to chain images together to get more complicated characters:


hanyu - fire


hanyu tree


hanyu - sun


hanyu - people


hanyu - door


hanyu - woman

From the first 8 radicals (parts of a character), we have formed 30 characters. We can then chain 2 characters together to form phrases. For example a fire mountain is a volcano,

hanyu phrases


Japan is the land of the rising sun, so sun character combined with foundation. If you take these characters and add ‘person’ character afterwards, it becomes Japanese person.

hanyu Japan


Chinese emperors used to send their political opponents across the mountains, to exile – so mountains represent exile. An opening (mouth) that leads to exile is the exit.

hanyu exit

My Thoughts

As a long time learner of Chinese for ~12 years who came away from it knowing very little, this was a much more interesting way of learning it. To see how the characters are formed makes it more memorable than rote learning.

A wonderful talk that makes me want to learn the language again (and that is quite an impressive feat).

Will Marshall: Tiny satellites that photograph the entire planet, every day


Will Marshall is creator of planet.com.


The famous first photos of the earth as a blue ball are beautiful, and remind us how important and fragile the Earth is. Since then we have photographed every point on the globe with high resolution technology, but the photos available to us now are typically years old. The problem is that satellites are massive – weighing 3Tonnes, costing $855 million, and needing a rocket to launch them – they are not scalable to a large satellite fleet. Will’s team has constructed a 4kg satellite, with dimensions of 10cm x 10cm x 30cm named Dove. It has advanced electronics, and takes photos of similar quality to the largest satellites. The tiny satellites can be built in a production line and launched en masse – he will launch 100 of these in the next year.

The satellites will scan the earth as it moves beneath them – taking a photo of every point on earth every day. This will vastly increase the amount of satellite photo data available, and it will be released freely to democratise the information. He is passionate about how this data can be used to improve humanity – how environmental or development groups can use the data.

He can track urban growth on a daily basis, water and crop availability. This can be used to optimise crop yields, or just track humanity. The photos will capture the daily news – being able to see every bushfire or flood or earthquake in a daily snapshot. There are many uses for the data, and Will is releasing it freely for anyone to discover the uses for it. App developers, NGOs, journalists will use it freely.

Together, we can take care of our ‘spaceship Earth’. If you could photograph the Earth every day, what would you do with that data?

My Thoughts

The satellites are a fascinating device, but the applications are more of a question than anything. The curious side in me is fascinated to construct stop motion animations of cities growing from nothing over the next hundred years, but difficult to find uses today. He has a ‘build it and they will come’ mindset, and while I share his optimism that someone will be able to use this data, I also worry that the people with the resources to use it (large IT companies, governments) are capable of building their own satellites.

I do like the idea of daily snapshots of major bushfires, floods. It will make these events feel more real – rather than just something that happens on TV occasionally.

David Grady: How to save the world (or at least yourself) from bad meetings


David Grady is an information security manager who believes that strong communication skills are
a necessity in today’s global economy. He is known for a video online about ineffective conference calls


David talks about meetings, especially large meetings with no agenda, and no clear reason why each person is there. He blames “Meeting Acceptance Syndrome” or MAS – the urge to instinctively accept a meeting invite that is sent to you. Meetings are important, but accepting mindlessly costs your most important resource: time.

He showed excerpts from his Youtube video (linked above).

People feel powerless to resist these meetings. David suggests “¡No Mas!” that instead of always accepting: if you don’t know why you were invited or what the meeting is about, you should instead reply ‘Tentative”. You can the call the organiser and offer your assistance, but get more details about how you can help. By doing this, people will hopefully start to think more before sending out an invitation – publishing an agenda or rethinking why they need to set up a meeting at all.

My Thoughts

Short and to the point, David is an entertaining speaker. His point is important, but not much to it. Worth a quick look, or for subtly forwarding around at work. You know who you are 🙂

Sheena Iyengar: How to make choosing easier


Sheena Iyengar is a Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School and the Faculty Director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center. She is known for her research on choice, culture, and innovation


The average American reports they make 70 decisions per day. A study was done by following CEOs around, and found they completed 139 tasks, and 50% of their decisions were made in 9 minutes or less. Only 9% of decisions took longer than an hour.

The choice overload problem is summarised by a grocery store that can offer hundreds of types of olive oil or jam. Sheena was fond of such a store, and found they had hundreds of tourists but very few people bought anything (including herself). She ran an experiment where she offered jams for tasting – once she offered 6 flavours, another time she offered 24. While people were more likely to stop and taste the 24 flavours, nearly noone bought a jar. She got 6 times more sales from the experiment with only 6 flavours. This can happen even with more significant decisions such as saving for retirement. A study looked at participation in 401k plans, each of which offered a different number of funds within them. Those that offered only 1-2 funds had participation of 75%, and participation decreased until the plans with 59 funds recorded only 63% participation.

There are 3 main consequences of offering people too many choices

  • Engagement – they tend to procrastinate
  • Quality – Make worse choices
  • Satisfaction – they are less happy with their choice, even if their decision is objectively better.

This is because it is difficult to properly compare all choices – it is fun to gaze at a wall of mayonnaise, but how can you really decide which one is best?

Sheena suggests 4 techniques in your businesses to prevent choice overload in customers.

  1. Cut – reduce the redundant options. This will increase sales, and lower costs. When Proctor and Gamble reduced their Head & Shoulders line from 26 products to 15 their sales increased 10%. Aldi offers only 1400 products (compared to Walmart offering 100,000) and is the 9th largest retailer in the world. If people can’t tell the difference between 2 products, don’t force them to choose.
  2. Concretisation – Relate a decision in terms that mean something. Sheena described a road in terms of it’s surroundings and accident statistics (one of the most dangerous roads in the world) and asked who would want to visit it. She then showed photos of the road, and more people seemed keen. By showing the photo it seemed more real and easier to decide, even though there was less concrete information about the road. Similarly, when saving for retirement, thinking about what how you want your retirement to be can make saving easier.
  3. Categorisation – Reduce the objects into categories that mean something to the chooser. For example – putting 600 magazines in categories makes it easier to pick one. Of course, categorising by industry jargon that can’t be understood by the consumer is useless.
  4. Condition for Complexity – Gradually increase the complexity. When custom making a car, a lot of decisions need to be made eg engine, gear shifter (with only a few choices each) or paint colour (with 56 choices). People stay engaged longer if they are presented with the smaller sets first – they get exhausted making the largest decision first (paint colour), and will tend to pick the default thereafter.

My Thoughts

While Sheena focussed on business owners, the same principles should be applied whenever you are trying to convince someone of something. By presenting the options in a more concrete form – what it means to them, or grouping a few similar options together, you could make it easier to win them over.

I am a big fan of simplifying, and Sheena’s talk did not disappoint. She gave useful advice, and explained it so well that it all made sense. Strongly recommended for business owners focussed on consumers, and great background info for everyone else.

Emily Balcetis: Why some people find exercise harder than others


Emily Balcetis is a social psychologist from NYU.


People perceive the world differently. A softball player sees the ball as tiny compared to one on a good streak, and a dieter sees an apple as bigger than it is. In political views, people looked at a picture of Obama that had been artificially lightened or darkened, and asked which looked closer to reality. His supporters preferred the lightened picture, while opponents thought the dark picture was closer to reality. Why is this?

Our eyes actually see very little. The amount of vision actually in clear focus is the size of our thumb at arms length. The rest is ambiguous, and filled in by our mind. So people’s perceptions are different, but what influences people to literally see the world differently? Emily focussed on people’s health & fitness- how their perception changes their views towards it.

Some people might see exercise as easier or more difficult. She looked at people’s hip-to-waist circumference ratio – an objective assessment of people’s fitness. She then tested them in a race to a finish line while carrying weights, and beforehand each participant was asked to estimate how far away the finish line was. The results supported her idea: people who were fitter perceived the race as shorter than those who weren’t.

She followed up with a similar test on people’s motivation: those who had few fitness goals (unmotivated) vs those who were still striving. For those who were unmotivated, the results were similar to before; the fittest people saw the distance as shorter than the unfit. For the motivated group, they saw the opposite: fitter people saw the distance as further. People’s motivation and fitness were both influencing their perception of the difficulty of a physical challenge.

Emily wanted to see if we can learn anything from this – to improve our motivation or fitness by perceiving things differently. The strategy she suggests is “Keep your eye on the prize”. People have to stay focussed on the finish line, look at it in the centre of their vision and avoid looking elsewhere. When she retested, people adopting this strategy saw the finish as 30% closer than those who didn’t. She made the challenge more difficult by adding more weights (15% of their body weight), and afterwards the “eye on prize” people reported it was 17% easier than the control group. They also moved 23% faster. This is a simple, free strategy that makes exercise easier, and makes people perform better.

We see the world through our mind’s eye, but can train ourselves to see it differently. Sometimes days look worse than they are – you can see only negative expressions on everyone else’s faces. But you need to remind yourself that this may not be true. Some days are full of insurmountable challenges, but we can teach ourselves to see it differently. If we see the world differently, it might actually become so.

My Thoughts

The general topic about people’s perceptions changing their vision (and vice versa) was interesting and thought-provoking. Having said that, I’d find it difficult to apply “Keep your eyes on the prize” in situations to improve my fitness. The race she was testing was only 20-30ft away (or at least that’s the range people were perceiving it), so the goal would be clearly in sight throughout. For a marathon this is more difficult. Or for a less tangible exercise goal, such as 50 pushups or weightlifting or injury rehabilitation I’m not sure how you could apply this. The principle of focussing yourself only on the goal and ignoring other thoughts and doubts might help, but the talk and experiment was focussed on vision.


In trying to see if others had this concern, I read into the Youtube comments for the video. Must remind myself to not do that; especially for a young female speaker, the nutjobs seem to come out of the woodwork and attack everything about personality, looks, speaking style. Although I must admit, the example of darkening Obama and implicitly calling people racists was a little distracting from her point.