Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Minding the Brain

These days we are constantly bombarded with a deluge of information from a plethora of sources, whether Online or Offline, real or virtual, Facebook, Twitter and mobile chats, with different degrees of quality, importance and verifiability vying for the same space in our brains. While all this access to information is great to keep us updated on what’s going on in the world and helps increase our knowledge and understanding about things, a study in a recent article I read says that too much variety of information at the same time coming from different sources actually impair our decision-making ability, especially when decisions have to be made quickly.

According to the article, our brain has difficulty in sorting through the huge amount information received and the different options presented in order to produce the best type of decision at the quickest time. The more things our brain has to consider, the poorer the quality of the decision, if any could be made at all. All those expert opinions and analyses at the same time, instead of making us smarter and better thinkers, could end up with confusing us and making us choose the wrong decision.

It is as if our brain gets overwhelmed in some kind of ‘embarras de choix’ - I suppose a bit like how I feel when I have to buy a tube of toothpaste in a huge chemist. With all the array of different brands of toothpaste claiming to be doing different amazing things, I often end up either not buying any because I’m afraid of getting the wrong one, or choosing something which is not exactly what I need and a lot more expensive. Choosing which toothpaste to buy is actually easier from a little shop selling just a couple of familiar brands. I would just choose the same one I’ve been using without thinking too much about it.

The study goes on to say, that better decisions and good insights usually come when you allow the subconscious to rise to the surface, which is when we are not stressed and the brain is relaxed. We all know that some of our best ideas come when we’re under the shower or on our backs daydreaming. The bath tub ‘Eureka’ moment of Archimedes or the Newtonian gazing at an apple tree. The brain, quietened from the noises of thoughts and conflicting information, suddenly has a clarity that enables us to see things as they really us and hence better able to solve our problems.

Of course, monks and people who understand the objective of meditation know that the best way to look for answers is to still your mind and look within. Even the word ‘reflective’ itself, meaning to be in deep thought, reminds one that thinking is a process of reflecting what is in essence already there. You cannot find the answer by tinkering endlessly with the problem, but by putting the problem in a different perspective where you could look at it for what it really is, which is no longer a problem but a situation with many sides to it.

I find the article interesting because when it comes to studying the human mind, science tends to approach it with trying to figure out how the brains work, which part of the grey matter deals with what and which senses, and how the circuits are all wired up so that when things go wrong, like the person not able to do certain things or when the brain is impaired, we know what happens inside the brain and how to fix it.

I feel that when science tries to analyze how the brain works, it still confuses the mind with the brain: our thoughts and how our mind works are the product of the workings of our brain and the brain’s capability to process information. Press this you feel pain. Cut that and you’re no longer depressed. Without the brain there is no mind. When it speaks of the unconscious it’s more likely to refer to hidden information that lies in the bottom of our mental iceberg captive somewhere within the circuitry of the brain matter.

We would never have this confusion when trying to fix a computer or a Television for example. A computer consists of both the hardware, the tangible bits and pieces, and the software, the information, knowledge, ability and capacity of the computer depending on what software and programmes are put in it, whether to calculate, to edit films, to write documents or to browse the Internet.

When a TV set is broken for example, we open it up and fix it so that we could get a clear reception, good audio and sharp pictures. We don’t expect it to show better soap operas, higher quality entertainment or more educational programmes for the children. A television set is merely a receptacle or a channel for information generated elsewhere. In order to do that, the apparatus has to be tuned to the correct and exact frequency that the information is broadcast in. The better the ability to capture the frequency, the better the quality of the transmission.

In this way, I am more inclined to see the human brain, or the human being for that matter, as receptacles that are designed to capture specific frequencies much like a radio or television. To really access and understand (or reflect) the full meaning of the information and knowledge available in the universal software, it is important to sharpen the ability to receive the signal and strengthen the reception.

Otherwise what we’ll get is just blur and a lot of noises.

(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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