So if my incredibly basic understanding of how brains across animal species work is that the brain is compartmentalised into a bunch of different sectors that handle things like sight, language, fight or flight, motor control etc, but all these neurons across the sectors are the same. But as there is little need to activate the whole of the brain, most of the brain goes unused in day to day life.

So wouldn't it be more efficient/give a higher capacity for intelligence if the brain acted as one homogeneous entity, with an organic BIOS sector that has the brain use more of itself to perform the different tasks that the sectors would normally do. Lets say an organism is just doing its thing but then it suddenly needs to do a specific task like solve a complex puzzle, could it theoretically devote an extremely disproportionate amount of its brain to solving that one puzzle, come to a solution and then power down puzzle solving, giving heightened priority to other senses such as sight, hearing, smell and touch in the mean time? This means that it could adjust its brain on the fly to deal with its situations giving it far more flexibility to survive.

TL;DR Load the boot floppy for a task over a large area of a brain then power down when task is done

I am aware that most of your brain isn't sitting, twiddling its thumbs waiting to be used and that interconnected sectors frequently communicate and crosstalk, however I am wondering if this would be more efficient/give a higher capacity for intelligence.

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    $\begingroup$ nearly all the brain is used every day, activating all the brain at once is called a seizure. Also you can't load and unload software from the brain unless you have another brain to store it in, the brain records information with its structure $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 20 at 0:49
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    $\begingroup$ "So wouldn't it be more efficient // if the brain acted as one homogeneous entity, with an organic BIOS sector that has the brain use more of itself to perform the different tasks" .. 🤔 .. You do know that there are these things called graphics cards right? doesn't the fact they exist suggest to you that as far as we understand things it isn't more efficient to do things without the occasional specialisation of function? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Jun 20 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ The brain is not a computer. It doesn't work like one, and it is not structured like one. If you must think of the brain as some sort of computing device, then the closest analogy would be a programmable logic array (more usually called a PLA). The neurons in the brain are not "all the same" -- you are forgetting the connectome. In the brain, just like in a PLA, it is the interconnections which define the function of each neuron or gate, and thus of the whole system. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 20 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ "most of the brain goes unused in day to day life." I believe your assertion/understanding here is incorrect, perhaps informed by the "10% of the brain" myth. A cited quote from that same wikipedia article: "Neurologist Barry Gordon describes the myth as false, adding, 'we use virtually every part of the brain, and that (most of) the brain is active almost all the time.'" (emphasis added). $\endgroup$ Jun 20 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ Brains are already highly efficient. They've had 4 billion years to get there, and the energy requirements of a brain are one of the biggest drivers in evolution. Human brains especially are already extremely efficient, far moreso than any of the artificial neural nets we've created. A single neuron can do the same work as an 8-layer artificial neural network per most recent research. Even so, the brain is still 30% of a human's energy requirements and the main driver behind humans becoming predators. $\endgroup$
    – stix
    Jun 20 at 18:39

8 Answers 8


This already exists, kind of. Let me elaborate for a bit.

For starters, we don't really understand how the brain works. We have ideas, certainly, and can draw correlations, but our knowledge of the brain continues to expand. For instance, the notion that we only use part of our brain isn't exactly true. It's more accurate to say that the conscious mind only is perceived to use part of our mind, but it's likely that we couldn't use that without the remainder of it being used by the subconscious in ways we don't fully understand yet.

And, speaking of subconscious, it can be used to achieve the very process you're talking about. When the conscious mind hits a wall against a problem, it will delegate that to the subconscious. This is why 'taking a break' when dealing with a problem can be beneficial - it gives the subconscious time to solve the problem which will then filter back to the conscious.

That is, of course, how this process works in a human. Now, could an intelligence theoretically exist that could do this consciously? Possibly, but there exists a major drawback. Delineating conscious, or to put it in computer terms, parallel processing, is purely speculative and there are many challenges with that, so let's not assume its possible for the time being.

In a being with one conscious, diverting the consciousness to solving a single problems means completely shutting out external stimuli, which is potentially lethal. True, the problem solving will be more efficient, but no creature that voluntarily shuts outside stimuli will manage to make it. So, in summary, a current variant of this exists and is used by humans, but a more specialized version of it probably wouldn't arise naturally in a creature.

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    $\begingroup$ For the last paragraph, we can also do that in a safe manner. Only few people can do it on purpose, but have you never been such "in a flow" that you forgot to drink/move/whatever for a couple of hours when working on something challenging yet interesting? It's just hard to get to that state, but definitely already possible for humans. And it comes with the added benefit of our body dragging us back to reality before we completely die $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jun 20 at 10:07

If I understand correctly your question you would like each sector of the brain to be able to execute a different type of task depending on the situation. We don't know if this is already happening, but a lot of observations have been made with tomography and pet scanners and it doesn't seem to be the case. Each group of neurons seem to be performing a very specialised task. If some areas of the brain appear to be active with many different types of reasoning chances are that they are performing low level tasks that are needed by many different higher level operations.

You may imagine a neuron as a component of a programmable logic device where the configuration is performed by altering chemically the sensitivity to a signal or by growing new synaptic connections. All the logic is built in the circuit. Each group of neurons can be configured into a circuit that performs a certain task, but it takes a while to reconfigure that circuit to perform another task, as it is the brain you imagine is unlikely.

A workaround could be a neuron that has a lot more synapses. The synapses could be working in groups, each active in a particular situation, thus there could be different circuits built around the same group of neurons. Trouble is, how to switch on or off a certain group of synapses? There could be an idea, a part of the neuron we understand little or nothing is the feedback synapse, it may suppress or enhance a signal, now we don't know when, how or why, but it would fit in your story as a group of switches that can quickly re-program some parts of the brain.

The drawback of such a brain is that the huge amount of synapses would increase dramatically the amount of heath to dissipate.


Ok, first thing first, all that "6% of your brain" stuff is rubbish, as everyone has pointed out. Your brain is on, all the time, although quite a lot of it is doing the brain equivalent of looping cat gifs.

Second thing second, the human brain has been shaped by millions of years of iterative improvement via evolution. You can't really improve on evolution as far as optimisation goes. Where you can do better than evolution, however, is when the optimisation function changes.

Evolution has, by necessity, optimised for a generalist brain that uses a mixture of good-enough heuristics, past experience, instinct (basically, genetically encoded past experience) and, occasional, conscious computation. This particular setup is a bit of a jack of all trades, and obviously the most successful so far. This is your generic big-box-store home PC, can do most things, none terribly well, but at the best performance-to-price ratio.

But perhaps you want "specialised" brains, not all that good globally but really, really good at very specific things. Your database server will need disk I/O and your backup server will need hard drive space and your bitcoin miner will need a Ponzi scheme processing power, and so on. Evolution isn't actually all that good in delivering these; so you have some potential here.

Existing neurodivergent traits

Without wanting to make hay of the rather offensive "idiot savant" stereotype, there are specific tasks that people with particular neurodivergent features tend to excel at. Autism often comes with exceptional attention to detail and subject-specific memory, ADHD with lateral thinking and hyperfocus, and so on. In your world (we are worldbuilding, yes?) particularly unusual individuals might be sought out and, instead of being "treated" to make them behave more like the majority, their rare features may be encouraged (or exploited, if you will), perhaps in environments that accommodate and minimise the negative impacts of these traits.


Not going to google this at work, but you can clearly enhance specific brain functions through stimulants and other mind-altering substances. Many cultures have done so historically, and despite a layer of disapproval, so does ours. What if amphetamines were as common as caffeine? What if a monthly "cache wipe" with hallucinogens were something that your GP advises?

Get rid of unnecessary skills

One of the sources for the idea that most of your brain is not used is based on observing which parts of the brain can be removed (surgically or due to trauma) without resulting in specific impairment. Turns out, you can remove (individually) many chunks of the brain! That's not because they were useless, but because the brain has a lot of plasticity and redundancy. The rest of the brain will cover for the missing chunk by redirecting some other region to provide a passable bodge. So, perhaps you could free up some brain regions from jobs that you have decided are not really that useful.

One mentioned above is sensory input - do you really need the sense of smell? Get rid. Deaf people do just fine. So do blind people, and look at all that free visual cortex that you can now use for something else! Of course, again, there's a reason why blindness and deafness have not become evolutionary selected traits - their drawbacks are significant in our society, and it's not obvious that the "free" brainpower could really be used effectively for another task. Again, it's up to your world to accommodate these people and develop a training regime that maximises the reallocation of cortical areas to your task of interest. And perhaps make sure they never find out that you blinded/deafened them in the womb so you could make their brain into a supercomputer.

Or how about imagination? Do we really need the ability to make playable films of events in our head, or paint images from descriptions? Turns out, the answer is no: indeed, about 1% of the population does not form mental images at all, and many more don't form sensorially vivid memories. That is a lot of hard drive space freed up.


It is not more efficient.

It takes time for signals to travel.

It takes time for signals to travel, so processing related things in physically limited regions is more efficient then processing over a distributed region.

For a given task, task specific hardware is always faster/more efficient then general purpose.

Certain tasks are common, and frequent, such as audio processing. Having dedicated hardware(parts of the brain) dedicated to common tasks is more efficient then general purpose. Evidenced by integrated circuit history.

You are betting against evolution.

You are suggesting a more efficient solution then a system that has undergone millions of iterations, that includes efficiency in the selection criteria. This is almost certainly a losing bet.


Concentration, training, education, freedom

Q: Lets say an organism is just doing its thing but then it suddenly needs to do a specific task like solve a complex puzzle, could it theoretically devote an extremely disproportionate amount of its brain to solving that one puzzle, come to a solution and then power down puzzle solving

My two cents do NOT go down the road of modifying biology. Our ape brain is quite efficient, apart from SF or cyborg solutions I don't see a science based "changing" the physical brain. It works.

Nevertheless some interesting ways of optimizing brain use exist,

Close your eyes: concentration and redirection of the visual cortex

Humans already "power down" but in some cases, the available capacity remains in place and is made good use of... people power down e.g. their visual tasks and redirect capacity of the virtual cortex, when they close their eyes. Same with the motoric system.. When you're solving puzzles, you generally prefer to sit down in a chair, rather than riding a bicycle.

While solving puzzles sometimes you close your eyes, your memory projects patterns on the retina pop up, you could - subconciously - associate these patterns with the answer (or a specific word) you need to solve in your puzzle. The most common "savants" like living calculators also use the visual system, they see patterns associated with numbers. Possibly, redirection of the visual system resources will be possible with some kind of training?


Education starting in the womb

Higher level brain parts don't do preprogrammed tasks. Every detail of higher brain functions like senses and language is learned. The learning already starts in the mother's womb. The structure of speech and phonetics. Consider designing stimulus patterns that affect certain thought reflexes, or suppress them. Maybe there's some formula, a set of patterns to let children be born more intelligent.. or speak 3 languages.. or understand the chromatic scale better and play music.

Educate kids anyway.. tiger mothers

I general, 2/3 of the world population could improve their brain function when properly educated. Some kids are susceptible to ambitious mothers.. and develop skills much faster than other kids. How do these incentives work and would they be applicable when a "tiger mother" is absent? or money lacks to pay for school..


Generalist experience: lengthen freedom of youth, postpone adulthood

The more you're involved in specialization, the less flexible your brain will become, on the long term. Current schools are focusing on preparing a kid's brain to be ready for economic activity like work. They finish that process at a relatively young age. Postpone work and specialization, or postpone adulthood until you're 30-35, it will be rooted in experience and less dream-like. And you'll have more patience to execute your wild plans. Executing wild plans does help your brain to develop.


I think for extreme improvements you'd need cyborging.

Brain chips: Enhanced memory, reflexes, stored skills, stored instructions, maps.

Modems: The ability to send/receive computer information from other people and/or a mainframe. Potentially this gives...

  1. A perfect memory stored externally that's accessible by everyone. The movie "Anon" did a good job showcasing a civilization where everyone can do this.
  2. Mixed reality (i.e. Virtual Reality clues or other information overlaid on what you see). So if you're chasing someone and they're in a crowd, your target could be highlighted if a computer somewhere knows which one he is.
  3. Downloadable skills like in the Matrix.
  4. Communication with others in a way that's close to telepathy.
  5. Control over machinery that's designed to be controlled remotely.

Either of those would also include lightning calculation and perfect awareness of time.


Probably not.

Before we dive into the problem itself, let's talk about two little things that often get in the way of such structures: specialization and energy efficiency.

In nature really what matters is 2 things: not dying and reproducing successfully. Not dying requires that you have enough energy to survive, as well as the means to get that energy, but if you're a colossal mass of undifferentiated cells, chances are that you'll be outcompeded by another clump with specialized ones, because when it comes to energy efficiency, it's best to divide your "workers" so that each is responsible no more than a small couple of functions. If everyone must be responsible for everything, everyone is burning huge amounts of energy for no reason, and chances are that the whole process might actually becomes slower, because they're not able to focus on that one thing alone.

This strategy of specialization is in fact so successful that its present on nearly every single euchariotic cell in the world, them having special organelles that each handle a different function necessary for the cell's survival, and this specialization is also present in our brains, which is why our brain is divided into different regions that do different things (the part that handles vision is very different from the part that handles abstract thinking, which is different from the one coordinating the so-called "autonomous" processes of your body).

In reality, at no point does any part of our brain lies there waiting for its time to shine, they're all working all the time, never stopping even while you sleep. In fact, should a part of it stops working, it usually means you had a stroke or something similar, and that the part in question, or at least a portion of it, has died.

So in comes the question: why isn't a brain that can fully concentrate on one thing and one thing alone at a time be necessary better? Well, for you to be capable of doing pull-ups and play the piano like a master, even if you're never doing both simultaneously, you necessarily require both the strength needed to do pull-ups and the delicate finger movements/knowledge to play the piano, and given how usually delicate movements become less delicate as you become stronger, it means it's highly unlikely that you'll ever be as good at either as someone who can focus on only one of those. As the old saying goes: "jack of all trades, master of none". Being flexible with where you can get food and live is usually a good survival strategy, but it also makes you less competent than something fully specialized at doing that one thing or living in that one place.

Similarly, not only is it impossible for your brain to fully redirect itself to do only one thing (since, you know, your organs would all stop if it did that meaning you'd be at high risk of death), but even having only a couple of its structures redirected to be able to do that is highly likely to result in an overall higher average energy cost (which is a very bad thing when our brains, already very energy efficient, use up 30% of all the energy in your body, the cost of big-brain power being a selecting factor on why intelligence isn't necessarily always a good thing for every single creature).

Instead we already have a brain that, being specialized, can work on various things at the same time with little additional energy cost. Sure, being able to solve a math equation in your head in seconds is neat, but when it comes to survival, being able to dynamically use the various parts of your brain in unison to hunt prey, avoid becoming prey yourself is better. It's precisely because survival is usually reliant on efficiency, dynamism and flexibility that specialization is overall a more successful strategy over the more costly option of only partially specializing them.

As for your idea of moments of high priority to certain senses, it's called a flight or fight response, and it actually causes changes to your entire body,increasing breathing rate, suppressing functions such as digestion and immune response, "heightening" your senses and others. Similar physiological changes also happen in when your mammalian diving response kicks in.

Overall, there's a disappointingly high amount of things our bodies could do, but often doesn't unless it sees them as necessary, because stronger, faster and more agile bodies are also more costly to maintain.


It may work, but it could affect some core functionality of brain and could affect it's reliability.

It is just unknown at the moment, how exactly brain is function.

I'm sure, there lot of redundancy, but it is unknown, what parts are redundant.

But exist lot of facts, cases where brain got huge damage, but still working. Also known many cases, when people got huge permanent damage, but survived and restored high functions, as I know, naturally alive parts of brain rewired design and preserved parts redistributed work from now absent parts.

And it is also fact, that lot of people constantly suffer damage of parts of their brain.

So exists also other side of question - if we will optimize brain, it is possible, that will be lot of fatal cases, like someone hit head against mattress and become incapable.

Also unknown, how large margin really need brain to function.

So answer, I don't know what is the shortest way to create brain, but I could share with you some info I have gathered, about current state of brain research.

From what I know, the best I hear, works on study blind-deaf-mute.

Also may give additional info works with autistic persons, dyslexia and some other disorders, where science consider brain damaged, if compared to ideally healthy persons.

And I think, not long left, before we got answers. But also possible, we will not got exact answers, what I mean, you could read in Lem, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem_XIV . Also good https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blindsight_(Watts_novel)

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  • $\begingroup$ This question is too broad, to give exact answer. Current state of brain science (intelligence science) could not answer more exact. If I will have additional facts to support more narrow vision, I will add them. $\endgroup$ yesterday

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