The human brain has created everything that exists except the natural world and yet we really do not understand how we do it. From the philosophy of Socrates to the technology of the space shuttle and the imagination that created Star Wars it all came from the brain, but what is a thought and how does one change a thought into something useful? What is knowledge, how does imagination function?
When you consider the accomplishments of human beings it is little wonder that so many believe that their trip through time was predestined, guided or inspired by some form of divinity. It’s one explanation for the unexplainable power of our amazing brains.
The fascinating PBS series, “The Brain with Dr. David Eagleman,” details the neuro-scientific exploration of the human brain. We are at the point, technologically, where we can study the brain’s connective workings and information processing. Some discoveries, excuse the expression, are mind boggling while other functions remain a mystery.
For instance, it turns out that our sense perceptions, especially vision, are often intentionally sketchy and the holes are filled in by parts of the brain that “remember” what is supposed to be there. That is why we are easily fooled when something is not as expected – we frequently “see” what we expect to see. This has some obvious disadvantages when it comes to accurate perception, but it also has a major benefit – efficiency. We can process routine visual tasks using only a small part of our brains, freeing up the rest to handle more complex assignments. It’s the ultimate in multitasking.
The concept reminds me of the story of physicist Leo Szilard, who said he conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction while crossing a London street in 1933. If Szilard’s brain was required to focus completely on the routine task of navigating where he was walking, he could not have come up with his revolutionary idea at that time.
My experiences with crossword puzzles are similar, although certainly not as significant. If I’m really stuck, I can put the puzzle down and go on to something else. I perceive that my new task has my complete attention, but even though I am not consciously thinking about it, my brain is working on the solution and many other things in the background and the answer will often come to me, then it’s back to the puzzle.
One of the most interesting segments was the way our brain processes sensory input to align the timing. An experiment involving sprinters starting a race showed that it takes longer to process visual information than audio information, but the brain can automatically delay parts of the processing so that the information – the visual and audio signals – are perceived in synchronization.
The only frustration is that so much of science is still about the how while we still don’t know the why. We have done amazingly things all assignable to our brains, but we are still dissatisfied with our accomplishments and understanding. The good news is that dissatisfaction must play a part in stimulating human thinking, so we are driven to solve that puzzle too.