Five days ago we started an important new dialogue — one that just might save us.
We began by looking at all of the dangerous problems we face — a worldwide recession, climate change, pandemic viruses, terrorism, debt, and epidemic autism, breast cancer, and depression — as one problem rather than individual challenges. These problems have become too multilayered, too dynamic, too chaotic, and too complex for the capabilities the human brain has evolved to this point. In fact, every civilization eventually hits a cognitive threshold and gridlock is the first sign: it becomes unable, for multiple generations, to solve its most dangerous threats. The second is the substitution of beliefs for facts wherein public policy becomes driven by unproven myths and superstitions. In today's society, we show both signs.
That said, at no time in history has there been more reason for hope. Modern man has tools and technology that ancient civilizations did not, thus the opportunity to break the pattern of human ascension and decline has never been more within reach.
In addition to technology, we have proven and effective high failure rates models for situations where the right solutions cannot be distinguished from the wrong ones (e.g., the venture capital model). What's more, we are also the first civilization to be able to look under the skull at the human brain and see what it is doing as it attempts to solve problems that are too complex for the left and right brain methods we have evolved to this point. Neuroscientists who study the brain's potential have discovered a third form of problem solving which occurs randomly and rarely but has been shown to exist in every human being. This form of problem solving is called "insight" and it is a sudden, novel connection of data that produces an ingenious solution to problems. It is a revelation to discover that insights are not the providence of Einstein, Newton, Archimedes, or Nobel Prize winners. There are millions of examples everyday of insights large and small: carpenters have them, musicians do, too, so do teachers, lawyers, housekeepers, scientists, and children. We have all experienced an "Aha!" moment, when the answer to our challenges seems to drop out of thin air.
What's amazing about these "Aha!" moments is that the answers they produce are simple, elegant, and always accurate. We immediately know the solution is correct, and so does everyone around us. That's because insights "leapfrog" conventional thinking — they represent a superior form of problem solving.
The trick is to have more of them. Insightful problem solving is one of the brain's secret reactions to complexity. Now what we must do is to help the brain function as optimally as possible to meet today's highly complex problems with a fighting chance. And when I say "we" I'm not just talking about you and me. I am talking about leaders and experts in Washington, D.C., at the United Nations, at the highest levels of nonprofits and large corporations — anywhere gridlock has begun to show itself and beliefs have begun to overshadow rational decision making.
Brain fitness is one tool we have that has now been demonstrated to prepare the brain to load content and solve problems much more easily. Practices such as those created by neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich for Posit Science should be a mandatory part of our daily health regimen. In addition to brain fitness, there are other ways to tune up the human brain. For example, simply walking on uneven surfaces causes so many areas of the brain to fire at the same time that it is one of the best cognitive warm up exercises known. The reason we were not able to teach robots to walk for such a long time — and eventually gave up and put them all on wheels — is that it takes so much horsepower to remain upright on uneven surfaces while in motion that no amount of computational power we could give a robot could prevent it from toppling over. This makes perfect sense when we look back over the history of the human organism and recognize that a third of our brains (the frontal cortex) is the direct result of becoming bipedal. No wonder our brains perform better when we walk!
There are dozens of ways to keep the human brain fit, ready to tackle the exploding complexity of our circumstances. Sadly, most of this research is locked in the back laboratories of universities. There is currently very little effort being made to give these cognitive tools to the man on the street, to leaders, and to experts, who need all the help they can get to tackle the mounting complexity of our problems. Perhaps the time has come to designate an organization whose mission is to explore "inner space" in the same way we once appointed NASA to increase our understanding of "outer space."
In the end, we have three powerful weapons against a recurring cognitive threshold. First we can mitigate to buy time using models for high failure rate. Second, we must adopt the tools now proven by neuroscientists to enable the human brain to solve complex problems more effectively. And finally, we must acknowledge that at any point in time the human organism is a "work in progress" and there are inherited limitations to the kinds of problems we can solve. As a result, the important question for the survival of all of humanity is how do we get around those limitations, not who is right and who is wrong. Why waste time pointing fingers, when everyone is hampered by the same limitations, the same biological challenges?