The New Scientist recently interviewed NYU psychologist and linguist Gary Marcus about the clumsiness of the human brain. Marcus describes the brain as “a clumsy collection of spare parts” — a kluge. “A kluge is a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem that gets the job done, but not necessarily in the best way possible.”
When asked what the problem is with humans thinking of themselves as perfectly designed, rational beings, Marcus answers:
Economists make that mistake. They assume that humans are rational, but they aren’t necessarily. And I think that people almost always overestimate their own abilities. They overestimate the quality of their memory, and how careful they are at reasoning. That contributes to political polarisation, for example, where everyone is convinced that they know the truth and nobody else does. I don’t think that’s a very good thing for the species.
Marcus then offers ways to make our imperfect human brains work better:
In the long term we may be able to take control of evolution, to adopt new technologies or something like that. In the short term, what they say in Alcoholics Anonymous makes sense – recognition is the first step. We have to see what the limits are and try to work around them.
A good example is that we have this thing called confirmation bias, where we notice evidence that supports our own theories. You can counteract that by forcing yourself to systematically think about alternative hypotheses, and about the perspective that somebody else might take. We don’t do that naturally but we can train ourselves to do it.
Scientists are forced to do that to some extent. But everybody could do with a little bit more humility about their own intellectual powers, and realise that, if somebody disagrees with them, maybe they’re looking at the evidence in a different way; it’s not necessarily that they’re stupid and you’re smart. The more we can recognise that other people are working as best they can from their evidence, that could make us more sympathetic and perhaps we can get along better.
For all the clumsiness of the human brain, recognition of our own thinking is paradoxically elegant. Marcus calls recognition the first step, but I call it the foundation of enlightenment and more perfect thinking.