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Literally Psyched

Literally Psyched

Conceived in literature, tested in psychology

Hunters of Myths: Why Our Brains Love Origins

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

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