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Intelligence And Creativity

January 5, 2011

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*

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