Information Age Education
   Issue Number 143
August, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Education for Students’ Futures
Part 12: The Future of the Mind–
A Theoretical Physicist's Perspective

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

The previous article explored recent advances in our understanding of consciousness from the perspective of a cognitive neuroscientist, Stanislas Dehaene. This article focuses on the perspective of a theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku, as explored in his excellent non-technical book, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind (2014). Kaku takes readers on an incredible tour from the beginnings of consciousness and intelligence to the increased roles that robotic technology will play in future cognitive behavior—and then finally on to possible explorations in other planets.

Telescopes that could compress space and allow us to see galaxies up close were invented 350 years before we could make the major step forward to enter the space age. Conversely, it only took 15 years from the invention of brain imaging technology to allow us to observe brain functions up close. 

We now know quite a bit about the natural forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and weak/strong nuclear forces. Part of the rapid progress in the ability to observe brain function occurred because physicists now have a good understanding of electromagnetism. These govern the electrical signals that process neuronal activity and are also the basis of the most advanced imaging technologies. Cognitive neuroscientists, who understood about 30 brain regions prior to imaging technology, now understand the basic roles of several hundred regions.

A Conscious Brain

Consciousness is central to human rational thought. Animal consciousness is predicated on the kinds of information that are important to the survival of the species (which differs in bats, dolphins, and humans, for example).

Kaku has developed a space and time theory of consciousness that he defines as follows:

Consciousness is the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g., in temperature, space, time, and in relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal (e.g., find mates, food, shelter). (Kaku, 2014.)


This definition can be applied to all forms of life. So, Kaku uses it to discuss the consciousness levels of bacteria, plants, various animals including chimpanzees and elephants, and human beings. Among these living entities, humans are best at creating mental models of possible futures and working to achieve a future that the human believes is desirable.

Kaku presents an interesting comparison between a room thermostat that can sense temperature and make a decision to turn a heater or air conditioner on or off, versus a flower that can sense temperature, moisture, sunlight, gravity, and so on, and act on this information. In Kaku’s definition, a flower has a higher level of consciousness than the thermostat, and humans currently are at the high end of his scale. This type of example lays groundwork for discussions of whether an artificially intelligent computer can have consciousness (yes, according to Kaku’s definition) and whether this level of consciousness might someday equal or exceed that of humans.

In humans, our brain sub-units use the brain’s feedback loops to create a model that best represents and responds to the current challenge. The feedback loops process how we relate to space, time, society, and a possible future. The internal, almost collegial brainstorming that we engage in (often at multiple levels) seems so normal that we're not really aware of it. Eventually our brain's CEO (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) receives input from various brain sub-units, and makes up its mind after evaluating the past, assessing the present, and simulating the future. If we make a wrong decision we'll typically come up with an explanation that makes the decision appropriate. Or else we'll just laugh it off.

The laughter of humor depends on the punch line. We can imagine how the story will turn out on the basis of our extensive understanding of the physical and social world. Laughter is the release when the punch line provides an unexpected conclusion. That's the essence of humor. Our survival depends on our ability to foresee and effectively respond to unanticipated events. Humor certainly has other values but a sense of humor develops and maintains this capability in a pleasant non-threatening way. Play, games, and gossip are similar to humor in that they deal with unexpected outcomes to the solutions that folks develop.

Kaku, M. (2014). The future of the mind: The scientific quest to understand, enhance, and empower the mind. New York: Doubleday.

Kaku, M. (n.d.). Dr. Kaku’s must-see videos. Retrieved 7/19/2014 from https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL101E166E120852F9.

Sylwester, R. (2013). The central roles of the variety of analogy. Information Age Education Newsletter. Retrieved 7/19/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2013-121.html.


Author

Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit three books for IAE (http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Newsletter). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information: bobsyl@uoregon.edu.

Reader Comments

We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please click the Login link below and sign in. If you have questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help page.


Readers may also send comments via email directly to moursund@uoregon.edu and bobsyl@uoregon.edu.

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. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading.