What is hardest thing we do with our brains in a lifetime?

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What’s the hardest thing we ever do with our brains on average during a lifetime?

Our brains are wonderful things that some have called the most complicated structures in the known universe, but what exactly do we do with them? Do we tax them fully during our lives?

The old cliché that we only use 1% of our brain or some approximation thereof is malarkey in my view, but how hard is it for the average person’s brain to watch a boring YouTube video? Not very. On the flip side, what do we do with our brains that is incredibly hard? The hardest thing for the average person in their life?

I heard an interview NPR last month with an artificial intelligence (AI) scientist working on autonomous cars. He made the argument that for the typical human being, the action they take that is the most complicated task in their life for the brain is driving a car. It turns out that it is really hard to get AI cars to take in all the data ebbing and flowing around them and behave perfectly so perhaps it isn’t surprising that this particular scientist thought that driving a car would be the most challenging task for the human brain.

I recently had a discussion on this topic with some family and others where some very different ideas came up as well that seemed equally valid. Some of these notions seem to hinge on whether certain activities fall within the range of what an average person will encounter in their life and what exactly is an “average person”? Here are the ideas that sprouted as potential “hardest things people do in their lifetimes”:

  • Playing a musical instrument as part of group of musicians.
  • Playing complicated sports (does our brain unconsciously do calculus, etc. while shooting a basketball or soccer ball on the run?)
  • Theoretical physics (most of us don’t exactly do this say while eating breakfast each morning)
  • Doing a complicated dance or ice-skating to music with a partner.
  • Singing a challenging song
  • Speaking a foreign language
  • Learning to speak in the first place
  • Learning to write
  • Learning to walk/ride a bike
  • Dealing with death of a loved one, divorce, lose job, other such life challenges
  • Fighting in a war (fortunately most of us don’t have to do this)

What do you think is the toughest thing the average person’s brain will do in their lifetime?

How about your own brain so far? What’s the toughest thing it has had to do in your lifetime?

11 thoughts on “What is hardest thing we do with our brains in a lifetime?


  1. most difficult brain activity: getting my cortex and amygdala to carry on a constructive dialogue on a regular basis.


  2. I would add “overcoming self-generated mental states” like depression. It requires stepping outside the machine and one’s ingrained perspective.


  3. Social interaction. Other humans are complicated and dynamic. Humans don’t fully develop this until adulthood after literally decades of learning. Note that this difficult task doesn’t necessarily map onto traditional conceptions of intelligence.


  4. It depends on the person. For person who likes driving a car, I don’t think the brain works hard, but for a person who gets nervous when driving, the brain should work harder. In my opinion, in riding a motor cycle the brain should work harder than driving a car, because you need balancing your body, while driving a car, you just sit.


  5. Software development. When you write a code, your brain needs to operate with a lot of abstract concepts – so many, that your brain needs to constantly switch from one concept to another to grasp it all together. After 3 hours of programming competition I feel more tired that after 3 hours of physical activity.


    • I agree…and this fits in with dealing with tragedies such as divorce, death, or loss of a job. Learning to accept, move on, and not dwell on the past is certainly harder than anything I’ve put my brain through so far (including a PhD defense).

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