Monday, April 25, 2011

The Extension of Neural Complexity

In the last chapter of his book Networks of the Brain, Olaf Sporns extends his neural processing and, thus, cognition beyond the brain and to the body and the body's environment. This is the feature of neurophysiology that finally destroys all my old ideas about cognition, thought, and knowledge, for no longer can I think of thoughts as belonging only to the brain. Thoughts and emotions – all forms of cognition – flash through the brain, through the body, into the environment, and then back through the body and into the brain. I have only to think of some of the lively and spirited conversations that I have had over the years to see how my thoughts at any given time were not my brain's alone, not even mine alone, but the reiterative, feedback process of patterns flashing through the conversational space from my brain to my colleague's brain and back to me and back to them, over and over. Sporns, of course, says it more scientifically precise:
By acting on the environment, the brain generates perturbations that lead to new inputs and transitions between network states. Environmental interactions thus further expand the available repertoire of functional brain networks. … The body forms a dynamic interface between brain and environment, enabling neural activity to generate actions that in turn lead to new sensory inputs. As a result of this interaction, patterns of functional connectivity in the brain are shaped not only by internal dynamics and processing but also by sensorimotor activity that occurs as a result of brain-body-environment interactions [which] can be conceptualized as an extension of functional connectivity beyond the boundaries of the physical nervous system. (306)
Sporns follows the argument of Andy Clark to say that
the minds of highly evolved cognitive agents extend into their environments and include tools, symbols, and other artifacts that serve as external substrates for representing, structuring, and performing mental operations. If this view of cognition as extending into body and world is correct, then cognition is not "brain bound" but depends on a web of interactions involving both neural and nonneural elements. The networks of the brain fundamentally build on this extended web that binds together perception and action and that grounds internal neural states in the external physical world. (309)
Those who are familiar with Stephen Downes' thoughts on this issue (for example, here) will quickly recognize his ideas about the extension of knowledge through a social network, so that anyone person's – say, Susan's – knowledge of the French capital Paris is a network of flashes across Susan's brain, body, and interaction within the general, historical discussion about Paris as well as with the actual city of Paris. For Susan, then, cognition of Paris is the interplay of patterns in her head, in her body, in her conversations with others (mediated by voice, text, image, networks, and other media) and with Paris itself. Indeed, the more sophisticated Susan's Paris network becomes, the richer is her repertoire of ways to think Paris. At any one time, Susan will likely never use the entire network of meaning available to her, but because she has such an extensive, rich network, then she can think significantly about Paris in almost any situation for any reason.

I have a couple of quick observations to make about this view of knowledge as a kind of cognition. First, we can only have personal knowledge. By that I mean that Susan must always view Paris from the center of her meaning network. With lots of training and hard mental work, she can perhaps learn to look at Paris from other points of view than her own, but she can never not think of Paris from her own point of view (I think that's the correct combination of negatives. Count'em). Even if she changes her mind about Paris, she is simply knowing Paris from a different center, but still her own.

Second, knowledge can never be merely personal. Yes, this contradicts my first observation, but there it is. Susan's knowledge of Paris always extends throughout her ecosystem to include shared language, shared social groups, shared experiences, and so forth. Susan must form her knowledge from the center, but she must also form it in dialog with others who are likewise working from their own centers. Any attempt by Susan to look at Paris from another's center is a sometimes useful exercise in fiction. It's a God's view that Susan can sustain for only a short time. Any attempt by Susan to look at Paris only from her own center is a fatal entrapment in fiction. Knowledge depends on what Morin terms the dialogic principle: the constant interaction of any entity from its own center with its environment and the other entities in that environment interacting from their own centers. Knowledge is that zone of tension between loss of self in its own center and loss of self in the centers of others. Susan interacts with her world – sometimes skillfully, sometimes not so skillfully – and that's what makes Susan who she is. Education is the attempt to help Susan interact more skillfully.

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