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"Perfection is the end of the story, the end of progress": An Interview with Henning Beck

What inspired you to write Scatterbrain?

On a bright Friday in 2002, I was on an excursion with my chemistry course, discussing the basic principle of science with my teacher. I argued that erroneous thinking distinguishes us from perfect machines. And he agreed, saying, “If we never fail, we will never experience something truly new.” I followed up on the idea that mistakes make us creative and adaptive, so I studied neuroscience to understand our brain’s approach to thinking cleverly. When I realized that everybody today speaks about achieving a perfect world, ruled by efficient algorithms and flawless machines, I felt it was the right time to counteract this popular mode of thinking by writing Scatterbrain.

How did you first discover that many of our brain’s “flaws,” such as forgetfulness and poor rote learning skills, are what differentiate us and make us superior to computers?

Science is about asking questions that offer a new perspective. Everybody, including myself, has everyday experiences that prove our brains are far from perfect. At the same time, I saw how our brains are capable of brilliant thought, thrilling ideas, and ingenious solutions to problems. What if these two cognitive characteristics—flaws and brilliance—are intertwined? If perfectionism is as great as everybody says, then why on earth do our brains have flaws and use trial-and-error methods? What if mistakes aren’t a bad thing in general but offer new ways of thinking?

Scatterbrain discusses the importance of boredom, which is increasingly easy to avoid in the age of smartphones. What’s so great about being bored? And what would you say to someone who is bored often?

Boredom itself isn’t a great thing, of course. We hate to feel bored. Most of us wouldn’t dream of sitting at a bus station without a book or a device, because doing nothing is annoying. But consider the alternative: being captured by tasks and requests all the time, never free to let your mind go or to step back from a problem and consider it from a new angle. Interestingly, the regions of your brain that are active when you feel bored are the same regions that organize the mental state of “mind wandering”—such as daydreaming, letting your mind drift, asking “what if” questions, and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. So, if you break up phases of concentration with phases of defocusing (working out, cooking, or walking the dog), you can turn boredom into moments for inspiration.

What can you tell us about distraction, which seems to be another by-product of smartphones?  

Nowadays it’s easier than ever to get caught up in the next video of cute little kittens, a text message, or a push notification. Devices like smartphones were originally designed to hijack our cognitive apparatus in order to sponge up our attention. On the other hand, if you’re really into watching a video on your phone, you might not realize what’s going on around you—and this type of distraction depends on your brain, not the distractor itself. When we feel overwhelmed or unchallenged, we are more likely to stare at our smartphone displays, completely missing what’s going on around us. If we tailor our work according to our cognitive ability (not too difficult that we’re overwhelmed nor too easy that we’re unchallenged), we are less likely to become distracted. Adjusting your cognitive load to your abilities keeps you from losing focus. But don’t forget, the brain is always curious—and distraction is just the flipside of thinking “outside the box.”

Your book is organized into chapters, each based on a different flaw or mistake that our brains make. Do you have a favourite so-called flaw yourself?

I’m still surprised that we make careless mistakes no matter how hard we try to avoid them. The reason behind this is beautifully simple: The brain is not constructed to think perfectly. It constantly creates a stream of possible action patterns, some good, some not–and sometimes an inappropriate pattern passes through the filters in our brain: That’s when the mistake happens. Of course, the brain adjusts its filtering mechanisms and learns from past mistakes. But it doesn’t change its strategy of creating multiple possibilities to act upon. This strategy keeps us adaptive, creative, and curious.

What are your thoughts on the commonly-heard argument that, one day, most jobs will be replaced by computers and AI? 

I do hope that a lot of jobs will be replaced by algorithms—because these kinds of occupations were unhuman in the first place: repetitive, monotonous, laborious work, which can be automated. But there are three areas that are inert to machine-based streamlining: working together with others (in teams, in companies, when convincing somebody e.g. in marketing, supporting each other e.g. in caregiving, etc.), handicraft, and thinking creatively (i.e. solving problems). Whenever you can put the tag “make it more efficient” on a task, it will be automated. Whenever you have to use your brain, it will stay a human’s job.

What’s the number one thing a person can do to boost their creativity at work?

Ask non-experts. I have never seen a project that did not benefit from asking someone who is not routine-blinded or captured in a department’s thinking style. By the way, connecting with others is always the best way to surprise yourself, which is the spark of every great idea.

There are plenty of books today that teach us how to improve our memory, solve boredom, beat distraction–and be as perfect as we can be. Where does your book fit in?

You can try to boost every cognitive aspect of your brain. But keep in mind that perfection is the end of the story, the end of progress. Because if everything is perfect, where would you proceed to? If you optimize everything and squeeze out the last piece of efficiency, you’re just as good as a mono-cultivated crop-field: Perfect, if everything stays the same, but destroyed if there’s a little change. I don’t call for errors and flaws all the time, but I do urge people to find the courage to think in new directions, learn from mistakes, and appreciate the non-perfectionism of our brain. Because the next great idea won’t be created by an intelligent thinker following the rules as efficiently as possible but by someone who breaks the rules and changes the game, someone brave enough to dare failure. This is what Scatterbrain is about.

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