A most aggressive “Shalom” to all you wonderful readers. Actually, now that you mention it, it has been a wonderful morning, thanks for asking. I was up until around 1 last night working on the app, and I had a lovely breakfast with my family. Afterwards, I did my laundry while listening to Flume’s self-named album and dancing about the laundry room wildly. I am now in my swamp room (if you don’t get the reference, it’s your own fault you aren’t on my email list), still listening to Flume at volumes that would make Percy Granger weak in the knees.
Now then, I had a very interesting discussion with my mother this morning about the nature of the mind, and what we know and don’t know about it. This discussion reminded me that I have had at least three thoughts in the past two weeks, and roughly two of them have to do with this very concept. I’m going to now pretend as though you are contractually obligated to read this post in its entirety, and I’m going to now launch into a pompous expose on my own personal thoughts regarding the nature of the mind.
To begin my civil diatribe, I would like you all, treasured readers, to think about what it means for a human being to learn something. Perhaps the accumulation of knowledge comes to mind, or perhaps, alternatively, the accumulation of experience. I would now like to humbly, yet domineeringly launch into my own meta-physiological understanding of what it means to “learn.” And to do that, we necessarily must have a one-way Socratic seminar regarding the brain.
The brain is gloriously dense pattern recognition system. That’s really what it is. I watched a TED talk on it, so I’m pretty much a professional. I’m sure most of us who’ve at least somewhat recently been in school have some notion of the brain being a collection of neurons in which “connections are formed.” Sure. That’s all fine and good, except that it’s too abstract to actually mean much of anything.
In order to understand how the brain actually learns, it’s best to cultivate a slightly more rigorous formulation of brain functionality than the statement “connections are formed.” Also, I’m only talking about the part of the brain that learns stuff over time. I’m not talking about the part of the brain that’s responsible for keeping all your internal systems in check.
Now then, I want you to think of the brain as a computer with a ton of USB ports. Your optic nerve plugs into one of the ports, your auditory nerves plug into another, your olfactory (smelling things) nerves plug into yet another, and so on. So basically, we have a computer hooked up to all of your sensory nerves.
All of these connections are constantly sending information into the computer, and the computer’s only job is to try to find patterns between the various inputs. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re about one year old. Your dad has placed a piece of paper and a box of crayons in front of you. Your dad picks up the red crayon, and says the word “red.” You’re one, of course, so you don’t have a flip shack frack what’s he’s talking about, but let’s look at what’s happening in the computer that is your brain.
When your dad says “red” and picks up the red crayon, your vision is being directed on the crayon in front of you, and hence your optic nerve is sending the visual information corresponding to a red crayon into your computer-brain. At the same time, your ears are sending the auditory information corresponding to the word “red” into your computer-brain.
Now then, your brain can’t tell one information source from another, so it does is form a correlation between the visual information corresponding to the red crayon and the auditory information corresponding to the word “red.”
You can probably see some issues with this. Does the word “red” correspond to the wavelength (color) being emitted from the crayon, or does it refer to the short waxy thing your dad is pointing to? At this point, your brain has no way to tell.
Now then, you turn your attention away from the crayon in your dad’s hand to the blue crayon lying on the table. When you look at this new crayon, your optic nerve sends the visual information corresponding to the blue crayon to your computer-brain. While the image isn’t exactly the same as the image of the red crayon in your father’s hand, it’s similar enough that the image of the blue crayon turns on the connection that your brain-computer formed between the image of the red crayon and the word “red.”
So then, while you don’t have a clue what’s happening in your computer brain, when you look at the blue crayon, the word that pops into your head is “red.” And because you’re a semi-useless one-year-old and you have nothing better to do, you confidently point to the blue crayon and say “red” out loud. Now then, because your dad has no interest in having his child think “blue” is “red,” he says “No.” He then picks up the red crayon, and again says “red.” He then points to your red shirt and says “red.” He finally points to your red couch and says “red.” Each time he does this, your computer-brain creates a new connection between the visual information of each object and the auditory information corresponding to the word “red.”
Now here’s the real kicker. Your dad then picks up the blue crayon and says the word “blue.” The exact same correlation happens as before, but this time, the auditory information corresponds to the word blue.
Now then, you look across the room and see your mom also wearing a red shirt. While the shape of the shirt itself isn’t similar to that of a crayon or a couch, the wavelength being emitted from the shirt is the same, so when the visual information corresponding to your mom wearing a red shirt is sent into your computer brain, the aspect of the image that corresponds to the color “red” is fired, and once again, the word “red” pops into your head. So then, once more, your proudly proclaim “red” to everyone who’s around to hear. This, of course, makes your parents excited, and they say “Yes! Red!” which only serves to strengthen the connection between the visual information corresponding to the red wavelength of light with the auditory information corresponding to the word “red.”
There’s no universal connection between the word “red,” and the color red. This exchange could have just as easily occurred in a Spanish or French speaking household with the words “Rojo” or “Rouge.” All the brain is therefore doing is forming connections between different stimuli, which can be strengthened or weakened over time. In other words, it’s an incredibly efficient pattern recognition system.
How does it actually work? Instead of actually being a computer with bunch of USB ports that’s been programmed to find patterns in different sources of data (which is literally just machine learning, btw), your brain is a collection of around 86 billion neurons that are connected to one another. All neurons do is fire an electric stimulus to the other neurons it connects to when it has itself received enough electric stimulus from the other neurons that connect to it. So basically your brain is just a chain reaction of neurons causing other neurons to fire. Now here’s the kicker: once a neuron fires, it actually becomes easier to fire again. So then, going back to the previous example in less gruesome detail, when you see a red crayon and hear your dad say “red,” your optic nerve fires a huge amount of neurons corresponding to the visual information of the red crayon, which sends a huge chain reaction cascading all throughout the brain. At the same time, your ears fire auditory neurons corresponding to the word “red” throughout your brain, which causes a similar blossoming chain reaction.
Now here’s what’s super cool. Some neurons are fired by both the visual and auditory chain reaction. Because it’s easier to fire neurons after they’ve already been fired, this forms a strong “pathway” between the visual and auditory information in the sense that neurons along this pathway are more likely to fire in response to similar visual and auditory stimuli.
So then, even though your brain can’t tell the difference between visual data and auditory data, it can find patterns between the two sources, which translates to you knowing that the color of the red crayon is red.
At this point, I was going to launch into a greater discussion of what this means in terms of human knowledge, and what it means to “understand” things. However, being a decent human being, I can quite clearly see that I have just broken the 6-page mark, which is usually my sign that I should probably wrap things up. I think I will continue this discussion in the next post.
In closing then, contrary to Justin McElroy’s incessant pleading, I would urge you to not kiss your dad square on the lips, because that seems like a great way to spread coronavirus, which is generally inadvisable.