Illustration by Fanny Luor

The mind at work

The mind is working


Published on November 18, 2019

The second collection of The Mind at Work explores how we can use what we’ve learned about the brain to make better tools for the mind.

In the first part of this series, we talked to people who think deeply about the brain in different ways—from fMRI imaging, to childhood development, cooking, music, and management—and the implications for how we engage in work. There’s so much more to learn, but the barest outline is beginning to emerge of the rhythmical and spatial complexity of the brain, and the way its behavior is constrained by the availability of energy. 

The picture that’s forming challenges our intuitive ideas about how our brains work. Perception is a constructive process, stitched together through rapid eye movements and past experiences. What we choose to pay attention to—based on what we have paid attention to in the past, all the way back to what our evolutionary ancestors paid attention to—colors our consciousness in ways that are not always adaptive to our present circumstance. This picture has been forming for decades, and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says, “This is one of the biggest things we teach in introductory psychology classes.” 

Children are also far smarter than we give them credit for, as are ants and slime molds and other forms of emergent behavior that are the basis of intelligence. We can’t separate human intelligence from all of what makes us human: and as much as we like to complain about it, work, in all of its forms, is a big part of our humanity. All of the many things we now think contributed to the prodigious size of our brains: Caring for our children, cooking food, making stone tools, inventing, farming, language, and culture—all are forms of labor.

All of this labor made our minds, but in the process changed our world through technology.

How can we use what we know about the brain to make the human experience of work better?

This observation leads to many questions. Can we embrace technology while also being alert to what humans are capable of doing with it? What are the human implications of what we’re doing with technology today? How can we use what we know about the brain to make the human experience of work better?

One of the big challenges of our time will be finding ways to reignite the brain plasticity of childhood throughout our lives so we remain agile amid rapid changes. We have no evidence that this rate of change will slow down—on a climate level, or a technological level, or a social level. Our fears about robots or artificial intelligence taking over may be displaced by the more immediate problem of how to press these technologies into service to keep ourselves and the next billion people sustainably—and we hope happily—alive on this planet.

There’s a long lineage of people in the history of computing who have tried to create better tools for thinking, most notably Steve Jobs and his “bicycle for our minds.” But programming languages have been the greatest tool improvement in the past half century, unleashing all of the digital things that now fill our lives. Guido van Rossum is the creator of Python, the world’s most popular programming language. What can we learn from tools like Python that make certain kinds of thinking easier? Can we update Jobs’s metaphor and create flying cars for the mind?

Cognitive psychologist Barbara Tversky says our spatial awareness is the native language underlying all thought—including programming. Consciousness itself may have first originated from the movement of primitive creatures. Paradoxically, movement over time creates our experience of space, but we often think in static terms as if a flow chart froze into a PowerPoint slide. Understanding that the models we create in our heads must change over time is the secret to helping people adjust their mindset to the otherwise unsustainable volatility of our time. 

Being face to face with our impact on the planet and each other should give us pause, thinks acclaimed science fiction writer Ted Chiang. His story, Stories of Your Life, made into the 2017 Oscar-nominated movie Arrival, challenges us to think more deeply about time and technology. From a scientific perspective, which is the lens he applies in his fiction, the amount of evolution from the primordial soup to virtual reality is immense, as is the span of time it took to get us here. When we think about the technological and cultural changes we will have to make and what we may eventually evolve into, we also have to take a long view. By writing about intelligent machines he helps us understand what it means to be human.

Warmth radiates through the cool abstractions of Chiang’s storytelling. That sense of personal warmth and chilling alienation lingers even deeper still in our evolutionary story. Knowing whether to approach or avoid is the basic on-off switch of all biological behavior—whether on the savanna or in the office. Neuroscientist Kay Tye is investigating the mechanisms of valence—that switch—at the level of single neurons. A relevant discovery from that level of anatomy is the diversity of connections between various parts of the brain that create these evaluation circuits. Dysfunctions in these systems are associated with conditions like post-traumatic stress, depression, and addiction—three of the looming health concerns in the post-modern world.

These same evaluative systems act like pheromone trails that allow the individual ants of our ideas and emotions to coalesce into useful networks of productive teamwork. To know the difference between who we should trust and who we should fear, or what new idea will be useful and endure and which is falling away, requires asking the right questions. Questioning and exploration are hard things to do and require the assistance of tools. The evolution of brains has given us the greatest tool for human propagation, but now even our brains need help. How will our digital tools change what it means to be human? And how will what it means to be human shape what we collectively decide to do with our minds?

Join us as we explore these questions and more, starting next week with Guido van Rossum.

The first series of The Mind at Work is now available for binge reading!