digital hive mind

Blinded by the light

It has become a habit during our summer vacation to read the novels short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Unusually this year, we were not only unanimous in our choice of the best novel but we also agreed with the judges and selected the ‘The Power‘ by Naomi Alderman.  In another of the books, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, a Chinese composer called Sparrow thinks ‘about the quality of sunshine, that is, how daylight wipes away the stars and planets, making them invisible to human eyes, might daylight be a form of blindness? Could it be that sound was also be a form of deafness? If so, what was silence?’.  I felt some resonance between these thoughts and John Hull’s writings on blindness and my earlier blog posting on ‘Listening with your eyes shut‘ [on May 31st, 2017].  In our everyday life, we are bombarded with sounds from people living around us, from traffic and from devices in our homes and places of work.  We rarely experience silence; however, when we do, perhaps on holiday staying in a remote rural location, then a whole new set of sounds becomes apparent: waves breaking on the shore in the distance, the field mouse rooting around under the floorboards, or the noises of cattle enjoying the lush grass in the field next door.  Okay, so you have to be in the right place to hear these sounds of nature but you also need silence otherwise you are deaf to them, as Sparrow suggests.

The same is true for knowledge and understanding because our minds have finite capacity [see my post entitled ‘Silence is golden‘ on January 14th, 2014].  When you are bombarded with information and data it is easy to become overwhelmed and unable to structure the information in way that makes it useful or meaningful.  In our connected society, information has become like white noise, or daylight obscuring the stars and planets.  Information is blinding us to knowledge and understanding.  We need to aggressively filter the information flow in order to gain insight and knowledge.  We should switch off the digital devices, which bombard us with information constantly, to leave our minds free for conceptual and creative thinking because that’s one of the few tasks in which we can outperform the smartest machine [see my post entitled ‘Smart machines‘ on February 26th, 2014].

In a similar vein see: ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016 and ‘Thinking out-of-the-skull‘ on March 18th, 2015.

Illusion of self

A few weeks ago, I wrote that some neuroscientists believe consciousness arises from the synchronous firing of assemblies of neurons [see my post ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].  Since these assemblies exist for only a fraction of a second before triggering other ones that replace them, this implies that what you think of as ‘yourself’ is actually a continuously changing collection of connected neurons in your brain, or as VS Ramachandran has described it ‘what drives us is not a self – but a hodgepodge of processes inside the skull’.

According to Kegan’s schema of cognitive development, new born babies perceive the world as an extension of themselves.  However, as our consciousness develops, the idea of a ‘self’ evolves as a construct of the brain that allows us to handle the huge flow of sensory inputs arriving from our five senses and we begin to separate ‘self’ from the objects around us.  This leads to us perceiving the world around us as separate to us but there to serve our needs, which we see as paramount.  Fortunately, the vast majority of us (more than 90%) move beyond this state and our relationships with other people become the dominant driver of our actions and identity.  Some people (about 35%) can separate their relationships and identity from ‘self’ and hence are capable of more nuanced decision-making – this is known as the Institutional stage. About one percent of the population are capable holding many identities and handling the paradoxes that arise from deconstructing the ‘self’ in the Inter-individual stage.

Of course, Kegan’s stages of cognitive development are also a construct to helps us describe and understand the behaviour and levels of cognition observed in those around us.  There is some evidence that deeper more complex thought processes, associated with higher levels of cognition, involve the firing of larger, more widespread assemblies of neurons across the brain; and perhaps these larger neuronal assemblies are self-reinforcing; in other words, the more we think deeply the more capable we are of thinking deeply and, just occasionally, this leads to an original thought.  And, maybe the one percent of individuals who are capable of handling paradoxical thoughts have brains capable of sustaining multiple large neuronal assemblies.  A little bit like lightning triggered from multiple points in the sky during a (brain)storm.

How does this relate to engineering?  Well, we touch on Kegan’s stages of cognitive development in our continuing professional development courses [see my post on ‘Technology Leadership’ on January 18th, 2017] for engineers and scientists aspiring to become leaders in research and development because we want to advance their cognitive development and, also allow them to lead teams consisting of individuals at the institutional and inter-individual stages that will be capable of making major breakthroughs.


V.S. Ramachandran, ‘In the hall of illusions’, in ‘We are all stardust‘ by Stefan Klein, London: Scribe, 2015.

Kegan, R., In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Kegan, R., The evolving self: problem and process in human development, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Digital hive mind

durham-cloistersFor many people Durham Cathedral will be familiar as a location in the Harry Potter movies.  However, for me it triggers memories of walking around the cloisters discussing Erwin Schrodinger’s arithmetical paradox: there seems to be a great number of conscious egos creating their own worlds but only one world.  Each of us appears to construct our own domain of private consciousness and Schrodinger identifies the region where they all overlap as the ‘real world around us’.  However, he raises questions such as, is my world really the same as yours?  Schrodinger proposes two solutions to the paradox: either there are a multitude of worlds with no communication between them or a unification of minds or consciousness.

Schrodinger found ‘it utterly impossible to form an idea about’ how his ‘own conscious mind should have originated by the integration of the consciousness of the cells (or some of them)’ that formed his body.  Recently this has been addressed by Susan Greenfield, who has proposed that short-lived coalitions of millions of neurons are responsible for consciousness.  These ‘neuronal assemblies’, which last for fractions of a second, link local events in individual cells with large scale events across the brain and many of ‘these assemblies flickering on and off somehow come together to provide a collective continuous experience of consciousness’.  In other words, our consciousness arises as an emergent behaviour of the myriad of interacting networks in our brain.  It seems no less fanciful that our individual minds networked together to generate a further level of emergent behaviour equivalent to the unified mind that Schrodinger conceived though, like Schrodinger, I find it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen.

Perhaps, at some level we are creating a unified mind via the digital hive mind being formed by the digital devices to which we delegate some of the more mundane aspects of modern life [see my post entitled ‘Thinking out of the skull‘ on 18th March, 2015].  However, Greenfield worries about a very sinister potential impact of our digital devices, which is associated with the stimulation they provide to millions of the younger generation.  She thinks it could lead to small-scale neuronal assemblies becoming ‘the default setting in the consciousness of the digital native, to an extent it has never been in previous generations’.  In other words we might be losing the ability to create the emergent behaviour required for consciousness and shifting it to our digital devices.

Perhaps we are closer than we think to the vision in Maria Lassnig’s painting of the lady with her half of her brain outside her skull? [see my post entitled ‘Science fiction becomes virtual reality‘ on October 6th, 2016.


Erwin Schrodinger, ‘Mind and Matter – the Tarner Lectures’ in What is Life?, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Susan Greenfield, A day in the life of the brain: the neuroscience of consciousness from dawn to dusk, Allen Lane, 2016.

Clive Cookson, Know your own mind, FT Weekend, 15/16 October 2016, reviewing Greenfield’s book.

Nilanjana Roy ‘What it means to be human’ FT Weekend, 17/18 September 2016.