What is the human brain good at doing? And what are its blind spots?
We are able to recognize a cow standing on a field, or identify a tree by looking at its leaves. We can feel the rain on our skin, and understand another person’s pain by looking at their face.
Further, we can traverse a variety of natural environments with our hands and legs. We can walk, run, jump, climb and swim within in the first few years of our lives. We are built to explore the world. There are few species of multi-cellular organisms that are as widespread on the planet as we are.
While these tasks may seem simple to us, it is hard to get a machine to identify cows, climb mountains or recognize other people’s pain. That is why we click on panels in a picture that contain a billboard to prove that we aren’t a robot.
And what are our blind spots?
For starters, there are math concepts. We aren’t natural adders, subtractors or multipliers (of numbers at least). We use written symbols (+, – and x) to understand and communicate these operations. At the same time, we aren’t great at understanding the scientific rules and constructs that explain the world around us. This is because these are man-made constructs. There are no mathematical symbols in the real world, unlike the smell of the rain, the sight of a rainbow or the croak of a frog. We have invented them. They are our “abstractions”.
We live in a very abstract world from the ones our ancestors inhabited. That is why it takes about 15 years of schooling and at least 3 years of college education to eke out a living.
Writing is our oldest tool in recording and making sense of abstraction. The moment something is written down, it achieves a form, just like a cow or a tree does. When we see the “+” symbol, we know what it means because we have added for several years now. It is hard to solve a hard math problem without pen and paper and it is telling that the first use of writing was to keep track of harvested grains.
The eras before humans wrote are called “pre-historic”. The invention of writing is the historian’s big-bang. For about 70,000 years of existence, we could not write for 65,000. Only around 1960, did we have a world with more literate people than illiterate people.
Therefore, learning to write well is a skill as important and fundamental as mathematics or science. It forms the very basis of these disciplines. While school teaches us to write, it tells us very little about how we write, or what the most effective ways are. Not everyone who is literate can write. In writing, we have the oldest tool to moving from the knowledge that surrounded us to knowledge that we created, synthesized and transmitted. But I’d wager that more people can add numbers than write sentences effectively.
I have said this before, and I will shout it from rooftops – there is room yet for a writing revolution.