I move, therefore I am. How the brain is wired and what it means for our mindset
The human brain is arguably the most complex, most important, and most fascinating (in my opinion) instrument we have. It is so complex that we barely understand how it works, meaning that we rarely, if ever, get to use it to its full potential.
How would we even know when we use it to its fullest potential?
As the control centre of human physiology and psychology it would’ve been amazing had it come with a manual…
We can only dream…
Nevertheless, Daniel Wolpert, a renowned neuroscientist explained in his TEDGlobal talk, the brain has evolved not to think and feel, but to control movement.
This is because everything is initiated and mediated through movement. Falling in love, speaking, feeling sad or advancing science, all occur through the contraction of our muscles. Our brain has evolved marvelously to fine-tune our neurological systems with the goal of perfection in efficiency.
No, your taxes, or the chores you have to do at home today, are not your brain’s primary concern. Indeed, these higher-order cognitive thought patterns are scripts and agendas that we have developed over millennia, and are indeed ever present in our minds. However, they are ultimately of secondary concern to our brain.
Movement is indeed of primary concern, without it we cannot talk, communicate or ultimately further our species.
Ordinarily we might associate movement with the body. We typically separate mind and body for ease of understanding, but we are ultimately beings of embodied cognition. Our mind and body are inexplicably linked. Which is why many neuroscientists want to change Descartes famous quote from “I think, therefore I am” to “I move, therefore I am”
The complexity of human movement
The ability to see into the future, retain incredible amounts of information, and grasp complex and abstract concepts are all remarkable aspects of human intelligence. Look at chess for example, designing AI that was able to beat the best human chess player was an eye-opening and spectacular moment in AI history. Designing this AI involved the use of an algorithm which calculated all the possibilities of the game and chose the most intelligent move every turn, without failure. Something a human can rarely match.
Now, think about this.
Have you ever seen a robot move with the same fluency as a 5 year old moving a chess piece?
The answer is no, and it’s because recreating such intricate and precise movement that is highly adaptable to moment-to-moment interference requires complex and state-of-the-art programming. In fact, when it comes to replicating dexterity, we are not even sure what type of algorithm could be used.
It may seem simple to you at first, to reverse engineer the method by which humans control movement , but let me explain why this assumption is dead wrong.
Our brain and body communicate internally to move our muscles and continuously interpret sensory feedback. Feedback from our vision, skin, and muscles are all processed and compared in real-time to our prior knowledge and beliefs on what is likely to happen in the future.
This is called “Bayesian inferencing” from Bayesian theories of mind. The perpetual interpretation of feedback, reflection, and cross-referencing against our beliefs in order to predict the best course of action, all occur in real-time, and involve an infinite number of variables and opportunities for alternative movements.
An incredible system right? You can begin to understand that moving a chess piece is not just about reverse engineering the physical movement, but a continuous process which interacts with the environment. A million different stimuli being processed in a matter of nano seconds.
Now, imagine this Bayesian inference process during performance conditions in which many of the external variables are changing and uncontrollable, such as the actions of an opponent, or the violent movement of the water in a river. One of the biggest challenges of this whole process is that the multitude of feedback (millions of bits of information) we are continuously assessing and integrating real-time to fine-tune our movement is not understood yet.
During these complex conditions, our brain is assessing such an incredible range of probabilities in order to make predictions to determine our next best movement. This process is so filled with noise and fuzziness that it distorts the feedback we receive. Whether it is when interpreting someone else’s actions or our own confusing emotions, the mind and body are continuously overwhelmed with a plethora of unclear information to process.
This confusing and complex processing greatly interferes with our innate fluency and ability for optimal decision-making. Even after we have deciphered the signals and made up our next moves, we are again confronted by conflicting thoughts or new confusing feedback; how to execute this decision? which muscles to move and when? and so on.
This is why most experiences feel somewhat clunky.
It is also why the focused and immersed state of Flow in which our actions are completely effortless is so special.
Think less, be more.