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Book Review: On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee

January 8, 2014

On IntelligenceIn this very well written book, Hawkins and Blakeslee describe a new model of how our human intelligence has evolved, how it “works” and what it means to have a “massive” cerebral cortex. Much of the description of the brain’s neuronal structure will be familiar to those who follow developments in neuroscience. However, what’s new here is a working model of how the brain uses extensive feedback loops to complete the complex task of information processing.

The authors assert that, “The brain uses the same process to see as to hear. The cortex does something universal that can be applied to any type of sensory or motor system.” And, “The idea that patterns from different senses are equivalent inside your brain is quite surprising, and although well understood, it still isn’t widely appreciated.” Further, the way the brain processes information is consistently applied to all that sensory data. This common processing algorithm and sensory input processing helps our brains to adapt to an ever changing environment. That is why we can live and function in this modern world. A world in which change, and our need to adapt, has certainly outstripped evolutionary time scales.

The hypothesis put forward in this book rings true to me based on my understanding of complex systems and from observing the actions of my fellow human beings. This model (new to me but not necessarily new to the neuroscience world) doesn’t negate my understanding from other reading of how the human brain is “wired.” Rather, it explains more fully how the system “hangs together” and accomplishes the incredible feats we witness every day. It also lays the foundation for a better understanding of human consciousness.

Once again the fact that we can understand our material world only in a “second hand” manner is driven home by this model. We work only with a representation of the world, and it is represented by a limited number of sensory inputs. From the standpoint of how we deal with our fellow human beings, this challenging and interesting book makes it clear that we should all be a lot less certain that what we “know to be true” is actually a true representation of reality.

“Finally, the idea that patterns are the fundamental currency of intelligence leads to some interesting philosophical questions. When I sit in a room with my friends, how do I know they are there or even if they are real? My brain receives a set of patterns that are consistent with patterns I have experienced in the past. These patterns correspond to people I know, their faces, their voices, how they usually behave, and all kinds of facts about them. I have learned to expect these patterns to occur together in predictable ways. But when you come down to it, it’s all just a model. All our knowledge of the world is a model based on patterns. Are we certain the world is real? It’s fun and odd to think about. Several science-fiction books and movies explore this theme. This is not to say that the people or objects aren’t really there. They are really there. But our certainty of the world’s existence is based on the consistency of patterns and how we interpret them. There is no such thing as direct perception. We don’t have a “people” sensor. Remember, the brain is in a dark quiet box with no knowledge of anything other than the time-flowing patterns on its input fibers. . . Your perception of the world is created from these patterns, nothing else. Existence may be objective, but the spatial-temporal patterns flowing into the axon bundles in our brains are all we have to go on.”

What does all this mean to our daily lives? To me it simply means that there are solid reasons to make sure we always question our assumptions, work to find as much objective empirical data as possible and allow for other people to have a different view of the patterns they discern. Our individual perspective is all we have, but it isn’t necessarily the only one nor is it necessarily the most accurate representation.

See this book on Amazon.

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