If this blog is about life’s best practices, why write about ways the mind makes errors?  I’ve gotten this question a lot.  So let me explain why I think these patterns of error are so important.

Modern brain research shows that brains tend to process data in certain predictable ways.  Some of those processes generate predictable errors, or at least results that are not as accurate as we lead ourselves to believe.  I will be exploring these error-generating processes – what I tend to call “mind challenges” – in blog posts.  I do this not to make fun of us, or to provide a message of despair.  Instead, the limitations and quirks of the brain constitute messages of hope and even creative genius.

First, each of these quirks gives the human race a break.  We are, after all, human, and although we lord that over the rest of the animal kingdom, we are not perfect, finished beings.  These inherent biases and reasoning flaws constitute free pass from the demands of perfectionism: humans are hard-wired to be imperfect.

Second, these quirks prove that each of us can improve our performance.  Because each of us has these limitations within us, by recognizing and accounting for them, and even using them, we can perform better than we currently do.  If you were handed a gun and told to protect yourself, wouldn’t you want to know how it works, what its biases and predictable malfunctions are?  Of course – you wouldn’t want to find these things out in the middle of a gunfight.  By learning how the brain works, including its predictable errors, we can use our reasoning powers more effectively, correcting for – or at least looking for – the biases and errors along the way.

Third, biological and evolutionary explanations for some of these quirks and peculiarities of mind have surfaced only the past few decades, or even the past few years.  Neuroscience is moving forward more rapidly than ever before, and this science promises to provide further breakthroughs in the coming years and decades.  By learning how the brain tends to malfunction, we will be more alert to innovations that explain, address, and correct those flaws.

Finally, and I believe most intriguingly, these mind challenges may play important roles in creativity and innovation.

Evolutionary biologists and others have been straining to understand why evolution would have left these challenges embedded in our brains.  There are some very powerful theories out there.  My intuition is that the anomalies necessarily created by the way our minds mis-process certain data were evolutionarily powerful, and created “fitter” proto-humans who survived to pass on their genes.  Why?  Precisely because they led these proto-humans off the beaten path – maybe literally, but certainly figuratively.

In our home we often joke about who was the first person to eat a pineapple, a clam, or an oyster.  These things just don’t look appetizing.  In fact, they look dangerous.  Now, to a starving animal, almost anything may look like food.  Perhaps some ancestor of ours ate a clam because she saw some other animal do it – some bird that picked up clams and dropped them to break their shells.  Our ancestor was starving, and taking the risk of doing what the bird had done seemed better than dying of starvation.

That’s possible, and surely that happened at various times. Yet I think it is also likely – indeed certain – that others of our ancestors broke open a clam and ate it because of mind challenges that led them to take chances and innovate.  They did it because doing it was novel, and novelty was inherently and disproportionately interesting (novelty bias).  They thought they were taking only a small risk (probability error), and so long as they didn’t think about it too much (failure to reject hypotheses), they were able to persuade themselves to take a bite.  Afterwards they justified it to themselves (self-justification) as an obviously safe and even smart thing to have done – in fact, the only reasonable course that was open at the time (hindsight bias).

The example above is silly, of course.  But the generation of “errors” has no doubt lead to great advances in the human condition.  In art, we can see it in the “errors” of the Renaissance painters who were moving fitfully toward a more plastic vision of painting, and who began incorporating perspective into their works, in the perceptual absurdities of Picasso; in the “obviously” wrong approach of Jackson Pollack, and again in the the Impressionistic paintings repeatedly rejected by the Academie.  The same is true in commerce, in science, and virtually every other human endeavor.

In short, I believe, and over time I hope to show, that some of the mind challenges I will write about are actually design features, rather than design flaws, in the human mind.