An interview with Author, Rebecca D. Costa
Q: First off, let’s talk about why the book is called
RC: In earlier times, the first guards and police were people known as Watchmen. They walked around patrolling lighthouses, battleships and neighborhoods at night, but instead of weapons, they carried rattles designed to make a sharp, loud sound which summoned others for help. I view my book as a call for help.
Q: What do you mean by help?
RC: We live in a time when large, threatening problems are looming. These problems are extremely complex and so we have not been able to resolve them for many generations. It doesn’t matter if you believe our greatest threat is pandemic virus, climate change, terrorism, or nuclear proliferation. We can all agree that, eventually, one of these problems is going to have catastrophic consequences. Historically, this has happened to every advanced civilization. They knew what their greatest threats were, often centuries beforehand. But this time the stakes are much higher. In earlier times there were large geographic buffers between civilizations, so, when one society collapsed it had very little effect on the others. Today, you need only look at the effect the recession in the U.S had on every other country in the world to realize we are now one highly interconnected, interdependent global civilization of humankind.
Q: Are you implying we’re doomed to collapse?
RC: No, not at all. But when we examine earlier civilizations, such as the Mayans, Romans, Khmer, Byzantine and Ming societies, a clear pattern emerges. They all experienced gridlock when the magnitude of the problems they needed to solve exceeded their abilities. In other words, they hit some cognitive threshold where they could no longer understand or manage their biggest, most dangerous problems. They then began passing these problems from one generation to the next as the size and strength of the threats grew. But it doesn’t have to go that way.
Q: What causes this to happen?
RC: I am always surprised at how people react when I point out the uneven rate of change between how slowly evolution moves and how fast humans create new technology, processes, institutions, laws, and make new discoveries. One requires millions of years and the other occurs in pico seconds. Eventually there’s a gap between how fast our brains can evolve new capabilities and the complexity the brain must process. When this happens we hit a biological cognitive threshold.
Q: I’m not sure what you mean. . .
RC: Think about it this way: you accept there are physical limitations to the human organism in every other way. You accept the fact that we cannot run a mile in 30 seconds, at least not yet. You accept the fact that no human can lift 5,000 pounds on their own. That’s not to say that many billions of years from now we wouldn’t evolve these capabilities and others. But what’s fascinating is that most people do not accept there are any physical limitations to the kinds of problems the human brain can comprehend or solve today. And yet, most people understand the human brain is adapting and mutating just like all our other parts. So which is it? Do we already have some unlimited capacity to address complexity, or are our brains evolving to catch up?
Q: How long will it take for the brain to catch up to the rate at which we are manufacturing complexity?
RC: Well, the last big leap our brains made occurred about four million years ago when we discovered two-legged locomotion. Our prefrontal cortex grew thirty percent to process an avalanche of new sensory input which occurred when we could suddenly see and smell enemies from miles away. Today the prefrontal cortex represents about a third of the human brain. But you have to understand that 4 million years was so fast biologists started calling this a “special event” in evolution. When you contrast that rate of change to how fast we make scientific discoveries, how fast we produce new technologies, it’s obvious somewhere along the line the biological capabilities of the brain are going to fall behind the rate at which complexity is being generated. The brain simply can’t develop new facilities fast enough. And when the problems we face are more complex than the brain has the ability to understand or manage, we are headed for an impasse.
Q: Are there signs the brain is falling behind?
RC: Good question. Well, the first symptom, as we’ve discussed, is gridlock. We become unable to solve our most threatening problems. We know what they are, and we have a lot of ideas on how to solve them, but we can’t seem to act on what we know. So these problems become inherited by each generation. Historically, this stage of paralysis has been followed by a period when we begin substituting beliefs for knowledge.
Q: So, once we become gridlocked we start pursuing beliefs? What do you mean by beliefs?
RC: Since the beginning of time humans have been organisms which require BOTH beliefs and knowledge. By beliefs, I mean unproven ideas about the world. Beliefs are easy. You either accept them or you don’t. But the acquisition of knowledge is pricey. You have to prove a fact is true then replicate, test, assess, interpret, process, learn, apply, etc. Put simply, when complexity makes it difficult, or impossible, to acquire facts we revert to unproven beliefs. Take the Mayans for example. They knew about drought conditions for thousands of years. It’s the reason they built massive reservoirs and intricate underground cisterns for storing water. But over time, as drought conditions worsened and food shortages, disease and starvation became a reality, they stopped trying to solve their drought problems with practical measures and turned exclusively to sacrifice and rituals. There’s evidence the worse the drought got, the more aggressive sacrifice became, until eventually, they began torturing women and finally, infants. Their beliefs grew so strong they thwarted any pursuit of knowledge – which in this case meant practical, man-made solutions.
Q: Do you see parallels between modern society and what happened to the Mayans?
RC: Yes, actually I do. I think we can all agree that we have been experiencing some kind of paralysis in terms of being able to solve our most dangerous problems. People everywhere want to know why we can’t fix the global recession, a broken healthcare and education system, and whether terrorism and global warming are going to continue to grow. It’s pretty obvious we have been going through the gridlock stage earlier advanced societies encountered. So the next stage we would look for is the substitution of beliefs for knowledge. My favorite example of this is Bernie Madoff. It turns out, the people who trusted Madoff with their money were really sophisticated investors. These were people familiar with finance and had been in the market for decades. But the U.S. financial system had become so complex, even sophisticated investors could no longer understand it. You had people like the heads of Citibank admitting that they no longer understood how their organizations were making money. So, when Madoff came along and said “That’s okay, you don’t have to understand it because I will understand it for you,” they did what anyone overwhelmed by complexity does: they followed a false prophet. That’s what happens when complexity exceeds our cognitive ability. We become vulnerable to unproven beliefs. This is also what happened when we made the decision to go into Iraq. The situation was complex and we had very little data to go on. So we made the decision substantially based on our belief that the country would
Q: What happens after the gridlock and beliefs stage?
RC: In a word: collapse. Eventually, one of the unresolved problems inherited generation after generation catches up to us. Think about it this way: problems you don’t fix don’t go away and they also never stay the same size. They grow with each inheritance. Over time they become so large they cannot be stopped.
Q: Is there anything we can do?
RC: Of course! I know speaking about a pattern of collapse sounds negative but nothing in life is inevitable. The good news is once we become aware of a pattern we can act to avoid it. The first thing we need to do is acknowledge the gridlock and belief stages and guard against them. The second thing we can do is mitigate and buy time until our brains have a chance to catch up. The third is to cultivate evolution’s cognitive gift to us: Insight.
Q: What’s Insight and why do you call it “evolution’s gift”?
RC: When a characteristic is shared by every person regardless of background, education, culture, etc., it’s safe to say this is a biological trait of the human organism. So, from the get go, I need to state that every human being has had experiences with insight. Insight happens when we encounter a really complex problem which exceeds the abilities of traditional left and right brain thinking. Most problem solving we do day in and day out uses left brain rational thinking or right brain synthesis. These are the methods of problem solving we have been evolving for the past four million years. But every once in a while we come across a problem which is simply too hard. Sometimes, not often, a brilliant answer seems to effortlessly drop out of thin air. We can’t trace the steps leading to the answer so we have no idea how we arrived at it. Neuroscientists also call this an “Aha” moment after Archimedes who discovered displacement when he climbed into a bathtub and watched the water spill over the edges. Insight is a spontaneous organization of chaos and seems to have something to do with an area of the brain called the STG which lights up like a Christmas tree when Insight is being used. Thanks to modern MRI technology we can now see Insight at work. We can even predict when it is going to be used about 300 milliseconds beforehand.
Q: Is Insight something new?
RC: Insight represents a cognitive response to complexity. Okay, so it’s random and we can’t control or manage this way of thinking yet – but look how long it took us to develop the prefrontal cortex to this point. Any evolutionary change in cognitive processing is going to first appear randomly and infrequently – and then, over millions of years, become just as commonplace as left and right brain problem solving is today. This is how adaptation and mutation works. Human’s are developing a third way to solve highly complex problems and that method is Insight. Look at it this way: if you had a car that you could only drive ten miles an hour and one day you stepped on the accelerator and it speeded up to 60MPH would you go back to driving ten miles an hour or would you be tapping on that accelerator over and over again trying to make it go 60MPH again. The real mystery is why we accept Insight as an accident. Why don’t we study and harness this ability? Insight is the brain’s chance to catch up to complexity and the ramifications are enormous.
Q: Are you saying Insight can help us avoid social collapse?
RC: Remember that the stages of gridlock and relying on beliefs are caused by the uneven rate of change in evolution and complexity. If we can help the brain catch up to complexity, gridlock can be broken and the danger of substituting beliefs for knowledge is completely avoided. In other words, the key to avoiding collapse is to increase our brain’s ability to manage complexity.
Q: Can we increase Insight? I thought Insight was evolving - are you suggesting we can make it evolve faster?
RC: Neuroscientists today are uncovering the conditions which allow Insight to thrive. For example, we know that walking on uneven surfaces gives the brain a really good workout and facilitates opportunities for Insight. We know that taking breaks, moving around, relaxation also play a big role. But the Holy Grail seems to be the early results we are seeing from brain fitness programs from people like Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leading neuroscientist at UCSF’s Keck Center. It turns out, just like stretching before you start a race, the brain wants to be “tuned up” before we load it with content. This is what brain fitness does – it prepares the brain to learn. Children who have been using Merzenich’s program are cognitively 2-3 years ahead of children who don’t use it and this advantage seems to be growing over time. In fact, in 2007, a brain fitness gymnasium based on Merzenich’s powerful programs, called Vibrant Minds, opened in San Francisco. You buy a membership and drop in on your own schedule to work out your mind using a variety of cognitive tools designed to improve memory, alertness, concentration, special complexity and so on.
Q: So, if I understand you correctly, half the cure is becoming aware of the discrepancy between how fast evolution moves and how fast humans generate change and how this gap leads to gridlock and beliefs. And the other half of the cure is creating conditions for Insight to flourish. Do I have that right?
RC: Exactly. A world designed to encourage Insight, and discourage decisions based on unproven beliefs, would have juries and boards of directors of 3, 4 and 5 people – the group size most conducive for Insightful thinking. We would make certain foods which help cognitive processing like blueberries very inexpensive, or free, and high-calorie foods associated with obesity very expensive. We would implement a lot of recesses and movement in schools and in the workplace rather than become increasingly sedentary. In one office in California they are implementing treadmill desks which allow people to walk slowly while they work. This change is producing huge dividends not only in terms of their physical health and sense of well being but in terms of a worker’s ability to think clearly.
Q: As we learn more about Insight and how it works do you see a lot of changes in store for us?
RC: I see that we are on the cusp of the fourth great step in the evolution of the human organism. First from single cells to multiple cells. Then from water to land. Much later to two-legged locomotion and the rapid development of the frontal cortex. And now the rapid development of insight: an efficient way to solve massively complex problems and assure our survival. We have the ability to move beyond the vestiges of inherited instincts which no longer serve us well, such as greed, competition and aggression and to avoid beliefs which prevent us from solving our most dangerous problems. To the extent that we redesign day to day living around Insight, we can become masters, rather than victims, of the complexity we generate.