A Crisis of Noise - Messages To/From Our Brains

How can we figure out what we should be paying attention to?

Posted Feb 28, 2017

Argh! Aren’t we all feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information that is flooding our brains? The problem is more than “fake news”. How can we know what information is useful and important for us?

Fortunately, in our open market system, and thanks to the Internet and social media, there are a lot of sources of information. Wait, isn’t this part of the problem?

We need to develop new survival skills. We need to teach our children how to deal with this situation, which we have brought on to ourselves through our drive for new technologies, economies driven by mass consumption, and simply more people in the world. Formal education is not enough.

The fundamental issue for us is to figure out what to believe. Millennials seem to be approaching this by disregarding conventional wisdom, and “establishment sources” and relying on their own experience and that of others, even strangers, as well as friends. Social media is a key technology that has enabled this new survival skill. Is this enough?

What general principles help us understand this challenge? In electronics, the technical term for the problem is “signal-to-noise ratio”. When the noise is too loud, it drowns out the signal. The development of highly effective and efficient filters has enabled the sound quality we have come to expect in radio, television, and cell phones. This has resulted from the ability to measure and control electrical signals very precisely. Noise consists of random signals, signals that do not contribute to known or understandable patterns. We can only interpret meaning through patterns. Computers are far, far better at processing large amounts of data and discovering patterns that may or may not exist.

What are the signals our brains are processing? Unfortunately, our current knowledge doesn’t permit us to measure and manipulate the molecular communications between cells in our body and our brains.

We’re at war! Apparently, there are more bacterial cells in our gut, the microbiome, than cells in our body. There are “good bacteria”, that help our digestion, support our immune system, provide vitamins and other essential biochemicals. There are also “bad bacteria”, and when the balance between the good and bad is tipped in favor of the bad, disease conditions can result. A mild state of imbalance could be an upset stomach. A more severe condition might be diarrhea or constipation. Things only get worse after that. So, these bacteria are at war with each other. Our bodies are the battleground.

There is scientific research that supports the idea that both the good and the bad bacteria are continuously sending messages to our brains, directing our cravings for certain kinds of food. The messages from the bad bacteria tell us to eat foods that are unhealthy! This is another kind of war within our brain that many of us may not have been aware of. This is a battle for attention. How do we know which voices to believe and respond to?

Our survival appears to depend on how well we support the good bacteria, by eating the foods and behaving in ways that are good for them and not supporting the bad bacteria. Our physical bodies exist to feed the bacteria in our gut! What a notion.

In the innovation process, when a company is developing a new product, a similar quandary exists. In the Ideation phase, we generate a large number of new concepts for potential products. Some of these may be wildly inappropriate, and that is encouraged. We call this divergent thinking.

The next step, called convergent thinking, requires blending these crazy ideas into a more coherent message. This is the really tough part. How do we know we have enough ideas? How can we tell which ideas are better than the others? How do we decide what to believe?

What signals are we perceiving today? What data points and kinds of input are we processing? What additional data points might be helpful? What senses are we using? What filters are we applying to help us understand what we observe?

How do we proceed? Maybe we need to learn to ask better questions, from more reliable sources, and reflect more on the answers presented to us.