My new book, “El poder de las palabras“, started in the questions we’ve always asked and probably will always keep asking. Why do we sometimes get angrier than we want to? Why do we sometimes enjoy the simplest things but other times get overwhelmed by petty issues? Why are some memories unforgettable but we sometimes forget what we wanted to remember? These questions have been the fuel of literature and fiction, but somewhat unattended by science. This book aims to bridge this gap. To reach for science in search of ideas to answer these issues that can help us steer our lives. I wrote it because I believe understanding how to change what we do, and don’t, and what we feel and are is a worthy endeavour.
‘El poder de las palabras’ can already be found in most Spanish speaking countries, where it is having a great success. Translations to other languages are on their way too.
“Las palabras hay que usarlas con cuidado” (INFOBAE)
“La soledad es tóxica, tener con quien hablar es un enorme paracaídas para la salud” – (EL PAÍS)
I wrote “El breve lapso entre el huevo y la gallina”, a series of chronicles on science topics while living in New York. Today, I see this book with great nostalgia and affection from the distance of time.
In “The secret life of the mind” I wrote about the most memorable, candid and fascinating discoveries in my voyage of 20 years in neuroscience: the mind of newborns, the reasons and lack thereof of our decisions, the consciousness and its trips, dreams, memory, learning, and from there to pedagogy and education.
“The secret life of the mind” became an international best-seller. It has been translated to English, Italian, Portuguese, French, Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian and is being translated to Chinese.
news & reviews
The Secret Life of the Mind by Mariano Sigman – (FINANCIAL TIMES)
New York times reviews of book – (NEW YORK TIMES)
La Vida Secreta de la Mente – (EL CULTURAL)
I am a physicist and a neuroscientist, mostly fascinated by questions about human nature. This mixture has been a permanent signature of my research. In my lab at Di Tella University researchers coming from the most varied disciplines mix up; computer science, medicine, physics, biology, mathematics, linguistics, anthropology, art, music… Together, we have walked through these routes:
A few years ago, neuroscience and education became a major theme in my laboratory. We have done a wide series of investigations, from more basic to more applied science. For instance, adapting ideas on how to train executive functions (memory, attention, planning…) in a series of games that, we showed, improved substantially the educational trajectories of children at a high social risk. We also measured, for the first time, simultaneously the brains of a teacher and a student during a class. With this we could identify brain signatures that could predict whether learning would be successful or not.
Neuroscience and education: prime time to build the bridge (NATURE NEUROSCIENCE)
Far transfer to language and math of a short software-based gaming intervention (PNAS)
Every day we make group decisions. In a family, among friends, in our work, in governments… Each individual has different knowledge, biases, convictions. What is the most effective way to combine these voices? And, how can a group reach a consensus in ideological topics in which there seem to be unavoidable differences? With Joaquin Navajas we have addressed these questions through collective experiments in live theaters, with crowds of thousands of people deciding simultaneously on what probably are the larger-scale live experiments conducted in psychological research.
Aggregated knowledge from a small number of debates outperforms the wisdom of large crowds (NATURE HUMAN BEHAVIOUR)
Within the fauna of human decisions, I have been particularly interested in understanding how and why we distort confidence, trust, conviction, beliefs. Why sometimes we trust blindly and others, instead, we doubt when the evidence is convincing? For example, when we go on a trip and we check over and over whether we carry the documents, as if they were going to vanish from their own will from where we left them a few seconds before.
With Ariel Zylberberg and Pablo Barttfeld we discovered that, from the simplest to the most sophisticated decisions, we jump into conclusions based on a small subset of the data. This is inevitable; no one can assimilate the entire universe of data. But the mistake we usually make is to act as if this subset of the data is all the information there is. And, hence, we inflate and distort trust.
We believe that this ubiquitous mechanism of human decisions may be at the core of why in some matters societies have become extremely polarized.
Confidence as Bayesian Probability: From Neural Origins to Behavior (NEURON PERSPECTIVE)
Variance misperception explains illusions of confidence in simple perceptual decisions (CONSCIOUSNESS AND COGNITION)
The construction of confidence in a perceptual decision (FRONTIERS IN INTEGRATIVE NEUROSCIENCE)
My friend Antonio Battro came to my laboratory a few years ago and changed it with one simple idea: he argued that neuroscience had widely focused on how the brain learns while completely ignoring how it teaches. This was particularly strange because the ability to teach is among the things makes us human, propagating culture as a highly contagious virus.
Our hypothesis is that the voracity to share knowledge is an innate drive. Everyone teaches, even young babies, even when nobody has taught us how to teach. As Chomsky suggested that we have an instinct for language; with Cecilia Calero and my admired colleague and friend Sidney Strauss we emulated this idea proposing that humans have a teaching instinct.
With Cecilia we study how, when and why children teach. How, by doing it, they forge a theory of mind and metacognition. And how these ideas can be applied to the educational practice in tutoring systems.
1. Teaching,naturally (TRENDS IN NEUROSCIENCE AND EDUCATION)
Trust is the fundamental brick in friendship, love and the base of trade and politics. When there is no trust, connections between people and societies are broken. In latin,“to break all” translates to “con” (all) and “rumpere” (break), the origin of corruption. Corruption destroys the bricks of society.
Why some societies are more corrupt tan others? With my friend and colleague Rafael Di Tella (at Harvard) and with Andres Babino, we have done experiments to ask in which circumstances and contexts, a person is more predisposed to become corrupted. And, in turn, how this spreads through societies by contagion and interactions with others.
1. Conveniently Upset:Avoiding Altruism by Distorting Beliefs about Others’ Altruism (AMERICAN ECONOMIC REVIEW)
2. Maintaining trust when agents can engage in self-deception (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sicences)
The brain is the paradigmatic example of a complex network. Over the years, this has led to a dialogue between neuroscience and graph theory. First, using graphs to decipher the global function of the brain. And, conversely, by asking how our understanding of the brain may forge a new mathematics of networks and graphs. The brain that creates mathematics to understand itself … I have walked this path with my colleagues Guille Cecchi and Hernan Makse.
1) Global organization of the Wordnet lexicon (PNAS)
2) Avoiding catastrophic failure in correlated networks of networks (NATURE PHYSICS)
3) A small world of weak ties provides optimal global integration of self-similar modules in functional brain networks (PNAS)
We may be seeing in the future a very different form of mental health, based on an automated, objective and quantitative analysis of the words we write, of the words we say.
Here is my TED talk, summarizing this research program
Automated analysis of free speech predicts psychosis onset in high-risk youths. Schizophrenia
Natural speech algorithm applied to baseline interview data can predict which patients will respond to psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. Journal of affective disorders
How can children acquire a vast universe of concepts with seemingly very little exposure? One possible solution to this conundrum, known as the Plato Problem”, builds on the human capacity to describe concepts –and more generally of all elements of thought– through the use of a symbolic and combinatorial mental language, referred as Language of Thought.
In this way we can use the combinatorial power of language to organize the space of social relations, of music, of mathematics … This idea flourished a few decades ago with Fodor and Chomsky (and my admired Borges). Today, with a completely different universe in computer science, it seems a propitious moment to revisit it. And in that we are.
The language of geometry: Fast comprehension of geometrical primitives and rules in human adults and preschoolers (PLoS Computational Biology)
I have given talks in major corporate events all over the world, on practical applications of neuroscience and experimental psychology to decision making, learning, innovation, leadership cooperation and group management.
I developed a distinctive way of presenting these topics, full of interactive experiences. This has shaped my talks as social and entertaining learning experiences where instead of just delivering knowledge from the stage, participants discover the main arguments by experiencing them from a first-person perspective. These talks are the result of my passion for experimenting as a way of learning and discovering, and an effort to bring together rigorous science and entertainment.
From my first days in science I enjoyed narrating it to others. Part of this came from a drive to disseminate and explain ideas and stories that I thought were relevant and memorable. But also, because talking to others was also an exercise of thought, a way of inquiring. This lead to a circle, stories emerge from the lab, and these stories turn into new questions which become seeds for new science. Thus, in radio, television, visual media and theatres I narrated, thought and experimented science. Here, some:
Art, like science, has been a path of experimentation. With Mariano Sardón we inquire about memory, perception, tolerance and intolerance, censorship, the past, the present and the future. The answers take the form of sculptures, videos, photos and performances. Our work travels around the world, exhibited, among others, at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow or the Fortuny Palace at the Venice Biennale.
In my talks, I always say that it is never too late to learn. With enough motivation and effort, we can change things in unimaginable ways. Even those in which we have always been clumsy, that we feel are not for us; gifts life didn’t provide us with. That is what music was for me. An unattainable desire. I was out of tune, didn’t have a rhythm, couldn’t play an instrument and hadn’t even heard a lot of music. Some years ago, wanting to be able to sing and play the guitar with my most beloved people, I decided to become the subject in a new experiment.