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Cognitive Thrift 73 – Brain Efficiency


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen and Rick Rosner

Publication (Outlet/Website): Cognitive Thrift

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/06/15

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How does compactification work and make the brain more efficient?

Rick Rosner: Let’s look at it this way, a phenomenon occurs in the world for early humans in Africa or somewhere. Maybe, it’s I don’t know lightning, somebody just gets hit by lightning and killed, or maybe two people get killed in the period of a couple months, and Lucy and the rest of her tribe don’t know beans about anything. They know the natural world, but they don’t think in terms of explanations, particularly. Maybe, they do in terms of hunting, if they gang up on some animal if they flank it they can drive it back into other people with spears or whatever. I don’t know.

Generally, they live in a world that is without a whole lot of explanation, especially explanation that is correct. What they’re left with is association, they can’t not just go outside unless somebody gets hit by lightning, but what they could do is compactify what they know about lightning, which is what we know about lightning. It is associated with rain. It is associated with thunder. It is associated with all of the things that is associated in the brain – rain, sky, dropping barometric pressure if they’re able to sense that, rainy season of the year, and things that stick out taller than other things.

So, if you’re on a golf course, you don’t stand under a tree if it starts to rain. So, by associating lightning with all of these other things, they’ve made the job of avoiding lightning a lot easier. Out of all of the possible causes of lightning, and they don’t understand the cause of lightning and it won’t be understood for another couple million years, they still have compactifying the information about lightning in an informational context. They still made it much easier to think about lightning to deal with it effectively. If they hear thunder, then maybe they should go someplace where they are less likely to be hit by lightning, or a low-lying valley that don’t have a lot of trees or something.

You’ve got compactification of information where the lightning is strongly associated with certain other things. It means they don’t have to be confused when they see lightning. I mean they – it just, once lightning is put in context, associated with other things, they can more quickly and efficiently, effectively think about what to do about lightning. Other stuff in their environment. Say there is a particular type of snake or bug, and that they’ve run into a few times, a couple people might have been bitten.

Three, four, five people and nobody experienced any ill-effects from a snake bite. So, that snake could be compactified or put into the group of associated things that are fairly harmless. So, when somebody sees one of those snakes, they can pretty quickly – they don’t have to waste much thought on it if they have to waste any thought on it at all. That snake is the majority snake in their environment. If most snakes are this fairly harmless snake, they may be able to just ignore snakes in general and just walk by them without particularly, if all snakes in their environment are harmless, they are likely to not have to spend too much thought on snakes. So, compactification frees up resources for things that require thought. It allows you to address issues rapidly, and it can help reduce error by putting thing based on experience into the right class of things.

As humans, we live in the age – looking towards the future and at our past – live in the age of and embody the age of productive thinking, where animals that are less good at thinking are not going to experience the fruits of thinking. The game theoretic payoff for trying to figure something out for a possum is that the payoff box for trying something new is going to be a for a possum is a lot lower than for a person. We developed the cognitive capacity to look at novel situations and to have a decent chance of having a positive outcome to trying something new in situations.

Unfortunately for individual less-than-fit-people, nerds say versus jocks, there are 7.3 billion people right now. So, it’s hard to come up with something new and so awesome that it leads to a change in status for you. There’s only one Mark Zuckerberg, and even he was ripping off the Winklevoss twins.

A part of compactification and thought is breaking down a complicated external world into symbols that we can hold in our heads. Hawking, as he became increasingly debilitated had to develop a compact language that represented super-complex physics so he could hold it all in his head to keep doing physics.

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In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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