Friday Brainstorm 8 🧠
A new series, thinking re-imagined, and why life passes quickly
Happy Friday and welcome back for the eighth issue of Friday Brainstorm!
Here’s an overview of what you can expect:
a new series on the future of neurotech 🧠
a humane representation of thought 🌈
why life feels faster with every year ⚡
As always, I want to hear from you. As you read the newsletter, I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions, related resources you’ve found inspiring, as well as any feedback around how I can make these better - just reply directly to this email.
New series on the future of neuroscience tech 🧠
Recently, I have been spending a lot of time exploring the emerging field of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs).
I’ve noticed that there is a lot of writing that details how this technology might play out in 10, 20, even 50 years. Personally, my favorite example is Tim Urban’s Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future if you want to have your mind blown.
What was missing, though, was an accurate depiction of how BCIs might change our lives in the next couple of years. If I asked you to think about the year 2022, you probably don’t imagine a BCI to be an integral part of your life.
I’m going to challenge that assumption with a new series called BCI 2022. While we’re pretty far from having invasive BCIs, there are already consumer-grade devices that can read your brainwaves non-invasively.
For the first installment, I’m going to help you imagine the world in 2022 when BCIs can decode your musical tastes. Here’s a snippet:
Imagine you're dancing at a lively bar with your friends. You can't remember the last time the music's been this good! A song comes on that you've never heard of, and you really want to know the name so that you can add it to your playlist.
You ask your friends what the song is called, but you're met with shrugs. You don't want to pull out your phone and Shazam it while you're dancing- it would ruin the moment.
When you get home that night, you try to remember the song's lyrics but it's not coming to you. You spend what feels like an hour trying to Google it. When that doesn't work, you frantically try singling the melody into Shazam. At this point, it's 3am so you admit defeat and go to sleep with the melody stuck in your head.
You dance the night away without any worries, knowing your BCI is taking care of it. When you get home, there's a playlists with all the songs you liked earlier in the night. You quickly find that song you've been thinking about and save it to your dancing playlist. Just like that, easy.
Check out the full article for 3 more scenarios that will be possible in 2022:
A More Humane Representation of Thought 🌈
Bret Victor is a visionary user-interface designer and computer scientist. Among other accomplishments, he was part of the small group of people who worked on the initial design for the iPad.
I recently came across his 2014 talk The Humane Representation of Thought and the ambition of his vision blew me away.
Victor makes the provocative argument that reducing the human experience to sitting at a desk, staring at a rectangular screen, and mashing a keyboard is unethical. It’s unethical in the same way that limiting the freedom of a dog by keeping it in a cage all its life is unethical.
As humans, we are capable of many sensory modalities (tactile, spatial, aural, etc.) but we spend most of our adult lives limited to symbolic representations like language and mathematical notation. Victor sees this unfortunate reality as debilitating and wasteful of the vast human potential.
As a culture, we’ve contorted ourselves around the limitations of our static mediums. Even though we have powerful computers, we largely use them to emulate and extend static representations from the era of paper (think PDFs and emails).
Victor proposes a dynamic medium of thought that:
fits the human instead of deforming the human to fit the medium
externalizes as much thought as possible - an external imagination
enables show and tell, or depiction rather than description
He believes that by upgrading the forms of external communication, we can enable more powerful internal representations, which enable more expansive thoughts.
In total, Victor explores 13 different proposals. I’ll briefly highlight a few of them:
A reading medium that is transformable, explorable, context-sensitive.
With a better form of writing, concepts that today take hours to understand can be understood in seconds.
Thinking with the whole body, not just staring at screens.
A spatial environment with the flexibility and responsiveness of a computer screen.
A library is a walkable environment for browsing and discovering knowledge.
The branches of knowledge are represented by distinct areas that feel inviting, approachable, and tempting, like the lands at Disneyland.
If you’re curious about his other proposals, check out this visual summary of his work.
Why does life feel faster with every year ⚡
In 2005, Douglas Hofstadter gave a lecture called Analogy as the Core of Cognition where he makes the ambitious claim that analogies are the basis of our thinking:
every concept we have is essentially a tightly packaged bundle of analogies
all we do when we think is to move fluidly from concept to concept
concept-to-concept leaps are themselves made via analogical connection
Over the course of our lives, we build up a giant repertoire of concepts in our minds. These concepts are built up via a process called chunking, where we take small concepts and put them together into bigger and bigger ones.
Chunking makes it easier and more efficient to represent information. For example, it’s hard to remember the 10 digits of a phone number in isolation, but we’ve adapted to break it up into three chunks to remember it more easily.
Similarly, we build up high-level concepts that encompass many smaller ones. The concept of a hub spans smaller concepts such as airplanes, cities, networks, and so on.
From here, Hofstadter speculates that chunking may relate to why people can’t remember their first few years of life. Babies’ concepts are simply too small and so they only perceive a low level of abstraction, much less remember it.
“It is as if babies were looking at life through a randomly drifting keyhole, and at each moment could make out only the most local aspects of scenes before them. It would be hopeless to try to figure out how a whole room is organized, for instance, given just a keyhole view”
The chunks grow in size and number as people grow older. As a result, it’s possible to store more complex experiences and events in memory. Whereas babies might have a hard time integrating over the span of minutes, adults can easily weave together experiences that unfold over days or weeks.
In other words, we can process larger coherent stretches of life in single mental chunks as we grow older. As we start to see life’s patterns at progressively higher levels, the lower level of perception become more and more invisible.
“Boy, this year sure went by fast!” is so tempting to say because each year is perceived in terms of chunks at a higher, grander, larger level than any year preceding it, and therefore each passing year contains fewer top-level chunks than any year preceding it, and so, psychologically, each year seems sparser than any of its predecessors.
The relentless process of mental chunking makes life seem to pass faster as you age.
From this perspective, it’s clear why mindfulness seems to help so many people. If you’re trying to stretch out a moment, try being more attentive and really appreciating the low-level details of life for a change.
If you’d like to read the rest of Hofstadter’s thoughts, here’s the link to the full paper.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Friday Brainstorm! What did you think? Anything that stood out or sparked your curiosity? Let me know by replying to this email.