Do you know how your brain works? Interestingly, it works much like the universe itself, though that probably shouldn’t surprise us, given that our brains evolved, straight out of the organizational dynamics of life in our solar system. And how does the universe work? Basically, it "computes" Information, in a very delicate balance between chaos and order, and so does your brain!

And what exactly does that mean? In simple terms, it means that everything we know about our universe, everything we can observe about our solar system, and everything we can discern about the evolution of life here on earth for the last 3.7 billion years, is all defined by probability. The universe computes Information into probabilities. From the interaction of the smallest (quantum) particles to the formation of galaxies and Black Holes, it’s all a matter of probabilities.

In some cases, we can measure those probabilities, as is true with the “laws” of Nature we have discovered over the years. (Even “laws” of Nature are probabilistic, albeit so highly probable as to be virtually axiomatic.) We know, for example, that “laws” of gravity will cause an object in space to follow a particular orbit around the earth, which can be calculated with a very high degree of probability. Most of the time, however, we struggle to calculate the probabilities of our universe. The random, chaotic, non-linear dynamics of our universe eventually give rise to many different manifestations of order, some of them quite ephemeral, so it can be challenging to calculate the probabilities associated with such events.

And so it is with our brains as well. Our brains fulfill so many different critical functions, from maintaining equilibrium within millions of bio-chemical systems throughout the entire body to formulating feelings and behavioral responses to them, that it would be impossible for them to accurately calculate all of the relevant probabilities related to these functions. Given these demands and constraints, our brains resort to approximating those probabilities, but that is not the end of the story. The human brain has amazing computational range, and over the years it has developed the capacity to invent and apply many different tools, like mathematics and statistical analysis. Accordingly, there are times when our brains—aided by these tools—are really good at calculating probabilities, some of them scientific (calculating satellite orbits), some of them less so (laying odds on sports bets).

But here is the rub. Because our brains are constantly approximating the millions of probability functions they encounter every day, we usually fail to consciously consider how much of life is governed by probability. For example, I doubt that anyone actually thinks about all the probability calculations his or her brain is making during a stroll down the sidewalk. As it turns out, even this simple a physical activity involves millions of dynamic calculations, beginning with all the sensory information that must be processed for relevancy and importance to the task. (Is the wind up enough to affect the process? What ground conditions should be taken into account? etc.) Feedback systems within the sensory-motor cortices and the cerebellum are continuously updating countless subcortical, subconscious probability calculations going on every millisecond (some approximated, some not), all of which are critical to retaining one’s balance and coordinating one’s steps along the sidewalk.

But does this really matter? I think it does. A lot. If we all came to a better understanding of how our brains work and concerned ourselves more with the dynamics of probability, we would recognize how critical it is for our brains to keep sourcing new, relevant data and information. And along the way, this might open up our minds and thinking a little, perhaps even change our behaviors. Might we interact differently with someone if we discovered that he or she had just acquired a knowledge base similar to our own, which increased the probability that he or she would understand certain vocabulary and concepts? I think so. More than ever, this is a time for open-mindedness and changing behaviors. Perhaps grasping how life is defined by probabilities could lead us down that path.


Peter Schuller