Brain Bugs: The Glorious Imperfections of Our Brains

A new book examines the fact that our heads contain the most advanced device in the known universe—a device that isn't perfect

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In 1876, Thomas Edison coined a term we use to this day to describe those pesky glitches, malfunctions and other deviations from the intended paths of technology:

It has been just so in all my inventions. The first step is an intuition—and come with a burst, then difficulties arise. This thing gives out and then that—'Bugs'—as such little faults and difficulties are called.

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So opens Dean Buonomano's excellent new book, Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives, which borrows the technological term to explore "the full range of limitations, flaws, foibles, and biases of the human brain." From our susceptibility to advertising and propaganda to the biases of our memory to how word choice sways our decisions, Buonomano treks across evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, neurobiology, philosophy, theory of mind, and a number of other disciplines—though, it's worth nothing, not at all in the fluffy, formulaic fashion of "Big Idea books". In the process, he reveals the intricate limitations and blessings of the most complex device in the known universe and, perhaps most fascinatingly, the trade-offs between the two: the balance of fear and curiosity, of altruism and jealousy, of the rational and the irrational.

"Who we are as individuals and as a society is defined not only by the astonishing capabilities of the brain, but also by its flaws and limitations." —Dean Buonomano

Buonomano pinpoints three central sources of "brain bugs"—our brains' evolutionary bias towards survival and reproduction; the cognitive quirks that have resulted from an imperfect and clumsy evolution process, such as optical illusions and impulsivity; and our constantly evolving environment, which forces us to adapt rapidly, in the scale of evolution, and often not in the best ways possible.

"Simply put, our brain is inherently well suited for some tasks, but ill suited for others. Unfortunately, the brain's weaknesses include recognizing which tasks are which, so for the most part we remain ignorantly blissful of the extent to which our lives are governed by the brain's bugs." —Dean Buonomano

(This phenomenon is actually called anosognosia and Errol Morris wrote a fantastic five-part series on it for The New York Times last year, one of 2010′s best longreads.)

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What makes the book all the more compelling is the lucidity with which Buonomano recognizes, amidst its weaknesses, the brain's insurmountable strengths, feats artificial intelligence is ages from reaching—most notably, its remarkable penchant for pattern-recognition and what Buonomano calls "the inherent and irrepressible ability of the brain to build connections and make associations." And whatever we may say of the future of the Internet and technology, even our most optimistic predictions pale in comparison to the remarkable information processes taking place, quite literally, under our very roofs. (And, if we're really keeping score, Buonomano points out that the brain's 90 billion neurons linked by 100 trillion synapses far surpass the web's 20 billion web pages connected by 1 trillion links.)

"The brain is an incomprehensibly complex biological computer, responsible for every action we have taken and every decision, thought, and feeling we've ever had. This is probably a concept that most people do not find comforting. Indeed, the fact that the mind emerges from the brain is something not all brains have come to accept. But our reticence to acknowledge that our humanity derives solely from the physical brain should not come as a surprise. The brain was not designed to understand itself anymore than a calculator was designed to surf the Web." —Dean Buonomano

Ultimately, Brain Bugs drives home the point that exploring our cognitive limitations and mental blind spots doesn't merely tickle our curiosity and fuel or fascination, but is also a fundamental part of our human quest for self-knowledge, for better understanding what makes us human.



This post also appears on Brain Pickings.
Top image: Dan4th/flickr. Other images: Courtesy of W. W. Norton.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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