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Hunters of Myths: Why Our Brains Love Origins

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A stylized apple with a bite taken out of its right side: chances are, even if you don’t own a single Apple product, you would still recognize the ubiquitous logo. But have you ever paused to consider the symbol’s origin?

The logo's rainbow represents color bars on a screen. Image credit: Marcin Wichary, Creative Commons.

Perhaps it’s Adam and Eve and the quest for knowledge, the apple a symbol of new discovery, with subtle undertones of lust for ever-growing innovation. Or maybe, Isaac Newton, sitting under an apple tree when the apocryphal falling fruit prompted his theory of gravity. Or maybe, it’s another story entirely: that of Alan Turing, the shy British mathematician who is embraced as the founding father of computer science and artificial intelligence both.

Two years after Turing was tried for indecency for a romantic liaison with a 19-year-old male—the exact same charge, incidentally, that was levied against his compatriot Oscar Wilde in 1895, over half a century earlier—and then forced to undergo hormonal therapy to temper his “indecent urges” (the effective equivalent of male castration), he committed suicide—by biting a cyanide-laced apple. Body and apple both were found the next day. Turing was just two weeks shy of his 42nd birthday.

Turing was a brilliant man. He was instrumental to breaking the Nazi’s Enigma Code during World War II, an advance which shortened the war by any number of years. He put forth the vision of the “universal computing machine”—then nothing more than an abstract concept—that served as the inspiration and blueprint for the development of the computer. He was the eponymous creator of the Turing Test, which marked the dawn of Artificial Intelligence. And all this, in just four decades of life. What better person to choose as the inspiration for a company based on visionary innovation, a force that forges ahead in its own idiosyncratic fashion regardless of public opinion? And the imagery of the rainbow stripes inside the original logo—could it be any more perfect?

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t hold up. None of them do. The symbol was a creation of the mind of one art director, Rob Janoff. The tale of Turing as inspiration was never and had never been true. (In fact, Janoff had never even heard of Turing when he began work on the design.)

But that’s not the interesting part. What’s more striking to me is that Steve Jobs never denied the  story of Turing-as-muse, even when asked about it head on. Instead, he just looked enigmatic.*

Did Turing inspire Jobs's logo? Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Why did Jobs choose to keep silent, when it would have been so easy to respond? Why did he let the rumors keep circulating, the questions keep coming?

Jobs, it seems, understood intuitively an important facet of our minds: we like to know where things come from. We like stories. We like nice tales. We need our myths, our origins, our creations. It would be disappointing to know that the apple was nothing more than an apple—and the bite, a last-minute addition to clarify scale, so that it was clear that we were seeing an apple and not a cherry. And that rainbow? A representation of a screen’s color bars, since the Apple II was the first home computer that could reproduce color images on its monitor.

How boring. How much of a letdown. Far better to have a story—and the better the story, the better for us.

So uncomfortable is it for us if something doesn’t have a cause that we strive to determine one, one way or the other, even absent the necessary evidence. In other words, no one even needs to suggest that Turing may have inspired the Apple logo for us to come up with that explanation—or another one, for that matter, should our brain decide something else works best at the moment—spontaneously. As philosopher David Hume observed in 1740, “Causality is the cement of the universe.”

Psychologist Tania Lombrozo argues that such impromptu causal explanations are critical to our everyday cognition. They contribute to improvements in learning. They can foster further exploration and idea generation. They can help us form coherent beliefs and generalize about phenomena—and then use those beliefs to understand, predict, and control future occurrences and, in turn, form new beliefs. Gestalt psychologist Fritz Heider put it this way: “If I find sand on my desk, I shall want to find out the underlying reason for this circumstance. I make this inquiry not because of idle curiosity, but because only if I refer this relatively insignificant offshoot event to an underlying core event will I attain a stable environment and have the possibility of controlling it.”

Explanations can even enhance our own comprehension: when we explain something to someone, we understand it better ourselves. It’s called the self-explanation effect and has been demonstrated numerous times in the real world. For instance, students who explain textbook material perform better on tests of that material than those who study it twice. Students who are trained in self-explanation perform better on math problem-solving tests—and are better able to learn new mathematical concepts. And how’s this for a story: when Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman passed away in 1988, after a struggle with cancer, these words graced his blackboard: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” His final injunction to his students and the world.

Richard Feynman's final blackboard. Image copyright: Caltech.

But explanations may need no further explanation, so to speak, than themselves:  they are just inherently so very satisfying. In fact, development psychologist Alison Gopnik has proposed that coming up with explanations may be so fulfilling in its own right that it motivates us to engage in more substantial reasoning. She compares the effect to that of an orgasm, writing “From our phenomenological point of view, it may seem to us that we construct and use theories in order to achieve explanations or have sex in order to achieve orgasm. From an evolutionary point of view, however, the relationship is reversed: we experience orgasms and explanations to ensure that we make babies and theories.”

Explanation is natural, just as it is spontaneous. Children as old as eight give explanations for all matters of phenomena as a matter of course. Lombrozo calls them promiscuously teleological: explaining things by the purpose they serve instead of digging deeper for meaning (i.e., they are more likely to say that a mountain exists to be climbed and not because of some geological forces that happened to shape the earth a certain way). And we never really outgrow this childhood tendency—in fact, we revert to it if we suffer cognitive decline, with diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and even if we are simply feeling stressed or distracted. When in doubt, our brain takes the easiest route to determining causality, and it does so quickly and authoritatively.

Children are 'promiscuously teleological.' Image credit: Mike L. Baird, Creative Commons.

Some types of explanations are more satisfying to our minds than others. Simpler ones, as a rule, win out over more complicated: We will take the more direct of two equally good explanations—and may even overturn a slightly better but more complex one for a slightly worse but more straightforward one. And the more coherent, the more story-like and narrative-driven, the better – especially if it also explains a number of factors at once. To go back to the Apple logo, the Alan Turing story is the most intuitively appealing because it has more of a narrative arc and can account for elements that are missing from both the Adam and Eve and the Newton explanations: the rainbow, in both cases, and the bite in the latter.

***

Steve Jobs’s silence was truly perceptive. Sometimes, it’s just better to let natural human tendencies take over and start weaving tales, true or not, that will help people understand and relate to you better than anything you say ever could.

Consider the ending of this 2007 piece on Turing at The Guardian:

But my favourite tribute to Alan Turing may well be staring you in the face. Although never officially acknowledged, the Apple computer logo is often presumed to be not a reference to Adam and Eve, or even Sir Isaac Newton, but to the sad death of – and great debt owed to – Alan Turing.

Now doesn’t that make for a far more satisfying ending than the far more prosaic truth?

2012 marks the centennial of Alan Turing’s birth. A number of events commemorate the occasion, including the Turing Centennial Celebration at Princeton, where he earned his PhD.

*Reader Ian Watson has pointed out that in December 2011, Stephen Fry said, in an episode of the BBC’s QI XL, that Jobs did tell him that the story wasn’t true. Still, Jobs never went on record saying that; all we have is this reference to a private conversation. In public, as far as I know Jobs never debunked the myth.

Lombrozo, T. (2011). The Instrumental Value of Explanations Philosophy Compass, 6 (8), 539-551 DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2011.00413.x

Lombrozo, T. (2006). The structure and function of explanations Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10 (10), 464-470 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2006.08.004

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Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. GG 5:31 pm 04/7/2012

    Steve Jobs was a cunning, and sometimes dishonest, man. In light of that, you cannot really trust anything he said or implied. Then perhaps this “Alan Turing as a muse” story is just your own teleological concoction.

    PS – Jobs was also vegan, and for some periods he would only eat fruits…clue…

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  2. 2. teresalawrence 6:43 pm 04/7/2012

    Perhaps Janoff was just dipping into what Jung called the universal subconcious?’ Turing’s story had occurred in the world and was floating around out there in the ether. I like to think of Janoff being particularly inspired and reaching his metaphorical hand up and pulling the idea out of the sky – where all the great ideas can be found.

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  3. 3. LordDraqo 11:30 pm 04/7/2012

    I remember an interview in 1984, when Steve Jobs was discussing his intention for his computer to be used in the educational environment. He said that he had chosen to call the computer an “Apple” for the teacher. I don’t know when the “enigmatic smile” came about, though it does sound like a nice tale for the author to tell.

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  4. 4. Lionel 4:21 am 04/8/2012

    Ever heard of Snow White?

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  5. 5. driwatson 6:41 pm 04/8/2012

    Sorry, but actually this central statement isn’t correct: “But that’s not the interesting part. What’s more striking to me is that Steve Jobs never denied the story of Turing-as-muse, even when asked about it head on. Instead, he just looked enigmatic.”

    The British writer, comedian, blogger, geek and crucially friend of Steve Jobs reported in a BBC TV show QI (Series I, Episode 13), which he hosts, that “I asked Steve Jobs if the rumours [the apple logo being a reference to Turing] were true. Jobs replied, ‘It isn’t true, but God we wish it were!’ ”

    So Jobs didn’t evade the question – at least not when Fry asked him

    references are here:
    http://universal-machine.blogspot.co.nz/2011/12/qi-xl-turing-and-apple-logo.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing

    http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/tv/qi/episodes/9/13/

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  6. 6. imrational 9:50 pm 04/8/2012

    The original 1976 Apple logo was an image of Isaac Newton sitting with his back against the trunk of an apple tree with an apple, surrounded by a aura, hanging above his head.

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  7. 7. mkonnikova 6:50 am 04/9/2012

    LordDraqo: The smile refers to the logo, not the name of the company. THere is no myth surrounding the actual name.

    Lionel: That would be a funny contender.

    driwatson: Thank you for the references. I had not seen that interview, but will look. All of the sources I consulted before had said that Jobs never publicly responded.

    imrational: Yes, that is true. The redesign was from a completely fresh start, however, if you read the original interviews.

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  8. 8. Mong H Tan, PhD 4:26 pm 04/16/2012

    RE: Mythbusting Journalism 101 — First do no harm: Never attempt to insinuate more Myths (or frivolous Memes) in the 21st-century Biology and/or Psychology literature!?

    In reading the above blog, I was surprised: As a young, inquisitive, aspiring Psychology student-writer, Maria Konnikova seems to be falling a prey to the 20th-century neo-Darwinism (or geneticism, not genetics) reductionist-writing-style and erudition of Richard Dawkins, the world-renowned pseudo-genetics purveyor, who has since 1976 been advancing his reductionist rhetoric in Biology and Humanity, as his so newfound neo-Darwinist evolutionary thinking and reasoning on Everything on Earth (please see his seminal books — essentially of nihilistic pseudoscience; scientism; irrational/irrelevant metaphors, analogies; and memes or myths — The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion)! — Or, recently of Jesse Bering, a frequent SA columnist, who has had attempted to experiment and propagate his evidence-free or memetic (pseudo-linguistic) evolutionary psychology as his psychological science journalism; and been acutely criticized by another SA science-philosophy blogger and others here: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/doing-good-science/2011/12/24/science-and-ethics-shouldnt-be-muddled-or-advice-for-jesse-bering/ “Science and ethics shouldn’t be muddled (or, advice for Jesse Bering).”

    As I observed and commented elsewhere in the SA blogs before, no reductionist theories in biology and/or psychology shall be pursued nowadays by any erudite competent students, writers, at all: especially in lieu of their attempting to sensationalize and advance their uncritical and unrealized faulty (or memetic) reductionist-sophist thinking and writing in the present-day social sciences and the humanities alike; such as, one that has been reductively asserted in this blog (and I duly refuted) here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=the-power-of-theory-in-science-2011-06-15&posted=1#comment-05 “The Power of Theory in Science — RE: No reductionist theories in biology — or in psychology — please!” (ScientificAmericanUSA; June 15, 2011).

    Furthermore, Konnikova seems to be — uncritically nor objectively — pursuing a pseudoscientific evolutionary reductionist mythology, that has had been fashioned around the original Apple corporate-logo’s design (by Rob Janoff); and the enigmatic silent treatment (by Steve Jobs himself) of such an unfounded mythology as represented by this quoted query: “Did Turing inspire Jobs’ logo?” — My brief answer is Absolutely Not; and I shall elaborate more below:

    As far as I could follow and understand Jobs’ career development, creativity, and mission — since the early 1980s: as our childhood interests in electronics were quite parallel; only to differ by the fact that I managed to expand and major my interests in biology in college; and proceeded to pursue my graduate training in biomedical cancer research; quite ironically and coincidentally, the same rare cancer organ-type that Jobs in 2004 would be diagnosed of and later succumb to, at his young age of 56; at least by our baby boomers life expectancy rates and standards — I concluded that Jobs had indeed proved himself to be a very enigmatic, shrewd, and visionary electronic-gadgets innovator and entrepreneur, in the US computer-electronics industrial history!

    Why had Jobs not confirmed nor denied the query of the Turing-muse mythology: but he — shrewdly — chose to remain silent — and thus appeared enigmatic — on the Turing-muse query ever since the turn of the 21st century?

    This is because since — and by 2007 after decades of being ignored by the high academics worldwide — Turing had now been generally recognized as one of the pioneering figures in the field of the 20th-century computer science (CS) and artificial intelligence (AI) research and development (R&D) arena: The 2 electronic technology and toolkits, that Jobs had also been — coincidentally — interested in (since the early 1970s); and so Jobs committed himself — to even dropping out of college — so as to further pursue, innovate, and introduce his soon-miniaturized computing toolkits — the Apple personal computers that he and Steve Wozniak co-designed — to the general public; especially to the students and teachers for enhancing their learning experiences and education purposes: as Jobs’ initial mission and vision was indeed to make (and popularize) the dictum of Learning as easy as ABCs experience: the pedagogy which — coincidentally — begins with an A; A as in Apple, that is; and so, Apple became the Jobs’ company-logo-theme embodiment, mission, as well as vision and philosophy, so as to be — inspiringly, symbolically, and pedagogically — associated with the early education purposes of the time (circa the late 1970s)!

    As such, during this time, the young Jobs and company were probably unaware of the long-neglected mathematician and logician, the Enigma-code breaker Allen Turing (1912-1954) at all! As in the late 1970s, the CS and AI R&D programs and activities had since been advancing into creating and using the miniaturized, integrated electronic circuit-boards instead of burning the vacuum tubes and bulgy transformers, et cetera, as usual in the era of Turing and his Princeton PhD adviser John von Neumann (1903-1957)!

    Thus, it was no surprise that Jobs was dumbfounded (or appeared enigmatic) at a time when he was first (decades later since the late 1970s) being queried on the later-day-rumored controversy and speculation of the possibly and stealthy association of his company-created-logo Apple, to the Turing’s suicidal bite of his prepared-cyanide-laced apple!

    These eerily similarities in persona and scientific creativities and symbolisms in Jobs and company, and in Turing alone, were purely coincidental in nature: the globally spontaneous psycho-phenomena and drama, that had had indeed played out independently and separately in the 20th-century CS and AI academia and industrial stages worldwide! To reinterpret the Turing-muse mythology otherwise — without investigating and differentiating the original sources in context, as well as in symbolisms — is to invite, spread, and perpetuate more Myths or Memes in the 21st-century Psychology journalism or churnalism in the Science literature in general!

    Finally, one more point: By trade and training, the late Nobel physicist Richard Feynman had also proved himself to be a (pure physics) reductionist in mentality, as he duly and rhetorically summarized his own thinking and reasoning in his professional mind like this (quote above): “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

    Whereas by our own global imagination and psychology: We humans can create and understand or differentiate — as well as discriminate due to our each idiosyncratic proclivity and apprehension — anything and everything: especially one that might be perceived as a psychological shock or threat, including well-founded facts, fictions, quarks and all — especially in our each self-disciplined reflection (or recall) of facts or reality-perception; and/or fictions or memes-creation; etc — of any imagery or symbolism (including mathematics, myths, religions, etc) in each of our very active, creative, and reactive Mind, as one that I presented before here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ghosts-aliens-quantum-gravity#comment-15 “Ghosts, Aliens, Quantum Gravity, Extra Dimensions, Sci Fi–and the Rules of Science — RE: How Quantum or Particle Physics could help illuminate the Mechanisms of our Creativity, Consciousness, etc — or “Memophorescenicity” to be exact — as one that is warped in our brain-mind active and interactive processes; that gives rise to our evermore dynamic Memories of reality (including knowledge, intelligence, etc) that only we (each alone) can learn, access, create, and communicate in our both science and philosophy epistemologies, complementally and evolutionarily into the 21st century and beyond on Earth!?” (ScientificAmericanUSA; October 5, 2011).

    Best wishes, Mong 4/16/12usct3:25p; practical science-philosophy critic; author “Decoding Scientism” and “Consciousness & the Subconscious” (works in progress since July 2007), “Gods, Genes, Conscience” (iUniverse; 2006 http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000034974/GODS-GENES-CONSCIENCE.aspx ) and “Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now” (blogging avidly since 2006 http://www2.blogger.com/profile/18303146609950569778 ).

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