Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Original Ideas and Brain Research

When I saw this cartoon a bell rang in my mind – there's something there I should think about – and during a restless nigh the ideas came rushing out. The whole idea behind my “Trapped in the Box” blog is that we are all constrained by what we do, and how we think, by our experiences and the environment in which we find ourselves. Our brains have evolved to learn about the world we live in, in order to survive and as a result we are always having what to us are “original ideas” to add to our personal brain model of our surroundings. We feel we can be certain of known knowns, and we can ask questions about known unknowns – but we have no way of exploring unknown unknowns until something unexpected happens to highlight a gap in our personal knowledge base.

Of course the cartoon is not concerned with these personal “original ideas” but rather with ideas which changes the way that the scientific society thinks about the world. But we must be careful to distinguish between new knowledge about the universe we live in and fundamentally new ideas. Modern science has become a knowledge factory because some great ideas have created an almost infinite number of new “known unknowns” and there must be millions of people who in one way or another have been dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s of the story of evolution. Some of the discoveries on the way have been of enormous significance – but one must ask whether, in this kind of situation, any good scientist, or scientific team, would have come to the same conclusions.

The interesting “landmark” original ideas in science were not really original. The problems Galileo had were not that his ideas were new, as he was not the first to think that the earth went round the sun. The real problem was that to the establishment it was a known known that the human race occupied the centre of the universe and that even questioning this indisputable “fact” was fundamentally wrong. Modern astronomy has made us see our status in the universe in a very different light. Darwin's theory of evolution similarly questioned the establishment's known knowns about how the species (including humans) came into existence – and it took him years – and a nudge from possible competition – before he had the confidence to publish. I am sure that the problem with “original ideas” is not having the idea in the first place – but in the ability to fight and win the battle against the establishment's established and well defended position.

It is perhaps worth asking whether any area of research is currently hampered by a “known known” which relates to the “superiority” of human beings. We all know that we are very intelligent – don't we – in fact far more intelligent than animals. Isn't it obvious? And look what our great intelligence has done in the way we have modified the world to help in increasing our population. There can be no doubt whatsoever that there is something very special about our brains to make us different – and so we must look very hard to try and find what this very special something is. And the harder it is to find the more special it must be.

Yet if you look at current brain research there is a black hole in the middle. We are discovering more and more of the detail round the edge – such as how the neurons work - but for example there is no clear pathway to link how the neurons work to natural language. The more carefully you look at most artificial intelligence research the more obvious it becomes that most of it is very definitely artificial. Perhaps we need to put even more money into brain related studies to find this mysterious special factor that makes us different.

Perhaps we should step back and try to take a “outsider view” of the situation – and put our puny intelligence into context. The basic quadruped mammal form has been modified by evolution in many ways - with the extremes being the larger whales and the smaller bats. In some cases, such as the elephant's trunk and the giraffe’s neck one organ has been expanded to extreme proportions. Seen in this light the human species is nothing special. The only distinguishing feature is that it has expanded its brain rather than its nose or its neck. Of course, because it is a social animal which has also developed the ability to exchange information between generations it needs a bigger brain. At some point there will be a tipping point where there is a significant evolutionary advantage to being able to exchange and used exchanged information – and once this stage is reached the pressure for the brain to develop more capacity will be enormous...

I am currently exploring this approach and would love to hear from others who have similar ideas.

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