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The power of parallel processing

The brain’s adaptation to the environment is an extremely slow process. Thus one could even say that the human brain is still in the Stone Age, adapted to the environment predominant to that era.


Back in the Stone Age it was very advantageous for an individual to classify stimuli instantly as good or bad. It was necessary to process a huge amount of information as soon as possible (e.g., information from all senses, prior experiences and memories, as well as inner states). Back then you were either a hunter or a hunted. Either way, decisions had to be made instantly. But rapid decisions based on huge amounts of information require fast parallel processing (multiple processes executed at the same time), not serial (an item at a time).


The parallel processing is exactly what our brains excel at. Our brains work all the time, but only a fraction of the work occurs consciously while most of it happens on an unconscious level. While our conscious level is capable of simultaneously processing a maximum of four items, the capacity of the unconscious is practically limitless. Some scientists have estimated that, the while conscious mind can process a maximum of only 50 bits per second, the unconscious reaches its limits at around 11,000,000 bits per second. That is, while a conscious mind has processed one item unconsciousness has processed 200,000 items. This is comparable to the difference between the surface area of the entire earth and Luxembourg. As a consequence, studying solely conscious processes leaves majority of the brain processes veiled.

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