Alt-Intelligence

The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Dr. Ben Carson recently gave his first address to his new employees in the department. During his speech, the former distinguished neurosurgeon said some truly eyebrow-raising things about the human brain, among other topics.

It remembers everything you’ve ever seen. Everything you’ve ever heard. I could take the oldest person here, make a hole right here on the side of the head, and put some depth electrodes into their hippocampus and stimulate, and they would be able to recite back to you verbatim a book they read 60 years ago. It’s all there; it doesn’t go away. You just have to learn how to recall it. But that’s what your brain is capable of. It can process more than 2 million bits of information per second. You can’t overload it. Have you ever heard people say, “Don’t do all that, you’ll overload your brain.” You can’t overload the human brain. If you learned one new fact every second, it would take you more than 3 million years to challenge the capacity of your brain.

Unfortunately, according to Wired, “This is all pretty wrong.”

One psychologist, Dan Simons, went even further to say “It’s utter nonsense.” Simons, of the University of Illinois, was joined by other brain experts to pick apart Dr. Carson’s many glaring inaccuracies.

Photo credit: Samuel Greene/Flickr
Photo Credit: Samuel Greene/Flickr

That’s Now How it Works

Simons told Wired in an email, “We can’t recall extended text verbatim unless we deliberately memorized it for that purpose (certainly not books we happened to read 60 years ago), you can’t trigger accurate recall of detailed memories with an electrode (and long-term memories aren’t stored in the hippocampus), we don’t store a perfect and permanent record of our experiences (it’s not all there just waiting to be probed), and you can’t just ‘learn how to recall it.”

Our senses are not infallible, therefore even if Dr. Carson were to devise a way for us to recall memories, there is the possibility of the memory to be incorrect anyway. Other examples of the lack of reliability in memory recall can be seen when two people recall the same event differently and also when confabulation, or fabricated memory, occurs. One example of confabulation that’s popular on the internet is being called the Mandela Effect, which was so named due to a large number of people incorrectly remembering that Nelson Mandela died during his imprisonment.

Carson’s next point on the brain’s incapacity to be overloaded has a point in some ways but fails to hold up in others. While the brain’s long-term memory capacity does seem to indeed be infinite, the ability of the brain to process that information is not. As one small example, consider this, your nose is within your eyes’ field of vision, yet your brain chooses to ignore it so you don’t notice it unless you are actively trying to, thanks to stereo parallax.

The brain is constantly filtering information to make it easier to compute the endless information being fed to it.

As one commenter said, “In computer terms, Carson may have a detailed understanding of the hardware and architecture of the brain, but not so much on its operating system.”