“I did have strange ideas during certain periods of time”
–John Forbes Nash, Jr.
During my childhood and youth, I often used to hear an intriguing assertion: “we only use 10% of our brain”, meaning that our brain has huge unexplored capacities and that we use only a tiny part of them (10% of Brain Myth). Implicit was the assumption that everybody able to harness at least part of those unexplored capacities, would be rewarded with incredible skills. It was as if we all possessed a hidden family treasure that nobody knew exactly where it was. It created a strong feeling of adventure: the quest for a promised psychological land, a cognitive Eldorado.
When I got familiar with Darwin’s theory of evolution, I started to seriously question the 10% of brain myth. Species always seem to be on the verge of extinction given the intense competitive pressures: It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. Energy in particular is always in short supply in nature. However the brain is a guzzler: it can require up to twenty per cent of the body’s energy. What for? How would something so complex and expensive have evolved in the first place, if it was not to solve very specific adaptive issues? In fact, there seems to be very down to earth reasons for the evolution of our cerebral cortex (Why we have an appetite for gossip). The myth of the powerful unexplored brain was a shocking vestige of creationism.
Our current understanding of human brain’s capabilities has radically changed. In a series of seminal articles about judgment and decision-making that culminated in the publication of their Prospect Theory in 1979, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky proved that there is no such thing as a “rational man”. Today, there is a growing body of research in experimental psychology and economics that reveals a number of systematic psychological biases – well-established and widely replicated phenomena that are exhibited by mentally healthy adults (The tragedy of Cognition). Writing and conferencing about brain limitations has even become a rewarding business activity (See, for example, Dan Ariely’s Blog). Some authors like Steven Strogatz, think that we may be approaching the End of Insight, and soon scientists will be replaced by computers (Will Robots Steal Your Job?) So, yes. I am sorry to tell you this, but our brain is very very far from the mythical 10% brain.
When you look at the very long catalogue of known cognitive biases that plague our reasoning, you may feel a shiver of uneasiness down your spine. In fact, one may reasonably ask whether we are at all in control of what we do, decide or plan; or even if the brain is but a kind of distraction in the vein of The Matrix dystopian view of human condition, whereby our consciousness would be like a TV set designed to project the brutal and random facts of life, in such a way that there appears to be a logic and we look like the protagonists. We have such a sticky capacity to empathize, specifically when we are in front of epics and heroes, that we easily feel ourselves like Sir William Wallace or Rafael Nadal, while we are simply cooking an egg with a frying pan in our hands! Does it all mean that our brain is not a valuable tool? Not necessarily.
“A Beautiful Mind” is a film based on the life of John Forbes Nash, the mathematician winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on game theory. The film directed by Ron Howard was inspired by a bestselling 1998 book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar. John Nash suffered from Schizophrenia. He struggled for years with the illness, losing his grip on reality and eventually being institutionalized. One day, John realizes that one of the imaginary characters who attempted to seize his mind cannot be real. Although years have passed since their first encounter, Marcee has remained exactly the same age and she is still a little girl. “She never gets old!”. After that, John feels he can manage to overcome his mental malady by using his own diseased mind to think LOGICALLY.
Toward the end of the film, there is a moving scene with John Nash back at the University working as a professor. While he is having a conversation with some alumni, he receives the visit of Thomas King who comes to communicate that he is going to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. John talks openly and stubbornly about his mental condition, first explaining to Thomas that he always distrusts the “new people”, and finally that:
I still see things that are not here. I just choose not to acknowledge them. Like a diet of the mind, I just choose not to indulge certain appetites; like my appetite for patterns; perhaps my appetite to imagine and to dream.
Being aware of the limitations of our brain and its tricky appetites should serve us to design a complete training programme, a diet for our mind like John Nash’s, to help us see through the mist and to tell reality from illusions and biases.
Racquet or frying pan?
Tennis is serious business. You would not dare to play the Wimbledon final with a frying pan. Reasoning may be an even more serious business, and now that you know what you actually have between your ears, you may feel ridiculous trying to hit elusive and sophisticated ideas with your clunky brain. But in a match you only need to hit and make the ball spin just a bit faster than your opponent. If he or she is human, guess what? He or she is also playing with a frying pan.
If you want to go further and impose on yourself the task of hitting the grand challenges of our time, or having a go to the mysteries of the universe… well, this is jumping out of the frying pan into the fire!