Normal People are Genuises

Some years ago, research psychologists watching professional baseball games noted something interesting.

When a hit was struck, players in the outfield would turn around, run to where the ball was going to fall, and (with varying rates of success) catch it. How was this accomplished? the curious psychologists wondered.

They tested various hypotheses. Did the players track the ball’s movement with their peripheral vision? Did they rely on signals from their teammates? One by one, the explanations proved to be inadequate. They concluded that the baseball players were extrapolating from their initial glimpse of the ball’s trajectory — in other words, they could solve a partial differential equation in real time, as long as that equation was presented in movement rather than at some other level of abstraction.

Precious few people can do that if presented with an equation.

It’s really not so surprising that humans can accomplish tasks like that. Our brains are the most powerful computational devices in the known universe, and they’ve clearly been selected to be able of doing things like anticipating projectile paths. We perform hideously complex mathematical computations every second of every day, even though those computations don’t lend themselves to consciously performing explicit mathematical tasks. Most of us struggle to learn math in school, while every moment we do math far greater in difficulty than what we’re struggling with.

We underestimate the complexity and difficulty of everyday tasks because they are commonplace. Things like walking and speaking — which robocyberneticists work hard at getting their creations to mimic with only partial, halting success — we take for granted. Things which we can easily make our electronic devices do, though, are hard for us.

I suspect that human social interaction — of the kinds that we engage in every day — are an example of a vastly complicated thing that we falsely view as simple and easy. I further suspect that modern humans are geniuses at social interaction, in a way that would be shocking to some of our very distant ancestors. As it may be difficult to attain ‘genius-level’ skill at more than one thing, perhaps there is a reason why it’s so rare in other fields, and why people with special talents in processor-hungry domains like mathematics so often have social deficits.


One Response to “Normal People are Genuises”

  1. a person who had never seen baseball before and therefore didn’t know the density of the ball wouldn’t be able to immediately predict its path. After watching for a while they would improve.

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