Knock-Knock! Is Anybody in There? – Why Your Brain is Still Essentially a Black Box

Perhaps one of the most unique characteristics of our species is our insatiable obsession with ourselves. Going back to the earliest examples of human cave art, we see evidence of our collective narcissism.

Many of the figures in cave art depict food sources, like bison, or predators, like bears. But there is something else on those walls – imprints of human hands – lots of them. We may never know exactly what these early humans were thinking, but they certainly seem to have been at least as fascinated with their own existence as they were with bison and bears. It’s sort of chilling to look at these imprints and realize that each hand represents a person long dead, who once decided to leave a mark on the wall of a cave, as if to say “This is me.”

Historical Methods of Studying the Brain

As humans developed incrementally enhanced technology for studying themselves, they became aware that something mysterious goes on inside their skulls. The realization that the brain is key to understanding human behavior led to practices that might seem horrifying today, like drilling holes into the skull to treat depression, or “reading” the bumps on the head to understand the inner workings of the mind.

However, one might argue that we really haven’t really progressed much farther since then. Electroconvulsive therapy is still practiced under very specific conditions today and lobotomies were performed as recently as the 1980s. Perhaps our means of mutilating ourselves in the name of science have simply “improved” over time.

Today there’s hypnosis, psychotherapy and our modern favorite – pharmaceuticals. Each of these treatments are readily available, for anything from weight loss to bipolar disease and schizophrenia. Seen against the backdrop of history, all these efforts to understand and control our minds seem to stem from a single fact – we really don’t know our own minds. We’re always just making our best guess about how our brains work. Seen against the totality of what we still need to know, we’re basically wandering around in the dark.

Edvard Munch, The Scream

Behaviorism and the Black Box

If you recognize the name B.F. Skinner, you probably associate it with Behaviorism, a school of psychology that claims to be able to explain all human behavior as a response to stimuli from the outside world (reward or punishment.) Skinner had no patience for attempts to study feelings or cognitive processes. He maintained that we had absolutely no evidence that these reported internal experiences were real. If we want to change behavior, we need only change the stimuli, as the movie based on his work, A Clockwork Orange, graphically demonstrated.

To Behaviorists, the mind is a “black box.” In science and engineering, the term refers to any complex device for which we know the inputs and outputs, but not the inner workings. For example, to many of us, our DVR is a black box. We push the buttons on the remote, select the program we wish to record and we watch it later. We neither know nor care how it works.

It’s sort of an elegant means of giving up, if you think about it.

The brain is so complex we can’t possibly understand it, so why bother? We know the inputs (stimuli) and we know the outputs (behavior) and isn’t that enough? The greater question about human cognition and how it takes place in the brain has implications for artificial intelligence as well, as Skinner pointed out:

“The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do. The mystery which surrounds a thinking machine already surrounds a thinking man.”

It would be tempting to dismiss Skinner and his followers, but that would mean ignoring all the ways in which reducing the mind to a black box has produced positive results. When parents put a child into a “time out,” they are applying one of Skinner’s recommendations for child raising. Other examples can be found in today’s self-help books, leadership training and addiction treatments. Rather than dismiss B.F. Skinner, we need to ask ourselves, “Was he right, after all? Should we focus on inputs and outputs because understanding the black box is beyond our capabilities?”

Is the Brain an Unknowable Black Box?

The human brain would certainly qualify as a “black box” in the traditional sense of the term:

  • It is highly complex. In fact, it is the most complex object we know of in the entire universe.
  • We can identify the inputs and we can observe the outputs, but we’re unable to define the detailed processing that takes place in between. (Although we’re certainly trying to.)
  • We can draw conclusions that result in reliable results, based on controlling the inputs to produce desired outputs (behavior.)

While it is exciting to speculate about what the latest neuroscience study tells us about how we learn, the truth is that we are far from understanding the process of learning, memory and retrieval. As with any science, most discoveries only lead to more questions, rather than answers. A recent survey of scientists and futurists identified understanding the mechanisms of consciousness as the number unanswered question in science. When you consider all the sciences and all the possible questions we could be asking, that’s a lot of uncertainty!

But that doesn’t mean we should give up trying. It is unlikely that a single breakthrough will suddenly make it all perfectly clear, so we keep inching closer to a deeper understanding of ourselves. Even the occasional step backwards to incorporate new information is ultimately a step forward towards our goal of understanding ourselves.

What Can a Learning Professional Do with a Black Box?

All this might have you scratching your head, wondering what to do, if anything, with all this learning science stuff, if we can’t even be confident that we know what we think know. The truth is, we’ve been doing that all along; each generation of teachers and trainers does the best they can with the information they have. Remember learning styles? I was once an enthusiastic practitioner of a now debunked concept. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Check out this list of practical things you can do right now to apply a few simple concepts to your training program. (Don’t let the references to kids deter you; one of the things we’re beginning to suspect is that the so-called “differences” between adults and younger learners is insignificant, if it exists at all.)

Doubt is Our Super-Power

Humans aren’t the strongest species, nor the fastest. We don’t have superior eyesight or super-smelling capabilities. What we do have may not be unique to us, but we certainly have it in spades – we are hard-wired for discovery. The more we question our world, the more we learn about it. Philosopher Rene Descartes is often quoted as saying “I think, therefore I am.” However, a more accurate translation of his words would be “I doubt; therefore, I think; therefore I am.” The more questions we ask about ourselves, the more answers we’ll eventually find. Along the way, we’ll find more and more ways to help our black box work more efficiently.

Maybe that’s what all those palm prints are saying on ancient cave walls, “Hey! I just learned how to do this!”

It could be the first self-paced training course ever produced.

Thus it seems that from our earliest days, nothing has been quite so fascinating as ourselves, and maybe that’s a good thing.

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