I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Kluge

Neuroscience is one of the biggest sections in PLoS ONE and of the 360+ neuroscience papers published since the journal's launch in December 2006, many fall within the fields of psychology and the evolution of the mind. Here are just a few examples, although you can find many more by browsing by subject on PLoS ONE:

A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments
Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans
Deconstructing Insight: EEG Correlates of Insightful Problem Solving
Electrical Brain Responses in Language-Impaired Children Reveal Grammar-Specific Deficits
A Specific and Rapid Neural Signature for Parental Instinct
Prelude to Passion: Limbic Activation by “Unseen” Drug and Sexual Cues
Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation
Does Time Really Slow Down during a Frightening Event?
The Golden Beauty: Brain Response to Classical and Renaissance Sculptures
Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise

Perhaps the author of an article criticising the hype surrounding neuroimaging technology in the latest issue of Wired Magazine who wrote, "Add the prefix neuro to a discipline and you get a new field with instant cred. But the science can be less than compelling" might like to read some of these papers and post his thoughts on them as a comment or note. Of course, we would never add the prefix neuro to a discipline to create a new field.

The topic of the rest of this post is – ooh, now, what's that word? It's on the tip of my tongue… It begins with k, I think, but I can't quite recall… Ah, yes, kluge; that's it. Kluges are the subject of a new book of the same name by Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology at NYU and PLoS ONE editorial board member, who examines some of the ways in which the mind could have evolved better – or, at least, more elegantly – than it did, even though its klugey nature does a good enough job most of the time.

Marcus defines a kluge (which rhymes with stooge) as "a clumsy and inelegant – yet effective – solution to a problem," sometimes known in engineering as a workaround – folding a piece of paper up really small to open a bottle of beer in the absence of a bottle opener, for example. Just as some aspects of the human body aren’t perfect (the eye's blind spots, for example, aren't ideal), so too the human mind has its flaws – those occasions where you know something but just can't quite retrieve a fact or a word (although interestingly, we can often retrieve parts of the word, such as the initial letter or the number of syllables), or when you make yourself an espresso because you are tired and then forget to drink it, or when you prefer apples to bananas and bananas to coconuts but coconuts to apples, when offered the choice.

Marcus delves deep into evolutionary psychology and takes us on a witty, whistle-stop tour of a variety of the different ways in which our mind can let us down, from false memories and irrational beliefs, to speech errors and happiness. As a recovering linguist, the most interesting chapter for me was on language and how it is that although language can be ambiguous, repetitive, inefficient and sometimes error-filled, it does usually serve its purpose of allowing us to communicate our thoughts to one another. Slips of the tongue were among my favourite parts of my university psycholinguistics course, even if my friends lived in fear of the ubiquitous notebook in which I would jot down every last speech error they made to use as examples in my final exams. Speech errors and dysfluencies are extremely common, although sadly, most aren't as entertaining as those produced by the Reverend Spooner, with his fabulous utterances such as, “Having tasted two worms, you will leave by the next town drain.”

The book’s final chapter is full of advice on how best to overcome the handicap of a klugey brain, which could probably be condensed into the single maxim of, "be rational." Easier said than done, perhaps, but, Marcus concludes, "if we learn to recognize our limitations and address them head on – we might just outwit our inner kluge."

And in case you think you might forget to check out the new neuroscience papers published each Wednesday in PLoS ONE, you can employ technology to remember for you by subscribing to our neuroscience RSS feed, which will bring the articles right into your RSS feed reader so you don’t need to rely on your klugey brain.

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