Why Your Brain Is Slow (And Fast, Too)
Carl Zimmer is a science writer, lecturer, and frequent guest on such radio programs as Fresh Air and This American Life. His books include "Soul Made Flesh," "Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea," and "Parasite Rex." In addition to writing books, Zimmer contributes articles to The New York Times, as well as magazines including National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. He also writes an award-winning blog, The Loom. From 1994 to 1998 Zimmer was a senior editor at Discover, where he remains a contributing editor and writes a monthly column about the brain.
Zimmer is a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches writing about science and the environment. He is also the first Visiting Scholar at the Science, Health, and Environment Reporting Program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Zimmer is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: How and why does “the speed of thought” vary across the brain?
Carl Zimmer: We tend to think of our experience as just sort of happening to us instantaneously, so I don’t think when I talk to someone that they are across the room and therefore there is a certain amount of time that it takes for me to hear what they’re saying. We just think that everything happens in real time, but you know the fact is that we perceive the world through this organ the brain and it works a lot… kind of like a telegraph, so if you were to send a message to somebody with a telegraph and you started tapping out your message they’re not going to get the message immediately. It’s going to take time for all those dots and dashes to make their way down the wire and get to the other end. We have wiring in our own brains. We have neurons, which work a lot like telegraph wires in some ways. They actually use kind of a biological set of dots and dashes. They have little spikes of voltage that we use to process information, so you know if I see something it takes awhile for it to get from my eye into my brain and then it takes awhile for it to spread to different parts of the brain and then for that information to get integrated in lots of different ways.
The way that you can think about this really vividly was brought home to me once when I was talking to a neuroscientist named Michael de Zuniga, and he just basically, all he did was, he took his finger and he stuck it on his nose and he said, “You know it’s interesting is that you feel your finger touching your nose and you feel your nose touching your finger at the same time, but the fact is that the signal from your fingertip had a lot longer to go than the signal from your nose and yet they got to your brain and it felt like it was happening at the same time.” So your thoughts have this speed and your brain has to… your brain had to deal with that speed, had to deal with that delay. Now you might think well you know we should just have brains that work as fast as possible, so we should just have you know fast neurons and just to speed everything up you know because time is money, because you know your survival might depend on a fast signal. There is a problem though is that speeding up these signals doesn’t come for free, so one strategy that we have evolved for fast thought as it were is to insulate our neurons and this is actually you know something that is used a lot in engineering. I mean if you don’t want a signal to dissipate out of a wire you want to insulate it. We insulate our neurons with sort of fatty molecules, like myelin. Another thing you can do is you can actually take another trick that telegraph engineers first developed which is to make your neurons thick, so signals will go through a fast wire… I’m sorry. Signals will go through a fat wire quickly faster than a thinner wire. Now the problem is that insulating your neurons and making them fat is a big cost. It takes a lot of energy to do that, energy you could be using for other things and not only that, but you know your brain is a pretty tightly packed place. If you were to you know double or triple the width of your neurons your head might not be able to fit through a doorway. So evolution has come up with these wonderful optimizing tradeoffs. Our signals work quickly in some neurons and slower in others. We have sort of found this nice balance to speed it up as fast as possible without making the cost too high and the fact is that you know when I put my nose… touch my finger to my nose I actually don’t want the signal from my nose to go too fast. I actually want the timing to make everything seem to be happening at once, so actually sometimes you need to slow thought down a little bit in order for the world to make any sense.
Recorded on January 6, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
Your finger is farther from your nose than your brain. So when your finger touches your nose, why do both organs feel the sensation at the same time?
- Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.
Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
- Master Execution: How to Get from Point A to Point B in 7 Steps, with Rob Roy, Retired Navy SEALUsing the principles of SEAL training to forge better bosses, former Navy SEAL and founder of the Leadership Under Fire series Rob Roy, a self-described "Hammer", makes people's lives miserable in the hopes of teaching them how to be a tougher—and better—manager. "We offer something that you are not going to get from reading a book," says Roy. "Real leaders inspire, guide and give hope."Anybody can make a decision when everything is in their favor, but what happens in turbulent times? Roy teaches leaders, through intense experiences, that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead. In this lesson, he outlines seven SEAL-tested steps for executing any plan—even under extreme conditions or crisis situations.
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