The Null Device

Mind hacks for quiz games

Cognitive neuroscience researcher Ogi Ogas describes how he used techniques from neuroscience to win a quiz show, getting questions he did not consciously know the answer to:
Cognitive models developed by my advisor Gail Carpenter suggest that a more effective way to evaluate an intuition is to consider its mnemonic associations. If you can mentally trace some of the cognitive links of an intuition (through a process similar to priming), these links may suggest whether the intuition is meaningfully connected to the correct answer or whether the link is trivial, incidental, or wrong. For example, given the question "Bucharest is the capital of what European country?", you might have an intuition that the answer is Hungary, because the actual capital of Hungary--Budapest--sounds like "Bucharest" and is thus unconsciously linked. In this case, naively following your unexamined intuition would lead you away from the correct response: Romania.
My $250,000 question presented me with a case of pure intuition. "The department store Sears got its start by selling what specific product in its first catalog?" Since pop culture esoterica and business origins are outside my domains of interest, I did not know the answer. But for some reason, even before the four possible answers appeared, I thought of watches. When "watches" turned up as one of the choices, I reflected on it further. I did not feel any certainty. But why did my brain come up with "watches?" ... As I concentrated on my watch intuition, I began to think about railroads. My brain's memory pattern of watches was somehow linked to a memory pattern of railroads, and my railroad memory also evoked a memory of Sears. Though I still could not work out the explicit connection between watches and Sears, I satisfied myself that "watches" had some deep mnemonic relationship to both railroads and Sears--perhaps at some point in my life I had read that Sears originally delivered their watch catalogs by railroad?
Later, in the tranquility of my apartment, I discovered that 23-year old railroad station agent Richard Sears sold watches to other station agents along the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway for a full year before meeting up with Alvah C. Roebuck. I never did discover how this obscure factoid had left its faint trace upon my brain.

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