Imagine a future where we can quantify, and understand, all of our brain’s activity.
Our cognitive dashboard might be similar to how we present, measure, analyze, and optimize for other complex systems such as computers (i.e. CPU, Memory, Energy, Disk, Network), automobiles, health (i.e. blood, vitals, genome, microbiome, etc.), climate/environment, etc.
We all understand the unit of measurement called a calorie. Calories in, calories out. But when it comes to the function of our brains, why don't we have any units of measure?
Why can’t we quantify our neural activity in real, concrete numbers?
I have this poster in my office and home, which lists 188 of our brain’s cognitive biases:
Notice anything funny about it?
It’s all just words.
We do not have the tools or knowledge to be able to talk about the brain in numbers, comparisons, and metrics.
“Attebytes” is a conceptual idea I’ve been playing with lately, around quantifying one aspect of our brain activity. Technically, The idea is ahead of its time because it’s not yet possible to do this, but I’ve found the imagination exercise useful.
It’s terrifically hard to change what we can’t measure. If we could really measure our brain’s activity, it would be a historical turning point for Homo sapiens, making radical human cognitive evolution possible.
Attebytes is not computational, because the brain is not a CPU. It is not just a quantification of “attention”, because attention is only one small piece of what the brain does. (The root attendere means “stretching one’s mind toward something”.)
If you know very little about the brain, think of Attebytes as a number system that keeps track of what you spend your day thinking about, like a calorie counter for thoughts. If you know tons about the brain, you might think about it as allocation of metabolism to brain regions of interest, or selective bottlenecks of information processing over time.
For now, let it be whatever number you want it to be, anything that helps you keep track of your mental fitness based on your knowledge of the brain. Estimates are that each and every one of us experiences almost 80,000 thoughts a day. What are we doing with those thoughts? How “expensive” are they? How will we ever know?
Your cognitive dashboard for this morning, for example, might show that while you were getting dressed in the morning, you were also:
- Mentally rehearsing your 10 am presentation (8.3 attebytes)
- Remembering that you wanted to change the title on slide #2 (.56 attebytes)
- Anticipating how you’re going to emotionally respond when your co-worker Miriam likely rejects the idea before even hearing you out (15.3 attebytes)
- Feeling angry that Miriam always seems to purposely want to sabotage you (13.9 attebytes)
- Realizing that your shoes looked terribly worn (.40 attebytes)
- Remembering that you have $767 in your bank account but need to pay $2,100 in rent next Tuesday to avoid the $75 late fee (5.3 attebytes)
- So getting new shoes is out of the question (.4 attebytes)
- You then began wondering if the dilapidated state of your clothing reflects poorly on you (7.2 attebytes)
Meanwhile, other parts of your brain were largely on auto-pilot combing your hair, brushing your teeth, and rushing out the door (9.5 attebytes).
Reducing our brain activity to a single number is obviously an oversimplification. That’s the point. Humans need simplifications in order to understand almost anything complex. That’s one of our basic biases!
Once we can put numbers to these things, we understand how much these biases cost us.
What would we do with such information?
We could do for brain activity what we’ve done with FOOD:
Quantify (i.e. calories, nutrition);
Categorize (i.e. fruit, vegetable, high-fat);
Proactively Manage (i.e. diet, bioanalysis);
Innovate (i.e. synthetic biology to increase yield/nutrition).
We could do for brain activity what we’ve done with BLOOD:
Quantify (i.e. LDL, HDL, RBCs );
Categorize (i.e. A, O, B, high-risk, low-risk);
Proactively Manage (i.e. lifestyle restrictions, Lipitor);
Innovate (i.e. EPO)
We could do for brain activity what we’ve done with ENERGY:
Quantify (i.e. Joules, Watts);
Categorize (i.e. Steam, Coal, Nuclear, Solar);
Proactively Manage (i.e. Distribute peak loads, carbon credits);
Innovate (i.e. Batteries, power grid).
Science begins with counting. To understand a phenomenon, a scientist must first describe it; to describe it objectively, he must first measure it.
No integrated system like the brain can be reduced to a single measurement.
But it’s a useful exercise.
Would we be horrified about what our brains are actually doing all day? Would we find that we only allocate a single-digit % of our cognitive resources to the most challenging yet most important priorities of the day?
Would we be able to quantify the effect of our smartphones or news and social media screaming for our attention all day? What if you knew exactly how much it cost you to keep scrolling through that social feed or to allow “autoplay” runaway with your attention?
When humans can measure something, the first thing that always happens: an ecosystem of ideas and, eventually, industry springs up around it.
Following quantification, companies by the thousands would spring up to be wellness centers, gyms, and retreats for the brain, helping us individually and collectively focus on what we care most about.
The most successful companies (hopefully) would be those who created the highest value uses for your brains, not psychologically manipulate you and extract your value. (See my last article, Why It's Important to Own Your Digital Data on why it’s a critical first step to begin radically improving ourselves. We also need to mindful of what can happen when we get too obsessed with numbers.)
Imagining that we could identify cognitive biases and put a number to them, I think we would be floored at how flawed our thinking is and how oblivious we are to it. What if we could measure how expensive our cognitive biases, blind spots and belief entrenchments are? Would having your brain’s numbers in plain sight make certain biases socially unacceptable?
What if we could quantify the cost to your creativity, productivity, and intellectual and emotional well-being from checking your phone over 100 times a day?
Managing anxiety, depression, recovery and disease could level up in sophistication.
With calories, good and bad is easy. We know that eating cake all day is bad. But why? Because all of our body health measures have numbers.
How might we begin to imagine what the 2030 version of the poster in my office look like?
With this information, we would rush to offload high-Attebyte behaviors that create little value. We’d have a yardstick to carefully evaluate the products and services we use, the relationships we maintain and where we get our news. “Nah, don’t read that. It’s not worth your Attebytes.”
Our brain processes could be tuned based on measurement and modeling so that studying quantum theory activates reward systems similar to watching the Kardashians.
Multi-decade timescales and the true burden of existential threats to our species and planet could be made as salient to our brains as changes in our bank or bitcoin account or an insult from a peer.
Undoing our ignorance could replace our eagerness for certainty.
Instead of fearing complexity, we could thrive in it.
Instead of fearing AI, we could recognize it as our essential co-evolutionary partner to radically improve our cognition and alleviate our brain of the cumbersome thoughts that waste away our scarce resources (The explosion of multicellular life on this planet happened because mitochondria came along and took over all the tough metabolic stuff for the cell, freeing the bigger cell to tackle the complexities of surviving and reproducing. This is what we need AI for to level up as a species).
For example, knowing that driving to work burned 134.8 Attebytes, we might clamor for autonomous vehicles to free up these neural resources! Perhaps we would have had autonomous cars and other such tools much sooner if we realized how important they were to begin re-configuring and optimizing our cognitive capabilities.
Would new ecosystems for work, entertainment, mental health, and social interaction emerge with entrepreneurs, creatives, and academics studying, discovering, and building new sources of cognitive advancement and delights instead of waving the white flag of Universal Basic Income?
Would we get sufficiently skilled at these optimizations that we could explore variations and other dimensions of our consciousness?
Or build new language and communication architectures that transform society as radically as language did?
A decade into this recursively evolutionary process, we would look back at how we used our brains and gasp!
Our brains can be either the hero or the villain in the story of our collective fate. It’s time we begin Changing Our Minds.