As the capabilities of our brains increase, we know more, perform better and the collective sum of our species intelligence increases. Might we also find ourselves thinking better?
As we learn more about the human brain and how it works, and how in particular it increases the limits of imagination and the creativity of the human mind, it will be fascinating to witness the qualitative differences resulting from cognitive enhancement: not just the quantitative ones.
So as we learn things we did not know before; and successive generations of children master increasingly complex information technologies; and we hold increasingly complicated mind maps and cultural abstractions in our minds: might we actually get to a point where our minds are capable of step changes in mental virtuosity? Might we actually think better, or do things with our brains of which even recent ancestors could not possibly have conceived?
As ever, we can look into the crystal ball of science fiction to come up with examples of what such evolutionary leaps might be: telepathy, mind control, apparent clairvoyance, mental time travel, new horizons of capability in processing mental data, mind over matter. And much may depend upon how much the proponents of Artificial Intelligence research promote computers that function more like brains; or brains that are more like computers.
Could it be that a gap every bit as yawning and even more problematic for quality of life than the disparities in income, education and social mobility may prove to be an increasing cognition gap: in which older humans continue to struggle with a wide variety of mental deficits just as the rising generations, two steps down evolution’s conveyor belt, are embracing new technologies and developing neurological capacities that leave the old folks even more baffled than they were in earlier generations?
Or will innovations in brain research lead to the development of biological agents or physical implants that, when applied in some way to subjects’ brains make them “brainier” or even, as with triumph of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy with which The Wizard of Oz concludes, all of humanity’s scarecrows get smarter just because a charlatan gives them a diploma?
What is most likely is a multi-iterative cycle of improvements that begin with:
- Our making better use of the brains we have: eating properly and exercising regularly, developing reading and thinking habits, absorbing such lessons as our leading thinkers provide to us (check out philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Seven Tools for Thinking, which are as much about emotional as about analytic intelligence); playing chess and exercising your grey matter with online brain training games such as can be found at Posit Science and Lumosity (and there are others, although there is some skepticism in “BrainLand” as to how valuable such games are);
- developing a clearer understanding of how brains work through the sort of neurological research that is summarised elsewhere on this website, enabling us to map the brain and, so it is hoped, secure a better understanding of the relationship between all this activity within that human gloop and the outcomes of cognitive wonderment that define us in our humanity;
- we loop back to the first step, consolidating the knowledge acquired in stage two to effect the optimisation of capabilities as first practiced in stage one.
And then we stand back and watch the fireworks. And hope that with our new enhanced cognitive capabilities we can sort out global warming, incoming comets, quantum galactic travel, the problems of free will and human greed, all the while achieving peace in our time.3