Our Brain is Not a Perfect Machine and That’s Just Marvellous
A few weeks ago I watched the Markus Lanz talk show on German TV for the first time and I was pleasantly surprised. Not just because Lanz seems to me an excellent host with a keen and probing mind but because the round of people he’d invited included the neuroscientist Henning Beck who has the knack of presenting his intriguing findings on how our human brain functions in an entertaining manner.
At the end of the evening I saw myself confirmed in my own view that learning and innovation are only possible if we allow for and accept imperfection and error. Because perfection is not always and everywhere the optimal solution for everything.
How come, you might well ask. After all, perfection is something we aspire to while mistakes are bad and therefore should be avoided. This is something we all have drummed into us at school where mistakes are marked with the red pencil and make for a poor grade. The message is clear: everything must be correct and perfect. Whether such a message is actually useful is quite another question.
What’s good about not being perfect
Nobody’s perfect and even our brain makes mistakes – a really surprising number of mistakes in fact – but this is just as it should be. In fact it’s absolutely marvellous! Our brain is no computer with a hard drive and a memory in which everything we learn, know and experience is stored in a fixed form and can be recalled at any time in exactly this form. Our brain is in continual action, linking and networking what we have permanently stored with what is new. Our memories don’t work like a “photo album” of our personal histories but rather help us to deal well and successfully with what’s new in our present. In this process our memories also forget a great deal that could afflict or impede us in our present lives without us being in the least aware of this or indeed able to influence it. Our brains continually act and react to what they find interesting. If our brains don’t find it interesting, they don’t pay attention because whatever else they are not programmed for boredom. In order to develop they love and need an incessant stream of new impulses and indeed they themselves can bring forth the new, creating new ideas and innovations.
We never see everything
It should be very obvious that mistakes happen in such a process. As an instance of this Henning Beck cited in the Markus Lanz programme an example from a film which I came across many years ago and have always used to illustrate that the seeming weakness of our perceptions are in fact one of their main strengths. This instance is known as the “Gorilla-Study“ in which the psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons showed a group of test persons a film of six basketball players running about and passing two balls to members of their group. Three of them were wearing white t-shirts, the other three black. The exercise the test persons were asked to do was to count the number of passes made by the players in white. At some point in the film an actor dressed in a gorilla costume runs across the court – an eye-catching apparition you might think simply couldn’t be missed. Yet most of the test persons failed to notice him as did the guests and the audience in the Markus Lanz programme when they were shown the film.
A strong focus is just as much of a strength as it is a weakness
Why do so many people fail to see this unmissable gorilla? Because they are so intent on counting the number of ball passes between the players wearing white t-shirts that they blend everything else out, even the gorilla. Some people do indeed recognise and watch the gorilla but by so doing are no longer capable of counting the number of passes and at the end have no idea of how many passes the players wearing white have actually made.
Our brains are incapable of focusing on both events at the same time. The attention of our brain is always directed at something particular. In terms of this something particular it may well be that the brain is perfect. And that’s an essential quality. But in terms of the overall scene, our brain is far from perfect. This is why two people looking at one and the same thing are not necessarily really seeing the same object. Knowing this and accepting this is very important not just for our understanding of what it means to be human but also for our understanding of ourselves as social beings in interaction with others and for our understanding of the world.
Mistakes help us learn, progress and innovate
How we can constructively avoid mistakes and by doing so accomplish astonishing things has been shown to us for many years now by Silicon Valley. “You can’t be innovative if you don’t experiment and keep falling flat on your face” is a defining moment of Silicon Valley culture. Each single useful outcome is marked by a great number of failures and setbacks. Get those behind you and then go on to achieve the best possible, the perfect result. Space X and Hyperloop are impressive examples of this kind of mindset.
For the future I would like to see not just a widespread dissemination of these insights but also their practical application to nurture new forms of action – in children’s education in the family, in schools and universities as well as in organisations and enterprise. The more people understand and accept them, the more chances and opportunities will open up bringing with them totally new solutions to meet the challenges of our times. I really believe this will happen.
So what’s actually stopping us from opening up such possibilities ourselves?