Chapter

Physiology of Information

What we know is encoded in the brain. Ideas, memories, images, and everything else we consider our part of our personal knowledgebase all eventually come down to a fusion of proteins, neurotransmitters, synapses, electrical impulses and other neurological elements. We know that short and long term memories are managed differently by the brain.  And we know that forgetting is as important as remembering to our mental health and intellectual capacity.

The basic architecture of the brain is overwhelming. There are 100 billion neurons in the brain and there are more than 200 trillion synapses in the neocortex alone. The neurons are saturated in a bath of chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin) that facilitate or inhibit synaptic firing.

As LeDoux says “you are your synapses” (The Synaptic Self, 2002).


We are a chemical information system; we are an electrical information system.

Perhaps the future of literacy is not digital but biochemical. Post-literacy may reside in being able to synthetically create information, ideas, and narrative.

We are learning a tremendous amount about the brain and hence about the physiology of information. The act of learning is about shaping the brain; learning creates proteins, reinforces synapses, enhances connections, and quickens neurotransmitters.

The premise is very simple:

IF all information is encoded (which we know is true),
AND if we can identify how certain information is encoded (which we don’t yet know in specific detail),
THEN we can replicate this encoding through others means (which, of course, we can’t do now at all).

This would mean going beyond the nootropics (“smart drugs”) that merely enhance learning and instead create pharmaceuticals or other delivery systems for information, ideas, and concepts that would act directly on our synapses.

The things we know (facts, ideas, memories, extrapolations) are not stored in specific buckets to be retrieved on demand. The brain appears to work as an associative engine where all these things are highly interconnected and interrelated (in both strong and weak ways). Knowing something means incorporating this into the web of all the other things you know. Context is everything.

As a result, if we want to synthesize information (ideas) it doesn’t help to think about “depositing” this in the brain. A better metaphor would be to “grow” information; it fact this is what happens now. We take in an extraordinary amount of data (information) each day (each nanosecond really). Some of this is transactional data which is used and forgotten quickly, others become short term memories useful for more extended needs, and still others are incorporated into our frame of understanding and become long term memories.

We “know” things at many levels (kinesthetic as well as cognitive). Long term memories form because they go through a electro-biochemical process to create them. The linkages and connections that are created solidify those ideas and create a deeper understanding. This is learning, and it takes time, concentration, and effort.

What if we could short circuit that process? What if we could accelerate the process of creating memories or forming connections? If we could synthesize information, create a means for it to be ingested/received (e.g. pharmaceuticals), could we replicate that process and grow information, ideas?

Want to learn French? Take a pill. Having trouble with calculus? We have something for that. Perhaps it is an implant or some other kind of neuro-therapy.

LinkLink: Welcome to Rekall: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (Total Recall)

Chorost says “the idea of instant learning is a lie” (World Wide Mind, 2011) because the brain requires time and effort to build linkages and to move ideas and concepts into long term memory:

“Learning a complex skill can’t be done on a plug-in basis. It entails physically changing untold numbers of neurons in one’s brain.”

However, the premise of Hebbian learning (from Donald Hebb, the Canadian neurological researcher) is very simple: “neurons that fire together wire together.” Activating the brain activates learning. Perhaps the physical act of learning is so laborious because the brain has to deal with inputs (e.g. visible language through the optic nerve) that are suboptimal. The promise of neural connections or synthesized information/memory is that it would interact with the brain in more “natural” manner.

LinkLink: Neurons Can’t Abide Being Bored (Attention)

Perhaps the solution is not synthesize memories but to enhance our current memory capacity? We might become hyper-learners with prodigious memories. It also reminds us of the importance of forgetting.

LinkLink: Memory (and Forgetting)

But whose memory? Can I act on the knowledge reliably? What is the difference between memories of experiences (which never happened) and memories of information (data, ideas) which are shared by others (in this sense “real”)?

It seems unlikely that we would be able to distinguish between our own memories and those implanted synthetically. The brain (us) would incorporate them into our world view just as we incorporate other data; just as we accept a prosthetic limb or adjust to another language. They would become us.

And what about that French pill? If I’m interested in learning French, could I buy different versions of this understanding? I could get the bargain version from Wal-Mart or the full featured, haute couture one from Holt Renfrew or Saks Fifth Avenue. You get what you pay for.

Of course, you might also get more than you anticipated. The French grammar might also contain additional ingredients that were not listed in the brochure. It might instill positive memories and ideas about Wal-Mart or Saks such that you will be predisposed to shop there again. Neuro-propaganda and neuro-hacking will be the new spam and the new viruses.

A progressive government would introduce legislation and regulations to mitigate this possibility; a less altruistic government would take advantage of it. One could argue that there is not much difference here; we are being propagandized by powerful forces all the time (corporate as well as governmental). The mechanisms are less efficient and effective but the motivation is identical.

Significant concerns aside, synthesized information would profoundly change our relationship to learning and the acquisition and transmission of ideas. Knowing something new would be trivial. As a result our intellectual efforts could be focused on reflecting, considering, and extrapolating. Deep understanding.

6 Comments ↓

6 Responses to “Physiology of Information”

  1. Laurie November 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

    If scientists do figure out how to enable one to learn English by taking a pill, at what stage of human development would these pills be given? As a supplement to toddlers already on their way to language acquisition? To the teenager struggling with second-language class? Or to adults as part of professional development or a relocation package? The pharmacological solution to communication in a post-literate world makes the assumption that language and learning occurs solely in the brain. But is that how people really learn? In his Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein points out, “Something that we know when no one asks us, but no longer know when we are supposed to give an account of it, is something that we need to remind ourselves of” (89). The tacit knowledge referenced here cannot be translated well into formal or explicit knowledge. It is easier to see the role of tacit knowledge in terms of mastering sports, or leisure and work activities like cooking, driving, or painting, but is language not also learned in large part through tacit means? Language acquisition is not merely a case of ingesting an inventory of words, but encompasses accents, tones, gestures, mouth and throat movements, and distinctive turns of phrase depending on context and region. A “dictionary” drug might facilitate a cursory or surface knowledge of English, but unless science finds a way to distill the secret workings of implicit knowledge and nuanced context into an elixir, deep understanding and communication through synthesized information will prove elusive. Thank you for this provocative chapter – much food for thought (literally?!).

    • Jeff Penfold December 2, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

      There is also the issue of maintaining the knowledge, if we don’t routinely use skills they tend to fade. So taking the French pill might work before our trip to France but would we be able to speak French a year later? 10 years later? would it matter if we could simply take the pill again.

      • Jennifer Lee December 5, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

        Good point Jeff.

        Does this mean we could become addicted to these pills?

        I think Mike’s point about bargain and haute couture drugs is interesting too given how big patent wars and the issue of generic drugs are.

        What kind of ‘divide’ could arise?

        • Jeff Penfold December 5, 2012 at 11:57 pm #

          I admit didn’t think of the risk of addiction. The bargain drug issue is interesting. Recreational drugs can mess with people’s memory, what if you got a bad batch of the French pill and not only did you not learn French but you suddenly can’t speak?

  2. etresoft November 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    “What we know is encoded in the brain”

    Is it? How do we know that? Researchers have only recently figured out how to peek inside individual neurons (http://www.theengineer.co.uk/sectors/medical-and-healthcare/news/researchers-automate-process-of-recording-data-from-neurons/1012522.article). Some other researchers have simulated a neural network the size of a honeybee’s brain (http://www.artificialbrains.com/blue-brain-project), but running 300 times slower. Has anyone actually gotten brain cells to do simple match? Or store any values?

    The human brain actually only has 86 billion neurone (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2012/feb/28/how-many-neurons-human-brain). Is that sufficient for a lifetime of memories and knowledge? How many bits does a neuron store? Or does it take multiple neurons to store a single bit? Or is the brain completely unlike any computer humans have devised?

    Is the brain even a computer at all? The brain is not a solid organ like the liver or even a network like the lungs. It is a flat surface folded many times. Why is that? We know that neurons conduct signals, but there are many circuits that do that, not just memory circuits. It seems to me that the brain resembles an antenna more than a memory circuit. What if our memories and thoughts are elsewhere and our brains only serve as conduits between the physical and the mental?

  3. Caitlin M December 5, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    I am a bit confused. Would biochemical enhancements be able to teach us new skills – like learning French – or simply upload raw data into our brains which we would then need to reflect upon and consider?

    I agree with Laurie that it is problematic to talk about the pharmacological enhancement of skills which require tacit knowledge, or the ability to “do”.

    Reflection and analysis are also abilities that we develop. Can they be mapped out in the brain or is it only facts that can be inserted?
    If pharmacological enhancements focus only on uploading raw data then I suspect that they would not be all that much more efficient or useful than our current ways of taking in data.

    Ridley states “Perhaps the physical act of learning is so laborious because the brain has to deal with inputs (e.g. visible language through the optic nerve) that are suboptimal.” It is my feeling that it is reasoning, analysis and synthesis of the data that really takes time – Afterall, we process huge amounts of visual input all the time. Think of how quickly we can react to visual stimuli (for example a snake or a plate that we see falling off our counter, etc).
    If this is the case, pharmacological enhancements might not speed things up all that much. We would still have to develop the ability to use whatever new data we received.

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