# Psychology Experiment: How Does the Human Brain Unscramble Words?

Oddly enough, many neuroscientists and psychologists don’t appreciate that insights from the study of algorithms and the theory of computation are very relevant to understanding the brain and how it accomplishes what it does.

Here’s an example. Consider the humble jumble, a game involving scrambled words that’s been around for over 60 years. Players get words of length 5 or 6 and have to unscramble them. How, exactly, does the brain do that? And why are some words harder than others to unscramble?

Computer scientists will instantly think of two different algorithms. The obvious algorithm, given a word of length n, takes about n! log D time, where D is the size of the dictionary. To accomplish this, try all n! permutations and look each up using binary search in the dictionary, which we have presorted in alphabetical order.

A less obvious but much faster algorithm is the following: first, sort each word in the dictionary, putting the letters in each word in alphabetical order. Then sort these words relative to each other in alphabetical order, together with the original unscrambled version. Once this preprocessing is done, to unscramble a word, rewrite its letters in alphabetical order and look up this reordered word in our reordered dictionary, using binary search. This takes about (n log n) + log D time, which is enormously faster.

With other techniques, such as hashing, we could even be faster.

I doubt very much the brain could be using this second algorithm. That’s because we probably don’t have access to all the words that we know in any kind of sorted list. So probably some variant of the first algorithm is being used. Our brains probably speed things up a bit by focusing on word combinations, such as digrams and trigrams (two- and three-letter word combinations), that are common, instead of uncommon ones. Thus, I would expect that unscrambling length-n words with distinct letters would, on average, require time that grows something like (n/c)! for some constant c.

We could actually test this with a psychology experiment. I searched the psychological literature using a database, but found no experiments testing this idea. Are there any takers?

Update: to address the issue of whether the brain could have “random access” to a dictionary of words, we could ask subjects to produce what they think the first English word that lexicographically follows a given word is. This is likely to be difficult for people, but it is very easy for computers. For example, what do you think the first word after “enzymology” is?

# Local Pastor Wants More Internet Censorship

When you hear that a local parent wants more Internet censorship in schools, you can bet dollars to doughnuts that somewhere there’s fundamentalist religion lurking behind as a driving force.

Take a look at this website, which claims it wants to “keep Waterloo region schools safe”. Click on “who we are”, and you get “We are parents who would like WRDSB to use Internet technology more responsibly.” But who’s behind it?

You probably wouldn’t know unless you read the local paper, because there doesn’t seem to be any information on the group’s own website. But in the Record you learn that the group is really Jacob Reaume, a “pastor and father”. That’s this guy, pastor at the “Harvest Bible Chapel” and educated (big surprise!) at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

The good pastor wants to censor Youtube in schools.  But what’s missing is any actual evidence that Youtube poses any threat to the safety of Waterloo Region students.

It’s a shame that fundamentalists are not content with controlling the education of their own children. They want to control the way everyone else’s children are educated, too.

# For Good People to Do Evil, that Requires….

Steven Weinberg famously said, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”

Keep Weinberg’s quote in mind when you read this appalling story of how a British Columbia man was forced to endure agony rather than get a physician-assisted death as he requested.

Why was he forced to do this? Because his hospital was a religious hospital.

Look, clearly most of the people who work in such a facility are humanitarians. But when the hospital’s ideology prevents a dying man to be helped out of his pain at his own request, that’s pretty sad.

# A Visit to Nari

Readers of this blog know that I like to travel. I’ve been to about 30 countries and every continent except Antarctica. However, like most people in the West, I had never been to the tiny island nation of Nari. Recently I had a chance to visit this little-known country.

Because of its unusual customs, Nari is closed to most foreigners, but I had a professional contact, Ila, who agreed to sponsor my visit and be my guide. After a connection in Delhi, I arrived by plane, and upon stepping off the jetway I immediately felt very out of place. It was not jet lag. The reason why will be clear in a moment.

Religion is one reason that Nari is the way it is. 99% of the people on Nari adhere to the religion of Malsi, a poorly-understood sect (some would say a cult). The word “malsi” is difficult to translate, but a rough equivalent in English is “lack of inhibitions”. (There are a few people on Nari who do not follow Malsi, but rather the Iahab faith, but they are unfortunately mistreated and generally persecuted.)

Malsi is hard for outsiders to understand. Adherents must engage in prayer rituals, which take place five times a day, where they face South and silently reflect on their inhibitions and work to overcome them. They must make a pilgrimage to a neighboring island, called Accem, at least once in their life. During one month each year (Nadamar), devotees eat constantly throughout the day, gorging themselves on the local fruits, which include nolem and etad. I was not there during Nadamar, but I still found the nolem and etad delicious, and much better than most fruit we could get here in North America.

But the most outstanding aspect of Malsi — the one that everybody wants to know about — is that believers largely reject Western notions of clothing. It’s hard to be delicate about this, so I’ll just say it: on Nari everybody walks around naked nearly all the time. Well, almost naked — the belly button is always covered with a small round adhesive patch. Now you understand why I felt out of place. Old and a bit overweight, I didn’t really want to follow the local custom. Any my navel is probably my best feature.

Since Nari is a tropical island, the weather makes the lack of clothing feasible. In Nari it is almost always 25 degrees C (77 degrees Fahrenheit), and the sun shines many hours during the day. Narians have a beautiful golden-bronze skin from their constant exposure to the sun, and most of them look extremely healthy. Needless to say, there are no tan lines.

When my guide Ila met me at the airport, I observed, as I stepped off the plane, that nearly everyone produced a small, colorful bag. Sitting on the benches throughout the airport, the Narians took off their clothes with athletic grace, and placed them in the bag, as I gaped in astonishment. Most were now barefoot, although some still wore their native sandals.

In my Western clothes (a t-shirt and shorts), I felt very much out of place. Indeed, as Ila (totally naked except for his belly-button patch) and I walked through the airport, I felt stares and disapproving glances from all sides. Ila laughed at my discomfort. “It’s alright,” he said. “We’re just not used to many Westerners here. People look at you … they know you do not follow Masli, and they are offended. But no one will hurt you.” I felt reassured, but as we entered the parking lot, a man spit at my feet and then tried to pull my t-shirt off. Ila intervened and exchanged a few words with the man, and he went away, cursing. Ila apologized profusely.

Ila explained that one of the tenets of Malsi is that all people have malevolent inhibitions that must be overcome to achieve enlightenment. Their prophet, Dammahum, discovered this in the 6th century, and ever since, the Narians have followed his teachings. At an early age, children are taught to be outgoing and not shy. They are encouraged to take pride in their bodies. As part of this, clothes are regarded as useful only in the rare bouts of very cold weather, or for doing tasks that might be dangerous if uncovered, such as construction.

The navel is the exception. Narians regard the belly button as the seat of the soul, and hence it is only bared in the presence of extremely close friends and lovers. “It is the most intimate thing,” Ila explained. “I can still remember the first time I saw my wife’s navel. It was the most beautiful and tender moment of my life.”

I was curious about how Narians dealt with some obvious problems. For example, did people really want to sit directly on chairs where other people had recently been sitting, naked? Wouldn’t it be unhygienic? I quickly learned that Narians had developed solutions to almost every objection I had. For example, in Narian movie theaters and other public auditoriums, there are always dispensers on the wall that provide a small soft cloth that one places on the seat before sitting down. At the end of the event, these cloths were placed in a bin for wash and reuse. No one seemed to find this the slightest bit unusual.

We took a taxi to Ila’s house, where I met his wife Mayram and his children. I have to admit feeling embarrassed when Ila’s wife hugged me and unclothed parts of her jiggled against me. Seeing me blush, Mayram laughed. “You take off clothes, and go native!” she said. I apologized and said I was used to my own customs.

As part of my visit, I had agreed to visit a Narian university, where I would answer questions about the West. Very few Narian students have ever been to a Western country and they were puzzled about various aspects of life there. Perhaps not surprisingly, most questions focused on clothing. But it was not our custom of wearing clothes in public that had them interested; it was the way the West treated women and men differently.

“Why,” I was asked, “do Westerners subjugate their women by forcing them to wear items of clothing that conceal their breasts?” I explained that breasts are erogenous zones, and in the West we feel it is best that these be covered in public. “Then why do you not insist that the chests of men also be covered? Do not your men have nipples, too?”

I struggled for an answer. “Nakedness of women’s breasts is … uhh… distracting,” I said. “Men would focus on sex and not get any work done. If women wear tops, then we can focus on them as people, without the distraction of sex.”

“So you are saying that Western men are unable to control their sexual impulses?” Everyone giggled. “Not exactly,” I replied, although I had to concede that sexual harassment was indeed a problem in many countries.

“Tell us, is it actually illegal for women to go topless in North America? You would put your women in jail for such a normal thing?” I was asked. I had to concede that, although it is now technically legal in Ontario for women to go topless, this was still not the case for most jurisdictions in Canada and the US.

“And even in Ontario, what would happen to a woman who walked around without a top?” I was asked. I was forced to admit that they would often not be treated respectfully and that much social pressure would be brought to bear on them to cover up. Some women might even be attacked and beaten up. I heard a murmur of disapproval go through the room. Many students were shaking their heads at the backwardness of my society.

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to convince the Narian students that Western clothing was not a tool designed to subjugate women.

At the end of the event, I asked some Narian students about their navel patch. They seemed astonished that Western women would brazenly display their belly button in public (and indeed, Ila explained that there was a thriving trade in underground pornography in Nari, where Western women are shown in bikinis). “But aren’t you afraid of someone seeing your soul?” they asked. I had to explain that many Westerners think the soul is an immaterial thing that one cannot see. They all laughed at that. “How could you possibly be so sure that an immaterial thing exists?” they asked. I could see their logic.

As I left Nari, I felt like my ideas about social behavior had been turned upside-down. Although I didn’t agree that Western clothing was just a tool to subjugate women, I had to admit that our apparel is probably nothing more than a social convention, not a code ordained by a god or by nature. Perhaps our clothing rules are rooted in custom and tradition, and not on any actual rational or moral basis.

The Narian navel patch is as incomprehensible and foreign to us as Western clothing is to them.

I don’t think I will visit Nari again, but it did make me think.

# Was the Moose Hurt?

From New Brunswick comes the sad story of a moose that was hit by two cars.

Inexplicably, the newspaper story does not explain the fate of the moose.

# World’s Dumbest Journal Name

I think I have found the world’s dumbest journal name. It is the International Refereed Journal of Scientific Research in Engineering.

The barely-literate web page tells you that it is a “reputed journal”, and has a block of moving text that announces proudly that “IRJSRE is International Peer Reviewed Journal”.

It also informs you that IRJSRE “provides new information, knowledge, analysis and developments in the Engineering and Science fields to cater the requirements of academic and practitioners”. I never saw a journal announce that it was a caterer before.

The web page features a button that says “Call for Paper”. Just one? Or maybe their photocopier ran out.

Another helpful button offers a “modal paper”. I wonder if that means it’s made of rayon.

And I wonder who would submit their paper to this journal.

# Berlinski Exposed

Well, it looks like I was right when I guessed that David Berlinski was behind the scenes of the very strange online thing calling itself a “an independent quarterly review of the sciences”, Inference Review.  For a long time they hid their editorial board. To what end, I don’t know. Maybe they were embarrassed that Berlinski was involved. (I certainly would be.) But now they have come out and admitted that Berlinski is a “Contributing Editor”. The other people involved are

Steven Wheeler
Executive Editor

Maud Kozodoy
Senior Editor

Hortense Marcelin
Managing Editor

Hélène Cambour
Marketing Director

Jean-Michel Gruet
Caricaturist

Well, at least we know now who is responsible for the appalling and grotesque caricatures.

The editors claim “We have no ideological, political, or religious agendas whatsoever.” If you believe that, I’ve got some intelligently designed real estate to sell you. For god’s sake, their latest “issue” has an article by James Tour.

What a joke.

Hat tip:  GB.

# The Brain and Computation

Further to my previous posts about the brain being a computer, take a look at this special semester at the Simons Institute at Berkeley:  The Brain and Computation. Note the very high quality of the people involved, and the unashamed analogy between brains and computers.

# Beating the Dead Horse of Intelligent Design

The funniest thing about this new interview of Bill Dembski is not that it’s conducted by Sean McDowell, who has a “Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary” and is the son of the well-known evangelist Josh McDowell.

It’s not that McDowell doesn’t ask him a single probing question.

It’s not that Dembski reveals he has a new book on intelligent design coming out, co-authored with the illustrious Robert J. Marks II; the table of contents can be found here.

It’s not that Dembski still doesn’t understand that the source of information in biology is well-understood biological processes such as mutations, recombination, gene duplication, and gene transfer.

No, the single funniest thing is that Dembski points to his nearly-dead, on-its-last-legs vanity journal Bio-Complexity as one of the ID movement’s greatest scientific successes.

As I’ve pointed out beforeBio-Complexity is a great example of the utter intellectual vacuity of intelligent design. Despite having an editorial board of 31 people, in 2014 the journal managed to publish exactly 1 research article and a total of 4 papers. In 2015 they published a total of 2 papers. In 2016 so far they’ve published exactly 1 paper. (At that rate, in 2017 they’ll publish half a paper.)

Wow! That is a research record to be very proud of! It really shows that intelligent design is fruitful, and inspiring top-quality research from scientists all over the world! The only downside is all the hard editorial work that needs to be done by those 31 members of the editorial board. Why, if they didn’t have to spend all their time reviewing papers, they might be publishing some intelligent design research of their own. Truly, it’s a scientific success.

# Robert Marks: Two Years Later, Still No Answer

One characteristic of creationists is their unwillingness to follow the usual academic norms. To name just a few things:

1. While a tiny fraction of them publish papers in legitimate peer-reviewed academic journals, they typically do not publish their creationist views or evidence for creationism and intelligent design in such journals. Instead, they invent their own bogus journals, which then struggle to stay afloat for lack of acceptable submissions. Do any of you remember Origins and Design? I think it died around 2000. Do you remember Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design? It died around 2005. Now the intelligent design crowd has Bio-Complexity, but it has published only one paper so far in all of 2016. It, too, is headed for death.
2. They typically do not present their creationist views at legitimate peer-reviewed conferences. The few exceptions seem to be closed, invitation-only conferences devoted only to creationism or intelligent design. You do not see, for example, William Dembski (the supposed “Isaac Newton of information theory”) presenting his work at the top information theory conferences, such as the IEEE International Symposium on Information Theory.
3. They inflate their credentials.
4. They hold meetings at universities by renting space and then suggest or imply that the university somehow sponsored their meeting. The 2011 “biological information” meeting at Cornell is an obvious example.
5. They are prone to making public claims that they are not willing to justify.

The illustrious Robert J. Marks II, professor at Baylor University, is an example of this last characteristic. Back in 2014, he made the following claim: “we all agree that a picture of Mount Rushmore with the busts of four US Presidents contains more information than a picture of Mount Fuji”. I wanted to see the details of the calculation justifying this claim, so I asked Professor Marks to supply it. He did not reply.