mental capability

As a teenager (not anymore) I would occasionally lock myself into my room and smoke weed all by myself. While I was enjoying the giggly effects it had on social dynamics, I was more fascinated by the “psychonautic” journeys it enables one to go on. One of my self-imposed stoned mental task was simply to remember the start of a thought-trail. Which, as some of you might know, turns out to be an almost impossible task unless one gets very creative with mnemonics to a degree that the thought-trail itself contains hardly anything besides crutches to remember the thought of just seconds ago.

Another mental dynamic that both enchanted and irritated me fundamentally were recursive loops in the style of: “What am I thinking about what I am thinking. How might I think about in the future what I am thinking right now. How much of what I am thinking now could I have anticipated in the past. How much of all possible thoughts can I possibly think of now”. Deep enough into this rabbit hole I would again and again “feel” a quite tangible mental barrier which is not “transcendable”! As much meta as I am trying to climb, I will always only be able to think about me from inside me, no complete outsider perspective possible… obviously.

Wanting to challenge this kind of barrier might very well have played a role in my bygone venturing into spirituality and terminology like collective intelligence, awakening and alike. Of which older posts (before 2012ish) on this blog are vivid and amusing products of.

I returned to the path of science and programming. But also here, and especially here, I am confronted with my mental limitations constantly. In the context of my bachelor thesis I am currently investigating which design pattern in software architecture makes most sense for our challenge. A pattern here means a conceptual structure that has proofed useful in various contexts. It does take time to understand such a pattern and I am definitely the type of learner who needs to see and ideally rebuild little examples to comprehend a concept. I guess I need to rebuild the design pattern literally as neuronal structure in my brain to be able to use it in my active thinking? Obviously not “one to one” and the functioning of the ridiculously massive knowledge graph that makes up ones brain is beyond current scientific comprehension, but to some degree this simple transfer-analogy holds true I like to believe. Having useful structural concepts, categorization schemes, readily available in one’s mind can be worth the world – and that’s what expertise in general is all about, isn’t it? It does change your brain, physically. Learning is never of additive nature but it reworks the knowledge graph and therefore changes what can possibly be thought of by this brain.

Anyways, I admit to be really bad at comprehending new abstract concepts at times! I get annoyed with not being able to grasp it. If motivation trumps over quitting I try to work my way in from various angles. Taking breaks helps, going running or sleeping over it. I have seen people on my educational level being much better than me at incorporating new stuff into their thinking. I don’t see it as reason to be ashamed though, it only means I must continuously find crutches and creative highways for my tenacious brain to digest stuff. Or ways how to outsource or blackblox complex parts. Or, yeah, ignoring them long enough until someone else has to deal with it might be an option too.

Paradoxically I am drawn to the very abstract concepts that I seem to comprehend often so slow and troublesome. (Well, it seems often that way, doesn’t it? People get professional at what they were once bad in or vulnerable about.) It might very well be a driver for my interest in well composed and thought through educational content – wanting to reduce the mental pain of fighting through bad and inelegant materials.  And I don’t mean (only) aesthetically bad, bad are also and especially subtle choices of introducing concepts for instance in ways that might please the educators mind, but are likely to confuse learners systematically.

I am extremely curious about the mental capabilities people have and are developing. I find it so very beautiful if one is honest and playful about theirs. I love imagining what people could do together just looking at the union of their bare mental toolkits and temporarily ignoring social and cultural swamps that might weaken or hinder them to bounce off each other.

Here is a great piece about mental capability in Rich Hickey’s talk “Simple Made Easy“:

Then we have this other part though, which is the mental capability part. And that’s the part that’s always hard to talk about, the mental capability part because, the fact is, we can learn more things. We actually can’t get much smarter. We’re not going to move; we’re not going to move our brain closer to the complexity. We have to make things near by simplifying them. But the truth here is not that they’re these super, bright people who can do these amazing things and everybody else is stuck because the juggling analogy is pretty close. Right? The average juggler can do three balls. The most amazing juggler in the world can do, like, 9 balls or 12 or something like that. They can’t do 20 or 100. We’re all very limited. Compared to the complexity we can create, we’re all statistically at the same point in our ability to understand it, which is not very good. So we’re going to have to bring things towards us.

After all that talk about limited mental capabilities I’d like to highlight this section from Dr Sean Holden in this video [7:40 to 8:48] about our grand advantage over current AI. That is “knowing” what to ignore and doing so immediately and effortless:

[…] our ability to have a focus of interest. By which I mean: in our heads we have huge quantities of information and almost every single bit of it is completely irrelevant right now. I could be the worlds biggest expert on the mating habits of the Patagonian fruit bat. But the fact is, I am sitting here talking to you on a particular subject. Now I am immediately excluding what I know about Patagonian fruit bats without having to consciously think what bits do I need to exclude. […] Everything is unconsciously and immediately filtered out. And that’s a big problem for AI software because it doesn’t have the ability to do that in the way in which your brain does that.

To conclude this blog post I want to quote Randall Lee Reetz from this post:

[…] what ends up mattering, isn’t how fast your computer, all computers are and always will be, limited by the locality wall, what matters is knowing what to compute and what not to compute. That is what evolution seeks. That is what intelligence is.


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Benjamin Aaron Degenhart

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

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