The human mind created all this, and therefore it stands to reason that the human mind must be a super-charged supercomputer powering the progress of civilisation. Spinoza, the German philosopher, said in Proposition 23 of Ethics, “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but there remains of it something which is eternal.” His exaggerated faith in the human mind was symptomatic of the era he lived in (1632 to 1677).
And what of our brain, that physical human organ that is closely related to our intangible mind? The mind might truly be without limits, but psychologists have shown us over the past 10 years that there is a gulf between our perception of how powerful our brains are and their true abilities.
Everyone agrees that traffic sucks. But here’s the problem: over the past 50 years, urban planners across the world have struggled to predict traffic flows, in spite of sustained efforts to do so. The difficulty stems from two distinct factors: the lack of systematic and accurate data on traffic flows across entire cities and the diversity of drivers’ self-adaptive decisions with regards to the routes they take.
To complicate matters further, the advent of GPS has made these decisions even more self-adaptive. Last year we took Jogeshwari Vikhroli Link Road to go to IIT Bombay for the Mood Indigo festival because Google Maps told us so. But Google Maps also told the same thing to another 150 people. The result? By the time we reached the college, our friends, who took the Eastern Express Highway had already arrived.
The traffic problem
Complex traffic flows are like the complex neural networks in our mind. Vanilla or chocolate ice cream, mid-cap or small-cap stocks, route 1 or route 2—there’s a battle royale raging in the different factions of your brains over simple decisions. Understanding this chaotic complexity of the brain—and abandoning the computer-related analogies of the brain—is central to coming to terms with its strengths and weaknesses. Neuroscientist David Eagleman describes these neural wars vividly in his book The Brain: The Story of You:
Imagine you’re making a simple choice, standing in the frozen-yoghurt store, trying to decide between two flavours you like equally. Say these are mint and lemon. From the outside, it doesn’t look like you are doing much…But inside your brain, a simple choice like this unleashes a hurricane of activity.
By itself, a single neuron has no meaningful influence. But each neuron is connected to thousands of others, and they in turn connect to thousands of others, and so on, in a massive, loopy, intertwining network. They’re all releasing chemicals that excite or depress each other.
Within this web, a particular constellation of neurons represents mint. This pattern is formed from neurons that mutually excite each other. They’re not necessarily next to one another; rather, they might span distant brain regions involved in smell, taste and your unique history of memories involving mint.
At the same time, the competing possibility – lemon – is represented by its own neural party. Each coalition—mint and lemon—tries to gain the upper hand…They fight it out until one triumphs in the winner-take-all competition. The winning network defines what you do next.
If choosing an ice cream flavour stresses so many neurons, do you actually think you understand this article while responding to pings on WhatsApp? In fact, research has now conclusively shown that the brain cannot multitask—we can only think one thought at a time.
In his path-breaking book The Mind is Flat, Nick Chater of the Warwick Business School shows that while doing something routine and well-practised, humans can do two things at once, like driving and talking. However, when anything non-routine is introduced (such as driving and thinking through the budget for your next holiday), then multitasking becomes really difficult. Chater says:
Most of the things that we find are reasonably challenging we can only do one at a time. We think we are multitasking but in fact we are jumping from one task to the next quite rapidly, something we don’t have to do if we practice. If we practice we get very fluent at something and it requires almost no mental effort, like driving and listening to the radio.
When you are trying to strain your memory or when we have to do something remotely difficult we have to stop doing something else… Mental and physical energy is more connected than you imagine. We can’t keep mental processes entirely separate from each other. If we are doing routine things that is fine, but if we do something non-routine suddenly other parts of the brain start to engage and interfere with routine things like walking.