Thursday, June 9, 2011


It's hard to be discouraged about anything when you spend a little time reading about the human brain--not only what it's capable of, but what it does simply on a daily basis, in the most mundane circumstances, just hanging around.

I will never again feel like an underachiever.  Do you have any idea how many neurons need to be fully engaged and firing at lightning-fast speeds simply for me to yawn and stare out the window?


I've been reading John J. Medina's book Brain Rules.  It's a fast read with all kinds of interesting brain anecdotes and information.

Like the fact that, if you're going to drive and talk on the cell phone, you might as well consider yourself driving while intoxicated.

That's how well cell-phone talkers perform on tests of driving ability.  ALL of them and all of the time.  So if you're doing it, no, you're not one of the anointed, special people who simply can, somehow.

You're just in serious denial and you're jeopardizing the rest of us. 

It's a well-documented fact: the brain cannot multi-task when it comes to paying attention.

The brain processes input sequentially.  Yes, you can walk and chew gum or sing and stir soup.  But those activities aren't processed in the same way as an activity--like driving or reading--that requires paying attention to input.

And no, you can't change the way your brain processes tasks: as Medina points out, "We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously" (85). 

That means you, me, all of us.

We're "BIOLOGICALLY INCAPABLE."  So give it up, all of you driving, cell-phone-talking proponents of your own superior brain-activity.

Unlike schmucks like me, who freely admit that we can't pay attention to two things at once, all you're doing is increasing the likelihood that you'll get into an accident.

As in, 10x more likely. 

I mean, really.  Use your brain.  And use it the way God and Nature intended: by sequentially processing attention-rich inputs.

What is also really fascinating to me is what's called "the binding problem."  Medina describes a woman who suffered a stroke that left her incapable of using written vowels.  She would write sentences that would have only the consonants of words.

But what's even more bizarre is the fact that she would leave spaces where the vowels were supposed to be.

This means that her brain had stored the knowledge of vowels in one region, but had stored the information about where vowels should go in words in another area entirely.  She knew where the vowels should go, but she no longer knew how to fill them in because she no longer knew what written vowels were (Medina, Brain Rules, 105).

This example highlights the binding problem.  If all kinds of bits of information are scattered throughout the brain, how do we perceive the world as a unified and continuous whole?  As Medina notes, "We have no idea how the brain routinely and effortlessly gives us this illusion of stability" (105).

Add to this the fact that, as Medina postulates in Brain Rule #3, "Every brain is wired differently."  Medina uses a really helpful analogy:
We have the neural equivalents of large interstate freeways, turnpikes, and state highways.  These big trunks are the same from one person to the next, functioning in yours about the same way they function in mine.  So a great deal of the structure and function of the brain is predictable... (63)
But when it comes to "the smaller routes--the brain's equivalent of residential streets, one-laners and dirt roads ...the individual patterns begin to show up.  Every brain has a lot of these smaller paths, and in no two people are they identical.  The individuality is seen at the level of the very small, but because we have so much of it, the very small amounts to a big deal" (63).

But NO, you still can't drive and talk on the cell phone.  Those are activities carried out via the neural freeway, not your individual dirt roads.

I think the brain's uncanny ability is implicitly showcased really well by this March 31, 2011 article by Roy Furchgott in The New York Times Business Section about OnStar and voice recognition software installed in cars: "GADGETWISE; Checking In With Facebook, Both Hands on the Wheel."  

Setting aside the fact that I really don't know what to make of someone who feels that they have to check Facebook or upload a status update from their car while driving (especially since checking Facebook while driving = talking on a cell phone while driving = downing a bottle of Jim Beam while driving), I think the fact that we can't get voice recognition software right says a lot about what our brains do so simply on a daily basis--namely, make sense of the world around us in myriad ways and at super-fast speeds.

A friend of mine had voice-recognition software that was supposed to enable her to make calls from her car simply by saying "Call home" or "Call Katie." Supposedly, the driver could also play music: just name that tune, and the software would play your CD or MP3 or whatever for you.

Basically, my friend discovered that even when she enunciated the words, "CALLL  HOOOMMMME" as loudly and distinctly as she possibly could, it would respond, "I do not understand this command."

She wasn't sure which was more frustrating, being unable to get the thing to phone home or being unable to listen to Aerosmith during a long commute.

She confessed that she and her husband began telling it, "GO FUCCCKK YOURRSELLLFF," just because.

She said, "I know it's childish, but that stupid thing is really frustrating."

I think the functioning of the human brain has a beauty and a purity unmatched by technology.  We need to take the time to watch ourselves in action and simply marvel at what we do.

So, as Alanis advises, "Let's grease the wheel over tea/ Let's discuss things in confidence/ Let's be outspoken, let's be ridiculous, let's solve the world's problems...".

Love you when you dance.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."