It’s easy to underestimate just how powerful the brain can be.
Last Friday’s post was called Instinctive behaviours and explored the notion of instinct, coming to the conclusion that almost everything the brain does is a result of learning rather than genetics. Yet acknowledging the vast amount of brain activity that runs in ‘background’ mode or subconsciously.
That was brought home to me in spades as a result of being introduced to the flying of gliders, or sailplanes in American speak. The year was 1981 and working near to me in my offices in Colchester, Essex was a gentlemen running his own company, like yours truly. His name was Roger Davis and we were sharing a beer one day when the subject of flying came up. It piqued my interest so, as my logbook declares, on the 7th June, 1981 I had the first of two flights in a glider with Roger at the controls. The place was Rattlesden Airfield, an old wartime airfield near Felsham, Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk. The gliding club was Rattlesden Gliding Club.
Anyway, some 43 flights later, I was signed off to conduct my first solo flight in the K-7. The date was 5th September, 1981 and my flight time was just 4 minutes! I was hooked.
In over 10 years of flying amounting to more than 1,400 flights I had the great fortune to experience much of the magic of flying relying on nothing more than the currents of air.
Ahh! Memories! Over 10 years of glider flying, amounting to more than 200 hours of flight-time, 17 different types of glider. Longest flight was 5 hours, 16 minutes including a climb to over 6000 feet above sea-level on the 7th July, 1985 in a single-seater LS4 glider type.
So what’s this got to do with subconscious thinking? Simply this.
One quickly learnt that once the decision had been made to land, most frequently because one was unable to find further, or any, rising air currents the brain had a major computing task in hand. As the aircraft descends, the air currents change and the direction and velocity of the wind changes. There is no engine to allow one to abort the landing; to do a ‘go round’!
One of the key visual judgments was determining the point of touchdown: not too early that might risk a ground contact before the start of the runway, and not too late which might risk running out of landing space.
Thus the brain was operating clearly in two modes. Consciously, computing second by second where the touch-down point was going to be and, subconsciously, the flying of the glider as in operating the joystick and rudder pedals in support of the touch-down ‘computations’.
In last Friday’s post, I also wrote this: “Plus something that could just possibly be the key to mankind having a long-term sustainable future on this planet: The Power of Thinking.”
That ‘something’ was me reflecting on an article in the October 7th edition of FORTUNE magazine. Not something I read on a normal basis but just happened to come across that edition – and glad I did. Because there was an article about IBM’s new supercomputer Watson. The link to the summary is here, from which I republish this:
Dr. Mark Kris is among the top lung cancer specialists in the world. As chief of thoracic oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center in New York City, he has been diagnosing and treating patients for more than 30 years. But even he is overwhelmed by the massive amount of information that goes into figuring out which drugs to give his patients — and the relatively crude tools he has to decipher that data. “This is the standard for treatment today,” he says, passing me a well-worn printout of the 2013 treatment guidelines in his office. We choose a cancer type. A paragraph of instructions says to pair two drugs from a list of 16. “Do the math,” he says. It means more than 100 possible combinations. “How do you figure out which ones are the best?”
It’s a huge problem. More than 230,000 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year. Almost all of them will receive chemotherapy. As crude as the existing guidelines are, says Kris, they won’t be followed more than half the time. If we bumped up adherence by just 10% to 20%, he says, as many as 30,000 people might live longer. Never mind curing cancer — shouldn’t we be able to get the best available combinations of medications to sick people now?
That’s the question that led Kris to IBM. He saw that more information was not the answer. What doctors needed was a better brain — one that could instantly vacuum up facts, draw deeper connections between data points, and remember everything. They needed Watson.
Just read that last paragraph again. That it’s not about information, it’s about offering humanity computing power that can see things that humans might not easily see.
Thus, I mused that when mankind gets to the point where there is total and complete commitment to finding a non-carbon-burning way ahead for every living thing on this planet we won’t have the luxury of countless years working out the new journey directions. Maybe, just maybe, computing power a la Watson might just be our saving grace.
Curious to learn more about IBM Watson? Then here’s the relevant website.