Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Mind - Alien Thoughts

From didactic meerkats to inequity-averse monkeys, the same observation applies: each of these animals has evolved an exquisite mind that is adapted to singular problems and is thus limited when it comes to applying skills to novel problems. Not so for us hairless bipeds. Once in place, the modern mind enabled our forebears to explore previously uninhabited parts of the earth, to create language to describe novel events, and to envision an afterlife.

The roots of our cognitive abilities remain largely unknown, but having pinpointed the unique ingredients of the human mind, scientists now know what to look for. To that end, I am hopeful that neurobiology will prove illuminating. Although scholars do not yet understand how genes build brains and how electrical activity in the brain builds thoughts and emotions, we are witnessing a revolution in the sciences of the mind that will fill in these blanks—and enrich our understanding of why the human brain differs so profoundly from those of other

For instance, studies of chimeric animals—in which brain circuits from an individual of one species are transplanted into an individual of another species—are helping to unravel how the brain is wired. And experiments with genetically modified animals are revealing genes that play roles in language and other social processes. Such achievements do not reveal anything about what our nerve cells do to give us our unique mental powers, but they do provide a roadmap for further exploration of these traits.

Still, for now, we have little choice but to admit that our mind is very different from that of even our closest primate relatives and that we do not know much about how that difference came to be. Could a chimpanzee think up an experiment to test humans? Could a chimpanzee imagine what it would be like for us to solve one of their problems? No and no. Although chimpanzees can see what we do, they cannot imagine mental machinery. Although chimpanzees and other animals appear to develop plans and consider both past experiences and future options, there is no evidence that they think in terms of counterfactuals—imagining worlds that have been against those that could be. We humans do this all the time and have done so ever since our distinctive genome gave birth to our distinctive minds. Our moral systems are premised on this mental capacity.

Have our unique minds become as powerful as a mind can be? For every form of human expression— including the world’s languages, musical compositions, moral norms and technological forms—I suspect we are unable to exhaust the space of all possibilities. There are significant limitations to our ability to imagine alternatives.

If our minds face inherent constraints on what they can conceive, then the notion of “thinking outside of the box” is all wrong. We are always inside the box, limited in our capacity to envision alternatives. Thus, in the same way that chimpanzees cannot imagine what it is like to be human, humans cannot imagine what it is like to be an intelligent alien. Whenever we try, we are stuck in the box that we call the human mind. The only way out is through evolution, the revolutionary remodeling of our genome and its potential to sculpt fresh neural connections and fashion new neural structures. Such change would give birth to a novel mind, one that would look on its ancestors as we often look on ours: with respect, curiosity, and a sense that we are alone, paragons in a world of simple minds.

Source of Information : Scientific American September 2009

No comments: