We’ve all had those awkward moments when we forget a friend’s birthday, say one word when we mean another, or show up for an appointment a day early because we wrote it down wrong. Most of us feel embarrassed by these “brain farts,” but Frankfurt, Germany-based neuroscientist Henning Beck says we shouldn’t because they prove the body’s most complicated organ is working exactly the way it should – imperfectly. In his compelling, often funny book Scatterbrain: How the Mind’s Mistakes Make Humans Creative, Innovative, and Successful, Beck explains that our brains’ blunders are secret weapons that lead to original thinking – something that computers and artificial intelligence will never be able to replicate. He tells The Globe there’s also a very good reason why so many of us get our best ideas in the shower.
My brain is having a hard time grasping why forgetfulness is actually a good thing.
It’s not your brain’s job to save as much information as possible. What is far more important is that the brain forgets the right things at the right time, deleting them from consciousness. Memories are dynamic and constantly changing. Only in this way is it possible for the brain to generate new knowledge. Your brain has become an expert at throwing things away to keep them from distracting you. Sometimes, we forget more than we should, but as long as you remember you’ve forgotten something, then everything is cool.
I guess that makes sense, in a kind of illogical way.
Exactly! The brain is a dreamy scatterbrain, often distracted and unfocused, never 100-per-cent reliable. It miscalculates, is frequently inaccurate and forgets more than it retains.
So I should cut myself some slack when I walk into the grocery store and forget what I came in to buy?
It’s totally normal. If the brain remembered everything, you’d be overkilled by all the information coming in. Additionally, it would be very tough to prioritize and extract the meaning of things. Adele forgot the words to her song in Manchester in 2016. Christina Aguilera mixed up the second and fourth lines of the Star Spangled Banner at Super Bowl 2011. These are just reminders that the brain is not an organ like the heart or the liver. It functions unevenly and irregularly. No brain is flawless, nor should it be.
You call the brain a 3.3-pound mistake. Isn’t that a little harsh?
We always want the brain to work perfectly but it does not. We forget things, we underestimate time, we get distracted, blackout under stress, we blunder, do typos or distort our memories. And some of us might wonder why on earth the brain doesn’t work perfectly after millions of years of evolution? Surely, there was enough time to get the kinks out! Instead we keep our cognitive errors. I believe there’s something good in making mistakes – an evolutionary edge.
I gather it’s this same “evolutionary edge” that you believe makes us smarter than computers and AI – and ensures we always will be?
Right now, all you see are statistics and great ideas programmed into the source code of algorithms. This will improve and eventually these systems will surpass the human brain in terms of finding statistical rules and applying them. However, this is nothing to worry about. This kind of intelligence is not enough to rule the world. Humans are also creative, empathetic, communicative and we dare to embrace new ideas to change things. Machines will never come close to the human brain’s ability to do that.
You devote an entire chapter to boredom and how daydreams evoke the muse. How does tuning out help us to think more clearly?
Daydreaming (or mind wandering) is necessary to think outside the box. If you always focus on a task at hand and never step back, you miss the forest for the trees. You will never come up with an original idea. If daydreaming is always a bad thing, then why do we get good ideas when we’re not focusing, like when we’re in the shower, driving the car, or working out at the gym? Drifting off mentally seems inefficient, but it’s mandatory to get inspired.
I have to admit I felt better after reading your book and realizing that constantly losing my keys is a normal thing.
It’s not a book about how perfectly the brain works. And if, after reading this book, you hope to improve your brain’s ability to think or concentrate … that’s not going to happen either because the brain is anything but precise or good at calculating. I want to show what goes on behind the scenes of the probably most erroneous thinking structure in the world. To describe the way in which the brain uses errors in order to orient itself in the best possible way to its social situation, to think of new ideas, and to generate knowledge. Yes, it makes mistakes in the process, but the paradox is this: It is through our faults and lack of concentration that our most powerful thoughts are generated.
Our brain isn’t afraid of doing something wrong, so we shouldn’t be either. It’s natural, it’s healthy and our brain shows us that each moment, of every day.