Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Learning and Cognition class thoughts

In my"Topics in learning and cognition: innovation and discovery" class, we've got a number of readings coming up but for tonight, we read Plato's Meno. Alex and I discussed it and he brought up much of the philosophical/spiritual information below (although not all).

In it, Socrates (as described by Plato) discusses knowledge. The first part is all about the problems of definition. What is "being good"? What is "a bee"? This brings up the problem of describing words using other words. Rule-based semantics is difficult. Definitions don't work well.

What is a chair? something with 4 legs that you sit on. Well, what if it's something with a pedestal and wheels, but you still sit on it? Is it still a chair? Do we really store definitions in our brain? Not really. It was thought at one time that we really stored the symbolic representations of things like "chair". But, not so much.

So what do we use for semantic categorization?

Two theories are prototypes and exemplars.
Prototype theory suggests that with multiple experiences, our brains naturally build up "prototypes" - the "ideal chair" for example, and that we categorize new instances based on how close they match a particular prototype. There are issues with this, but we have evidence that our brains do *some* of this. Plato and Socrates (and some Christian mystics) might have felt that we were really discovering the "ideal chair" that already existed, that we had knowledge and were just "remembering". Socrates (according to the Meno reading) believed our experiences in past lives led us to have inner knowledge that we were "remembering" like this. (This begs the question, for me, of how we built up *new* knowledge, if we were just remembering things rather than learning them.)

Another theory is that, rather than prototypes, we simply store weighted connections of properties of our exemplars, of the experiences, so that we have a lot of exemplars - instances of experiences with objects with legs or pedestals that we sit on, and most of those are called "chairs" so if this new experience also has legs and is for sitting on, it's going to be labelled a "chair". Coherent covariance, as McClelland would put it.

Rather than cached prototypes, we have runtime evaluation.

Going back to the Platonic 'where does knowledge come from' question puts it into the spiritual/philosophical realm -
Plato/Socrates might have felt knowledge was already within us, just needing to be "discovered" or "brought out". Some mystics have felt that we contain all knowledge within us - and meditation, to reduce the distractions of the external world, the mundane, will allow us "insight" to this internal knowledge. Socrates describes it in this dialog as coming from past lives. Some mystics feel that humans contains shards of godhead and that, like Saint Theresa, it requires shutting out external distractions and looking within, to realize that one is united with God, and one has always been so. Thou art God, as Valentine Michael Smith would say.

Buddhism, as Alex reminded me, has two views of this - that one can approach from sitting meditation, as mentioned, or from walking meditation. Walking meditation allows for using the external to connect the inner shard with the external divinity.

In any case, a question arises - if Plato is right and we already know this stuff, why is it not accessible? Why is it "covered up"?
Learning theory suggests that much of what we store as memories are cue and context dependent. The cues may retrieve many potential stored memory patterns, but there is interference with all the other patterns also associated with that cue. Context helps.
One reason we have trouble with free recall is because there are too few cues and far too much interference. Cued recall is better because we have reduced the interference.

Plato's "innate knowledge" also reminds me of Chomsky's contention that language is "innate".

I still wonder though - if it's innate, why? Where did it come from if it isn't the result of experience and learning? Some folks such as Jung suggest things like the Collective Unconscious. Which, to me, is just another version of the shard theory.

In any case, one of the questions we're exploring in this class is where does "new" knowledge, "insight", "innovation" come from? How do we encourage it? Can it be taught?

In my experience, insight is a process of synthesis. For me, it's the opposite of "learning". Learning, for me, is best done by giving me a framework, then fill it in - so I have context. Otherwise I feel like I have a shitload of bricks in a pile, and no idea what to do with them, and by the time I'm told where they're supposed to fit, I've lost half of them.

Insight, otoh, is a process of taking a bunch of constructs, and suddenly, forming a bridge between them, so they're no longer separate ideas, separate structures, they're a village, or a concept.

Neurologically, taking various mental representations, and connecting them - building new synapses, so that one's perceptions are changed.

So - perhaps, this is why creative people and madness are so linked. Those of us whose minds tend to 'shortcircuit' and build connections in the 'wrong places' may be more likely to build connections between memories, and semantic categories, and "knowledge" that neurotypicals (NTs) wouldn't.

Some of this relates to the Central Cohesiveness and "gist" - neurotypicals have "strong central cohesiveness" and tend to remember the "gist" of a list of words, for example. Aspies and Auties tend to remember the separate details, but may not remember the "gist" and are said to have "weak central cohesiveness". NTs are likely to generalize in cases where Aspies and Auties don't - for similar reasons.

One of Socrates' tricks (esp in the Meno) was to show someone how baffling definition really is - how much people rely on assumptions and preconceptions. This is neurologically valuable - as my prof was fond of saying "memory is for predicting the present". We need to cache things, label things, categorize and stereotype and generalize, in order to have some idea how to respond to the present, to our experiences, how to perceive and interpret them. And yet, it's also far too easy, as we know, to fall into those stereotypes and not even realize where they are building concrete walls around our perceptions and thoughts and understanding, even of what we think we know.

Part of providing for creativity, then, is tearing down the walls, challenging assumptions, shredding preconceptions, so that new perceptions - meaning new neural patterns - can be created.

Unfortunately, that is a state of uncertainty, which most folks find extremely uncomfortable - not only in themselves, but in others around them. We revere certainty - and mock or fear those who are uncertain, who challenge our own certainty. Saints and mystics are best accepted when far away, or in the past.

So the question becomes, for me, how does one encourage creativity and innovation, without leaving the person unable to deal with the "real" world? And how does one teach without boxing in perceptions, without diminishing ability to form new and unusual connections?

But now, it's almost 1am, and I should sleep. And leave the discussion of Kabbalah and Connectionism for next time...

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