The best thing about the human brain is also the worst

Roughly 2 million years ago, the modern human brain began to take shape.

It wasn’t destined to become the biggest or most complex brain on earth, but the modifications that attended human evolution propelled us, several leagues, ahead of our competition. In fact, the principal advantages born from this exchange keep us in first place to this very day.

We’ve got opposable thumbs, which means we can make nature buffaloe to the will of our needs (campfires, railroads, airplanes, Prozac).

We’ve got front-facing eyes like a predator, but they can also discriminate between 10 million different colors, and meaningfully perceive depth and danger from a comfortable distance. 

Perhaps most importantly, we’ve got the capacity to both interpret and devise language so that the lessons we learn in our relatively short lifetimes have the potential to purl throughout generations (how many dolphins have to swallow Pepsi casings before one of them makes a sign?). It really is an impossible set of skills to beat, reared by natural selection and ingenuity.  

It’s important to remember that human intelligence isn’t a token of brain mass. Survival is actually fairly indifferent to that kind of thing.

A roach is as good at avoiding death as the rest of us. Your apartment suggests they may even be better. The actual strength of our human brain is its unmatched ability to incorporate non-existent elements into the material world. Our ability to turn What ifs into solutions. These solutions, better known as ideas, must feel like cheat codes to the other players. 

I think the spectrum of intelligence is overvalued within our species. Very few of us can wrap our heads around astrophysics but you were hungry so you cooked beans. You’re like Edward Witten to your Shih Tzu.

The research literature indicates that we’re actually neurologically privileged to solve problems. Because we possess the ability to identify patterns as well as hypothetical solutions, we are able to use probabilistic strategies to rank these solutions by order of viability. I.e with time, the human mind can identify the absolute-optimal way to skin a cat–every time.

“There is a concrete mathematical background for the effectiveness of human problem solving,” write the authors of a paper recently published in the journal, Biologically Inspired Cognitive Architectures. 

Ray Solomonoff, the inventor of algorithmic probability, actually refined this already impressive asset. It simply isn’t feasible to confront every challenge in your life with an exhaustive list of possible solves. So Solomonoff suggested we use mathematical tools to shrink that list down to a productive size. 

“Let us call by Blind search a method of solving problems by checking all potential solution candidates. It follows that this method can solve any problem (provided the problem has a finite solution), although the time required, which depends on the number of solution candidates, is usually huge,” the authors continued. 

“Therefore, Blind search is a universal but not an effective method, if there are too many solution candidates to check them one by one. Solomonoff (1986) in his general problem-solving system exploited a theorem in probability stating that if an appropriate order could be imposed on the solution candidates, then checking them in this order would yield a probabilistically optimal problem-solving strategy.”

Of course, there are things that our advanced brains do worse than lesser species. If you’ve ever seen footage of an animal suffering from a fatal wound you may have noticed that the way an animal processes pain and ultimately failure is often subdued compared to the situation at hand.

Whether because they lack the emotional capacity to internalize undesired outcomes or because they‘ve developed the emotional capacity to reject moral indictments from them, we could do well to adopt a similar outlook. 

The very same mechanisms that allow humans to reach emotional heights that other animals can’t equip setbacks with existential superpowers.

For example, in the same scenario as a rabbit with hawk talons in its sternum, our brains would invent stressors alongside the real one. Real stressor: I’m dying. Imaginary ones: Did I do enough while alive? Will my partner marry a more attractive person that actually enjoys watching Bridgerton?

During trying times, the biggest weakness of the human brain is its unmatched ability to incorporate non-existent elements into the material world. Our ability to turn What Ifs into problems. 

“The fact that evolution has prioritized the development of a big frontal lobe in our brain (which gives us excellent executive and analytical abilities) over a natural ability to be happy, tells us a lot about nature’s priorities. Different geographical locations and circuits in the brain are each associated with certain neurological and intellectual functions, but happiness, being a mere construct with no neurological basis, cannot be found in the brain tissue,” science reporter Martin La Monica explains. 

“In fact, experts in this field argue that nature’s failure to weed out depression in the evolutionary process (despite the obvious disadvantages in terms of survival and reproduction) is due precisely to the fact that depression as an adaptation plays a useful role in times of adversity, by helping the depressed individual disengage from risky and hopeless situations in which he or she cannot win. Depressive ruminations can also have a problem solving function during difficult times.”

In this way,  the pathology of ideas has hurt us. By augmenting our habitat to reduce the woes of natural life (hunting, gathering, and hiding from predators) we’ve got these leftover brain functions that don’t serve modern existence.

Some of them can be applied. It’s not a coincidence that terms like shark and wolf are common business shorthands, but the bulk inspires a wiry emotional intelligence in humans. ‘

We spent a considerable amount of effort manufacturing distractions from natural inevitabilities, namely death and old age, at the cost of coming to terms with them. It’s a species-wide liability. One that isn’t unique to a first-world country.

We can maybe force a little neurological regression. When drafting solutions it might be helpful to rely on every piece of gray matter at your disposal. When processing setbacks, it might be comparably helpful to appraise them in small rabbit-sized bits.

“Postulating that there is no such thing as happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you human,” La Monica concludes.