Our Brains Don’t Hold Information as Well as We Think

Anyone who has ever misplaced their keys or their wallet knows that the brain can be a bit faulty. If you have ever been convinced you saw a snake only to find out it was a plastic bag, or if you remembered dropping a pan full of sweet potatoes as a child during Thanksgiving only to get into an argument with your brother about which one of you actually dropped the pan, then you know your brain can misinterpret signals and mis-remember events. For some reason, our hyper-powerful pattern recognition brains seem to be fine with letting us down from time to time.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write, “There’s a wide base of evidence showing that human brains are poor stewards of the information they receive from the outside world. But this seems entirely self-defeating, like shooting oneself in the foot. If our minds contain maps of our worlds, what good comes from having an inaccurate version of these maps?” 

 

The question is, why do we have such powerful brains that can do such amazing things, but that still make basic mistakes all the time? The answer that Hanson and Simler propose throughout the book is that having super accurate information in the brain, remembering everything perfectly, and clearly observing everything around us is actually detrimental to our success as a social species. Our view of the world only needs to be so accurate for us to successfully function as biological creatures. We only need senses that satisfice for us to evade predators, avoid poisonous mushrooms, and get enough food. What really drives the evolution of the brain, is being successful socially, and sometimes a bit of deception gives us a big advantage.

 

It is clear that the brain is not perfect at observing the world. We don’t see infrared wavelengths of light, we can’t sense the earths magnetic pull, and we can’t hear as many sounds as dogs can hear. Our experience of the world is limited. On top of those limitations, our brains are not that interested in having an accurate picture of the information that it actually can observe. We must keep this in mind as we go through our lives. What can seem so clear and obvious to us, may be a distorted picture of the world that someone else can see as incomplete. A good way to move forward is to abandon the idea that we have (or must have) a perfect view and opinion of the world. Acknowledge that we have preferences and opinions that shape how we interpret the world, and even if we are not open to changing those opinions, at least be open to the idea that our brains are not designed to have perfect views, and that we might be shortsighted in some areas. We will need to bond with others and form meaningful social groups, but we should not accept that we will have to delude our view of the world and accept alternate facts to fit in.

Our Devious Minds

We now realize,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky – they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible pro-social motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas. As Trivers puts it: “At ever single state [of processing information] from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others – the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.

 

Recently I have been pretty fascinated by the idea that our minds don’t do a good job of perceiving reality. The quote above shows many of the points where our minds build a false sense of reality for us and where our perceptions and understanding can go astray. It is tempting to believe that we observe and recognize an objective picture of the world, but there are simply too many points where our mental conceptualization of the world can deviate from an objective reality (if that objective reality ever even exists).

 

What I have taken away from discussions and books focused on the way we think and the mistakes our brain can make is that we cannot always trust our mind. We won’t always remember things correctly and we won’t always see things as clearly as we believe. What we believe to be best and correct about the world may not be accurate. In that sense, we should doubt our beliefs and the beliefs of others constantly. We should develop processes and systems for identifying information that is reasonable and question information that aligns with our prior beliefs as much as information that contradicts our prior beliefs. We should identify key principles that are most important to us, and focus on those, rather than focus on specific and particular instances that we try to understand by filling in answers from generalizations.

Advice Doesn’t Help Us Generate Knowledge

As you would expect, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is all about how to be a more effective coach. Part of becoming a more effective coach involves understanding how the brain works so that you can understand how the people you coach are going to learn and react in certain situations. To help demonstrate the importance of knowing how the brain works, Bungay Stanier references Josh Davis and his colleagues from the NeuroLeeadership Institute and their model known as “AGES”. Specifically, Bungay Stanier focuses on the “G” from AGES.

 

G stands for Generation, and commenting on knowledge generation, Bungay Stanier writes, “Advice is overrated. I can tell you something, and it’s got a limited chance of making its way into your brain’s hippocampus, the region  that encodes memory. If I can ask you a question and you generate the answer yourself, the odds increase substantially.” What is important here is understanding that we create memories and generate our knowledge in an active process. Learning and creating knowledge are not passive processes. We don’t sit in a sea of information and passively absorb new lessons and knowledge as tides of information wash into our brains. Instead, we hunt down the specific information we need or want (or sometimes we inadvertently pursue it) and emotion and engagement pull the knowledge into our minds.

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Quoting the NeuroLeadership Institute, Bungay Stanier writes, “When we take time and effort to generate knowledge and find an answer rather than just reading it, our memory retention is increased.” The chance of us remembering something a professor says, or something we hear on TV, or the advice our parents give us is not great when it is just verbally directed toward us. If we truly seek out the information, if the information is presented to us in a way that forces us to be more engaged to get the answer we need, and if we have to truly use the faculties of our mind to find meaning, reason, and truth, then we will have a more powerful connection to the knowledge. We will generate new information in our brain and become more knowledgeable than we would if the information was simply presented to (or at) us.