Buonomano Knows His Bugs and Yours Too

As an avid reader of books and articles about the brain, my interest was piqued while listening to an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air of Dean Buonomano about his new book Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives.

I’ve reviewed other fine books about the brain in the past, such as Brain Rules by John Medina, The Accidental Mind by David J. Linden, and Don’t Believe Everything You Think by Thomas Kida. What’s special about Brain Bugs is Buonomano’s ability to explain how the brain works down to the level of neurons in a way that is both accessible and fascinating. The wild dance of neurons as they interact in great waves of electro-chemical activity came alive for me as I read this book.

Dean Buonomano is a professor in the Departments of Neurobiology and Psychology, and a member of the Brain Research Institute, and the Integrative Center for Learning and Memory at UCLA. He writes with clarity and humor about the inner-workings of the brain. He explains that our neural operating system—”an archaic genetic blueprint that lays out the instructions on how to build a brain”—is in some ways outdated, despite its evolutionary superiority, and that our associative neural architecture not only makes us smart but also makes us susceptible to fear mongering and advertising. Only by putting to work the great strengths of the brain can we painstakingly learn to recognize and overcome its flaws.

Simply put, our brain is inherently well suited for some tasks, but ill suited for others. Unfortunately, the brain’s weaknesses include recognizing which tasks are which, so for the most part we remain ignorantly blissful of the extent to which our lives are governed by the brain’s bugs.

Our brains evolved to optimize our chances of survival and reproduction. “The evolutionary process does not find optimal solutions; it settles for solutions that give one individual any reproductive edge over other individuals.” The world in which most of the brain’s evolution occurred, however, is not the world that we live in today. Some of the ways in which our brains evolved no longer offer advantages.

Today we live in a world that the first Homo Sapiens would not recognize. As a species, we traveled through time from a world without names and numbers to one largely based on names and numbers; from one in which obtaining food was of foremost concern to one in which too much food is a common cause of potentially fatal health problems; from a time in which supernatural beliefs were the only way to “explain” the unknown to one in which the world can largely be explained through science. Yet we are still running essentially the same neural operating system. Although we currently inhabit a time and place we were not programmed to live in, the set of instructions written down in our DNA on how to build a brain are the same as they were 100,000 years ago. Which raises the question, to what extent is the neural operating system established by evolution well tuned for the digital, predator-free, sugar-abundant, special-effects-filled, antibiotic-laden, media-saturated, densely populated world we have managed to build for ourselves?

Evolution works slowly. We can’t wait for corrections to evolve over eons of time. We must learn to recognize the brains limitations and do our best to overcome them. “By exposing the brain’s flaws we are better able to exploit our natural strengths and to recognize our failings so we can focus on how to best remedy them.”

We humans are great at recognizing patterns—something that computers can only do with numbers—but we suck at handling computations. “It is paradoxical that virtually every human brain can master a language, yet struggles to mentally multiply 57 x 73. By virtually any objective measure, the latter task is astronomically easier.” In this age in which quantitative information plays such an important role, statistical naiveté undermines our efforts to survive and progress.

I could go on, but all I’m trying to do here is to pique your interest like mine was when I heard Buonomano on NPR. Everyone involved in analytics must understand a thing or two about the brain—the engine of analytics. For this purpose, I highly recommend this book.

Take care,

One Comment on “Buonomano Knows His Bugs and Yours Too”

By Katherine S Rowell. August 15th, 2011 at 3:05 pm

I heard this same story on NPR and was also immediately interested…thanks for the review…this book is now on my “must read!”