The phone is negentropic; it gets better through software. Similarly, the human head carries a brain that improves over time.
Scientists have shown again and again that the mind, like a piece of software, is elastic. We are the sum of a hundred billion neurons that strengthen through knowledge and experience. Our skull evolves within a gooey flesh.
But there has to be a cap on human acuity, surely. At some point, exponents can’t go any further. We can’t get any smarter, nor pinpoint the largest number which is infinity and beyond. Even “Moore’s Law peters out, “as microchip components reach the atomic scale and conventional lithography falters,” says computer scientist Scott Aaronson.
The chances of maxing out our neurons or counting to the last number are just as slim as downloading the entire internet; it’s an impossibility, no matter how much time, cloud space or algorithms try to lead us there.
So we remain, fulfilled but never finished, searching beyond the robot and frazzled by immensity.
We are skilled without even thinking — what Thomas H. Huxley in 1874 called ‘conscious automata’ and what American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett calls, ‘competence without comprehension’ in his new book From Bacteria to Bach: The Evolution of Minds.
Automatic pilot comes handy when we’re doing things like driving a car or reading. We need to master these things before we can do more advanced activities, like race car driving or writing.
Instead, what happens in repetitive tasks is that we forget how to feel the process. We become pre-programmed robots trained to execute learned habits.
Technology, and more specifically, artificial intelligence and Google encourage non-thinking behavior. We suspend our cognitive wiring to appease our ignorance with a click of a button. The will to learn loses out to screen pecking. As Herbert Simon once wrote, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
So if God gave us brains, why don’t we use these thinking tools to do more than share ‘memes?’
More than a hundred years ago, the father of modern neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal demonstrated that information is the output of messy internal wiring provided by the brain’s chemical synchronicity. He used his trained skills as an artist to illustrate the neuron doctrine.
He called the connection between the neural impulses synapses, the gaps between the neurons that allowed them to talk to each other. However, he couldn’t identify the synapses under the microscope like we can with 200X magnification today.
You can still walk across an invisible bridge even if you can’t physically see it there. All you need to know is that the magic is working.
Humans want wings. They want supercharged brains. They think that today’s technology can empower superhuman strength. Their desires are coming to fruition.
Technology and neuroscience will “unchain us from nature.” Ritalin kids are already a step ahead, having rewired their brains into productive machines. Normal cognition feigns interest.
Smart bodies and sharp minds promise to release us from the prison of biology. Superhuman possibilities become endless. “The merging of man and machine is well under way… We can extend the Enlightenment into our cells.”
The default state of humanity is to do nothing but compete. The world is both territorial and disorderly.
‘Coercion is natural; freedom is artificial.’ It takes energy to turn individuals into niches that make peace. It’s even harder to sustain it. Things collapse when they don’t cooperate, a psychological practice just as much as a scientific one.
“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”
The human head consists of a left brain and a right brain, each with distinct cognitive functions. The left hemisphere is known for processing logic and doing verbal and mathematical analysis while the right half excels in creativity and imagination, the visual stuff.
But the left brain holds responsibility for how we react since it’s the one that interprets. As we think, so are we. As neuroscience writer Eric Barker points out, “anxiety and depression are caused by thinking problems.” In other words, we tend to exaggerate and jump to conclusions when there’s none to be drawn. Exhibit A:
Right Brain:The boss seems agitated.
Left Brain:Better get the resume together. We’re getting fired.
Mindfulness acts as the parent-guardian to a brain in flux. It helps people take a step back from the false information they design in their heads. Polish-American scientist Alfred Korzybski once said that “the map is not the territory.” In other words, a map is an abstraction of land, a mere model of reality just as skeuomorphismmakes an icon for trash look like a garbage can. Similarly, the medium is the message.
There is no such thing as the left-right lateralization of brain function; there’s only one brain that works with the sum of its parts. Designers can be mathematicians and vice versa, as the brain may be partial to skills but impartial to sidedness. It’s how we think about ourselves and our surroundings that usually gets in the way.
In a world of abundance, we need algorithms more than ever. From movies to books, music, and resumes, algorithms intend to save us time by eliminating a lot of the possibilities up front.
The problem with algorithms though is that they remove the outlier. The things that shape you are usually outside your normal scope of interest.
Professor of engineering at Oakland University Barbara Oakley was once a linguist until she realized she could apply the same “chunking” principles to become fluent in math. Mixing subjects broadened her understanding of how discovering new things work.
Algorithms never go deeper than the prescriptive answers. They take what’s most likely of interest and give you more of that, confirming your bias.
Human discovery is less fallible than machines. Aggregated tastes or wisdom of crowds is a viable recommendation engine. But the problem with people is a lack of time–we take too long to gather content and dig through it. The machines can sort through content streams faster, and with accuracy.
We can’t afford to our put our taste in any method. The only way to balance the curators, friend recommendation, with the algorithmic engines is to go manual, staying open to the possibility of discovering something outside our standards interests. Those magazines at the dentist’s office are worth perusing.
The future of work is no work. Workers made of bits instead of human cells will occupy all the jobs. In the case of Uber, for example, “once you take the brain out of the driving, it’s just a person following a map,” explains the author Ryan Avent in his new book The Wealth of Humans.
The digital revolution is the modern day industrial revolution, except you can substitute big data and intelligent machines for human labor. Humans, like washing machines, are too abundant–supply exceeds demand.
People identify with their jobs, even if they hate them. Jobs not only give us a sense of purpose, they fill the day. No one wants to feel useless and bored. So it begs the question: when the machines are doing all the work, what are humans left to do?
Avent believes the rich will be the only ones to hire human labor, as if humans become cherishable objects like vinyl. Perhaps more people will go into the arts and put on their philosophical thinking caps again–the last ‘metaphysical club’ met in 1872. Or will government prop up manual labor like it once did to regalvanize the American automobile industry? Anything is better than twiddling our thumbs. Says Avent:
“It is disappointing to think that we’d have to create make-work for people, but it may be the hard truth.”
Writers often suggest that you type fast to get the ideas out of your head and onto the screen. This productivity hack may help you get into a flow state and achieve your daily word count, but it can also hurt the quality of your writing.
Quality > Quantity
A recent study published in the British Journal of Psychologyreveals that typing with one hand pauses the brain just enough to process more complex words and sentences. Co-author of the study Mr. Srdan Medimorec explains the benefits of slowing down the pace of your writing:
“Typing can be too fluent or too fast, and can actually impair the writing process. It seems that what we write is a product of the interactions between our thoughts and the tools we use to express them.”
If you write on your mobile device like I do, you’ll notice that you often have no choice but to type with one hand–your thumb–especially when you’re on the go. What appears to be an inconvenience improves the quality of your prose. Notes the study’s other lead Evan F. Risko:
“This is the first study to show that when you interfere with people’s typing, their writing can get better. We’re not saying that students should write their term papers with one hand, but our results show that going fast can have its drawbacks. This is important to consider as writing tools continue to emerge that let us get our thoughts onto the proverbial page faster and faster.”
The sound of one hand typing
Writing by hand shows a similar positive impact of disfluency–your pen can’t match the pace of your thoughts. The moments in-between, like deliberate interruptions, help produce more sophisticated writing. Conversely, writing too slow can make the quality of your writing worse.
The ideal writing environment therefore seems to be driven by tools (e.g. one-hand typing, analog writing, speech-to-text) that impede the pace of your output by allowing time to edit your thoughts before they get sketched onto screen or paper.