If you were a teenager in the 1990s, you may remember En Vogue’s chart-topping song which went “Free your mind and the rest will follow”. Western philosophy has celebrated the past three centuries or so—the modern era, if you will—as the freeing of the human mind. (The 18th century, for instance, is known as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason.) Indeed, this time has been dominated not only by the rise of Western democracies but also, in parallel, the rise of scientific thought and technological progress—most spectacularly embodied in the Industrial Revolution.
Even with the benefit of hundreds of years of hindsight, the mind boggles at the sheer number of inventions produced by this revolution—the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, the telegraph, the light bulb, the sewing machine and much more. And there you were celebrating Elon Musk’s car floating in space?
The human mind created all this, and therefore it stands to reason that the human mind must be a super-charged supercomputer powering the progress of civilisation. Spinoza, the German philosopher, said in Proposition 23 of Ethics, “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but there remains of it something which is eternal.” His exaggerated faith in the human mind was symptomatic of the era he lived in (1632 to 1677).
And what of our brain, that physical human organ that is closely related to our intangible mind? The mind might truly be without limits, but psychologists have shown us over the past 10 years that there is a gulf between our perception of how powerful our brains are and their true abilities.
The hubris of the free mind
Everyone agrees that traffic sucks. But here’s the problem: over the past 50 years, urban planners across the world have struggled to predict traffic flows, in spite of sustained efforts to do so. The difficulty stems from two distinct factors: the lack of systematic and accurate data on traffic flows across entire cities and the diversity of drivers’ self-adaptive decisions with regards to the routes they take.
To complicate matters further, the advent of GPS has made these decisions even more self-adaptive. Last year we took Jogeshwari Vikhroli Link Road to go to IIT Bombay for the Mood Indigo festival because Google Maps told us so. But Google Maps also told the same thing to another 150 people. The result? By the time we reached the college, our friends, who took the Eastern Express Highway had already arrived.
Complex traffic flows are like the complex neural networks in our mind. Vanilla or chocolate ice cream, mid-cap or small-cap stocks, route 1 or route 2—there’s a battle royale raging in the different factions of your brains over simple decisions. Understanding this chaotic complexity of the brain—and abandoning the computer-related analogies of the brain—is central to coming to terms with its strengths and weaknesses.