Monday, February 8, 2010

The recursive brain

Imagine it. Create it. That's what humans do. We make tools that continue to upgrade the human brain, to ever-higher levels of capability.

Alexei Nikolaevich Leont'ev (1903–1979), the Russian psychologist who is regarded as a father of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory shows our unconscious automatic actions eventually becomes crystallized as tools.

The finger used to dig a hole in the ground, is replaced by a stick. We learn to use a sharp rock to cut materials. Then someone realizes that a sharp rock attached to a stick makes it easier to catch a fish or kill a wild beast. We make the switch from diggers and cutters to spearers and throwers.

Each new improvement to a tool displaces an earlier activity performed by a body part or a simpler tool.

More powerful tools are created out of new combinations of simpler tools, and the method of use changes. A motor car may have wheels similar to a chariot but it has an engine and drive train instead of a horse, a steering wheel instead of reins, and a horn instead of a shout.

Human brains and tools co-invent each other to ever-higher levels of capability, in a kind of race to the top. Christiansen & Chater, in a paper available from the Santa Fe Institute website (a research center that studies the laws of complexity), say that the brain and language are symbiotic (co-dependent) and one helps to co-create and leverage the other, recursively. I have added the tool development steps to their original diagram to show that tool development closely follows language development. In fact, as new technologies become more widely adopted, so do the words that describe them and their use.

When the method of use changes so does the nature of work. This determines the roles we play in life. A stick can be a sword (soldier/warrior), or a digging implement (farmer/miner) or a baton (policeman), wand (witch/magician), a conductor’s baton (musician/conductor of an orchestra) or joystick (computer gamer/pilot).

This is how the brain-tool partnership works. When we face a new situation that instinctive or automatic left-brain routines can't handle, the right frontal lobes help develop a new way to deal with the problem, using what the Russian neurophysiologist, A.R. Luira (and colleague of Leont'ev) called "simultaneous processing". The left frontal lobes automate the new sequence, in a process Luria called "successive processing". So the next time we encounter the same situation, our left-brain automatic "zombie" will play the action sequence for us.

Over time, we begin to use tools in new ways the original designer did not anticipate. We find ways to use the tool with less effort, or new tasks. Some are inspired to develop smarter, faster tools that combine our tool with other new tools. We use the simultaneous processing capabilities of our right frontal lobes to discover a new way of doing things, automate the process, then using the planning capabilities of our right frontal lobes, develop a plan, a step- by-step process to make an even better tool. See the picture below.

It takes two trips through the brain for a new set of automatic thoughts to become a tool! It's like double-loop inventing.

Then, by combining several tools we create more complex tools. We can, for example, take our simple man-powered "sharp-stick" plough and add a horse, leather straps and harness to create a better tool. Our role shifts from tiller/digger to ploughman. Then, if we want our new tool to be really useful, we can create an ecology of interdependent tools that act in concert with the tool. Paddocks and fences to isolate the crop from foraging animals while it is growing, silos to store the grain so it is safe from weevils, animals or thieves and tools for crushing the wheat and turning it into flour, ready to be baked as bread, biscuits or cakes. 

And so the tool becomes more complex, powerful and the work more automated.

It’s recursive. The outputs from the last round of invention become the inputs to the next.

As any doctor, facilitator, university lecturer or jumbo jet pilot will tell you, it takes 20 years of education and then many years of practice to operate at the highest levels human society has to offer.

And which has little to do with genetics, because people are able to rise to these exalted heights from any race or socio-economic status, given the same opportunities. Basically human brains start off very much the same with minor variations, but with equal potential to develop.

But what makes a difference is how effectively you are nurtured and what you learn along the way. It also has much to do with how many specialized words you know, and whether your earliest interactions with others were positive or negative. And of course the opportunities that you were presented with and choose to (not) take up.

So here are some questions to explore how we can capitalize on this knowledge:

1. Brainstorm a list of words that came into use with the invention of the motor car e.g. engine, hood, freeway.
2. Brainstorm a list of words that fell into disuse with the replacement of the horse and buggy by the motor car. e.g. harness etc.
3. Make a list of all the high-level actions that you perform automatically (do without thinking), especially the really complex ones like facilitating a group meeting, teaching maths or programming, that are easy for some to do, but not for everyone.
4. Choose a very complex, high level process and describe a product that could automate it.
5. Thinking about how our thoughts and the actions they control ultimately become tools, invent a new innovation process that capitalizes on this idea.
6. What kinds of tools could we create to help make our brains even smarter than they are now and ready for a Wisdom Age world with what competitive advantage?
7. Make a list of the kinds of chores that you would like to see automated, that waste your time, are irrelevant to your life, and which you would love a new tool to help you do it faster and better.

Christiansen, M.H., &; Chater, N. (2007). Language as shaped by the brain. SFI Working Paper, Retrieved April 13, 2008 from the Santa Fe Institute website,

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