Analysis and Ignorance

A common theme on this blog is the need for better information analysis capabilities. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the observation, which is probably why I keep running into stories that seemingly confirms the challenge we’re facing. A little while ago, Boing Boing pointed to a study on “visual working memory” in which the people who did well weren’t better at remembering things than other people – they were better at ignoring unimportant things.

“Until now, it’s been assumed that people with high capacity visual working memory had greater storage but actually, it’s about the bouncer – a neural mechanism that controls what information gets into awareness,” Vogel said.

The findings turn upside down the popular concept that a person’s memory capacity, which is strongly related to intelligence, is solely dependent upon the amount of information you can cram into your head at one time. These results have broad implications and may lead to developing more effective ways to optimize memory as well as improved diagnosis and treatment of cognitive deficits associated with attention deficit disorder and schizophrenia.

In Feedback and Analysis, I examined an aspect of how the human eye works:

So the brain gets some input from the eye, but it’s sending significantly more information towards the eye than it’s receiving. This implies that the brain is doing a lot of processing and extrapolation based on the information it’s been given. It seems that the information gathering part of the process, while important, is nowhere near as important as the analysis of that data. Sound familiar?

Back in high school (and to a lesser extent, college), there were always people who worked extremely hard, but still couldn’t manage to get good grades. You know, the people who would spend 10 hours studying for a test and still bomb it. I used to infuriate these people. I spent comparatively little time studying, and I did better than them. Now, there were a lot of reasons for this, and most of them don’t have anything to do with me being smarter than anyone else. One thing I found was that if I paid attention in class, took good notes, and spent an honest amount of effort on homework, I didn’t need to spend that much time cramming before a test (shocking revelation, I know). Another thing was that I knew what to study. I didn’t waste time memorizing things that weren’t necessary. In other words, I was good at figuring out what to ignore.

Analysis of the data is extremely important, but you need to have the appropriate data to start with. When you think about it, much of analysis is really just figuring out what is unimportant. Once you remove the noise, you’re left with the signal and you just need to figure out what that signal is telling you. The problem right now is that we keep seeing new and exciting ways to collect more and more information withought a corresponding increase in analysis capabilities. This is an important technical challenge that we’ll have to overcome, and I think we’re starting to see the beginnings of a genuine solution. At this point another common theme on this blog will rear its ugly head. Like any other technological advance, systems that help us better analyze information will involve tradeoffs. More on this subject later this week…