How and Why We Underestimate Our Mental Potential


The human race has the capacity to put men on distant planets, explore the depths of the oceans, invent nano-technology to replace living tissue, and create energy sources that replace fossil fuels.  We also have the ability to exhibit the depths of depravity, stupidity and triviality.

While most of us humans still consider depravity and stupidity undesirable traits, we have somehow come to accept triviality as, well, acceptable!  I find this disturbing in the sense that triviality can be a deadly form of self-delusion that hides the true nature of reality, and of life.

Brd Pitt & Angelina Jolie

Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie

Take for example our most important news concerns of the day:  Brad and Angelina’s dinner menu, Nicole Richie’s post-delivery pictures, party crashers at the White House, and any stupid thing Britney does.  How, we might query, does this feed a single hungry person or add to human knowledge at all?

Hello!  It doesn’t.

And It’s Getting Worse

Marketing expert Troy White writes

Celebrity-gossip websites have seen a 30% growth over the past 12 months “ many offline print magazines are seeing a 50%+ growth rate “ this while newsworthy publications like Time are seeing a 17% decline in readership.

Scary. If I believed we were capable of little more than this, I would fear for our race.  Global warming may never get us, but our own folly certainly will . . . given enough time and lapses in leadership.

I still believe, however, that humans have a destiny that transcends even

Bucky Fuller

Bucky Fuller

their ability to hide it from themselves.  R. Buckminster Fuller in his groundbreaking book Critical Path, paid humanity many high compliments.  He wrote:

all humans, including the assumed-to-be ˜illiterates’ and ˜spastics,’ are born with a comprehensive and superb inventory of subjectively apprehending and synergetically comprehending faculties “ as well as objectively articulating capabilities. (p. 26)

This is Fuller-Speak for all humans have the capacity to be very intelligent, and to express this intelligence.  But how?  By focusing on Britney’s latest arrest photos?  Probably not.

We Are Asleep

Fuller cites the fact that 99% of humanity does not know we have the ability to make it on this planet and in the universe (as of 1980 anyway).  Maybe Britney, Brad and Angelina are diversions intended to numb the pain of our collective fear.  Perhaps we have made the decision that we are helpless against natural forces, and accept our fate by ignoring it.

This may be true.  We have, after all, been bombarded with bad news even before CNN, FOX and NBC.  Since biblical times, prophets, seers, and soothsayers have been predicting our demise.  It seems to be a popular sport, then as now.

Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus

The economist Thomas Malthus predicted in 1805 that overpopulation would result in the destruction of all humans by 1900 and the same theme was played again in the 1960’s and 70’s.

So far we’re still here.

Fuller’s vision of the future gives us more hope that perhaps the modern doomsayers are wrong.  He found, for example, that mankind in 1980 was using only .0000004% of the reserves available via what he calls our cosmic energy income account.  He said that artifacts “ created and propagated by our own intelligence “ would consistently come to our rescue.

If this is the case, then we have severely curtailed our ability to create even more artifacts.  But how much of our mental capacity remains untapped?

Let’s Look at the Brain Itself

The view of the brain as a type of computer has gained general acceptance in the philosophical and computer science community. The only question has been “ how powerful IS this machine when compared to, say, an IBM PC or a Cray?  How well does the human brain actually perform?

Einstein postulated that we are perhaps using about 10% of our mental capacity.  But of course, Einstein based his estimate on his personal observation as a patent clerk and a physicist usually surrounded by other brilliant minds.  Even his first wife was a physicist herself, and instrumental in helping him formulate his Special and General Theories of Relativity.

One of the modern techniques used to consider mental capacity is to count the number of synapses, guess their speed of operation, and determine synapse operations per second. There are roughly one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) synapses operating at about 10 impulses per second, giving roughly 10 quadrillion synapse operations per second.

Another approach is to estimate the computational power of the retina, and then multiply this estimate by the ratio of brain size to retinal size. The retina is relatively well understood so we can make a reasonable estimate of its computational power.

The output of the retina – carried by the optic nerve – is primarily from retinal ganglion cells that perform center surround computations (or related computations of roughly similar complexity). If we assume that a typical computation requires about 100 analog adds and is done about 100 times per second, then computation of the axonal output of each ganglion cell requires about 10,000 analog adds per second.

There are about one million axons in the optic nerve, so the retina as a whole performs about 10 billion analog adds per second. There are about 100 million nerve cells in the retina, and between 10 billion and 1 trillion nerve cells in the brain, so the brain is roughly 100 to 10,000 times larger than the retina.

By this logic, the brain should be able to do about one trillion to 10 quadrillion operations per second.

Either way, that’s enough mental power and speed to predict everything Brad and Angelina will be doing over the next five hundred years . . . or perhaps we might even do something useful instead.

Next: The Limitations of the Conscious Mind

Categories : Brain Science, History


  1. […] This post was Twitted by drmichaelcraig […]

  2. […] the last two blog posts, I wrote about the uncanny power of our own mental potential, and about how our weakest link is our CONSCIOUS MIND. This post is about how to strengthen this […]

  3. […] Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Nicola Tesla, R. Buckminster Fuller. All are considered towering geniuses who – in addition to their genius – also gave us […]

  4. […] of thought and wonder.  Realize that there is an intelligence that guides us – that which R. Buckminster Fuller called universe – that will always be with us and a part of us.  It will also eventually […]