This engaging, non(too)technical book offers a new and plausible theory of how the brain, or more specifically the neocortex, works.
When I learned aboThis engaging, non(too)technical book offers a new and plausible theory of how the brain, or more specifically the neocortex, works.
When I learned about the existence of this book, I was drawn to it for a number of reasons. For one thing, I'm intrigued by the faculty we call intelligence: what is it, exactly? For another, I, like the author Jeff Hawkins, have long been fascinated by the brain and how it works. And finally I was eager to read a book on neuroscience by a nonscientist, for Hawkins, inventor of the Palm Pilot and other things, is a technologist who has long pursued brain science as a hobby. I love the idea of contributions to knowledge being made by amateurs, for they seem best able to think outside the box.
And thinking outside the box is what Hawkins has done here. His point of attack was to discover whether it is possible to build an "intelligent machine," and how this might be done. He noted the relative unsatisfactoriness of the results achieved by "artificial intelligence" in the computing world, and wondered why this was. How was it that a computer, with processors executing millions of instructions per second, could not seem to remotely approach the prowess of the human brain at most tasks requiring "intelligence," when the cells in that brain could only execute a few tens of "instructions" per second? Even relatively simple perceptual tasks, like recognizing faces and chairs, are done effortlessly and almost instantly by humans, while machines toil to achieve a success rate well below 100%. What have humans got that computers don't got?
Humans have got a way of processing information that is completely different from the way computers process it. The brain, unlike a computer, does not run on the instructions of a single master program controlled from the top. The brain, says Hawkins, operates as a vast array of small, localized processing systems. In particular, the neocortex--that sheet of neurons that covers the upper frontal part of our brain, and is responsible for all of our human intelligence--is set up as an intricate, interconnected feedback system that can be boiled down to performing two functions: memory and prediction. He's saying that what we call intelligence is the interplay of memory and prediction.
To defend and illustrate this thesis, he goes into some detail on exactly how he thinks the neocortex is wired up. It is known to consist of 6 layers of neurons, which are all interconnected in certain characteristic ways. Hawkins shows why they are so interconnected, and how this results in the formation of memories at increasingly high levels of abstraction. What we call intelligence is the recognition of a current sensory input as belonging to an abstract category already in memory. According to this view, animals that also possess neocortexes have this same intelligence, but in lower degree than humans, who have the most sophisticated neocortex (one interesting fact in the book was that dolphins, which are intelligent and also possess large brains, have a neocortex with only 3 layers, as opposed to the humans' 6).
Hawkins makes his case very well; I found it persuasive. Where I found myself less persuaded was in what I would call the philosophical side of the book, where the author addresses questions such as, What is creativity? What is imagination? What is consciousness? And, of course, the basic question: what is intelligence itself? I think that Hawkins, an extremely able technologist and even scientist, overplays his hand as a philosopher.
Along the way, for example, he talks about Plato's theory of forms as an explanation of how we are able to recognize sameness in the hurly-burly of our ever-shifting sensations. Hawkins notes offhand, "His system of explanation was wildly off the mark." Well, maybe it was and maybe it wasn't, but what makes Hawkins so sure? I recall that Roger Penrose, in chapter 1 of his Road To Reality, treats the world of mathematical truth as one part of a Platonic world of forms, seemingly real but also different from the worlds of mental experience and of physical things. My point here is just that Plato's ideas live on; they'll keep climbing back out of the dustbin of history.
I had similar feelings about Hawkins's take on the other philosophical questions. He contends that there the difference between the intelligence of, say, a rat and of a human is purely one of degree. But Mortimer J. Adler, in his book Intellect: Mind over Matter, contends the opposite. According to him, intellect--which was the word formerly used to label the faculties that we now point to with the word intelligence--is something more than the rudimentary power of abstraction used by brutes. In this view, animals are able to respond to individually differing things in the same way, as when a rat is able to press different triangular buttons to get food, but this is not the same thing as
cognizing what is common to them or knowing them in their universal aspects. . . . By means of concepts, and only by means of concepts, we understand kinds or classes as such entirely apart from perceived particulars and even though no particular instances exist.
Adler argues that the brain is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of the human intellect. The existence of the intellect, he thinks, is a sign that a human being is something more than just a body.
Is Adler right in this? I don't know. And I don't think Jeff Hawkins knows either, no matter how confident he is in his assertions. But for someone who wants to build intelligent machines, I think a cautious outlook would be fitting. Hawkins dismisses people's worries that superintelligent machines might become our overlords or our executioners, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Skynet computers in the Terminator movies. He thinks that such behavior would require the presence of the equivalent of the emotional centers of the brain in addition to the neocortex, and he's only planning to build an analog of the neocortex. So don't worry, folks.
I recall reading a comment from the Dalai Lama, apparently changing his mind about whether robots or machines could become sentient. He said that if some being had the necessary karma to take birth or manifestation in a machine, then that would happen. I note that karma is not a word that occurs in the index of Hawkins' book.
But this is a good, clear, strongly argued, plainspoken, provocative, and, yes, intelligent book. Hawkins has persuaded me that "intelligent" machines are very likely in our near future. And I'm sure they will be very helpful and will have no reason to do anything mean to us, their intellectual inferiors.
If they do turn on us, then, well, maybe God will help us....more
Partly life science, partly life story, this book points the way beyond a mechanical view of life.
It's the kind of science book I really enjoy: a boldPartly life science, partly life story, this book points the way beyond a mechanical view of life.
It's the kind of science book I really enjoy: a bold, paradigm-shifting theory presented by a researcher who knows what he's talking about. One of the ways Bruce H. Lipton busts conventions in this book is by spending so much time talking about his own life. And while his life is very interesting, in most scientific books this might be perceived as self-indulgent; in this case, however, it fits perfectly due to the nature of the theory that he is presenting, and its implications.
For the core assertion of this book, contrary to the "central dogma" of cell biology, is that genes are not destiny. For proof the author offers the simple fact that genes are not self-activating; the genes of a cell, encoded in its chromosomes, are activated by triggers coming from outside the cell's nucleus, and ultimately from outside the cell itself. It is the cell's environment that dictates how a cell will behave, and which genes will be activated, and when.
The author spends time showing how it is not the cell's nucleus, with its set of chromosomes, that is the "brain" of the cell, but rather the cell's membrane--the fatty envelope that holds the cell together--that performs this function. It is the cell's membrane that holds all of its sensory apparatus and does its decision-making. Lipton points out that in the development of an embryo, the cells that go on to form the skin of the newborn also go on to form its brain and nervous system, pointing back, he thinks, to the identity of these functions in the single cell.
Lipton then goes on to talk about quantum physics and its implications for biology. He observes that biologists in general, including himself, tend not to have a very sophisticated understanding of physics, limiting themselves to a few courses on basic Newtonian physics early in their university careers. But physics has moved on from Newton. The 20th century brought the stunning revelations of quantum physics; what do these mean for biology?
Lots, according to Lipton. For just as Einstein's theory of relativity showed the deep identity between matter and energy, so quantum theory has shown the deep identity between mind and matter, or mind and the physical world of matter-energy. This means that the "environment" of a cell--and each of us is a collection of several trillion cells--is not just the physical medium in which it rests, but also the mental medium surrounding it. Each cell responds sensitively to the innumerable gross and subtle influences on it, chemical, physical, electrical, and mental or spiritual. The response is determined by the cell's membrane, and the genes execute that response.
If Lipton is right about this--and he has persuaded me that he is--then the implications for each of us are vast. For we are not, as biological and medical science currently teach us, mere organic robots executing programs encoded in our genes, which were bestowed on us at birth and cannot be changed. We are active, choosing participants in our world and in our life, whose genes are following the commands that we are directly or indirectly sending them. If we wish to lead healthy, fulfilling lives, our task is to discover how to send the right instructions to our own genes.
This is easier said than done, but it is eminently possible, and certainly more so than changing our genome.
The insights that the author presents so simply and picturesquely--he has honed his presentation of the ideas over many speaking engagements with nontechnical audiences--are easy to grasp for the nonscientist. Indeed, if you have scientific training you may find his explanations too simplistic and protracted.
He understands the difficulty people may have in accepting these ideas, for he arrived at them only over a long period, and with a number of setbacks along the way. But the accounts of how he made his discoveries have the mark of authenticity, and are exciting, as all stories of discovery are.
One of Lipton's strongest messages is that his discoveries have changed his own life, not just professionally, but to the core. He frankly admits that as a young man he was unhappy and envious of others; but since his discoveries in cellular biology, he has found the means to change his thinking and become a happy person. And it is this power which he wishes to help put in the reader's hands.
He doesn't actually do this, though, for it turns out that the most important factor in improving the biology of our own cells is amending our subconscious beliefs (hence the title of the book), and there is no book-given way of doing this. He suggests a couple of possibilities for the reader to pursue, but other than that, you're on your own.
But the book as it is presents a wonderful message. It is joyous, freeing, and empowering. Our cells are here to help us achieve what we want to achieve in life; we just need to learn to tell them what to do....more
My personal introduction to the Great Pyramid of Giza was in January 1982, when I traveled to Egypt. At that time there were few tourists, so I made mMy personal introduction to the Great Pyramid of Giza was in January 1982, when I traveled to Egypt. At that time there were few tourists, so I made my way alone up the Grand Gallery, mysterious, massive, and steep inside the man-made mountain, and for a time stood alone in the King's Chamber at its top. I was surprised to find the chamber so plain--no hieroglyphics, no carvings. It was like standing in a damp, dim concrete room, like a change-room at a public swimming pool, with the big, plain stone "sarcophagus" looking more like a broken watering trough for livestock. In short, the chamber, like the rest of the innards of the Pyramid, suggested a feeling of functionality, even if it was impossible to guess what that function was.
Fast-forward to March 1994. Browsing through the shelves of Westernesse, a used bookstore here in North Vancouver, I came across, in their "new" section, a copy of the Element Classic Edition of The Great Pyramid Decoded by Peter Lemesurier. Intrigued by the book's high quality, detailed illustrations, and unconventional viewpoint, I bought it ($24.95--expensive at the time). I started reading and quickly became fascinated and excited. It was the first I'd ever heard of the phenomenal physical properties of the Pyramid and its encoding of a number of mathematical and astronomical quantities and proportions, including approximations of pi and phi (the irrational quantity that generates the Golden Section), accurate lengths of the tropical, sidereal, and anomalistic years, and accurate representations of the Earth's polar and equatorial radii--among many other things. I was astonished, electrified. I had no difficulty believing the author's contention that the Great Pyramid was something vastly more and vastly other than the mere tomb of a vainglorious king--one whose body was never found in the monument.
I came to see the Great Pyramid as the single greatest puzzle on Earth, the greatest monument to the question of human origins and destiny. We have forgotten the purpose of the most marvelous and stupendous structure ever built. What does that say about us?
Since the collapse of the Egyptian civilization a shroud of ignorance has fallen over Giza. The Pyramid's brilliant white casing stones have been stripped from its surface, perhaps to build mosques in Cairo, and people have dynamited their way into the Pyramid in their lust for treasure. (What does that say about us?)
In the following years I dug further into the question, reading works by John Anthony West, R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, and Graham Hancock. My first encounter with the work of Robert Bauval was in his role as coauthor, with Graham Hancock, of The Message of the Sphinx, which came out in 1996, two years after The Orion Mystery. (The Sphinx is perhaps an even greater mystery than the Great Pyramid.) Since that book already took account of the discoveries documented in The Orion Mystery, I didn't bother to get the latter book. But something (I forget what) flagged my attention back to the earlier book, and I ordered a copy.
I'm glad I did. Bauval, a native of Alexandria and a civil engineer by trade, is the antithesis of a New Age crackpot. Cautious, objective, and humble, he provides a good "outsider's" view of the standard theories about the Pyramids, showing good familiarity with the various people and texts that have presented these. For the New Age may have its crackpots, but orthodox, mainstream Egyptology has no shortage of its own. And in any field where there are such large gaps in the factual knowledge, there is no doubt a greater danger that scholarly consensus will be mistaken for truth. Egyptology needs fresh thinking, new ideas--it needs more Robert Bauvals instead of dismissing them as "pyramidiots," one of the actual terms used by Egyptologists.
The book is a narration of how Bauval developed his own theory of the origin and purpose of the Egyptian pyramids. Quite a bit of it is concerned with the details of his efforts to get more information and his dealings with professional Egyptologists, most of whom were dismissive of his ideas. There were important exceptions, though, such as the warmth and interest he was shown by I. E. S. Edwards, octogenarian former Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum--the more important because he was regarded by many as the foremost authority on the Egyptian pyramids.
Bauval's theory is that the complex of pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty was conceived and built as whole: a gigantic, multigenerational megaproject. They, along with the river Nile and the ancient cities of Heliopolis and Letopolis, mapped a portion of the heavens, and served specific funerary functions, although they were not tombs of individual pharaohs. Rather, they were a system to ensure the flight of the dead pharaoh's soul to the stars, and his rebirth as the next pharaoh.
I won't say more about the specifics so as not to spoil the reading, journey, which does indeed read something like a mystery. The account of Bauval's discovery of the correlation between the Giza pyramids and the belt of Orion is delightful and authentic. Adrian Gilbert, listed as coauthor, is an English publisher with whom Bauval joined forces when they discovered a shared interest in the pyramids. It seems that Gilbert provided organizational, research, and editorial help to a project that was really Bauval's. The book is narrated in Bauval's voice.
I learned a lot of new things in The Orion Mystery, and I say this as someone who has studied the Great Pyramid more than casually over the years. I suppose I would sum things up thus: if you're interested in the mystery of the Great Pyramid of Giza, then this book is required reading for you. And if you're not interested, you should be....more