The Power of the Human Brain

human brain

“The human brain is a most unusual instrument of elegant and as yet unknown capacity.” – Stuart Seaton

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve heard it said that the average person uses less than one-tenth his brainpower.

I always liked the idea of that statement – the implication that if I could just tap into that other 90%, I could do wondrous things . . .

  • Solve the most complex mathematical problems in less time than it takes to propose them.
  • Memorize the complete works of Shakespeare and be able to recite passages in perfect 16th-century English on demand at cocktail parties.
  • Beat the blackjack dealers in Vegas.

And I’ve spent many years trying to activate my sleeping gray matter. But whatever progress I’ve made must be counted in fractions, not multiples. Yet, I have persisted – and still enjoy the occasional book that promises to boost my brainpower, improve my language skills, or recharge my memory.

My modest progress after all these years has made me question whether our brains really are so wonderful – especially when we compare what we can do with the capacity (and lightning speed) of modern computers.

New hope was born while scanning a book titled “The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence.” Author Raymond Kurzweil (who, I’m told, is a well-known American software guru) estimates that the human brain is capable of 20 million calculations per second.

Let me run that by you again – 20 million calculations per second!

If that’s true, it makes the assertion that we use only one-tenth of our brainpower sound like psychological history’s greatest understatement.

I don’t know how many calculations per second I can make on a good day, but if I had to guess I’d say . . . maybe . . . two. Which means, I suppose, that I’m taking advantage of only 0.0000001 percent of my brain’s potential.

Given that potential, does that make us more or less intelligent than computers?

For several hundred years, people who think about thinking have believed that, in addition to the ability to speak, the ability to play chess (which requires logic) is a good test of intelligence. Well, modern computers have come a long way from their rudimentary beginnings (see “It’s Good to Know,” below) and, nowadays, they can play chess and speak – sometimes both at the same time. They do the first very well and the latter poorly.

Deep Blue, the IBM machine that made its debut by playing Gary Kasparov in 1996, lost to him in a six-game match. The revised Deeper Blue challenged Kasparov again in 1997 and beat him that time. The upgraded system, equipped with 32 IBM RS/6000 SP supercomputers containing a total of 256 chess chips, was twice as fast as the original, capable of analyzing 200 million positions per second. 200 million positions per second!

Can the human mind do that? Not according to chess experts at IBM, who say grandmasters like Kasparov can analyze just three positions per second.

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So how do they do so well against computers?

They do less work, the experts argue.

Computer, not having intuition, must analyze every possible move and permutation of that move before deciding on a course of action. The human mind, in contrast, eliminates 99% of the options by intuition.

In my opinion, the fact that we can make these judgments – that we can rule out so many seemingly valid but senseless options – is clearly a tribute to the higher intelligence of the human mind.

It is a mistake, I think, to compare the brain to a computer.

The brain is an organism, not a mechanical contraption – and, as a living thing, it can make adaptations to its own thinking mechanism based on experience. The more experience the human brain has, the smarter it gets. So far, at least, computers are not very good at doing that.

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The ability that your mind has to routinely make common-sense judgments — such as telling you to stay out of a certain part of town or to avoid driving your car over 70 on a dark, winding road — is actually the result of a highly sophisticated form of intelligence. In other words, it’s the stuff that we know in our guts that’s the really smart stuff, the stuff that separates us from computers.

Bottom line: You have to be impressed with the overwhelming potential intelligence of the human mind. And you don’t have to have the checkmating capabilities of a Kasporov to realize that you can do and think much more than you are doing and thinking now.

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