Nest in the city

One of the most incredible things about peafowl is how well these birds thrive in the suburbs. There were hundreds in Arcadia, CA, where I studied them, and every once in a while I hear about some other town where they’ve taken over – Orange County, Palos Verdes, Miami – they even disperse and occasionally pop up somewhere new (like here, or here). I’ve been told that in India (where the species is originally from), flocks also tend to settle down in villages. (And the name for a group of peafowl? A muster!) And peacocks are now on the cover of a book on urban birds1.

So what makes peafowl so much better at urban living than other, similar species?

It could be that they’re catholic about their diets, or that they’re tolerant of a broad range of environmental conditions2. Other research has suggested that, in mammals at least, successful invaders tend to have relatively large brains3 – possibly because a large brain confers the ability to respond flexibly to new situations. American crows fit this theory, as an urban success story with relatively large brains. But peafowl are some of the smallest brained birds out there, when you consider brain size relative to body size – and pigeons, starling and house sparrows aren’t particularly well-endowed, either. So what if it has more to do with how they use their brains to adapt?

A new study points to an intriguing benefit of city life for some birds, and it has me wondering about learning as a mode of urban adaptation. Apparently, some urban birds use cigarette butts to build their nests – and researchers have now shown that the cigarette butts actually improve the living conditions for young birds.

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The currency on campus

My article on the behavioural economics of grades is out, and it’s the cover story this month in University Affairs magazine!

I had a blast doing interviews for this story. I tried to pick profs with a reputation for being great teachers in classes that are popular despite being tough. I learned a ton talking to them, but I have to say I was disappointed that I couldn’t take this story further. I was hoping for something more conclusive about how behavioural economics could be applied to grades. We know that humans aren’t particularly rational when it comes to incentives, and grades perform a dual feedback/incentive role – and yet we have no idea how students respond to grading schemes, or whether some of the most common practices might be entirely counterproductive. In the end, I think the incentive effect of grades is something that we should be studying experimentally.

Hipsters who hunt

An update on a previous post: my good friends Martin and Vanya are the official poster boys of a new movement.

Collecting oyster mushrooms north of Kingston. Photo by Charlie Croskery.

Read about it here, as told by Vanya’s sister-in-law, Emma Marris. It’s a great article. Charlie took the photos at the Croskery farm (more here). I helped with the shoot, including costume changes and strategic placement of my shadow to avoid lens flare. It was a lot of fun. The only problem is, hipster isn’t the right word for what these guys do. Not sure what would be.

The Owl: why kids make great science writers

I finally had a chance to watch Steven Pinker’s excellent lecture on science communication this weekend. Pinker, a psychologist, linguist and top-notch writer, argues that psychology can help us tune up our writing and become better communicators.

His first point is that cognitive psychology points to the model that we should be aiming for: prose that directs the reader’s attention to something in the world that they can then come to understand on their own.

He also discusses why this is so hard to do: The Curse of Knowledge. Once you know a lot about something, it’s hard to put yourself in the mindset of your readers – i.e., the people who don’t know anything about the thing you are trying to write about. This is because it’s hard work, cognitively, to keep track of what other people know. The classic example of this is the false belief task in psychology. If you show a child a box of Smarties (the chocolate candy), and then ask him or her what might be in the box, the child will say candy. Suppose you then reveal that the box actually contains something else – coal. Then close the box and ask the child what another person would think is inside. A 7 year old will correctly say candy, but a child younger than 4 or so will claim that others would think it contains coal. Up until about age 4, we don’t seem to grasp that other people can have false beliefs about the world. Pinker’s point is that this ability – also known as theory of mind – isn’t a cut and dried thing that we suddenly achieve at age 4. It’s a sophisticated skill that proves to be a challenge even for adults.

His advice on writing? It’s pretty standard stuff. Pinker enlists his mom – or in other words, an intelligent reader who just happens to not know a lot about his particular topic already. His other point is to take a break from your writing before you edit, to give yourself time to shift away from the mental state you were in when you wrote it. You can also read your work aloud, since that seems to engage a different mental state as well (I wonder why?). It makes me wonder whether there is anything we can do to harness this mind reboot effect more efficiently. Say you don’t have a lot of time and your mom is not available. How can you reset your brain on demand? I’m thinking of a 20 minute nap, reading some fiction, or doing some physical exercise before editing your paper – which is best? I imagine this is something that cognitive neuroscientists will be able to tell us pretty soon.

Pinker ends with some sage advice: most good writers learn by example. So find a bit of writing that you admire, and try to figure out what makes it great. His choice? The short essay called “The Owl”. It’s remarkable for its clarity and worth checking out in the video below:

If only it was that easy for the rest of us to escape the curse of knowledge.

You can watch the whole lecture by Steven Pinker here. (The Owl is at the 57 minute mark.)