The Strange Path of Accepting How Your Brain Works

Oct 31, 2021 · 1809 words · 9 minutes read

I recently read Turing’s Cathedral, a book about the early history of computers, and it largely focused on the life and brilliant times of John von Neumann, who was, to put it simply, a genius. It is both fascinating and disappointing to learn about a brain that works so much better than your own.

Fascinating because the wide spectrum of human ability has led to a brain so capable. That we (in the general, humanity sense of “we”) are able to perform such feats is incredible. Genius exists, living in one of our heads and manifesting its abilities through photographic memory, mastery of over half a dozen languages, and imaginative and original creative work.

But, to be perfectly honest, there’s something somewhat disappointing too, especially if your mind is prone to drawing comparisons with itself. Reading about John von Neumann’s photographic memory while having trouble remembering a birthday is unsatisfying, as is reading about him needing only 4 hours of sleep while feeling the tiring effects of only getting 7 hours yourself. It is humbling, if only by giving perspective into the actual width of the ability gap. How nice it would be to have all of that!

Before getting into tech, I worked as a tutor for high school students. One student I worked with on his Algebra 2 work wasn’t always the best at completing his assigned work. We ended up striking a deal where if he completed his worksheets, I would watch his favorite anime series or movie and we could spend a small part of every weekly tutoring session talking about it. In a win-win, he ended up completing more assignments, and I ended up watching a few extra shows and movies in my free time.

One of the movies I ended up watching was an anime about a high school math genius who had to help defend a virtual world against an AI that had turned evil. At one point near the end of the film, the student is hacking away at defeating the AI, but the AI keeps blocking his digital path with complicated cryptography problems. The protagonist would take a few minutes of wild scribbling as he solved the equations by hand on a stack of scratch paper, typing in the solution to unblock his digital path and continue his attempt at saving the day.

Just when time is running out, the evil AI throws one more problem at the student, even more complicated than the last, but there isn’t enough time to solve it by hand. The kid seems to unfocus his eyes as he transfixes on the problem, sweating from the stress, and drops his pencil as he fully absorbs himself in the problem. After a moment, he is miraculously able to complete the problem entirely in his head, and he types in the correct answer, letting him enter a few final keystrokes to finally help save the day at the last moment.

Back in real life a little while after watching the film, I was working with my real student on a math assignment. We had talked about some strategies for solving a certain type of problem, and I had encouraged him to carefully write out each step, explaining that it’s one of the best ways to make sure you’re taking your time to not miss anything and that it would help him (and his teacher) see and confirm his process and understanding.

A few problems in, I noticed him pause when starting on a new problem, and after a brief moment, he wrote down an answer without any intermediate steps or work. I could see that he was skipping the process of writing down the steps we had talked about, trying to work through it entirely in his head. It was almost as if he was his favorite character, faced with the complicated problem, but after staring at it and absorbing it he could arrive at a complete solution entirely in his mind.

Part of the reason I could tell he was trying to take the shortcut was because he had missed a step he had previously gotten by writing out the steps. I’m not “anti mental math”; more that I’m very “pro practicing and building the understanding and fundamentals”! I encouraged him to work through the steps for the problem, and he ended up finding his mistake after writing out the process.

Having seen the anime, I later wondered if he was playing as if he was the protagonist, and I remember smiling at the thought; I too wish I could just do it all in my head! As I think back, it’s a very human thing to do, and they’re very natural thoughts to think.

“What if I was able to do complicated math problems in my head on a whim? What if I could keep track of every tricky step in a convoluted algorithm solely in my mind? How nice would that be?”

“What if I had the memory of von Neumann?”

I don’t think it happened at any specific moment, and maybe it’s a part of growing up, but I’ve come to accept the realities of what my brain can and cannot do.

It’s funny to write that out even now, because it seems at the same time both obvious and final. Of course I don’t have photographic memory, as much as I’d love to imagine I did. How wonderful it would be to not have to write out my work! But I know that I can’t keep it all in my head. It would be delightful to have perfect pitch, but I have to find my 440hz with a tuning fork just like everyone else.

At the same time, there’s a certain finality to it. How fun it is to imagine! Can you imagine what you would do if you could remember every page you’ve ever read after a single reading? I’ve thought about it before. How much easier school would be, or remembering peoples’ names, or those tricky French verb tenses I always trip up on, or…

But, I can’t. Somehow they slip easily through my mind, maybe catching on and sticking in a neural pathway somewhere, but maybe not. Il faut que tu… soie? sois? soies??

More importantly though, it’s OK that my memory isn’t perfect, and I know that about my brain. It is what it is.

I think the most powerful thing about acknowledging your brain’s limitations is 1) the acceptance of it and 2) your ability to work with your brain with those limitations in mind. I don’t have perfect memory, but I can learn about how memory works and leverage tools to help me move past what my brain can do on its own. It’s why I find checklists, mnemonics, and spaced repetition so helpful, as they let me augment what I’m working with. We’re lucky to have enough tools at our disposal (and the ability to build our own tools), and much like Steve Jobs’ metaphor of the computer as a bicycle for the mind, once you know how to work with your brain, you can help it to go even further.

As much as I tease AI startup landing pages for listing “AI + Human”, I think that’s one area where the combination of humans and computers does especially well. For me, there are certain things that a computer helps with, such as keeping track of some detail I’ll need in the future or letting me know when 30 minutes has passed. It can handle the specifics of the spaced repetition algorithm, and all I have to do is tell it how good I felt about the card I just got correct. That being said, I don’t think computers are the fix for everything, at least for my own lizard brain. I know I’m a sucker for infinite scroll and interesting content, and since I know I do best after at least 8 hours of sleep, part of the battle is even to get off the damn computer!

So part of the good news is that we can work with tools to augment our own abilities to get closer to what some of these gifted brains can do from just their natural ability. Maybe it’s not fair that they get it by default, but it’s not worth it to worry too much about “fair”. The people we look up to feel the same way about people they look up to too, and if Nobel Prize winners look up to the Martians as otherworldly, that’s enough to make me feel better already.

The other good news is that a lot of what looks like natural ability is the result of a great deal of hard work and practice. As easy as it is to discount a skill gap as due to some ingrained natural aptitude, the reality is that they’ve probably worked at it a lot more than I have. There’s a vignette I really enjoy from Richard Hamming’s You and Your Research talk, where he talks about drive:

I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?’’ He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!”

So the good news is twofold: you can work with your brain, and many of those you admire for having natural talent are probably building their abilities by putting in a great deal of work.

As a quick aside, this seems like a good point to note the difference between putting in the work and day-job work or “hustle culture”, in that I strongly reject the idea that you should always be working harder and harder for money in every facet of your life. It’s wonderful to have a hobby, but if that hobby is basket weaving and you want to get better at basket weaving, it’s OK to want to work on getting better at it.

To stave off the risk of rambling, I’m going to cut it here. Knowing and accepting your brain is half the battle, and working with it is even better.

I’m going to go review a few French flashcards.

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