caring for the quality of neuronal wiring

Recently I had a dream that span across a whole morning through several wake-up/half-awake/fall-asleep iterations. It was about trying to understand an algorithm; some sort of long-winded structure that describes a mechanical process. I can’t quite remember. Anyhow, what I do remember was my ongoing attempt to grasp what this thing does as a whole. I remember sensations of understanding parts of it but failing to comprehend how the parts interact. I remember sensations of “comprehension-pockets” blurring into confusion again when trying to focus on the next higher level of functionality. Interestingly I showed more persistence in this ongoing mental scenery as I probably would have demonstrated when facing a challenge of that type while awake. There was no frustration building up – it was more like a stoic inquiry into the right sequence of understanding parts that would lead to understanding the whole…

I’d like to use the incident of this dream to share some thoughts I am having as a result of the last few years in my biography that are best described as follows: running from academia, being immersed in “alternative” (experience-based) education and since winter 2012 being back on track with computer science and mathematics in an academic context.
At this point I can best follow through with this intention by posting a revised version of an email I sent to the Viewpoints Research Institute in Los Angeles a few months ago (as a motivational letter explaining what attracts me to them for my internship in summer 2014 – I ended up choosing an internship at the LRZ but would be very happy to have the chance at some point to join forces with the VPRI, in particular to work with (=learn from) Alan Kay).

I’ve been fascinated with math, programming and algorithms since I saw the mandelbrot set the first time as a result of my own code in the middle of some night during my time at secondary school. […] As a result of the past years I got very sensitive to what real content created through deep original thinking is in comparison to shiny packaging (which does have its place though) of the work of someone else or even just the repeating of phrases within a social club.

I am too young to have experienced the “early days of computation” myself – but I am eager to comprehend this storyline not just in names and pictures (that too), but also by really understanding what kind of possibility spaces were unlocked through the contributions of the various people thinking in this sphere over the last decades and how they were building on the shoulders of thinking from the last centuries and so forth. There is more to computation then evermore faster processing units and evermore satisfying customer-experiences. And I have a feeling at least the past two decades have mostly focused on that business/excitement-part of computation. However, I am not bold enough to claim to know what that untapped potential is all about.

The second point is the focus on learning. I am a very visual thinker and need to “see” the patterns and dynamics of things to tie new knowledge into my brain. It makes me curious what can possibly be misunderstood about a particular problem because understanding possible gaps or “bad” entry-points requires comprehending “the space around” a particular problem. Like Alan pointed out in his presentation about conveying Pythagoras’ theorem; there are many different conceptual approaches how to go about explaining – but each of them has a different value attached as to how well it prepares the brain on the receiving end for similar problems in the future. Most approaches can help understand this particular problem for the next exam – but might very well cause confusion later on when other problems are explained with a very different conceptual strategy. On the other hand can an approach set a “neuronal base” for thousands of other problems to come in theoretical and very practical situations that a person might encounter throughout a life-time!

I’d dare saying to care about the quality of the knowledge-graph in the brains of people is the most important investment we can make as a society. And it is also the most expensive investment – because just to be open to (wanting to) hear anything about Pythagoras’ theorem you need a stable infrastructure surrounding you that allows for peace of mind in terms of covering basic and social needs. It can not be underestimated how much an open, curious and peaceful mind is worth in very real costs when seen statistically across a society. However, as a result of that rich infrastructure it becomes increasingly important among those who benefit from it to deal with the various distracting elements (entertainment, status…) long enough for new knowledge to get anchored. A brain after learning something is not the same as it was before. The neurons are physically restructured. It is that focus on salience in patterns that sets apart the noise from the trajectory into the future. Not in a sci-fi / trans-humanistic / futuristic / singularity / whatever-way, but in a very real causal way.

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Benjamin Aaron Degenhart

Currently pursuing a Masters in Computational Science and Engineering at TU Munich.

One thought on “caring for the quality of neuronal wiring”

  1. hello Benjamin, your thoughts-experiments are like a call from a stranger, like a view to a bright star, a nova. But deep in my heart you are close proximity. I wish you a fantastic new year 2014, with sudden inspirations and the possibility to meet us again, with a hug from gertrud

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