Saturday, January 3, 2009

Book Review: "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell

By its own admission, Blink is a book about the first two seconds after you observe something for the first time. This book is full of interesting (indeed, often fascinating) anecdotes about how certain people viewed something and almost instantly "knew" key things about it—whether artwork was fake, perhaps—or whether these first moments were befuddled by bias and confusion.

There are three things I would like to note about this very readable and interesting book:

1) According to the final pages, there are two lessons. The first I will quote: "...we are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. We don't know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don't always appreciate their fragility." The second comes in the next paragraph: "Too often we are resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye. It doesn't seem like we have much control over whatever bubbles to the surface from our unconscious. But we do...." Most of this book gives examples of both.

2) In the various examples throughout, it is the experts—those with a deep knowledge and understanding about their topic of expertise—who typically come up with the correct initial conclusion in those first two seconds...yet generally cannot quickly explain to others a "rational" explanation for it. The art expert instantly recognizes a fake...but can't immediately put his finger on why it is fake. The military commander who knows what maneuver must be made in the next moment...yet cannot explain the choice or decision until well after it is done. I found it interesting that in my case, as a math teacher, I can spot an erroneous answer on a homework paper almost instantly...but I often need to review the entire problem before I can nail it down.

3) This kind of cognition also applies to the identification of quality/popular music; examples from both current popular genres and symphonic orchestra are given.

I found these last two points to be particularly interesting. It also gives me more confidence to trust the insights of someone who is an objective expert in a particular field.

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