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message 1: by A (new)

A | 6 comments The following is a link to an artilcle published in Discover Magazine in September of 2010 (pub. online Jan. 20 2011):

If Modern Humans Are So Smart...

My apologies if this topic has already been discussed elsewhere; I searched but did not find...

Personally, I find it somewhat hard to believe that human aggression has decreased over the past several thousand years; that being said, my only point of reference for "the most aggressive" is what that looks like now, so who knows. I don't, however, find it so hard to believe that a shrinking brain might be indicative of increased aptitude in persuasion and manipulation, but then again I am quite cynical at times.

My favoured view as to the cause of most things is that it's actually the causes, so I'd have to say that a wide variety of theories is refreshing to see and also that I'm not about to say that I think it's any one cause over another. So, I've been thinking about this and I thought I might as well present an additional factor that might be coming into play; it's related to the discussion about the increase in social complexity:

The factor I'm thinking of: Technological Development

Probably for our whole history humans have been using technology to aid ourselves in getting things done. As technological pratices developed, however, we have needed to know less. With less sophisticated tools and organization of practices, tasks are more demanding of physical and mental faculties; there are more steps to be taken, more things to think about, and more to remember about doing them. If you look at the modern era, we have come to a place where none of us needs to know and remember nearly as much as we used to for the purpose of everyday survival; this is not just because we have other people to help us do these things, but also because we have tools to help us and special ways of using those tools to make the work less demanding. Think about the difference between an oral history and a documented one. Without things being written down or kept as digital files, all the information we had needed to be stored in brains; I imagine that would mean the need for a bigger one. That may or may not be for "storage space," but at the very least it would be helpful in coordinating everything that was being held in there. On top of this, we have machines that are capable of replacing humans for doing certain tasks. Finally, we have the increased focus on specialization of work practices; my guess is that if you were to track human work over the course of time you would see increased instances of humans choosing to specialize in a given area of work and choosing to rely on others to carry out other work for them. I do think, though, that this is probably at its peak now given our economic and industrial models as well as societal values (oh, how we love the experts).

All that being said, I don't think its a question of dumber or smarter. Of course, your assessment of this is going to depend on your definition of intelligence, but suffice it to say that I think, especially given the relatively short period of time they're investigating, we are just as capable of carrying out the same functions that people did in the past; that the biggest differences in what we do and how we think about things may be in large part due to paradigmatic differences and not so much due to differences in brain functionality.

Anyway, I might go on forever so I'll stop there.

*DO NOTE: (So you have a basis for critcal analysis...) I have basically no experience in neuroscience or evolutionary theory. As always, any enlightenment you can offer is greatly appreciated. If I don't know what I'm talking about, I'd like to hear about that...


message 2: by Ginger (new)

Ginger Campbell (GingerCampbell) | 313 comments Mod
This debate over how technology might diminish our mental skills goes at least as far back as Socrates. He was against writing because he thought dependence on the written word would cause memory to atrophy. This may actually be true, but few would argue that the gains didn't far outweigh this downside.

Now their is a debate about whether depending on things like Google and Wikipedia is "making us stupid." You can find neuroscientists on both sides of the argument. But if history is any guide humans will adapt and development new skills.

At the same time we need to realize that the human brain evolved over millions of years, making the so-called "historical" period look like a blink of an eye. This implies that our innate mental abilities probably have not changed much in the last 10, 000 years. Instead, we are benefiting from the wonderfully plastic brain we each possess.

Of course, brain plasticity is optimal when we our young. So we need to think carefully about what skills today's young people will need in the future. Since we can't actually predict this perhaps the best thing we should do is try to nourish good learning skills. Even more importantly, rather teaching young people to fear change, perhaps we could encourage them to embrace it.


message 3: by John (new)

John Brown | 52 comments Just a note about my personal experience in adjusting to recent change, in computer programming.
In 2004, I programmed in C++, which I learnt relatively painlessly from a 500 page textbook by doing small exercises on my computer at home over 5 months. Previously I had spent 6 years using C which is a slightly simpler precursor to C++. I could fairly frequently write 50 lines in C++ which would work first time without any bugs.
Then Microsoft introduced C#. Up until 2005 the development system was rather crude, but then things got serious.
In C# I found that I could not write 5 lines without making a mistake. Everything was extremely object-oriented and you had to create an instance of a class for virtually every operation. And there was no consistency across the classes. Each class contained up to 400 different functions, and it was essential to keep referring to the (digital) documentation. A string of letters sometimes had a Length, and sometimes a Count, and sometimes you called Add to lengthen it, and sometimes Append.
And the taxonomy of classes in their differing Namespaces was 20 levels deep!
All the routine tasks that I had done quite automatically before, now required considerable thinking. Textbooks were now 1400 pages long, and you needed 2 or 3 of these if you were going to do sophisticated work.
It became totally impossible to concentrate on the Semantics of the program, or its Ergonomics, since you were always thinking about the Syntax.
Since then, Microsoft has improved the development environment a lot, and computers have got a lot faster. Now when you type a class name, a list of its functions pops up, and you can with a couple of tries enter the first few letters of 'Length' or 'Count' and see if that matches an available function.
Lots of facilities have been added to take the load off the short-term memory, and I have learnt tricks where I copy/paste shorthand sections of code into Notepad files, and search them with a short section of a function name, so that I can look up the whole function, and then search for it in my program. Programs nowadays have tens of thousands of functions, organised into thousands of classes.
Now, some 5 years further on, my automatic operations are as good as they were in C++, and I can once again concentrate on the Semantics and Ergonomics.
I ought to add that I have over the years programmed in some 20 languages, and also studied French, Italian and some German. So I had a lot of experience, but that did not seem to help much with learning C#.


message 4: by A (new)

A | 6 comments I wonder if the Textbook for the English Language would be >1400 pages long...Which makes me wonder whether a child could learn such a language (as C#) as fluently and easily as something like English...assuming she had someone around who could speak it with her.

That aside, in my mind, this is a great example of how one can accomplish a difficult task when you perceive that the situation (or you yourself ) demands it.

I actually read both of these posts last night and so I was thinking about it more already. It seems that in plenty of cases, our worries and preoccupations are pretty stable over time...Socrates! I'm not at all surprised at this particular worry, though, since we have (at least since Socrates) valued our intelligence as the primary quality that makes us special. We think it's how we stand out on this planet, so we don't want to go dumbing ourselves down to the level of mere apes or worse...And what else is there to be afraid of than losing the things that we value most? Which lands us at an ironic point, as you pointed out Dr. Campbell: our fear can lead us to avoid experiences which would serve to enhance those parts of our thinking and doing that we call intelligence.

*Note regarding Google and Wikipedia: I suppose I would say I'm not in favour of a binary set of options here; I'll go for the continuum. I think whether they are "good" or "bad" for brain health, development, and/or maintenance largely depends on how they are consumed. At the end of the day, if a task looks the same from day to day, it isn't going to do you much good. If people take the time to come away from what they are reading and think deeply about it (try to work with it, make connections with prior knowledge, etc), then the task is changing, but if you just read and let that information pass through, maybe you'll repeat it to someone you know (but it's likely many people are just "sharing" links online with "friends"), the task doesn't change much...Recall the episode on Brain Fitness!

I was also thinking about the size of the brain and how much it can change over the course of a single organism's lifetime; a good example of an extreme change is in the case of brain damage, but another example is when women are pregnant (I think you may have talked about this, Dr. Campbell, in the discussion of The Female Brain). In any case, despite these changes, people can perform the same tasks as before with enough practice. So, like I was saying in my first post, brain size might be somewhat important, but it doesn't seem to be the most important factor; maybe it has more to so with structure and organization...I am thinking both of my Cognitive Psychology class (where we were recently talking about a variety of theories of mind including Computational Theory; the importance of structure and organization were mentioned a few times) and BSP 101: those proteins may be darned important!!

Thank you both for your input! I apologize, Dr. Campbell for not responding to your post earlier; I never got an email alert for that one, so I didn't know it existed!


message 5: by John (last edited Oct 15, 2013 06:19AM) (new)

John Brown | 52 comments There is no redundancy in C#, and the compiler/interpreter makes no attempt to infer anything from the context. On the contrary, it for example practices what is referred to as "strict typing". So if you classify one variable as a BigNumber and another as a SmallNumber, and then try and set the small one equal to the big-one, you get a compiler error just in case the value of the number (known only later at run-time) is too big to be stored in a SmallNumber.
So it is very difficult to compare it with a natural language. The documentation does point to examples of classes (like strings) and provides their class name, but access is by the class name and it takes maybe a minute to search for the class you are interested in, and to scan read to find the example. This contrasts with a parent who can point at things in maybe 10 seconds, perhaps in response to a child making a mistake, thereby working within the child's short-term memory.
And when you make a mistake and use the wrong class, so that a function you call on it is inappropriate, it does not have the intelligence to infer where your mistake lies, and it comes up with an obscure jargon-heavy comment like:
"A method member has been used where a property one is appropriate"
I suppose that, fundamentally, the compiler lacks a Theory of Mind.
Earlier languages like C were devised by academics who had to teach programming, whilst at Microsoft the professional mathematicians seem to have been given their heads.


message 6: by Dean (new)

Dean Horak | 4 comments There seems to be a conflation of these computer languages with their standard libraries.

Using an automatic parsing tool (e.g. YACC or ANTLR), the entire "C" language grammar can typically be specified in less than 500 lines. "C#" requires about 1200 lines, and "C++" requires about 2500 lines. Clearly, in terms of the language grammar, "C" is the simplest, followed by "C#" and "C++" being by far the most complex. This is not entirely unexpected given that both "C#" and "C++" are essentially extensions "C" to support more advanced concepts such as object orientation. "C#" and "C++" both support object orientation and "C#" can be seen as a dramatic simplification of "C++" designed to remove the more complex, error-prone and obscure elements of the language.

Library design is a completely separate issue, having little to do with the language itself. Libraries can be viewed as a collection of pre-packaged functionality (e.g. placing output on the screen, reading from the network, mathematical formulas, etc) that the language can call upon rather than having to implement that functionality in each program.


message 7: by John (last edited Oct 15, 2013 10:23AM) (new)

John Brown | 52 comments Yes, sure.
But by C# I meant to include the platform classes and functions, as well as the basic language. Form comes under this category, and so I suppose do StringBuilder and String. C++ has strcat, strcmp and so on as part of the language definition, I think, so pushing these out into String makes them appear to belong to the platform. When I worked with C++, the SDK platform was all in a 1200 page book.
Its the ergonomics of finding the function you want to call that bothers me in C#, since you first have to find the class to which it belongs, and even Form occurs in two separate namespaces. All the documentation searches take twice as long. And then there is the inconsistency in Add/Append. If I add to a String or List<> it is Add or '+' which was defined as Add in C++. But adding to a StringBuilder is Append.
From the mathematician's point of view, C# may well be more compact and elegant, but as an application programmer it gives me problems that C++ never did. Lots of good things in it though, like the managed heap, List<> and the HashTable and all recursively defined so that I can have HashTable[]).


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