Any textbook on psychology would be incomplete without reference to the brain. Every behavior, thought, or experience described in the other modules must be implemented in the brain. A detailed understanding of the human brain can help us make sense of human experience and behavior. For example, one well-established fact about human cognition is that it is limited. We cannot do two complex tasks at once: We cannot read and carry on a conversation at the same time, text and drive, or surf the Internet while listening to a lecture, at least not successfully or safely. We cannot even pat our head and rub our stomach at the same time (with exceptions, see “A Brain Divided”). Why is this? Many people have suggested that such limitations reflect the fact that the behaviors draw on the same resource; if one behavior uses up most of the resource there is not enough resource left for the other. But what might this limited resource be in the brain?
Figure 1. An MRI of the human brain delineating three major structures: the cerebral hemispheres, brain stem, and cerebellum.
The brain uses oxygen and glucose, delivered via the blood. The brain is a large consumer of these metabolites, using 20% of the oxygen and calories we consume despite being only 2% of our total weight. However, as long as we are not oxygen-deprived or malnourished, we have more than enough oxygen and glucose to fuel the brain. Thus, insufficient “brain fuel” cannot explain our limited capacity. Nor is it likely that our limitations reflect too few neurons. The average human brain contains 100 billion neurons. It is also not the case that we use only 10% of our brain, a myth that was likely started to imply we had untapped potential. Modern neuroimaging (see “Studying the Human Brain”) has shown that we use all parts of brain, just at different times, and certainly more than 10% at any one time.
If we have an abundance of brain fuel and neurons, how can we explain our limited cognitive abilities? Why can’t we do more at once? The most likely explanation is the way these neurons are wired up. We know, for instance, that many neurons in the visual cortex (the part of the brain responsible for processing visual information) are hooked up in such a way as to inhibit each other (Beck & Kastner, 2009). When one neuron fires, it suppresses the firing of other nearby neurons. If two neurons that are hooked up in an inhibitory way both fire, then neither neuron can fire as vigorously as it would otherwise. This competitive behavior among neurons limits how much visual information the brain can respond to at the same time. Similar kinds of competitive wiring among neurons may underlie many of our limitations. Thus, although talking about limited resources provides an intuitive description of our limited capacity behavior, a detailed understanding of the brain suggests that our limitations more likely reflect the complex way in which neurons talk to each other rather than the depletion of any specific resource.