By Caitlin Goodpaster
For the past two hundred thousand years, humans have dominated planet Earth. From the time we were roaming the African savanna, members of Homo sapiens have mastered fire, learned to craft tools, mass-produced agricultural goods, invented life-changing technologies, and so much more. But why did we rise to the top while other species did not? Drs. Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam argue in their book, Journey of the Mind: How Thinking Emerged from Chaos, that we gained our slot at the top due to the evolutionary path that allowed us to become conscious beings. To break down this idea, the authors walk us through how chaos gave rise to thinking, starting with simple micro-organisms, up through civilization itself. Journey offers a unique perspective on how simple mechanisms acquired by basic beings can grow and work together to create something as complicated as conscious thought and sense of Self.
Consciousness is not an easy topic to tackle. A coherent and agreed-upon definition has eluded philosophers and academics for hundreds of years, so you can imagine a novice science reader may have difficulty with the topic. To address this, the authors have broken their book into four main sections, each covering a stage of the mind’s evolution. Rather than diving into the complicated and largely unknown inner workings of the human mind from the beginning, they start with micro-organisms with minds consisting of only a few molecules. They then progress through minds of increasing complexity like those of amoebas, flatworms, frogs, and monkeys, explaining how each successively more complex mind has the capacity to do something the previous mind could not. Journey excels at interweaving historical anecdotes, metaphors, and anthropomorphized characters, like Archie the Archaeon, to prevent the reader from getting bogged down with too many technical details.
…Ogas and Gaddam use the phrase “module minds” to describe different functions of the brain.
As disciples of the computational neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Grossberg, Ogas and Gaddam use the phrase “module minds” to describe different functions of the brain. Module minds are dynamic systems, explained with a lot of complicated mathematical equations, that basically split the brain into groups based on what task they accomplish. Further, Grossberg argues that it is specifically the resonance between these modules that gives rise to consciousness. For example, imagine you are sitting in a park – your “visual” module will take in fundamental details about the scene, including things like boundaries between objects and what is in the foreground versus the background. At the same time, your “what” module will have an internal expectation of what is at the park, usually based on past experiences. When your “visual” module sends information to the “what” module, the “what” module will compare your internal expectation, maybe that there would be squirrels, plants, or other people, with that from the “visual” module. If the “what” module leads you to expect trees, and your “visual” module registers collections of leaves on tall trunks, there is resonance between the modules, and you become conscious that you are sitting front of a tree. If they do not match, the comparison will never breach consciousness and the “what” module will compare the next likeliest expectations until the two match. However, a detailed explanation of how resonance occurs in the brain is lacking within the pages of this book. The authors merely mention that resonance leads to the amplification of signals, drowning out competing information, but they never explain a mechanism. While this gap may be due to difficulties explaining Grossberg’s theory without the accompanying math, the reader is unfortunately expected to accept this idea at face value. Grossberg offers a more detailed explanation in his book, Conscious Mind, Resonant Brain.
…Ogas and Saddam argue that individual human minds are hardly the most sophisticated ones on the planet.
While you might think that human consciousness is the final destination on this evolutionary journey, the authors blow right past this. Although they admire human consciousness, Ogas and Saddam argue that individual human minds are hardly the most sophisticated ones on the planet. They claim that the principles that govern human self-awareness and thinking also govern the development of civilizations. And at the center of both is the unique ability to communicate with language, which has given humans the capability to share knowledge with one another and pass it down to future generations. This ability has allowed the collective human race, or the “supermind”, to accomplish great things like going to the moon… or TikTok. On the flip side, it also has had the capacity to cause great pain. The authors leave the reader with a reminder that each neuron making up this “supermind” consists of an individual person and that it is up to each one of us to make choices that nudge it towards kindness and away from devastation.
Escrito por Caitlin Goodpaster
Imagen por Melis Cakar
Edited by Lauren Wagner y Shiri Spitz Siddiqi