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Brain as anticipation machine... and SF for creating memories of the future

Jeff Hawkins, the guy behind the Palm Pilot, wrote a book published in 2005: On Intelligence.
The title says it all.
I found the book very interesting, because Hawkins’ point of view is very different from that of many brain researchers.
For example, basing his argument on a paper by Vernon Mountcastle, he argues strongly in favor of the view that neocortex cells carry out the same basic algorithm, regardless of their specific function (e.g. regardless of what input neocortex cells are elaborating: tactile or visual or auditory…), given the fact that the neocortex is remarkably similar in appearance and structure.
I am not sure I agree with him, but it is refreshing to have new perspectives on how the brain works.

Hawkin’s central claim is that the brain is not a computation machine but a memory machine: it does not compute a solution but makes constant predictions about the future by analogy to the past.
Attention, and thinking, is activated when our predictions are violated.
For example, I can walk in my living room to go to the kitchen without thinking about it.
But if a new object has been placed somewhere, say a new ornament on the table, my prediction is violated and my attention is drawn to the error, i.e. the new object.
This makes more sense than the AI computation model, that would require that we list all the properties of all the objects in the room and then that we compute it all… it would take us minutes for us to do what we do in a split second, i.e. noticing something different.

I thought this point of view could be useful to help us think about solution-focused approaches.
According to Hawkins’ model, our thinking gets activated when there is a violation of our expectations based on past memories: basically, when there is a problem.
However, if we help clients think about a “preferred future”, we can engage the same mechanism without falling into the problem solving trap: clients can form memories of the future (as W.R. Bion would have said) and activate their thinking when the present situation is a mismatch with their preferred future, without necessarily there being a problem in the current situation the client is experiencing!

Any thoughts on that?

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Comment by Paolo Terni on July 24, 2008 at 16:02
Hi Mark,
thanks for stopping by.
I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Hawkin's book!
Ciao,
Paolo
Comment by Mark McKergow on July 24, 2008 at 11:39
Hi Paolo
Thanks for mentioning this book. I have somehow failed to read it so far, but have now ordered it and will be taking time over the summer to check it out.
Comment by Paolo Terni on July 20, 2008 at 16:34
Coert: :))))

Michael: I guess we are...
emerging out of nowhere but real... and fun!

Cheers,
Paolo
Comment by Michael Hjerth on July 20, 2008 at 10:26
I have looked at the article before I went OK vacation. My memory is very short though (ADD). So I'll read it today and come back later. I like it, and I do think I can contribute something.

Paolo, and Coert, we seem to be forming some kind of SF/brain thinktank here...

Michael
Comment by Coert Visser on July 20, 2008 at 8:06
Hi Paolo and Michael, Guess I must start reading Kluge too!
Comment by Paolo Terni on July 20, 2008 at 3:49
Michael!
I started reading Kluge yesterday too!
that is why Marcus came easily to my mind!
What a coincidence!
I like what I read so far... even if I doubt that Pinker and Dennet and other evolutionary psychologists would claim that ALL in our evolved mind is perfect, as he claims in the first chapter!
BTW, did you have a chance to take a look at the article I sent you?
Cheers,
Paolo
Comment by Michael Hjerth on July 19, 2008 at 21:54
Paolo,
Funny you mention Marcus. I started reading "Kluge" today yesterday
Comment by Paolo Terni on July 19, 2008 at 17:01
Hi Coert, hi Michael!!
Thanks for stopping by and for your insightful comments!

Coert: of course you already wrote about Hawkins! :) When I find an interesting idea, I am learning now that you already wrote about it years ago, in different places, and in a much more insightful and thoughtful way!! :)))
Thanks for posting the link to your review of Hawkins book.
Thanks also for linking my vague idea to the specific "prediction task".
That makes a lot of sense in hindsight... I had not made that connection.

Michael: welcome back!!
You are listing some of the reasons why I am not sure I agree with Hawkins.
I am also skeptical about the much touted rewiring capabilities of the brain, something on which Hawkins banks and that is true up to a point (see Gary Marcus).
Besides I am very much influenced by evolutionary psychology: I am used to thinking of the mind as a set of different tools adapted for different tasks and wired in a unique way, so the idea of a general algorithm for all of the neo-cortex seems quite too much.
Having said that, as I pointed out, he has an interesting point of view and a refreshing perspective.

I agree about what you say about memory: it is a term that lumps together very different processes, and your idea of "breaking it down" into retrospection, representation and prospection makes a lot of sense!
I think the same can be said about "emotions" - it is a term that lumps together very different processes.

Have a good weekend,
everybody,
ciao,
Paolo
Comment by Michael Hjerth on July 19, 2008 at 11:08
Hi Paolo. I agree, of course. Future memory, or proscopic memory, is, I think, one of the crucial mechanisms of SF. I haven't read Hawkins book, but listened to the interview on Ginger Campbells fantastic podcast series (the brain science podcast) Highly recommended, even essensial podcast. I have some doubt over Hawkins position in that he only adresses cortical function. This is quite excentric in a world of brain science that increasingly see two major qualities of the brain: computational compartmentalization AND functioning in largescale systems. Prefrontal cortex and limbic system is very closely interconnected. Can we really understand one without taking the other into account. To his benefit, it is often useful in science to take one track and see how far you can get. And why not think of future memory and anticipation as computation too. I belong to the people who believe that the mind is a representational system of the world. But I think that we work with both respresentations of the actual world (as we experience it) AND representations of the possible worlds.

Perhaps it would be better to talk about retrospection, representation and prospection, and quit using the confusing word memory. Memory on the brain level is simply learning. Memory on the mind level is representing that learning. Tulving, the guy who coined the procedural/implicit, semantic/explicit, and episodic/explicit memory descriptions once said something like: all of these theories are probably false, it is only the best we got.
Comment by Coert Visser on July 18, 2008 at 14:02
Hi Paolo, I agree again. I loved Hawkins' book, too (here is my review of the book). His work seems very relevant for SF. The ultimate example may be the prediction task (de Shazer, 1988). Here is a post I wrote about that.

To quote from that post, here is de Shazer: "Prediction tasks are based on the idea that what you expect to happen is more likely to happen once the process leading up to it is in motion. In pragmatic terms, this means that the prediction, made the night before, can sometimes be seen as setting in motion the processes involved in having a better day. No matter what guess the predictor puts down, the idea that he might have a good day is bound to cross his mind. Of course, having a good day is what he really wants and therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy might develop and this might prompt "better day behavior" the next day, right of the bat. When someone consistently predicts better days, which might just be the expression of a wish or hope, it seems reasonable that they might then act to have better days and thus fulfill their wish."

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