Monday, March 28, 2011

CCK11: Knowledge and Context

If you are like me, then you don't have too much trouble imagining cognition as a network phenomenon: all thoughts, visions, dreams, calculations are based on the spidery webs of firing neurons flashing in unique patterns like lightning through our brains. I can imagine, then, some peculiar and unique flash of lightning in my brain each time I think of, for instance, Connectivism. Each time that flash of lightning fires, my brain creates the concept Connectivism, and re-traces those routes along those particular neurons, across the various regions of my brain, traversing both hemispheres, so that I can think Connectivism. In this scenario, a particular flash of brain lightning equals a particular concept, and I can reinforce that concept by flashing it again and again in different contexts until I firmly etch the pathways into the circuitry of my brain. Nice image.

But wrong. If Sporns and his fellow researchers are correct, then this network of firing neurons is too regular and static. It appears that the brain is much more complex than that, and it is possible that any given idea such as Connectivism is not fixed to any specific network of firing neurons. Rather, the brain may use different neurons over different times to create the same pattern of meaning, depending on what else is already happening in the brain. It seems, then, that as we cannot find a specific chunk of knowledge in our brains, we also cannot find a specific network pattern of knowledge in our brains. The brain is far too dynamic for that. As Sporns points out, specific brain functions are not tied to specific brain regions, nor are specific regions tied solely to specific functions:
Different complex functions are accomplished by transient assemblies of network elements in varying conditions of input or task set. In other words, different processing demands and task domains are associated with the dynamic reconfiguration of functional or effective brain networks. The same set of network elements can participate in multiple cognitive functions by rapid reconfigurations of network links or functional connections. (182,183)
Sporns concludes that "functions do not reside in individual brain regions but are accomplished by network interactions that rapidly reconfigure, resulting in dynamic changes of neural context" (183). This suggests to me that any given bit of cognition depends very much on the interaction between the bit of cognition and the neural context within which it immediately finds itself seeking expression. Sporns says that "the functional contribution of a brain region is more clearly defined by the neural context within which it is embedded [and] this neural context is reconfigured as stimulus and task conditions vary, and it is ultimately constrained by the underlying structural network" (183,184).

So what is the takeaway lesson here? For me, it is this: the brain is a most complex orchestra of two parts—a right hemisphere jazz band and a left hemisphere classical orchestra, and each time it expresses the concept Connectivism, it chooses different instruments and different musical arrangements, depending on what the rest of the orchestra, and the conductor, and the audience are all doing. Sometimes, the concept Connectivism may find expression in my brain from the classical side, expressed mostly with woodwinds and a single flute. At other times, the concept may find expression from the jazz side, expressed through a wailing saxophone, a drum kit, and an electric fretless bass, with some contribution from the classical brass section. Either way, or in some other way, I can still recognize the musical motif: the idea Connectivism, but it is not the same network pattern expressed invariably each time. Each time it is expressed, Connectivism is something slightly different, even in my own mind.

This reminds me, of course, of Edgar Morin's view of complex thought, that "the intelligibility of the system has to be found, not only in the system itself, but also in its relationship with the environment, and that this relationship is not a simple dependence: it is constitutive of the system" (11). Sporns' research into neural networks reveals to me that complexity functions in the brain's production of a single thought which depends on the interaction of any defined unit with its enclosing unit and with all the other units that it encloses and that enclose it. A concept depends on the interaction of a given neuron with its brain region, that brain region with the other regions, all those regions with the brain, the brain with the rest of the body, the body with its enclosing groups, and so on.


  1. And who is thinking this? Is that the quest?

  2. I suppose that if a concept is a somewhat different pattern of neural "lightning" each time it is pulled or emerges into consciousness that the "who" we experience ourselves to be is also a ghost of dynamic probabilities in continual reconstruction.

  3. Tom and Bruce, you both ask the core question: how does the brain maintain a stable identity in light of its dynamic pattern-making? How does our sense of a stable, continuing self emerge from this dynamic ecosystem? I don't know, and thus far in the book, Sporns has not addressed the issue. I'll post some thoughts when I reach that chapter. :-)

    But let me say here that a stable, continuing self is not a given. We all know people who have unstable self-images, at one moment thinking themselves a saint and the next moment a sinner. Perhaps we all have a touch of this instability in our senses of ourselves, but we treat extreme cases with therapy. We clearly value a stable sense of self, both for ourselves and for others. However, as Bruce seems to suggest, this self may be a fiction.