Join The Dots
Why humanity’s salvation doesn’t lie on Mars but begins with neuroscience
When I was a small child I encountered a distraction called “join the dots.” The idea was simple: a page was presented with a seemingly random assortment of small dots, each of which was numbered. By drawing a line between each dot so as to connect them in the order that they were numbered, a picture would emerge.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, this game relied on satisfying the human brain’s hardwired pattern-recognition mechanisms. Over the last century, and particularly over the last fifty years, neuroscience has begun to reveal how our brains process sensory information to create comprehensible models by means of which we interpret the world we live in.
Visual stimuli, for example, are processed sequentially. As signals from the optic nerve travel through the brain, different elements are assembled. In the primary visual cortex, often referred to as V1, early processing focuses on things like orientation (vertical, horizontal) and direction of movement (left-to-right, up-to-down, etc.). At this point, the neurons in V1 are eye-specific; that is, a neuron responding to input from the right eye is unaffected by input from the left eye.
Signals then pass to V2, which responds to contours, textures, and discriminates between foreground and background by simultaneously processing signals from both eyes. Furthermore, as our brain processes these inputs there are other parts of the brain associated with memory that interact to “pattern match” familiar objects. This step-by-step process continues for visual processing and there are similar steps for everything else our brains have to interpret.
There are parts of the brain that recognize faces, interpret body language, and so on. Thus there are complex sets of interactions in which bottom-up and top-down processing occurs to provide us with a good-enough interpretation of what our sensory nerves are transmitting. While the brain does have some degree of plasticity, so that to a limited degree if one part is damaged then other parts can attempt to compensate, it’s now abundantly clear that the brain operates as a series of physical modules, each of which is specialized to perform a particular set of functions.
Our processing of sensory inputs was good enough to permit us to operate in the environments we evolved in for most of our history as a species, and we inherited most of that processing structure from our primate ancestors. Chimps, gorillas, and in fact all other mammals process inputs in much the same way that we do, with adaptations and elaborations determined by their specific environmental challenges.
It follows from the way in which the brain works that there are inevitably gaps in the model and thus gaps in our cognitive abilities. Psychologists over the last century have identified a great many of these gaps by means of simple experiments that demonstrate how partial and fallible our sense of perception truly is. A lot of work has been conducted on what’s termed “selective attention” and this reveals that our brains are rather poor at dealing with conceptual challenges such as contradictions and dual-focus tasks. We simply fail to process information from one set of inputs when we’re focusing on processing information from a different set of inputs.
In one famous study by Chabris & Simons, ordinary people acting as test subjects are shown a video of six actors passing a basketball between them. Viewers are asked to count the number of passes that occur. Most people are so focused on counting the number of passes that they fail to see a person in a gorilla suit stroll across the scene, stop briefly to thump their chest, and then walk off. Afterward, the people who didn’t notice the gorilla will adamantly insist that no gorilla was present at any time during the video clip.
This inability to cope with multiple contextual inputs simultaneously is why we’re so bad at multi-tasking, despite our fervent beliefs to the contrary. These days nearly everyone texts while driving, yet every study conducted on the topic demonstrates clearly that the brain preferentially focused on texting (perhaps because it usually has a richer set of emotional connotations) and disregards driving-related stimuli.
Several years ago I happened to be working in an organization located in Marin County, north of San Francisco, when all power to the city suddenly vanished. What had happened was this: a young man was driving south on Highway 101 in his truck, traveling at around 70mph. He wanted to insert a compact disc of the music of his favorite band into the truck’s CD player. Unfortunately, he dropped the disc and became so engrossed in the task of trying to locate it somewhere in the footwell that he completely forgot about the fact he was driving at speed. Consequently his truck left the road and slammed into a pylon that was supporting the main electrical power line for the city of Novato.
Fortunately for the young man in question, automotive engineers build in mitigation systems for such standard human incompetence and the mix of crumple zones, seatbelt, and driver airbags saved his life. In his subsequent statement to the Highway Patrol, he truthfully said, “I don’t know how it happened.”
So we perform quite poorly when faced with stimuli that force us to choose where we’ll focus our attention. We’re just as bad when it comes to our modules for processing higher-order abstractions. Once again, we need to remember that these modules evolved to be “good enough” to solve the challenges of our evolutionary environment but are frequently overwhelmed now that we’ve constructed around ourselves a far more complex and demanding world.
We are particularly poor at reasoning. A simple example will suffice:
When Mary is hungry, she likes to eat spaghetti.
Mary is not eating spaghetti right now, therefore Mary is….
A great many people respond by saying not hungry which is of course incorrect. It’s not surprising therefore that our brains struggle and often our reason fails entirely when it comes to attempting more complex conceptual tasks than simply completing a syllogism.
One particular example of cognitive limitation I’ve personally found fascinating is the way the human brain often seems unable to combine or reconcile separate concepts in a coherent manner. Many of us have had the experience of talking with a religious person who professes to “believe in” evolution because of the overwhelming evidence in support of evolutionary processes. So on the one hand they have a belief in an all-powerful invisible magical creature whose purpose includes overseeing the arrival and activities of our particular primate species, and on the other hand they accept that evolution is a highly stochastic process that has no teleological component.
Clearly these two concepts are utterly at variance with each other. Yet adequately educated religionists are perfectly able to elucidate each concept individually. What they are unable to do is to see that each concept negates the other completely. An educated religious person can profess belief in both evolution and in their particular mythological structure precisely because they have no way in which they can process the fact the two concepts are diametrically opposed. It’s a bit like believing the room is both dark and illuminated at the same time, or that a person can be starving and satiated simultaneously. Except, of course, we don’t make these more concrete types of errors because our brains are hardwired in such a way as to avoid them. We only make higher-order conceptual mistakes in which concepts are abstract rather than concrete.
For conceptual problems it is apparent we humans are often unable to join the dots so as to arrive at a single coherent image of reality. Instead, we have fragments floating around inside our conceptual space, each of which seems isolated within its own small category.
It seems to me that this phenomenon shows us something quite fundamental about the way the human frontal cortex operates. And it also seems to me that if we could understand the relevant mechanisms at work then we’d then be able to look for ways to compensate for the brain’s hardwired limitations in this regard.
As our world increasingly requires us to perform more and more complex mental processing, and as the exogenous negative consequences of inadequate processing become increasingly more severe, it’s impossible to argue that we don’t need to bother about this right now.
If we’re willing to throw trillions of dollars at a self-inflicted crisis such as has been caused by our incoherent global reaction to SARS-COV-2, surely we can spend a few million funding important research that ultimately could provide us with a way to avoid making obvious mental blunders in future, the costs of which are literally incalculable.
Neuroscience may help us to understand how to compensate, at least to some degree, for our fundamental cognitive limitations. Just as automotive engineers learned they had to compensate for the abysmal level of human driving, so we urgently need to compensate for an equally abysmal level of human reasoning.
We save a couple of million lives per year with airbags, crumple zones, seatbelts, and suchlike. How many more millions of lives would we save, and how many tens of millions more would we protect from unnecessary harm, if we were able to mitigate the effects of our innate inability to reason adequately?
Let’s hope someone’s smart enough to fund serious research into the topic of human reasoning, before it’s too late.