Information Age Education
   Issue Number 55
December, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter.

The Information Age Education web site now includes a blog. Access the blog and comment on blog entries at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html.

You may find http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/computer-technology-solutions-looking-for-a-problem-and-problems-looking-for-a-solution.html to be particularly interesting.

Our Analog Human Brain in an
Increasingly Digital World

 “God created the natural numbers. All the rest is the work of man.” (Leopold Kronecker; German mathematician; 1823–1891.)

Our current human brain and body are the results of many millions of years of evolution. We are not the strongest or most agile. But, we have a better brain than other creatures on this earth, and we are better at developing tools to aid our physical and mental capabilities.

One of ways in which we use our better brains is to quantify. We count things. We measure distance, area, volume, weight, time, and temperature. The humble beginnings of such quantification are built into our brains. The essence of this is captured in the quote from Leopold Kronecker, one of the world’s leading mathematicians of his time.


Detecting and (Approximately) Describing Patterns

Our brain is good at detecting patterns. For example, think of the pattern of changes in the lighted part of the moon we see in the night sky as it changes from a “new moon” to a “full moon” over time. Think of the patterns of the weather that tend to change in a somewhat predictable manner over the course of a year. Think of the pattern of leaves on a tree, that predictably reappear year after year. The detection and reasonably accurate description of reoccurring patterns allows us to predict the future.

Through thousands of years of progress in astronomy, mathematics, physics, and measurement we have gotten better and better at giving a “reasonably accurate” description of the relative locations of our sun, earth, and its moon. For example, we can accurately predict an eclipse of the sun or moon many years in advance.

In brief summary, our brains are designed to detect patterns. We have developed tools and science that greatly aid our brains in precise measurements and descriptions of these patterns.

Here is another example. You look at a scene and form a picture in your “mind’s eye” of this scene (pattern). You can describe the scene with a certain level of accuracy. Your brain can store an approximation of the scene. Compare this with what is accomplished by an analog camera (the “old, traditional” camera that used film) or a digital camera that captures a pixel-by-pixel digital representation of the scene. The precision of the type of picture you capture in your mind’s eye and store in your brain was adequate to the needs of humans back in the hunter-gather days. The need for greater precision, storage, and transportability over time and distance led to the development of analog and digital photography.


Analog Measuring and Computing Devices

In the previous issue of this IAE Newsletter, we talked briefly about the idea of a human brain being a biological, (analog) brain. A surgeon cannot peer into a brain and see miniature zeros and ones, or on/off switches. Your brain does not store a picture in a pixel-by-pixel manner. It does not store data as bits or bytes of information.

However, your brain has both analog and digital characteristics. In processing data, for example, a neuron  draws input from many dendrites and then fires or doesn't fire. Firing or not firing is like a digital switch being open or closed.

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

An analog computer is a form of computer that uses the continuously-changeable aspects of physical phenomena such as electrical, mechanical, or hydraulic quantities to model the problem being solved. In contrast, digital computers represent varying quantities incrementally, as their numerical values change.

For example, you are familiar with both digital and analog timepieces. The analog pocket watch was developed in the 1500s. A wound up spring was used to drive a mechanism that advanced a display—a rotating minute hand and hour hand. The passage of time could be “seen” as the rotation of the hands.

People have long been interested in measuring the passage of time. Stonehenge (about 2,500 BCE) was a type of sundial that measured the passage of one year. A thousand years later people were building water clocks. The measuring of the quantity of water flowing through a hole gave a good approximation of the passage of time. Sundials, water clocks, and a sand clocks (sand flowing through an “hourglass”) are all examples of early analog clocks. Your brain has some time sense and ability to approximately measure time by analog processes.

Humans have long made use of digital aids to their brains. Notches in a stick of wood are a digital type of aid to counting. An abacus is a digital computing device. A paper and pencil algorithm for doing computations on decimal numbers can be thought of as a digital computing aid or device. An inexpensive solar powered calculator is a digital calculating device.


Early Humans and their Predecessors

Think back to the time of proto humans and then early humans. This was long before the development of reading or writing. It was long before the development of agriculture. Indeed, if we go back far enough, it was before the development of a comprehensive oral language.

For simplicity, lets call this the hunter-gatherer era, and lets use the term humans to designate our long ago ancestors as well as ourselves. The hunter-gatherer era eventually gave way to the agricultural era, beginning about 10,000 years ago. During the hunter-gatherer era, humans developed tools and an informal education system that passed on information about how to construct and use the tools. It could take many years of practice to achieve a high level of skill in making clothes, recognizing and collecting appropriate edible and medicinal plants, basket weaving, spear throwing, and so on. The informal education system of on-the-job learning by observing and doing was adequate to the problems at hand.

The development of oral language was a big aid to informal education. Story telling helped pass on traditions and cultures from generation to generation. Oral communication is typically not very precise. However, oral communication and story telling were a major aid to solving the problems and accomplishing the tasks at hand.
 
During the hunter-gatherer era, there was very little need for or use of exact measures. Some stone hammers were better than others and some spears were better than others. But we did not have a system of weights and measures, and we did not have a science of tool design and building good human/tool interfaces. We did not measure distances using a metric or English system; we did not measure time in seconds, minutes, and hours. Our analog brains evolved to deal with approximations, and such approximations sufficed for the needs at hand.

In summary, our human brains with very few aids were up to the task of dealing with quantitative aspects of life before the development of agriculture. With the aid of language and simple tools, we could count and we could make useful approximations of time, distance, and so on.


Agriculture, and then Reading and Writing

Counting, description of patterns, and making of tools can be considered to be the beginnings of the disciplines we now call science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The development of agriculture provided conditions supporting an increased pace of progress in all of the STEM areas.

Agriculture led to substantial increases in population and facilitated people specializing in various occupational areas. One person might make a living by raising goats, another by growing grain, and a third by making farming tools. Such specializations led to the need for a barter system.

A barter system brings with it a number of problems. For example, I have an extra goat, and I have need for two chickens. But a goat is worth a lot more than two chickens. What can I do? One approach is a record keeping system, so that one could keep a record of the transaction and what is still owed.

The need for record keeping led eventually led to the development of reading and writing about 5,000 years ago. This brought us a major educational problem. It takes a long time to learn to read and write. One does not learn to read and write by observing and imitating someone who reads and write. Careful, formal education is needed.

The bartering problem also led to the development of coinage about 3,500 years ago. Illiterates could learn to deal with coins, but aids such as an abacus were helpful. Coinage brought with it problems such as counterfeiting. Both agriculture and coinage brought with it the need for more accurate and widely accepted systems of weights and measures. In summary, from the point of view of an average person, the world was steadily growing more cognitively complex.


Final Remarks

In the next issue of this newsletter we will continue the timeline development, moving through the Industrial Revolution and then into our current Information Age. We will continue to focus on the steadily growing complexity being brought on by “progress” in the STEM, business, financial, and educational areas.


About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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