Dr. Dean Buonomano, University of California Los Angeles – Shortcomings of the Brain

Jul 23, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Dean Buonomano of the University of California Los Angeles explains why our brains are often biologically unequipped to accurately perceive the modern world.

Dean Buonomano is a professor of neurobiology and behavioral neuroscience at UCLA and a member of the university’s Brain Research Institute. His lab seeks to understand how functional computations emerge from the brain’s networks of neurons, with a particular focus on how the brain tells time. He recently published, Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives.

About Dr. Buonomano

Dr. Dean Buonomano – Shortcomings of the Brain

The brain is in essence an information processing device designed by evolution. And as with a conventional digital computer we can learn much about what does well and poorly by looking at its building blocks. The brain is built of approximately 100 billion neurons, and as computational elements go neurons are extroverts—each one communicating with thousands of others through their synapses. As a consequence of its rich interconnectivity the brain is well suited for certain computations such as pattern recognition, which requires grasping the whole from the sum of the parts.

It also excels at understanding context--because at some level most parts of the brain are connected to one another. We can easily grasp the meaning of the sentence “Johnny fell off the wagon” depending on whether we are standing in a bar or a playground. But the architecture of the brain is also responsible for many of our limitations and flaws. As we all know the brain is not well designed to perform numerical calculations. Additionally however, we are have very limited capacity to memorize names, and are prone to false memories.

Additionally, the same associative architecture that is good for context-sensitivity generates a number of cognitive biases that contribute to irrational decisions—for example our decision tend to be influenced by the way information is framed: favoring a surgery with a 90% survival rate over one with a 10% mortality rate. Finally, the associative architecture of the brain contributes to the fact that our habits and desires are readily shaped by marketing and propaganda.

The bottom line is that our brain was not tuned for the digital, predator-free, sugar-abundant, special-effects filled, antibiotic-laden, advertising-saturated, densely populated world we have managed to build for ourselves. Thus it will probably serve us well as individuals and as a society to keep in mind the natural strengths and weaknesses of the organ calling all the shots.