Friday, January 27, 2023

Rickard Soule, neuroscientist: “For learning, a paper book is far more powerful than any digital medium”

in solarisIn Stanisław Lem’s novel, the crew members of an alien observation station try to communicate with an intelligent being very different from known ones. A protoplasmic ocean, seemingly alive but impossible to interact with, reminds us of how narrow our imaginations can be when we think of alien intelligence. Ricard Sole (Barcelona, ​​60 years old), a researcher at ICREA (Catalan Institute for Advanced Research and Studies) and director of the Complex Systems Laboratory at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, ​​studies the existence of, among other things, “Realms of Cognition” that go beyond concrete minds such as humans. The difference between this organ, “with neurons placed in one place and connected to each other in relation to the fluid brain, such as the neural networks that are colonies of ants or termites, or the immune system, which is a kind of Liquid is the brain”.

This reflection on the definition of Pragya or Consciousness is also present in the exhibition. mind, of which he is the commissioner. The exhibition, which can be seen at the Espacio Fundación Telefónica in Madrid until June 2023, is also organized by the Barcelona Center for Contemporary Culture (CCCB) and the Wellcome Collection in London, and explores how art, science and philosophy have intertwined studied and represented. The brain throughout history. From the first great revolution in neuroscience by Santiago Ramón y Cajal to the current work that unites the efforts of engineers, mathematicians, physicists and biologists to understand a complex organ like the universe, the discovery is an investigation of what This means humans, but also about the fears and possibilities generated by neurological diseases or artificial intelligence.

Ask. Will neuroscience allow us to answer questions about what our nature is, why we seek meaning in life, or whether we are special beings among animals?

answer. On the one hand, it seems to me, sooner or later we will understand these things. All biospheres that are not human have precursors to consciousness and intelligence, but I think humans are unique because of complex language or the ability to understand another’s feelings. And also because we are mental time travelers. We can look at the past in a very rich way and we can imagine many possible futures. This combination gives rise to something unique and strange, our ability to think about ourselves and to know that we are mortal.

P. But there are other animals that are able to recognize themselves or have a definite idea of ​​what it means to die.

R. It’s hard to say. But yes, we humans are very important precursors of what makes us special among other animals, such as recognizing ourselves in a mirror, as is the case with elephants. We know that they are sad when someone close to them dies. They feel pain that is not physical. This is very important, both from the point of view of recognizing rights in animals and for understanding our origins and the origins of the human mind.

P. The exhibition contains reproductions of cave paintings, which are a sample of the moment in which the modern human mind is born. How do you think that mind arises?

R. nobody knows. It is said that mind and language do not leave fossils, but those drawings from Lascaux or Altamira are like a fossil which indicates that mind was already there. And you see images that seem to be in motion, as if it were a narrative, indicating that the descriptive mind was already there. How does it emerge? Language allows something very relevant, and that is that genetic information, an inheritance based purely on genes, is substantially altered by information that allows others to teach, tell a story that It is an account that will last even after the death of the giver, and it will open the door to other revolutions, such as our ability to create technology. It changes our relationship with nature, turning us into engineers of the biosphere, something that animals like termites or ants also do, but in a different way. Those changes will start slow at first, but when you combine something as revolutionary as language with the ability to understand time, it causes changes that accelerate.

P. Noam Chomsky proposed that humans are born with a neural structure that makes it possible to learn a language, which is then shaped by the culture or country in which one is born. There are those who still think that the human mind is like a blank slate on which you can draw anything, that culture is everything and that there is no basic human nature that engrained us. Is this debate over for neuroscience?

R. This is not a closed case. We have huge brains and we consider ourselves very intelligent, but if you separate a human being from culture and language, which is a kind of virus that infects the brain, then you become a complete idiot. remain with the person, because what ability does he really have to handle himself in his environment without learning in front of other people?

Sole, at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park.Albert Garcia

P. Technology changes our environment and it changes our mind. Can artificial intelligence do this?

R. Artificial Intelligence, which is very topical now, is almost 40 years old. The ideas that are now being developed very quickly were already there, but now we have a huge body of data. This has very powerful consequences, such as when we see how they internalize and imitate the style of a painter like Van Gogh, but we are a long way away from creating an artificial brain, a creative mind. We see this with what has now emerged from ChatGPT, a system that uses natural language. If you mess with these systems for a while, I think disappointment is inevitable. The really creative, interesting part, which actually handles the core concepts, isn’t there.

P. The humans who painted Altamira, and members of primitive societies in general, needed extensive knowledge to survive. Now we’re very specialized, we get paid for a very specialized job and then we get everything from massive social support. How do you think this highly specialized lifestyle and exposure to technologies like screens, which has reduced our ability to pay attention to complex subjects for long periods of time, will affect us? Could this be reflected in physical changes in our brain?

R. Physiological changes in the brain occur over very large time scales. Yes, I would say to those who grew up in a more traditional education system, in which you have to spend time thinking, using your memory, and considering different parts of a problem to write an essay, I think this creates some concern that it may be lost. Neuroscience has taught us that paper books are far more powerful than any digital medium for learning, understanding, remembering or making connections between parts of speech. Despite all the talk about how wonderful digital media is for education, this is far from the truth.

P. Is there a scientific explanation of the meaning of dreams, is it known what function they fulfill?

R. To put it very simply, we know that dreaming is important for organizing and filtering memories. Of the enormous amount of information we receive every day, the brain filters at the molecular level during sleep, which from an evolutionary perspective is a way of making sure that your understanding of the world is correct, that you are not when someone comes near you get confused and you don’t know whether it is a predator or a family member. Francis Crick had a ridiculous-looking theory about dreams. We have this evolutionary legacy of clearing memories and, moreover, everything that happens in our environment must have a narrative logic. When we sleep or dream, and this is projection, the idea is that in this filtering process we don’t just see images, but we go through stories, probably because the descriptive mind is always there. Crick was joking that, if this is true, the worst idea we can have is to go to a psychoanalyst to explain what we’ve dreamed, because the brain is trying to eliminate those things. Which we are going to strengthen. To some extent it’s a joke, but I think there is something in it.

P. Some scientists consider theory of mind to have developed through common myths told by many primitive peoples who never had contact, but who, nevertheless, tell very similar stories. Do you understand?

R. All humans on the planet share a neural architecture. It means that we share a way of perceiving our environment, a way of having expectations. Because the brain is largely a system for making predictions and having very clear expectations. If I look at something that looks like a face to me, it will be a face to me. Culturally, the fact that cultures repeatedly hold a certain kind of expectation or create a certain kind of myth, or even create a certain kind of societies, it is possible that the nature of evolution It is inevitable because of what has propelled us forward. here.

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