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.
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.
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.
Link: 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.