5 lessons from philosophy and science for surviving a crisis
Posted April 20th, 8:52
12 min read
What do neuroscience, artificial intelligence, archaeology, the philosophy of mind and Zen Buddhism have to do with getting through lockdown? Mike Corcoran shared his thoughts with Town Square Space’s Start Up Club, 8th April 2020.
We should never take our minds for granted. By taking time to reflect on what that they are, what they are made of, how they function and what they are capable of, we have far more chance of fully realising their (and so our) potential.
Here, are five very simple lessons we can take from across the broad spectrum of scientific and philosophical investigation into the inner workings of the mind. They are lessons which have inspired me throughout my working life, and which I feel are now more relevant to all of us than ever before.
- A lesson from neuroscience: we must embrace change
Our brains can and do adapt to changing circumstances.
For most of us, life has changed beyond all recognition in recent weeks. The way we travel, work, communicate and much else in between is now fundamentally different. Change is tough – but we must embrace it.
Marian Diamond, a pioneer of modern neuroscience, observed that whilst many consider the structure of the brain to be static and unchangeable “experts today see it as a highly dynamic organ that feeds on stimulation and experience and responds with the flourishing of branching, intertwined neural forests.”1
What Diamond describes here is the phenomena known as neural plasticity: “the ability of neurons to change in form and function in response to alterations in their environment.”2 This is not something our brains simply can do – it is something they must do. We did not fall to Earth fully formed and start thinking – the way our brains work is a direct consequence of their interactions with different types of environment, and research has proven that the more new environments our brains adapt to, the more new environments our brains are able to adapt to.3
Diamond’s work demonstrated that when we find ourselves in certain stimulating and challenging surroundings, the outer layers of our brain can grow – conversely if we avoid challenge and live in dull and unchallenging surroundings, those same regions can shrink.
When we struggle to complete a new task in an unfamiliar setting, it is no surprise, for the structure of our brain is not attuned to it – but rest assured that your brain can adapt, it will become easier, and the whole process will make you more resilient to change in the future.
- A lesson from artificial intelligence research: we must simplify our thinking
Sometimes to think intelligently we have to think less.
How many decisions do you make for example, in order to make a cup of tea?
Which mug to use? Which tea bag? How much water to put in the kettle? How much milk to use? Which milk? How long to stir it up for? Whether to add sugar? And what if there are no tea bags in, do you run straight to the shop, or drink something else instead? And what if your nearest shop is sold out of your tea bags of choice – do you settle for something else or keep looking? And what if an asteroid hit, would you knock the kettle off?
Quickly, we can expand even the simplest of tasks into a string of seemingly endless possibilities which we need to contend with. This is known as the ‘Frame Problem’4 – put simply, the problem of how we are able to separate the relevant from the irrelevant factors when solving problems in a world of infinite possibility. This of course presents a great challenge for artificial intelligence, where even the simplest tasks seem to require a colossal amount of computational power to comprehend. A potential solution – we don’t solve problems by weighing up every conceivable outcome before we take a course of action, our apparent intelligent behaviour is heavily reliant on social conventions, rules of thumb and environmental cues – we let our environment do the thinking for us.
In artificial intelligence research, this manifests in approaches such as deep learning, where programmes are ‘trained’ to follow conventions through exposure to data in order to reliably complete intelligent tasks (for example, identifying a face in a picture) without having to apply endless decision-making rules (for example, comparing the picture with every variant on the human nose).
In our everyday lives we do this all the time. Consider driving. You stay in the left-hand lane, observe the speed limit, stop when lights turn red, go as they turn green, give way to the right as you approach a roundabout, and so on. By following the highway code, thousands of cars can share a common space and perform a highly sophisticated task. Now consider every street light, road marking, speed limit, and regulation to be removed – chaos. The concept is not new. In the early 20th century, the German biologist Jacob von Uexküll introduced the term ‘Umwelt’: the subjectiveworld each organism experiences whilst they share the same objective space. To behave intelligently, a very small number of environmental cues need to guide us, and all else can fade into the background.
When we feel that our minds cannot take the pressure they are under, we can look around us and ask – can I simplify my thinking? Routines, lists and arbitrary conventions and are all ways we can make navigating a very complex world that little bit easier.
- A lesson from archaeology: we must share our cognitive burden
Our environment can do some of the thinking for us.
Sometime around 60,000 years ago, the key differentiators between humans and all other animals, our language, art and ritual, began to appear in the archaeological record – but these were not associated with a sudden leap in the size of the human brain.
The relationship between brain and body mass is roughly in proportion for most animals. Whether you’re a bat, a baboon or a blue whale, if you divide the mass of your body by the mass of your brain, you’ll end up with a similar number. Some are slightly larger than average (including those animals we deem to be more intelligent, such as dolphins, chimpanzees and humans) but the human brain does not leap out as a complete anomaly, and nor should it. The brain is a calorie hungry organ, and for it to get bigger and bigger, from an evolutionary perspective, would be mal-adaptive – more calories equals more food to survive, and more food to survive equals harder to survive. So, what caused the explosion in human intelligence we saw some 60,000 years ago?
Some archaeologists, such as Stephen Mithen, do not see language, art and ritual as the consequences of our intelligence, but the cause of it. He observes “The key event in the evolution of the modern mind appears to be when humans began to extend their minds, by exploiting not just language, but also material culture and social structures as a means of augmenting the mental capacities delivered by the brain alone.”5
Every time one of our ancestors left a mark on a stone or a notch on a stick, they simplified a problem they previously had to solve relying on our brain power alone. Replace marks on stone with doodles in note pads, on notches on sticks with Excel spreadsheets and the same is true of us today. Not only can our environment guide us, but we can actively influence how it guides us, constructing surroundings which most effectively share our cognitive burden with us.
When we feel a problem has us beat, we can turn to our environment for help. A pen and paper, a re-organisation of a work space, a clever piece of software or a good chat to a close colleague can all massively reduce the work required by the individual brain, whilst delivering the same result for the individual mind.
- A lesson from the Philosophy of Mind: we cannot fail
You are the sum total of the parts you control.
What is your mind made of? If you were to compile a list of all the bits and pieces, where would you start? Where would you end? Consider the following thought experiment:
“Inga hears from a friend that there is an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and decides to go see it. She thinks for a moment and recalls that the museum is on 53rd Street, so she walks to 53rd Street and goes into the museum… Now consider Otto… Otto carries a notebook around with him everywhere he goes. When he learns new information, he writes it down. When he needs some old information, he looks it up. Today, Otto hears about the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and decides to go see it. He consults the notebook, which says that the museum is on 53rd Street, so he walks to 53rd Street and goes into the museum.”
What is the difference between these two cases? Both twins successfully completed the cognitive task, working out how to get to the museum. For Inga, this relied on her biological memory (the neurons and synapses of the brain) and for Otto this relied on his external memory (the paper and ink of his notebook) – but in all other senses the processes were identical. If we believe that the neuron’s and synapses of Inga’s brain should be considered a part of her cognitive system here, then we should also concede that Otto’s notebook is part of his cognitive system too. And if the cognitive system can escape the brain and body to the notebook, there is no need to stop there.
This thought experiment was first posited by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in their seminal paper ‘The Extended Mind’, where they claimed that “If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is part of the cognitive process.”6
When you begin to reflect on it, you soon realise that our minds extend into the world in this way all the time. Every time we make a list. Every time we pick up a calculator. Every time we ask a friend for help. The last time you left the house without your mobile phone, did you feel like you were losing your mind – well you did!
This insight – that our mind is not confined to the brain and body, but extends out into the world – has profound consequences for our understanding of failure. Consider what failing an exam really tells us about the student. It tells us how, at one time on one day, with one set of cognitive tools, they were able to answer one set of questions, in one particular way. Useful information, helping to understand how they think and perform under certain conditions, but not an objective test of the student’s ability. There is no objective test of the student’s ability, because there is no objective student – as the philosopher Daniel Dennett puts it, “I am the sum total of the parts I control.”7
When we have a bad day in testing circumstances, it tells us something about our ability to perform when we are in one physiological state, supported by one set of cognitive tools – but they are not fixed – you cannot fail if there is no fixed ‘you’.
By understanding that our minds are extended, and that their make-up is transient and ever changing, we can see failure as an opportunity to better understand how we think, and to build ourselves new minds, to make thinking that bit easier in the future.
- A lesson from Zen Buddhism: our potential is limitless
From neural plasticity in neuroscience to deep learning in artificial intelligence and from archaeology and evolutionary biology to the philosophy of mind, we have seen a common narrative appearing.
For me, the brain, body and world word can and must work together, one integrated cognitive system. Our minds are not separated from the world, there are coupled with it, and composed from it. If we are to realise our potential, we must nurture our minds, by embracing change, simplifying our thinking, sharing our cognitive burden, and learning from failure. And as our minds our limitless, so is our potential.
I have found great comfort in recent weeks in reading the works of the Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hahn. He writes with a clarity and serenity that can bring a sense of calm, even on the most anxious of days. And as someone whose interest darts from subject to subject readily, I often find it interesting to observe how much many great thinkers have in common, no matter how different their disciplines may seem on the surface. I think he sums it all up rather nicely:
“Sometimes, when we are on the computer, it is as if we have turned off our mind and are absorbed into the computer for hours… when the mind is conscious of something, we are that thing. When we contemplate a snow-covered mountain, we are that mountain.”
Our bodies may be in lockdown, but our minds are free
Mike Corcoran helps organisations to make things simpler, more effective, and more impactful.
He works with businesses of all shapes and sizes across the UK and around the world: developing strategies, managing projects, undertaking research, and training and developing teams. A passionate advocate of public engagement with science, he has reached over 100,000 individuals through conferences, festivals, lectures and workshops.
- Diamond, Marian (1999). Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Child’s Intelligence, Creativity, and Healthy Emotions from Birth Through Adolescence.
- Kleim, J.A. and Jones, T.A. (2001). Principles of experience-dependent neural plasticity: implications for rehabilitation after brain damage. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research.
- Kaas, J.H. (2001) International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences.
- Shanahan, Murray (2016) The Frame Problem, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Carruthers, P and Chamberlain, A (2000) Evolution and the human mind.
- Clark, A and Chalmers, D (1998) The Extended Mind. Analysis. 58(1), 7-19.
- Clark, A (1997) Natural Born Cyborgs.
- Hanh, Thich Nhat (2006) Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living.
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