Imagine this: It’s a cold winter morning, the sun hasn’t made its way through your window yet, so your room is pitch dark, and you have one mission: find your phone. Your hand pats down your nightstand, then the other side of the bed, and under your pillow, until you’ve finally secured that familiar flat box in your palm. This 15 seconds, half-asleep process might seem like the simplest and most mundane task you perform in the morning. What you may not know, is the incredible brainpower and performance it takes to accomplish something like that.
Your brain, the ultimate computer, is equipped with sensors and servo-mechanisms that achieve goals by “going forward or making mistakes, and immediately correcting course” . Your forebrain selects the goal of picking up your phone. But just willing it to happen won’t make it happen. Now, your sensors are put to work to actually trigger the action from desire.
The room is dark, and your face is likely buried deep in your pillow, so you cannot see your phone. You hope that your phone is in its usual place, like charging by your nightstand or beside you in bed. As you search, you pass other objects like your watch, the lamp, and a water glass. The instinctive zig-zag motions your hand performs as it pats down the nightstand and bed is your brain “scanning” and rejecting one object after the other until the phone is found or “recognized”. This is an example of a servo-mechanism. A “scanner” is your brain searching through your stored memories of what your phone feels like, and how it fits into your hand, until the sensors on your fingers recognize the familiar object. A computer solves problems in a very similar way .
Now, with your phone in your hand as you’re lying face up in bed, it classically falls on your face. Yes, it’s happened to most, if not all of us. And it slides right back down next to you in bed. This time, your eyes are open and adjusted to the light of the room, and you aim to perform the same goal: pick up the phone. No longer in the dark, the automatic mechanism in your brain uses feedback data from the sensors in your eyes, “which tells it ‘the degree to which the [phone] is not picked up’. This feedback data enables the automatic mechanism to continually correct the motion of your hand, until it is steered to the [phone]” . In other words, your eyes make contact with the phone and your brain sends a signal to your muscles to move your hand in that direction, back and forth, if need be, until you land on your phone.
Do keep in mind that as an adult, you’ve learned this movement over and over, so the correction of your hand motion is so slim it’s unnoticeable. For a baby, however, the correction of the hand is obvious, since it’s just learning to use the muscles and has stored little to no information to recall. Like all learning, the more practice that takes place, correction becomes more and more refined. So maybe your baby can’t grab your phone for you just yet, but with enough practice (scanning and recognition), that brain can be trained.
In this most simple use case, you can now notice or understand the multitude of processes that take place in your brain to make it happen. We are impressed by SpaceX landing Falcon 9 rockets at an exact target point and time. We do that same mechanism, minus the awe, when we successfully pick up our phones on a groggy Monday morning. Imagine what else our brains are capable of, and how we can translate our ultimate computer into today’s technologies.
1. Maltz, Maxwell. Psycho-Cybernetics. TarcherPerigee, an Imprint of Penguin Books, 2016.