Communion Of Dreams


[This post contains mild spoilers about Communion of Dreams.]

One of the difficulties facing computer engineers/scientists with developing expert systems and true Artificial Intelligence is the paradigm they use.  Simply, working from structures analogous to the human brain, there has been a tendency to isolate functions and have them work independently.  Even in modern computer science such things as adaptive neural networks are understood to analogous to biological neural networks in the brain, which serve a specific function:

Biological neural networks are made up of real biological neurons that are connected or functionally-related in the peripheral nervous system or the central nervous system. In the field of neuroscience, they are often identified as groups of neurons that perform a specific physiological function in laboratory analysis.

But what if the neuroscience on which these theories are based has been wrong?

Here’s the basics of what was Neuroscience 101: The auditory system records sound, while the visual system focuses, well, on the visuals, and never do they meet. Instead, a “higher cognitive” producer, like the brain’s superior colliculus, uses these separate inputs to create our cinematic experiences.

The textbook rewrite: The brain can, if it must, directly use sound to see and light to hear.

* * *

Researchers trained monkeys to locate a light flashed on a screen. When the light was very bright, they easily found it; when it was dim, it took a long time. But if a dim light made a brief sound, the monkeys found it in no time – too quickly, in fact, than can be explained by the old theories.

Recordings from 49 neurons responsible for the earliest stages of visual processing, researchers found activation that mirrored the behavior. That is, when the sound was played, the neurons reacted as if there had been a stronger light, at a speed that can only be explained by a direct connection between the ear and eye brain regions, said researcher Ye Wang of the University of Texas in Houston.

The implication is that there is a great deal more flexibility – or ‘plasticity’ – in the structure of the brain than had been previously understood.

Well, yeah. Just consider how someone who has been blind since birth will have heightened awareness of other senses.  Some have argued that this is simply a matter of such a person learning to make the greatest use of the senses they have.  But others have suspected that they actually learn to use those structures in the brain normally associated with visual processing to boost the ability to process other sensory data.  And that’s what the above research shows.

OK, two things.  One, this is why I have speculated in Communion of Dreams that synesthesia is more than just the confusion of sensory input – it is using our existing senses to construct not a simple linear view of the world, but a matrix in three dimensions (with the five senses on each axis of such a ‘cube’ structure).  In other words, synesthesia is more akin to a meta-cognitive function.  That is why (as I mentioned a few days ago) the use of accelerator drugs in the novel allows users to take a step-up in cognition and creativity, though at the cost of burning up the brain’s available store of neurotransmitters.

And two, this is also why I created the ‘tholin gel’ found on Titan to be a superior material as the basis of computers, and even specify that the threshold limit for a gel burr in such use is about the size of the human brain.  Why?  Well, because such a superconducting superfluid would not function as a simple neural network – rather, the entire burr of gel would function as a single structure, with enormous flexibility and plasticity.  In other words, much more like the way the human brain functions as is now coming to be understood.

So, perhaps in letting go of the inaccurate model for the way the brain works, we’ll take a big step closer to creating true artificial intelligence.  Like in my book.  It pays to be flexible, in our theories, in our thinking, and in how we see the world.

Jim Downey

Hat tip to ML for the news link.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Great article. I have synesthesia sensory processing and have totally agreed with you for a long time—I just didn’t know your words yet.

Keep going with your ideas.


Comment by ameena

Thanks, ameena. I have only experienced a mild synesthesia a few times, just enough to give me a glimpse into what the experience is like.

Jim D.

Comment by Communion of Dreams

[…] Science, Science Fiction, Synesthesia I’ve written previously about synesthesia, and most recently said this: The implication is that there is a great deal more flexibility – or ‘plasticity’ – […]

Pingback by No surprise: it’s not that simple. « Communion Of Dreams

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