Intelligence And Creativity

To understand this universe you also have to understand how your mind works.  The great physicist Hermann Helmholtz not only researched the world of physics, but was also a physician and psychologist.  He was one of the founders of vision science.  I’m currently reading the book Vision Science: Photons to Phenomenology, by Stephen E. Palmer, which is a fantastic book related to how the brain processes the information coming into our retinas, processes the 2D images, parses out the basic 2D geometry in the image, takes those basic primitives and assembles them into 3D objects in space, and so on.  It also covers visual memory and attention.  It’s a fantastic book.   We’ve really come a long way toward understanding how the brain works and what it’s actually doing.

I’ve been considering writing a post on “The Stuff Of Thought”, where I’ll a give a basic overview of what the brain “thinks” about – what the objects of “thought” actually are.  After examining robots such as Asimo, and reading about all the progress in subjects like cognitive neuroscience and computing, you really have to wonder whether all the operations of the brain can be simulated through computers.  Will we ever have a robot which can do everything we can do, but considering its rocket-fast computation speed, be able to do things we could only dream of doing?  I don’t know.  It’ll take me many more years of research into the brain to have any sort of opinion on the matter.  I will say though, the more I study things like Computer Vision and Vision science, and neuroscience, the more I’m being convinced it can be done.

I think Baroness Greenfield brings up some important points in the video below, however.

Her comment related to memories is very important.  Our brain is a huge network of connections and when we recall memories, we interpret them differently based on the events which have happened throughout our lives.  It makes me wonder how “knowledge” could be transferred from one person to the next by implanting microchips into people’s brains without making everyone into clones.  Despite these difficulties however, I think there will come a time when there is no such thing as school, and learning via translation of visual images and sounds into thought will all be things of the past.  Learning by those methods is taking too long, and as the sciences develop, growing to ever greater complexity, we’ll have to spend more and more time in school.  Those with PhDs have already spent 10 years in college plus 12 years in school prior to college.  That’s nearly 25% of their entire lifetime just to prepare to work within society.  If we double the amount of knowledge to learn, will we spend twice as long in school?  (Imagine the student loan bills!)  Will we become even more specialized, further fragmenting and losing sight of the big picture?  And don’t forget the brain’s limitations.  How many of us forget half of the stuff we learn, especially when we don’t use the information every day?  I think if we learn what “thought” is, and deconstruct it into its basic primitives, and then learn how the brain stores those thoughts and access them, it will be possible to learn new things simply by downloading them into your brain, just like we’ve all seen in the Matrix movies.

Just think for a moment.  The entire library of Congress can be stored on a tiny little microchip on a thumb-drive.  If the “knowledge” as stored in the human brain, assuming someone read all of those books, could be put on that tiny microchip and then “wired into” the brain, think of how amazing that would be?  Shortly after being born, we could implant a series of microchips into the child’s brain which then could download all human knowledge via a wireless connection.  As we learn new information it could be uploaded into the chip.

It is difficult to think about what happens to the individual in that scenario.  Most of what makes us unique in this world is the neural network our brains wire up over the course of our lifetimes, which is what we are.  Our sensory organs perceive the environment, we think and make decisions, and subsequently our brains rewire themselves up in varied ways, forming our individual personalities.  Part of it is genetic, though these days people are far too prone to think everything is genetic.  It’s a shame really.  People don’t believe in themselves and feel they can’t do things in life because they weren’t born a “genius”.  Certain “geniuses” were born with genetic traits which allow them to do things other people could never do.  How many times do we open up the newspaper to hear about another child “prodigy”?  When you study neuroscience you find that that’s a half truth.  The brain is very plastic.  Your brain will form new connections and develop differently based on what you spend your time doing, and how you use your mind.  I don’t like to think in terms of “geniuses” because it makes us give up on ourselves far too early.  And even if your brain starts out wired one way, if you work at it, it will drastically change over time.

The next video I wanted to share with you all is below.  It’s a lecture delivered by Dr. Greenfield on neuroscience and what it has to say about creativity. It has 7 parts.  I particularly enjoyed watching what happened to people’s brains as they learned to play the piano.  The cells that controlled their finger movements grew all kinds of new arms and became far more complex.  It also showed what happened to the neurons in rat brains when they were put in an enriched environment as compared to a simple dull environment.  Their brain cells had grown far more dendritic arms.  If you fill your brain with science, knowledge, and other interesting things, it will grow exponentially.  I slightly went off on this topic the other day when I was talking about stargazing.  I feel that if you watch TV, the news, and just in general participate in the “normal” world, it dumbs you down to such an extent that it can’t possibly be good for your brain.   Dr. Greenfield displays a really good quote in her lecture,

“Screen culture is a world of constant flux, of endless sound bites, quick cuts and half baked ideas, it is a flow of gossip tidbits, news headlines and floating first impressions, notions don’t stand alone but are massively interlinked to everything else; truth is not delivered by authors and authorities but is assembled by the audience.”
– Kevin Kelly, Journalist

And the “news” is considered intelligent television.  I don’t really like thinking about what the other channels do to a person’s mind.  Flipping to MTV I saw a music video by Ke$ha.  Watch it for yourself.  After that video “Chazz” comes on and you see this.  Do you think watching this kind of content is enriching your mind?  Next up, “Heavy Preggers”, a show about fat pregnant women.  *turns off television*

5 thoughts on “Intelligence And Creativity”

  1. Very thoughtful post, as usual, Jason, and wonderful videos. Since discovering your blog recently, I look forward to every new post.

    I can’t wait to download the the entire Library of Congress or, at least, the Encylopedia Britannica into my poor brain that, up till now, has been woefully inadequate at storing long term memories. And how wonderful it will be to be able to play the guitar like John McLaughlin or do martial arts like Bruce Lee or Steven Seagal with the mere push of a button.

    Or will it? I guess I’m too old to be likely to be around long enough to find out. But I’m guessing that people, perhaps some alive even today, will be finding out in due time.

    1. Hey Steve. Sometimes I think this sort of research makes me lose my mind. It makes me wonder what we really are as sentient living beings. If you scan across society, inquiring into how people define themselves as individuals, most of them do so by their abilities, their education, their looks, who they choose to love, how they dress, and other factors like these. But when I deeply examine life, I really wonder about all that. Once technology like this is perfected, what comes of abilities and education? Everyone will be an amazing guitar player and everyone will be intelligent, knowing everything. And what about our looks and biological constitution? Are we at least unique in that respect? Everyone talks of having unique finger prints and DNA. With more and more education we’ll exponentially increase in knowledge and with more knowledge we’ll have greater and greater control over the universe. Plastic surgery is just the beginning of a world where we choose what we look like. With increases in technology, we’ll be able to look however we want. We’ll probably be able to genetically modify ourselves in any way we wish. Or how about love? If we were skilled enough, we could go into someone’s brain and completely alter everything. We could make them love anyone or anything. We could change all their memories. We could change what fires off their reward chemicals, and change everything that they find beautiful.

      I don’t know what’s left to define us as human beings. What’s left for the individual? Right now, the world defines themselves mainly due to random factors they’re born with. Because we don’t have the technology yet, people are confined to being who they currently are, whether they like that or not. But that too is strange because we don’t typically associate the individual with random factors which the person has no control over. We tend to think in terms of “merit”. Existential philosophers, for example, talk about authenticity. It’s all about using your free will to define who you are in this world. But if your body is what chooses what you even desire in the first place, and we can alter our bodies, then that doesn’t adequately describe what we are either.

      When I went out for a walk last night it was snowing and I was reflecting on all of this. I stared up at the gray clouds and I noticed that I couldn’t see the snow falling; then as I looked downward at the tree line, I saw the flakes falling. I thought about my brain and the operations that it’s doing, how I perceive movement, objects, time, space, etc. I have no idea what we as human beings are. I think to a large extent that’s this world’s problem – we have no idea what we really are. What I do know is that the rest of the world thinks they’re something which they are not.

      Years ago I was talking with a girl and I alluded to some of these sorts of problems in our conversation. Back then I don’t think I knew how to articulate it as well and she left the conversation probably thinking I was insane. She doesn’t even really talk to me anymore. I told her that I think that she’s me and that I’m her, and that the distinctions we draw between ourselves, when closely examined, don’t really exist. I mean that quite literally.

      If someone says that they’re their physical bodies, then you can say she’s a unique person by her physical makeup, and I’m different from her because the atoms which make up my body are currently in a different form than her body. But that’s only the case because I lack the knowledge to reform my body into the same image and form as her body. With more science knowledge, there will come a time when I can make my body just like hers, if I choose. Are things like our past experiences, emotional states, taste preferences in foods, etc., really strong enough distinctions to say, “You’re different than me?” I don’t think so. Whatever we are, ultimately, we’re the same thing. The same life force.

      I think we can be considered unique by our biological makeup because we exist in a unique time and place – BUT, and this is a big but, with quantum mechanics, position is uncertain and hazy. Modern physics points to some strange ideas about space and time. So, onward I go, thinking maybe I’ll be able to define myself more fully if I can understand more fully modern physics. I’m studying physics to learn who I am at the most fundamental level. Fortunately, such research also lends itself to improving the world through technology.

      There’s so much to think about. Somehow, maybe through science certain conscious states can be defined based on patterned changes in matter, such as neuronal assemblies firing in certain ways, and so on. If that’s so, then we can at least define conscious experiences based on the universal properties of physical matter. We can say, “When neurons in the brain fire in this way, this conscious experience happens.” Then we’ll at least have a common basis for consciousness, which seems to me to be closer to what we really are.

      Philosophically speaking, it seems to me that the “individual” only exists when the universe is too powerful and complex to be overcome. Once sentient creatures become powerful enough to control reality, they’re no longer limited to be an individual, they can be whoever they want to be. It’s a strange way to define the self though. “I’m me because I have no choice in the matter.”

  2. Jason, you provocatively ask what we truly are as “sentient beings” given how readily we might soon be able to change fundamental parts–such as our bodies, brains, and even DNA–by which we’ve traditionally defined ourselves. You also raise vexing questions about free will and whether there’s an ultimate distinction to be made between ourselves and other individuals.

    For what it’s worth, I believe that the boundaries we draw between ourselves and the rest of the world, including other people, are artificial and that there’s no free will in terms of our ability to will and do other than we will and do at the time and under the circumstances in which we will and do it. And the late, great mystic, sage, and self-described “philosophical entertainer” Alan Watts explained this perspective about as well as I’ve ever seen it explained when he wrote:

    “I was also interested in the work of B.F. Skinner, wondering how so absolute a determinist could write a utopia, Walden Two, and digging into his beautifully reasoned writings until I discovered the flaw in his system. This I explained in a lecture which Skinner, though I forewarned him in person, did not attend. I saw that his reasoning was still haunted by the ghost of man as a something–presumably a conscious ego–determined by environmental and other forces, for it makes no sense to speak of a determinism unless there is some passive object which is determined. But his own reasoning made it clear, not so much that human behavior was determined by other forces, but rather than it could not be described apart from those forces and was, indeed, inseparable from them. It did not seem to have occurred to him that “cause” and “effect” are simply two phases of, or two ways of looking at, one and the same event. It is not, then, that effects (in this case human behaviors) are determined by their causes. The point is that when events are fully and properly described they will be found to involve and contain processes which were at first thought separate from them, and were thus called causes as distinct from effects. Taken to his logical conclusion, Skinner is not saying that man is determined by nature, as something external to him: he is actually saying that man IS nature, and is describing a process that is neither determined nor determining. He simply provides reason for the essentially mystical view that man and universe are inseparable.” (In My Own Way, p.349)…As I see it, every distinct or separate thing is a merely conceptual entity, isolated from the total field of the universe strictly for purposes of using a certain kind of language or method of charting the field…It is not physically or naturally real, for just as there cannot be necks without heads and trunks, there cannot be flowers without environmental fields. The field flows into the flower, and what we call the “thing”–flower–is a wiggle in the flow, while the flow itself, the energy of the universe, admits of no definition.” (In My Own Way, pgs. 183-184)

    I find parallels to this perspective in many places including the Buddhist doctrine of “interdependence” or “interbeing” and in integralist philosopher-mystic Ken Wilber’s quadratic conception of human nature as a physical, biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual individual-environment field.

    Thus, when you write of seeking to better understand yourself through a deeper understanding of “modern physics,” I think you’d be better served studying the “integral” models of theorists such as Ken Wilber or Aurobindo that attempt to integrate what Wilber calls “orienting generalizations” from all major scientific, philosophic, spiritual, and other disciplines and explicate the multi-dimensional rather than the merely physical nature of the universe and of sentient beings.

    1. Reading your comment makes me thinking I’m reading David Bohm 🙂 He’s always stressing oneness and the illusion of things existing in isolation. However, I’m not sure why studying physics wouldn’t indirectly cover all of the things you’re speaking of. Richard Feynman is noted to have said, “The most important hypothesis in all of biology is that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics.” If that’s the case, then the psychological, social, cultural, and even spiritual aspects of life should all fall under the umbrella of physics. I will definitely have to check out Ken Wilber.

  3. Jason, interconnectedness is a very widespread notion if not insight among religious mystics and sages as well as systems theorists in various scientific disciplines and philosophers.

    Alan Watts used to explain it this way: The more meticulously you describe and explain the nature and function of a given thing in the universe, the more you find yourself describing and explaining the environmental context in which that ostensibly individual thing exists and functions. For example, you can’t fully describe a human being as, among other characteristics, a walking, talking, breathing, eating, thinking, toolmaking animal without also describing the ground on which he walks, the air he breathes, the materials he fashions into tools, the physical world and non-physical society and culture in which he talks and about which he thinks and so on and so on. And the logical as well as mystical implication of this is that the individual human being is actually an individual-environment field, with the environment ultimately encompassing the entire universe. Or as Carl Sagan so evocatively put it, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

    With all due respect to Richard Feynman, for whom I had enormous respect, I think it’s simplistic to reduce everything to physics. I suspect that biological not to mention psychological, social, cultural, and “spiritual” phenomena are “emergent” realities that physics, no matter how sophisticated it becomes, will never be able to fully explain. For instance, do you think even the most refined physics “Theory of Everything” will ever be able to explain the thoughts behind this exchange of communication we’re having here now? I don’t think so, nor do I think that neurobiology will be able to completely explain it either. That is, I think that processes go on in our minds that cannot be entirely reduced to processes occurring in atoms and energy or in our brains, and that our thoughts expressed here are not entirely reducible to neuronal circuits and impulses. Again, they are emergent phenomena with top-down as well as bottom-up causes.

    I certainly don’t wish to discourage you from pursuing your interest in physics. If I had the brainpower, especially for the higher mathematical underpinnings of advanced physics concepts and theories, I’d probably pursue it myself on a professional basis. But I DO caution you against thinking that knowing physics well enough will provide you with an adequate understanding of human nature, mentation, and behavior. For that, I think you need to take a more multidimensional approach, and I’m aware of none better at this time than the “integral” model of Ken Wilber. You can gain a decent introduction to it and him here:

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