We can understand the basics of how the brain works by thinking of it as a kind of difference engine. The brain processes a continuous flow of data from the senses, as well as data from its own internal functions, and it interpolates. It assumes, averages, fills in the blanks. This is why optical illusions work. It is also why memory is unreliable, and why some people see a butterfly in an ink blot and others see a bat.
“Difference engine” refers to a mechanical device first conceived by Hessian Army engineer, J. H. Müller, and later attempted by English polymath, Charles Babbage. These were the first inklings of what we now know as the “computer.”
A computer needs an operating system to function. Most of the human operating system, like a modern computer, is automated. The heart beats and blood circulates; we breathe; we digest food. On the cellular level, billions of chemical reactions occur at every moment, and the average human brain produces about .085 watts of electrical power (although some appear to produce considerably less). That’s enough, by the way, to charge an I Phone in about 70 hours.
So far our basic brain functions are on par with every other living thing, but humans have sophisticated proprietary software and tremendous storage capacity which, as far as we know today, may be unique in the Universe. We reason. We have a sense of time. We develop complicated algorithms for belief, fantasy, morality and religion, as well as countless other concepts far removed from the electrochemical processes going on inside our heads.
There is an acronym as old as the Information Age: GIGO, or “garbage in, garbage out.” Computers that receive faulty data can never return accurate answers. We have understood the logic behind this bit of wisdom for much longer than we have understood computers. This is why so much time and expense is applied to education.
Unfortunately for our species, even the most sophisticated programs for producing educated, well rounded human beings are plagued by the limitations of our basic operating system. That OS was designed over thousands of years for surviving a great number of dangers and physical challenges. We were built to be able to quickly respond to these challenges by fighting or fleeing, and we are burdened or uplifted by an almost irrational desire to reproduce.
What happens when you install a sophisticated program onto an operating system that was designed for basic survival? Many things can happen. We can build pyramids, produce great works of art and literature or push back the boundaries of science. We can also fight over words and shoot each other over parking spaces. History contains a litany of horrors that testify to the glitches inherent in our programming.
We have understood the basic functions of the brain for a long time, and when we did not understand, we intuited. Whether by design or by accident, there have always been individuals and groups who were capable of affecting the programming of large numbers of operating systems like a computer virus. Marketing attempts to achieve this end every day. Political types seek to do it. That odd hybrid of business and government that we call “mainstream media” seeks to influence our programming every moment of every day.
Not all of the programming is bad. That which seeks to educate, to motivate or inspire for the good of the community, is always needed. The problem is that many of our programmers are allowed to move beyond motivation and inspiration to control, and to accomplish this control, whether for the purpose of selling soap or buying votes, the programming targets the survival subroutines built into our basic operating system. In order to sell soap and buy votes, they stimulate the fear, anger and lust that we inherit from our animal nature.
Programming us for viral responses is effective, and it is profitable. It also gets out of hand on a fairly regular basis, as anyone who has studied the history of war can tell you. But on a personal level, the place where we live our lives among our fellow humans, where we digest our food and sleep at night and where we try to maintain a healthy body/mind – too much of the wrong information makes us feel bad. It literally makes us sick.
Think about it. We wake up to a curated selection of bad things that happened overnight. Throughout the day, every bad event that is horrific, or shocking or tacky enough to grab our attention is broadcast for our consumption. We digest our food with generous servings of fight-or-flight metabolites circulating throughout our bodies.
Many of us seem to forget that we are all capable of self-programming. We do it unconsciously in the repetitive behaviors that become our habits, but we can also do it with intent. We can choose at any moment to disconnect from the external programming, and we might be surprised to discover how smoothly we will run without all the constant updates.
It won’t be easy for some of us. Many of us are addicted to the neuropeptides that are produced by the constant stimulation of our reptile brains. But we can start with a simple, very personal question, a question that can be applied to every shooting and stabbing reported, every celebrity scandal, every imperial presidential tweet and just about every syllable uttered by every talking head out there: Does this information enrich my life in any way?
So turn off the television. Shut down the web browser. Put down the phone. Select quality information in the same way you would shop for ingredients for a home cooked meal. You will find it in libraries, in books, in online courses or continuing education programs. Granted, it’s more work this way, but it digests better, and it’s much healthier.