Why your brain does dumb things, and how to smarten up
The human brain is an incredible marvel of evolution. But what's even more incredible is how this supercomputer in your head is able to occasionally make such dumb mistakes.
Dean Buonomano was among the first neuroscientists to begin to ask how the human brain encodes time. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, Buonomano says, and for that reason many researchers overlook it. “The first field of modern science was probably geometry, which was formalized by Euclid around 300 B.C.,” says the researcher, “What’s amazing about geometry is that there is absolutely no time involved; it’s the study of things that never change. And there’s a reason why it is one of the first science fields. Science is much easier if you can ignore time.” Buonomano was in grad school when he became enamored of the question of how we navigate through time. As a graduate student at the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center at Houston, Buonomano collaborated with Michael Mauk after he heard Mauk’s lecture on his studies of the neural circuits in the cerebellum. Mauk and Buonomano modeled the way the cerebellum’s circuits could respond to stimuli and showed that this type of neuronal network can differentiate between time intervals that differ by just tens of milliseconds. Such networks also have the ability to tune the timing of their responses, the two found. “My collaboration with him was absolutely formative for me,” says Buonomano. “Mauk had this very influential notion that time is encoded in the changing patterns of neuronal activity.” Today, Buonomano’s laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, uses computational modeling, in vitro electrophysiology, and human psychophysics experiments to explore how neurons and the brain as a whole perceive and respond to time. Here, Buonomano describes how he performed his first experiments on his little sister, bathed mice with antidandruff shampoo, and hypothesized that timing is so integral to brain function that all of our brain’s circuits keep tabs on the clock. In his new book, Your Brain Is a Time Machine, brain researcher and best-selling author Dean Buonomano draws on evolutionary biology, physics, and philosophy to present his influential theory of how we tell, and perceive, time. The human brain, he argues, is a complex system that not only tells time but creates it; it constructs our sense of chronological flow and enables “mental time travel”—simulations of future and past events. These functions are essential not only to our daily lives but to the evolution of the human race: without the ability to anticipate the future, mankind would never have crafted tools or invented agriculture. The brain was designed to navigate our continuously changing world by predicting what will happen and when.
Dean Buonomano was among the first neuroscientists to begin to ask how the human brain encodes time. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, Buonomano says, and for that reason many researchers overlook it. “The first field of modern science was probably geometry, which was formalized by Euclid around 300 B.C.,” says the researcher, “What’s amazing about geometry is that there is absolutely no time involved; it’s the study of things that never change. And there’s a reason why it is one of the first science fields. Science is much easier if you can ignore time.”
Buonomano was in grad school when he became enamored of the question of how we navigate through time. As a graduate student at the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center at Houston, Buonomano collaborated with Michael Mauk after he heard Mauk’s lecture on his studies of the neural circuits in the cerebellum. Mauk and Buonomano modeled the way the cerebellum’s circuits could respond to stimuli and showed that this type of neuronal network can differentiate between time intervals that differ by just tens of milliseconds. Such networks also have the ability to tune the timing of their responses, the two found. “My collaboration with him was absolutely formative for me,” says Buonomano. “Mauk had this very influential notion that time is encoded in the changing patterns of neuronal activity.”
Today, Buonomano’s laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, uses computational modeling, in vitro electrophysiology, and human psychophysics experiments to explore how neurons and the brain as a whole perceive and respond to time. Here, Buonomano describes how he performed his first experiments on his little sister, bathed mice with antidandruff shampoo, and hypothesized that timing is so integral to brain function that all of our brain’s circuits keep tabs on the clock.
In his new book, Your Brain Is a Time Machine, brain researcher and best-selling author Dean Buonomano draws on evolutionary biology, physics, and philosophy to present his influential theory of how we tell, and perceive, time. The human brain, he argues, is a complex system that not only tells time but creates it; it constructs our sense of chronological flow and enables “mental time travel”—simulations of future and past events. These functions are essential not only to our daily lives but to the evolution of the human race: without the ability to anticipate the future, mankind would never have crafted tools or invented agriculture. The brain was designed to navigate our continuously changing world by predicting what will happen and when.
Dean Buonomano: So the brain is the most complicated computational device in the known universe. The brain is indeed the most complex device in the known universe. But it’s far from perfect, and the human brain, despite all its amazing features and abilities, has many glitches and problems and brain bugs.
One ability that the brain has is to store memories, and we store memories of many different shapes and forms. But the human brain is also very fallible when it comes to memory. And there’s some things that the brain is very ill-suited to remember.
And those things are like long lists of numbers or long lists of unrelated words—or names, for that matter.
And one of the reasons why is: it goes a bit beyond this notion that we didn’t evolve to remember numbers or we didn’t evolve to remember names, which is certainly true. But it’s a bit deeper than that in terms of the architecture of the brain.
So one of the operational principles—to the extent that we understand how the brain works, we can refer to one of its principles. One of its sort of design principles, if you will, is what I’ll call an “associative architecture”.
Much of what we understand about the brain is based on associations.
If somebody says, “What’s a zebra?” you know what a zebra is in part because what that concept is associated with. You might associate it with Africa, with black and white stripes, with “it looks like a horse”. So we understand to a certain degree the world around us based on associations.
Now when we’re memorizing long lists of numbers or random names, they don’t come with any built-in associations. So this results in something that sometimes we call the Baker Baker paradox.
And the Baker Baker paradox is that it’s easier to remember somebody’s profession—if they tell you “I am a baker”—than it is to remember their name if they tell you “My name is Mr. Baker.”
It’s the same word but the brain is better able to store that information in the context of a profession.
So why is that? Because when somebody says “I am a baker,” implicitly and unconsciously the brain has a number of associations that are already built in with that concept.
So maybe you think of getting up early, maybe you think of funny hats, maybe you think of bread.
Now when somebody says “I am Mr. Baker,” that name by itself doesn’t have any implicit connections. So it’s sort of standing alone, so you don’t tap into the associative architecture of the brain, of your neural circuits, which have all these links and connections between concepts and words and images and knowledge.
So the brain as a computational device is well-suited for certain types of information storage and processing, and ill-suited for others.
And understanding what our natural strengths and weaknesses are certainly makes us capable of making better decisions.
Many of the decisions we make end up being good decisions, but many of the decisions we make are poor decisions, and sometimes we make decisions that are not in our own best interests.
In order to understand how the brain makes decisions, of course, is a mystery—we don’t fully understand how the brain works or where our decisions come from—but as a simplifying rule we do have, we often simplify it into having two systems within our brain.
Sometimes we call those the automatic system and the reflective system.
The automatic system is sort of quick, and sometimes you can think of that as your intuition. It’s associative in nature. It’s emotional. It makes quick sort of heuristic decisions.
Whereas the reflective system which is much more deliberative, knowledge-based, relies on symbolic reasoning.
Now to get an idea of these two systems in operation, as a very loose analogy I can ask you “What do cows drink?”
So the part of your brain that just thought of milk is your automatic system. So that’s the system that didn’t reflect on the answer, just popped into your head, “milk.”
Now hopefully your reflective system said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute, that’s not the correct answer. Cows drink water.”
So your reflective system is a bit slower and it’s a bit fact-based. It can analyze what’s just happening.
So in some situations we—in very complex situations in which we don’t have all the facts and we have to make a quick decision, yes, the automatic system can help us survive. If you recognize a dangerous situation in the middle of a jungle and you have to act quickly maybe it’s a good thing to just emotionally react to that and either fight or flight.
Now the reflective system in most situations comes with education and learning, and we have to struggle a bit more to tap into the full potential of our reflective system.
And I think as individuals in a society we—much of the learning and education we go through requires tapping into our reflective system.
Another example is if in certain math problems or with probability problems, those are things where the brain’s intuitive system (or automatic system) don’t work very well.
So if I say well, I’m going to throw up four coins. What’s the probability that I’ll get two heads and two tails?
So there a lot of people, your brain wants to say “half, the probability is 50 percent that you’re going to get two tails and two heads.”
If there’s anything we know from probability is that you shouldn’t trust your automatic system, because the brain didn’t evolve to do probabilities quickly or to estimate complex mathematical questions automatically.
So you need the reflective system to come in and figure out the answer to that question, and that it’s 6/16 if you go through the number of possible combinations there.
So you have this balance between your automatic system and your reflective system that’s driving most of our decisions.
And part of our own self-knowledge requires that we come to understand when we should rely on one and when we should rely on the other.
Pop quiz, hot shot! What do cows drink? If you're like the vast majority of people, you probably just had the word "milk" flash in your brain. That's natural, as 'cow' plus 'drink' to most people equals 'milk'. But that's your automatic system talking, and that, as neuroscientist Dean Buonomano points out, is usually the part of the brain that makes most of the bonehead decisions in life like forgetting people's names and missing easy math problems. The reflective system, on the other hand, is the more logical and computational part of the brain. It takes a little longer to arrive at the answer but that's because it's doing a much deeper dive than your other system. It's a fascinating topic, and Dean explains it perfectly. And if you're still wondering what the answer to the pop quiz was, your reflective system should've told you that cows drink water. Dean Buonomano's new book is Your Brain is a Time Machine.
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The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.
- How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
- One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
- Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.
A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A year of disruptions to work has contributed to mass burnout.
- Junior members of the workforce, including Generation Z, are facing digital burnout.
- 41 percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a new Microsoft survey.
- A hybrid blend of in-person and remote work could help maintain a sense of balance – but bosses need to do more.
More than half of 18 to 25 year-olds in the workforce are considering quitting their job. And they're not the only ones.
In a report called The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?, Microsoft found that as well as 54% of Generation Z workers, 41% of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation.
Similarly, a UK and Ireland survey found that 38% of employees were planning to leave their jobs in the next six months to a year, while a US survey reported that 42% of employees would quit if their company didn't offer remote working options long term.
New work trends
Based on surveys with over 30,000 workers in 31 countries, the Microsoft report – which is the latest in the company's annual Work Trend Index series – pulled in data from applications including Teams, Outlook and Office 365, to gauge productivity and activity levels. It highlighted seven major trends, which show the world of work has been profoundly reshaped by the pandemic:
- Flexible work is here to stay
- Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
- High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce
- Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized
- Shrinking networks are endangering innovation
- Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing
- Talent is everywhere in a hybrid world
"Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in the report. "Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly – inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in, when, where and how people work."
Organizations have become more siloed
While the report highlights the opportunities created by increased flexible and remote working patterns, it warns that some people are experiencing digital exhaustion and that remote working could foster siloed thinking. With the shift to remote working, much of the spontaneous sharing of ideas that can take place within a workplace was lost. In its place are scheduled calls, regular catch-ups and virtual hangouts. The loss of in-person interaction means individual team members are more likely to only interact with their closest coworkers.
"At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished," the report says. "This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic."
Burnout or drop out
One of the other consequences of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been the phenomenon of digital burnout. And for those who have most recently joined the workforce, this has been a significant challenge.
The excitement of joining a new employer, maybe even securing a job for the first time, usually comes with meeting lots of new people, becoming familiar with a new environment and adapting to new situations. But for many, the pandemic turned that into a daily routine of working from home while isolated from co-workers.
"Our findings have shown that for Gen Z and people just starting in their careers, this has been a very disruptive time," says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large, George Anders, quoted in the report. "It's very hard to find their footing since they're not experiencing the in-person onboarding, networking and training that they would have expected in a normal year."
But it is perhaps the data around quitting that is one of the starkest indications that change is now the new normal. Being able to work remotely has opened up new possibilities for many workers, the report found. If you no longer need to be physically present in an office, your employer could, theoretically, be located anywhere. Perhaps that's why the research found that "41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year".
In addition to that, 46% of the people surveyed for the Microsoft report said they might relocate their home because of the flexibility of remote working.
A hybrid future
In looking for ways to navigate their way through all this change, employers should hold fast to one word, the report says – hybrid. An inflexible, location-centred approach to work is likely to encourage those 41% of people to leave and find somewhere more to their tastes. Those who are thinking of going to live somewhere else, while maintaining their current job, might also find themselves thinking of quitting if their plans are scuppered.
But remote working is not a panacea for all workforce ills. "We can no longer rely solely on offices to collaborate, connect, and build social capital. But physical space will still be important," the report says. "We're social animals and we want to get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events. Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds to meet the unique needs of every team – and even specific roles."
Bosses must meet challenges head on
Although the majority of business leaders have indicated they will incorporate elements of the hybrid working model, the report also found many are out of touch with workforce concerns more widely.
For, while many workers say they are struggling (Gen Z – 60%; new starters – 64%), and 54% of the general workforce feels overworked, business leaders are having a much better experience. Some 61% said they were 'thriving', which is in stark contrast to employees who are further down the chain of command.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president at Microsoft 365, writes in the report: "Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, 'Hey, how are you?' and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them."