Daniel Lemire's blog

, 5 min read

Your brain and its software patches

Scott Alexander wrote a series of great posts on genetic determinism. He recounts how he believes he learned English without any effort but could not learn Calculus. He explains that a 7-feet-tall healthy individual is almost guaranteed to earn millions of dollars as a basketball player. He believes that height and intelligence are alike.

I disagree.

Firstly, let me briefly recount my own little story. In kindergarten, I failed most tests. I could not count up to 10. I could not tie my shoelaces. I could not recall my phone number. I was put in a special class. For some of my primary education, I was mediocre. Then I grew more interested in academic excellence. In the private high school I attended, I routinely finished first: I have the plaques to prove it. I ended up with a prestigious and generous scholarship to what might be the best Canadian University. I have screwed up many times throughout the years… but what is certain is that I can be both smart and dumb. This is not uncommon: IQ results do vary throughout a child’s life.

As a computer scientist, I view the brain as nothing more than a computer, a Turing machine of sort. Computers are made of software and hardware. There are the electrical components (e.g., the neurons) and then you have the software (how the electrical components interact).

At a high level, all Turing machines are equivalent. The main difference between computers is their speed.

So how do you get smarter computers? By improving the software. Once you set aside the speed, the main difference between computers from the 1970s and computers today is the software. And what difference does it make! Marc Andreessen famously wrote that software is eating the world to illustrate how powerful new software can be.

The great thing about software is that it is portable: once you have designed and implemented an algorithm, you can port it to other machines with relative ease. Much of the software you use today on your fancy laptop can run on a $35 Rasberry Pi.

So, as a computer scientist, I am biased to think that any two individuals with healthy brains facing a new problem differ mostly by how fast they can learn cognitive tasks. If one person can learn something, another should too.

How people differ most in a typical setup is by their software. The smart individuals have a lot of clever software running in their head. It is easy to say that only a select few can be physicists or song writers. After all, only a few people can do it, isn’t it proof that their brain must be somehow fundamentally different?

If we go back in time, few people could read and write. Even kings were illiterate. It would have been insane to expect, back then, that everyone could know how to read and write one day. Most people simply did not have the brains to read and write. Skills that we take for granted today, like reading without speaking out the words, were reserved for prodigies.

If academic results were mostly genetically determined, then all countries with genetically similar populations would fare similarly. Yet relatively small changes to the education system can bring large changes on how students fare academically. A country like Finland went from any other European country, to a worldwide champion of academic success in a few years. (It now looks like they have fallen back again, but that is irrelevant. Poland also achieved the same feat, with a poorer and larger population.)

Europe took over the world. We got the British Empire. The greatest inventions were European. None of it had to do with genetics: the Europeans got the best software patches first. Their people adopted the scientific thought. This made all the difference in the world.

I am told that a world Chess champion in the nineteenth century would barely be able to enter national competitions today. We have long believed that great Chess players had enhanced memory… and though it is true that they can remember Chess games much better than most people, this skill is specific to Chess. They have learned to remember Chess games. They have great Chess software.

It is undeniable that we come to the world with different brains. If you have kids, you know that they have very specific traits that are visible in the first few weeks of their life. And you keep recognizing them throughout their life. One kid might laugh all the time: he started out doing just that when he was barely a month old. Another kid is going to be grumpy all his life, he started out this way as a baby. But these differences are relatively minor. By fitting the right software in their head, both can become Chess players or song writers.

Of course, at the margin, biological differences matter. On a spelling bee competition involving millions of kids, the winner needs to have an ideally suited brain and great training. But on most tasks, most of us are very far from reaching our full potential.

There are certainly physical problems that will prevent you from becoming a good speller. But if you have a healthy brain and the right training, you should be able to become a good speller.

It seems undeniable that women have a greater innate ability with language. But being a boy is no excuse to write poorly. You may have to work harder to get the language patches installed, but they should be available to you.

The real problem is that nobody knows much about how to help people learn. We spend billions of dollars on education every year, but we still do not know how to install a software patch so that boys can spell as well as girls.

As for basketball and being 7-feet tall… We live in a world were men without legs can outrun most of us. It is a failure of imagination to think that we need to be limited by our physical attributes. We just need to think differently, as Steve Jobs would say.