Up to this point we have been examining the "big picture" from a historical point of view. We have looked at the rise and fall of great civilizations in terms of a biological imperative caused by the slow rate at which the human brain can evolve and the rapid rate at which complexity accelerates. This discrepancy eventually causes the human brain to begin lagging behind. When this occurs we approach a cognitive impasse where navigating even everyday life situations begins to feel difficult.
Take me for example.
Yesterday I was invited to speak to a class at Stanford University. The person who invited me provided excellent directions so I was able to quickly locate the parking lot where I was instructed to leave my car.
But from there things went downhill fast.
I needed to locate "room 335 in the Y2E2 building next to the parking lot." So I parked my car and began walking around. It had to be nearby. I walked and walked. No Y2E2. Not anywhere. I checked every building, even those remotely near the parking lot — no Y2E2. Finally, I stopped a fellow who looked like he taught at Stanford — he pointed to the building my car was facing. "Right there," he smiled. As I walked to the entrance of the building I looked for Y2E2, but this is what I found instead: Yang and Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building. Two Ys and two Es, ergo Y2E2.
Now, I don't know about anyone else, but that wasn't obvious or intuitive to me as I was traipsing around the Stanford campus in 90 degree weather with a bag of books and a computer. But it was an excellent example of what I mean about complexity in our daily lives — how unaware I am that the struggle to keep up with little things like a nickname for a building is wearing me down.
In yesterday's blog I described how short-term mitigation strategies can be used to temporarily bridge the gap between the brain and complexity. For example, high-failure-rate models are effectively used by venture capitalists when winners cannot be separated from losers no matter how much due diligence is performed. When the problems we must solve become too complex and we become unable to separate the solutions that will work from those that will not, then, like venture capitalists, we must deploy many solutions in tandem, while making an accommodation for high rates of failure and therefore waste.
Mitigations, such as models for high failure rates, buy us time, but they should not be confused with a permanent cure. Unfortunately, very often today they are. For example in California, where I live, we have been struggling with drought conditions for several decades and now believe that conservation measures alone will see us through. Last year I watched my yard turn brown as my water bill quadrupled — it was a sobering experience. When I attend water board meetings and try to explain that conservation is not a permanent solution because one day, like the Mayans, we will not be able to conserve less than zero when the rains stop, experts scoff and tell me to go home and buy drought tolerant plants.
Scientists, from Steven Chu, now the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, to the leaders of virtually every international climate organization, agree that a catastrophic drought in the western United States is inevitable. It has happened before and it will happen again. Yet we continue to delude ourselves that if we take shorter showers and don't ask for fresh towels at hotels we have licked the problem.
By the same token, mitigating by using models for high failure rates is also a temporary solution. If the brain is susceptible to lagging behind accelerating complexity, then the only permanent solution is to improve our ability to load content so we can manage highly chaotic, dynamic problems.
Today's neuroscientists are on the cusp of understanding how the human brain responds to complexity that exceeds the left and right brain problem-solving methods we have evolved over many millions of years. Recently, they have discovered a third problem-solving method ideally matched to problems which, at first blush, may feel too complicated to solve. In rare circumstances, a process called "insight" takes over. A small part of the human brain called the aSTG "lights up like a Christmas tree" approximately 300 milliseconds before we use insight to cut through billions of possibilities and make a novel connection. Out of this new connection comes an accurate, elegant, and brilliant solution. These insights arrive suddenly and without warning. Think of Archimedes watching water spilling over the sides of his bathtub and shouting "Eureka!" or Newton sitting under an apple tree when an apple hit him on the head. Both were examples of spontaneous "insight" at work.
Ideally we would cultivate insight-on-demand to navigate the complex world we now face. But we don't know enough about this revolutionary form of problem-solving, used so infrequently by the brain today to be able to induce it. The truth is we know very little about insight other than that it is a naturally occurring process which has been observed in ALL human beings. We know insight is a biological capability all humans possess. But why do we use it so infrequently? And if our ability to survive is now dependent on our ability to navigate complexity, why aren't our brains adapting by utilizing insight more and more frequently?
According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leading neuroscientist at UCSF Medical Center, we can facilitate the brain's ability to function better by preparing the brain to learn and to solve problems, similar to the way that marathon runners stretch and warm up before a race. Merzenich has produced a suite of brain fitness tools specially designed to make loading and retaining content easier and problem solving more efficient. The empirical evidence Merzenich has amassed proving that these tools work is so overwhelming it makes me wonder why everyone in Washington, D.C., isn't required to start the day out with 20 minutes of brain fitness before tackling the world's most difficult problems.
More on brain fitness tomorrow...