How to Measure Imagination

Scott Barry Kaufman

Aspen, Colo. — A couple of days ago I took a walk down a narrow, somewhat perilous mountain trail with Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute. The trail began near the Aspen Institute’s campus here in this immensely beautiful, immensely wealthy town, where the institute holds its annual ideas festival, a gathering of scientists, artists, corporate executives, and miscellaneous thinkers who mull such topics as the future of smart cities, the …


The Turing Trick

Eugene Goostman. Maybe.

Eugene Goostman. Maybe.

On Monday morning, the news was everywhere that the famous Turing Test—in which a computer program tries to convince people that it is a human being carrying on a normal conversation—had been passed for the first time. Yahoo News hailed the success of the “supercomputer.” Gizmodo declared, “This is big.”

Or maybe not. By Monday afternoon, the doubters were piling on. Gary Marcus raised an eyebrow in a New Yorker blog post, pointing out that the program, called Eugene Goos…


Are Women Really Better at Multitasking?

In the most-watched TED talk of all time—viewed, as I write this, more than 26 million times—Sir Ken Robinson says the following:

There’s a shaft of nerves that joins the two halves of the brain called the corpus callosum, and it’s thicker in women. … I think this is probably why women are better at multitasking. Because you are, aren’t you? There’s a raft of research, but I know it from my personal life.

He goes on to mention how his wife can cook dinner while doing a million other things. Thi…


A Tape-Measure for Well-Being

Pretty much everyone seems happy. In Australia, 93 percent of the population is either happy or very happy. In China, it’s 85 percent. Jordan: 86 percent. They’re chipper in Colombia at 92. Belarus is below average, at 64, but it still has a solid majority of happy campers. In the United States, 90 percent of us are happy and presumably steering clear of the sour-faced 10-percenters.

Those figures come from the latest round, released in April, of the World Values Survey, which has been tracking…


A Walk in the Park

Walking in nature. (iStock)
Kierkegaard took long walks in the afternoon. Dickens once hoofed it 30 miles from London to his country home. Diogenes’ advice was said to be “solvitur ambulando”—it is solved by walking around. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit unpacks the appeal of perambulation: “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”

That sounds nice. But is there really a mind-foot conn…


The World According to Whorf

A member of the Hopi tribe (Robert Alexander, Archive Photos, Getty Images)

In 1938 a chemical engineer and amateur linguist named Benjamin Whorf visited a Hopi reservation in Arizona and concluded that the residents there had no words for time. No “was” or “will”; only “is.” For Whorf, and for many descriptive linguists who followed him, the supposed lack of past and future tenses in the Hopi language was more than just a grammatical curiosity. It revealed something deep and meaning…


The Science of Going Viral

facebook share

Just one in every 20 Facebook photos is shared. Most Twitter hashtags vanish into oblivion. Researchers want to understand the exceptions. Can you predict what content will go viral? That could be handy in many contexts—marketing, elections, revolutions.

This week two new papers are proclaiming advances in the science of virality.

“We have a method that allows us to predict the future on Twitter,” says James H. Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at University of C…


What’s Driving Human Evolution Now?

Sterling Hayden as Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (left), with Peter Sellers as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake in Dr. Strangelove (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last year, when Sir David Attenborough, the British naturalist and broadcaster, speculated that human beings had ended natural selection through cultural and technological innovations, he got a deserved amount of blowback. The criticism started with his toy-model view of evolution, and went from there. But beneath it all, there was one lingering…


The Evolution of Aww

Zooey Deschanel (Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images)

We live in the golden age of cute. As one scholar recently put it, cuteness has become a “dominant aesthetic category in digital culture.” Hard to argue with that. Even if you steer clear of toddler pics on Facebook, even if you’ve never clicked on Reddit’s popular “aww” category, your elderly former neighbor will still email you a random photo of, say, three adorable piglets peeking out of a coffee mug.

That last one may be specific to me, but…


Here Come the Neurothugs! Run!

One of Francis Bacon's self portraits

In this New Atlantis essay about art and science, Roger Scruton coins a word: neurothugs.

Neurothugs are researchers who believe that, when it comes to beauty, there is “such a thing as the fMRI of the beholder, and this does contain the secret of the image in the frame.”

As thugs go, the neuro-variety are among the least threatening. At most they might try to convince you that a brain scan means more than it does. They probably won’t rough you up in an alley.

Scruton, a visiting professor of p…