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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 5

Why Is it Impossible to Stop Thinking, to Render the Mind a Complete Blank?




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Why is it impossible to stop thinking, to render the mind a complete blank?
John Hendrickson, via email

Barry Gordon, professor of neurology and cognitive science at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, replies:

Forgive your mind this minor annoyance because it has worked to save your life—or more accurately, the lives of your ancestors. Most likely you have not needed to worry whether the rustling in the underbrush is a rabbit or a leopard, or had to identify the best escape route on a walk by the lake, or to wonder whether the funny pattern in the grass is a snake or dead branch. Yet these were life-or-death decisions to our ancestors. Optimal moment-to-moment readiness requires a brain that is working constantly, an effort that takes a great deal of energy. (To put this in context, the modern human brain is only 2 percent of our body weight, but it uses 20 percent of our resting energy.) Such an energy-hungry brain, one that is constantly seeking clues, connections and mechanisms, is only possible with a mammalian metabolism tuned to a constant high rate.

Constant thinking is what propelled us from being a favorite food on the savanna—and a species that nearly went extinct—to becoming the most accomplished life-form on this planet. Even in the modern world, our mind always churns to find hazards and opportunities in the data we derive from our surroundings, somewhat like a search engine server. Our brain goes one step further, however, by also thinking proactively, a task that takes even more mental processing.

So even though most of us no longer worry about leopards in the grass, we do encounter new dangers and opportunities: employment, interest rates, “70 percent off” sales and swindlers offering $20 million for just a small investment on our part. Our primate heritage brought us another benefit: the ability to navigate a social system. As social animals, we must keep track of who's on top and who's not and who might help us and who might hurt us. To learn and understand this information, our mind is constantly calculating “what if?” scenarios. What do I have to do to advance in the workplace or social or financial hierarchy? What is the danger here? The opportunity?

For these reasons, we benefit from having a brain that works around the clock, even if it means dealing with intrusive thoughts from time to time.

This article was originally published with the title "Ask the Brains."

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