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Last year, I wrote about how some ants can find their way home after finding food.  They have the remarkable ability to account for all the twists and turns they made while foraging and calculate a direct path leading straight back to their nest.  A reader emailed to ask if I thought humans would ever be able to do something similar or to achieve the level of co-ordination shown by ants.  This post is based on my reply, where I pointed out several things that humans are amazingly good at doing  — in fact, we do them so well and with such ease that you might be surprised by how difficult they actually are!  I’ve spent a lot of time on Inspiring Science talking about behaviours and abilities which show that other animals aren’t just simple automata because I think it’s important to make the point that although humans are unique, we aren’t special; we’re just another species with our own particular tricks for surviving in this world.  I’ll take a different tack in this post and talk about some of the ways we stand out!

  • Do you think we’ll ever achieve the same efficiency as ants — e.g., to be able to find the shortest path back without actually doing the math?

It might come as a surprise, but we already do this sort of thing all the time. We may not all be very good at path finding, but most mature humans are able to catch an object that’s thrown towards them. We do it reflexively and don’t usually think about the computational effort it would take to explicitly calculate the path it will take. Based on just a few visual cues (and some experience), we account for things like the aerodynamics of the object, the force of the pass, the angle of the throw, and so forth. It’s actually pretty amazing once you think about it.

Another example is recognizing voices or faces. Humans are wired to find faces in their surroundings, even in common, everyday objects.  Not only that, but we can instantly pick out a friend’s face in a crowd or recognize their voice against the background buzz of a party.  That sounds pretty trivial unless, like Steve Royster or KH, you can’t do it for some reason.  Recognizing faces and voices are both computationally challenging tasks which are essentially effortless for a healthy human being. In fact, we can still do these things pretty accurately even if the voice is a bit different (e.g., because of illness or a bad phone connection) or the face is distorted.  We can even pick out, recognize and understand a voice when it’s mixed in with a couple of guitars, a keyboard, and some drums.  We’re also quite good at reading subtle clues in a person’s face, voice, or body language to gauge how they’re feeling, a trick which animators and advertisers take advantage of to bring their characters to life.

Can you recognize this face?
Can you recognize this face?
(Images by workbyknight)

The last example I’ll give is our use of language. Producing words takes an impressive co-ordination of many, many muscles, but our ability to understand what we hear is also pretty amazing. We get a continuous stream of sound as an input and manage to instantly break it down into recognizable chunks which carry meaning and construct images in our mind.  Most of us don’t have to think about how incredible these abilities are, but people with aphasia can have difficulty coming up with and producing words or even understanding a language they know.

These are all examples of complicated computational tasks which are so easy for humans that we often don’t realize how hard they are or how efficiently we solve them. To my mind, this is probably very similar to how ants “calculate” the shortest path home from a food source or how other animals solve other complex problems. It’s interesting that several of the examples of human efficiency have to do with social interaction — facial & vocal recognition, language, etc. That probably reflects the kinds of forces that have been shaping our cognitive development during evolutionary history.

Recognizing a face or using language might not seem quite the same as optimizing a path, but they are the sorts of things that humans excel at. Could we train the human brain to excel at other tasks instead? I don’t know. The brain is amazingly flexible, so we probably could. Some people who’ve lost their sight have learned to navigate by sound (i.e., to echo-locate like bats or dolphins). It’s possible that a specific sort of programme could train humans to excel at unusual tasks like path-finding, but I would imagine it would have to be in response to a strong need or a conscious and planned manipulation.

  • Do you think humans can ever achieve that sort of coordination or discipline?

Again, language is an excellent example of the sort of impressive unconscious coordination humans are capable of. Not only do we all learn a language, but we constantly reinvent it together through use. New words, phrases and styles aren’t usually the result of a decision by a central authority; they tend to emerge organically from the spontaneous behaviour of large groups of humans. A similar argument could be made for art. Nobody planned the transition from impressionist music through blues and jazz to rock; it just happened as a result of thousands of independent decisions and urges in many different musicians. It was “in the air” — in other words, it was an unconscious coordination of their behaviour.

I guess the question might be whether we could harness that sort of unconscious coordination to improve the way we work or produce things. My feeling is that this is something that would be
challenging with most traditional labour roles and structures.  The cases where you do see this kind of behaviour are things like art, language, culture,…perhaps science, too. It might also be reflected somewhat in the Open Source movement. These are all fields in which the participants are invested, motivated, independent, and communicative. The coordination isn’t imposed or even constructed into the system; it simply emerges from the independent behaviour of individuals with similar interests and goals.

That’s all from me for now!  Over to you:

  • Can you think of any other examples of complex tasks we do without learning or thinking about them?
  • What about examples of people retraining part of their brain for a different task?
  • How much do you think we can rewire our brains?
  • Is there anything you’d like to train the human brain to do reflexively?
  • Do you want to learn to echo-locate? (I do!)