Noted American astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Everything we do, every thought we’ve ever had, is produced by the human brain. But exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries, and it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find.” Theoretical physicist and futurist Dr. Michio Kaku (I call him the Mr. Wizard of theoretical physics for his efforts to popularize the field with the common man) also called the human brain “the most complicated object in the known universe.”

What we do know is that the human brain is the command and control center of the body’s nervous system, constantly sending and receiving information to and from the rest of the body. The human brain is the largest of all vertebrates, relative to body size, and weighs just over 3 lbs. and contains about 86 billion nerve cells, or neurons, billions of nerve fibers, and trillions of connections, or synapses.

When awake the human brain conducts enough electricity to power a light bulb and 20% of our blood is used to “power” the brain. And, on top of physically controlling and managing our bodies, without the brain we as human beings would not be able to experience that which has helped us become the most dominant species on the planet, such as curiosity, creativity, memory, or a vision of our own future.

However, for all of its magnificence, our brain can only concentrate on one thing at a time. In fact, multitasking has been called an oxymoron. Research has shown that the brain is not good at multitasking, but is extremely good at rapidly switching from one task to another.

MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller said, “Switching from task to task, you think that you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But, you’re not. You’re really toggling between tasks at amazing speeds. Apparently, we were never multitasking. It’s a myth!”

The brain is so good at focusing on a task that we can actually experience what scientists call inattentional blindness. Two studies tested the phenomena (Neisser, 1979, and Simons & Chabris, 1999) by asking “participants to watch a video of two teams of players, one wearing white shirts and one wearing black shirts. Subjects were asked to press a key whenever the players in white successfully passed a ball, but to ignore the players in black.” In the 1999 version, “a woman in a gorilla suit walked into the scene, stopped to face the camera, thumped her chest, and then walked off the other side after nine seconds on screen.” Observers, to the tune of half, were so focused on counting passes that they missed what was right in front of them.

Fortunately, with the proliferation of very helpful technologies and processes, quality has become less and less susceptible to these phenomena. Discover how newer optical and laser sensor technology is increasing performance in “Expand Your CMM’s Capabilities,” and delve into the effect connected machinery, sensors, data availability, and automation are having on industrial manufacturing with “Get Smarter About Software,” all in the pages of this month’s Quality.

 Enjoy and thanks for reading!