A popular myth is that you only use 10 percent of your brain. The issue then becomes whether there are brain training techniques that would enable you to double your output by doubling the brain used, or increase your memory by slotting info in all those unused spaces.
Reality is, surprise surprise, different.
A TED talk points out that we need to add a few words to the myth – we only use 10 percent of our brain at any one time. The difference is key, as over time we use it all.
According to this presenter it all boils down to energy. We struggle to pour enough power into our glucose hungry brains and if it all ran at once we would run out. Selectively turning on linked nodes, and switching which nodes we use for different tasks is an efficient way of getting things done.
Try to multi-task, though, and it starts to crumble – there isn’t enough energy for both of the tasks.
Interesting to note that modafinil and other similar brain boosters operate by tampering with the brains energy system, letting it run at a marginally faster rate, but also leaving users feeling ‘drained’ at the end of a dose. The supply is limited, so turning up usage puts a strain on the system.
Sir Roger Penrose is known for his maths. But maths reaches out into most places if you let it. So will his pal Stuart Hameroff, he proposed an idea back in the 1990s that consciousness came from quantum vibrations in the inner working of brain neurons. The idea seemed wacky at the time, but as the quantum nature of the universe, the world and everything in it has become more apparent, they two boffins recon that it’s time to revisit the idea.
In an article the journal Physics of Life Reviews, they suggest that quantum vibrations in the microtubules inside neurons could be the stuff of consciousness, and that manipulation of these vibrations could provide treatments for a range of mental, neurological, and cognitive conditions.
The whole idea is complex and intriguing, but for the moment I’m less interested in the fine details under discussion than the discussion itself.
The materialist view is that you need to find the structure that is causing consciousness, because consciousness, like everything, is just a matter of material. Finding that this but of matter vibrates in a curious manner then lays itself open to the idea that it proves the material underpinning of this intriguing phenomenon.
But the problem here is that the same vibrations could be a consequence of consciousness and not the cause. The material observations would be similar if not identical but the drivers are wholly different.
The two scientists recognise this in their piece. “Did consciousness evolve from complex computations among brain neurons, as most scientists assert? Or has consciousness, in some sense, been here all along, as spiritual approaches maintain?” ask Hameroff and Penrose. The theory is quite capable of accommodating each view.
So is consciousness a merely material thing, or a spiritual entity lived out in a physical being?
“The question is not whether we can upload our brains onto a computer, but what will become of us when we do” says neuroscientist, novelist and composer Michael Graziano in his recent blog. This sort of rubbish about uploading is so easy to write, but so difficult to evidence.
Before rushing out and getting ready to jump into his uploaded world, lets check his level of certainty. One quick things to do is look for words of uncertainty. I did a quick ‘if’ count. I spotted 20. Lets look for ‘might’. I spotted 17. How about the security of his argument. “And my best guess is: yes, almost certainly.”
It’s interesting to see that there is no technical justification behind his claim, except the statement that his is a neuroscientist who has been around for a bit, and a strong reliance on fictitious worlds presented in various movies… as if they have any bearing on reality.
The most sane comments in this page come in the comments after the piece, most of which are a refreshing breeze of common sense. Most pick the piece to pieces.
Increasing how well our brain works is one of the key goals of education systems, and for many people it is an on-going drive through life. Many careers involve a need to think more clearly that the competition, to see problems with greater clarity than others or handle more data than the opposition. There are claims that a modest increase in average IQ translates into a noticeable increase in national wealth, and national wealth has linkage with national health. So if you could find a brain boost it would be a no-brainer to use it.
An article in the Guardian eloquently shows just how far we are from achieving that.
In it, Oliver Burkeman checked out the various claims associated with products ranging from brain-food drinks, to on-line mind trainers and electrodes stuck to the head. The end outcome is that the highest achievers are controversial at best. Most are in the snake oil territory, but even the ones that have some claim for success are disputed.
For a brain booster to be worthwhile, the benefit needs to be out of dispute. If you need to have a massive population take the stuff before you can start to see a statistically significant benefit above the random noise of normal, then the effect isn’t very effective.
Interestingly the take home from the piece is that if you really want to boost the brain, then stop using tools that make life easy. Using a sat-nav soon causes you to loose the ability to map read. Using a diary makes you sloppy at remembering where you need to be. It’s just the same as driving to work will reduce your fitness to walk.
To boost the brain you need to use it. There is still no magic fix.
Artificial brains always grab attention. And the Smithsonian’s article title points to further progress. Google, with all it’s might, has pushed achievement in an intriguing direction. Image recognition is about as hard as you get for a machine, and tooling up a network of 16,000 computers so this mass capability can teach itself to spot cats is amazing.
Amazing for a number of reasons. One, that it worked, and could then go on to recognise other things as well, such as porpoises. Two, that this takes 16,000 highly capable computers to do a task that our brian does without thinking.
But it does point to possibility. We can now look at what the computre has taught itself to do, learn from that and build the next network in such as way that it can do it better, where better may be faster, more accurately, use less resources… etc.
It’s a long way from creating anything small and simple enough to be useful. It’s a huge way from creating anything that will meet or beat human flexibile capability. Note the claim was an artifical brain, not artificial intelligence…
Remember though that the first computers could do simple maths with small numbers, but occupied a shed… and now look a what you’ve got in your pocket.