What would happen if not only the logical but also the poetic aspects of our human nature were linked electronically? The human brain, with its heavily developed prefrontal cortex, allows reasoning and planning far exceeding even a lab rat’s such as seen in Pinky and the Brain (the Brain, online). There’s a lot of brain to map if a computer is to represent and transmit what makes us human. Even our closest relatives are from another mindscape: the human brain contains 86 billion neurons compared to a garden variety chimp’s mere 7 billion (King, online). Nonetheless, if, as with Andrea Stocco’s research team, we could connect brains to work collectively on tasks, things might get very interesting indeed.
Minds linked by metamorphic wire would certainly reduce the need to decide who does the scariest part of the presentation: talking in front of the class! A computer would combine our input and create a living specimen of our thoughts. At AU we don’t have a classroom per se but we do interact with others in grouped study courses and in individual study with tutors, ourselves, and our real world peers. As text messaging altered the nature of conversation, both academic and personal, perhaps a deeper change is coming: minds linked by computers, thus erasing the ‘distance’ in distance education.
A Flow of Ideas Pixelated?
When considering the nature of ideas, I am reminded of a water exhibit in a grand park; the park is the brain and the water fountain is our mind’s thoughts as they jet, bubble, swirl, and drain. It takes a lot of piping for the system to work but the joy of running through a fountain is beyond calculation.
Creative expression rushes forth; that is, all that we say and do that is not a simple repetition of rote facts and figures. Thinking is a flowing process and renunciation of the Sudoku-esque realm of logic is part of what a humanities education is about; it’s an endeavour to embark on a journey of creative expression where we take the facts we learn and apply critical thinking to them. After all, no final exam question desires of us (and here we can momentarily note the difference between the inanimate desire of a computer algorithm as compared to the living, pedagogical, desire of a course instructor writing an exam question) merely to recount and recapitulate what we have learned. Exam questions are asking us to give n +1; that is, to take previously unknown facts and figures, interpretations and heuristics, imparted to us by our time in the course, and then add our own twist to the proceedings.
C.F. Meyer illustrates the productive grandeur of this beautiful creative process in a poem titled ‘Roman Fountain’:
- “The jet ascends and falling fills
- The marble basin circling round;
- This, veiling itself over, spills
- Into a second basin’s ground.
- The second in such plenty lives,
- It’s bubbling flood a third invests,
- And each at once receives and gives
- And streams and rest” (Meyer, 163).
Where a quiet crossword puzzle or a rousing match of Brainzilla is implicated, not to mention a Lego construction with paint by numbers instructions, then there can be in each case only one possible final answer. So, brains connected by wires, wireless wires that metaphorically imbibe our thoughts and digest them before expressing them as a group effort, will arrive all at once at the finish line of production. That’s how computers work; they’re programed with source code that provides limits and borders.
This is all well and good for gamers racing cars with their mind, but it won’t be academically creative, at least not in the magical human sense to which we are accustomed. If our minds could be linked in a deeper way than happens with a co-written play or novel, or a jammed out new rock song, then that would be something amazing. However, in music, as in a classroom, there is usually a central composer to the tune and even the best joint ventures require much conscious whittling away of ideas before they are shared. A computer reading our mind would either have to have one heck of a filtering algorithm or we’d have to select what we input into the machine. In other words, write notes and ideas onscreen as we do already. Group activity means paying the piper and following her tune; to write good AU assignments we have to be our own judge, jury, and executioner of what counts. Ideas don’t decide how to sort themselves.
Alone or With Others; The Virtues and Vicissitudes of Groupwork
Computer intervention or no, groupthink in a classroom can be a challenge and a blessing. When we sit in the invisible online shared space of an AU classroom we may discover affinities with others such that we feel enough like peas in a pod to genuinely work together on a given topic. Yet, much must be left out. Even in the interdisciplinary realm of MAIS, and certainly at the undergrad level, we can’t just let all our thoughts enter our assignments or we won’t meet the learning requirements of our course. A lot of chiseling and culling occurs.
Learning, as always, is about learning how to learn. And that means attaining the necessary focus. With others involved this can be challenging but, as at AU when we learn by describing what we are studying to non-students, interaction can only help. But what if a computer decided what our brain was saying for us? Being linked to one another means also to have much of ourselves shorn away just so we can share space. It’s not a lobotomy so much as a learned focus, a mystical entrance into that realm of active education requiring a concerted and diligent attention span.
How could Andreas Stocco and his research team create a computerized mind map that retained fidelity to the mysteries of creative expression? Perhaps the answer lies in the essential nature of truth itself; we assume an end point in each instance of thought wherefrom originates an originally causative moment. Say I’m hungry for a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie; well, tracing my thought back archaeologically to its mental origins I could comfortably surmise that this is because as a boy I enjoyed when my mother baked them. At the sensory realm I can still taste the raw batter I’d collect if it spilled from the mixing bowl and at the cognitive level I can get why I’ll always enjoy the wondrous mixture of protein, sugar, fat and carbs the finished product delivered to my precocious (self-defined, possibly pretentious!), brain. It would totally suck if a ‘hey google’ device saw little boy me eating raw dough and zapped out some command about salmonella! How much more of a drag would it be for a computer to discount some new creative concept because it didn’t fit in with its programming. And anyway, what about more exotic sensations like Meyer’s depiction of a whirling eternity fountain and its connection to the Roman Empire’s power and prowess?
Unhinging Creativity; You’re Not Unhinged When the Magic Takes Over
For Martin Heidegger, truth and essence unravel (or, to use 21st C social science vernacular, can be unpacked) to reveal flavourful ambiguity. Heidegger wrote “What does ‘in truth’ mean? Truth is the essence of the true. What do we have in mind when speaking of essence? …What does the essential essence of something consist in? Presumably it lies in what the entity is in truth. The true essence of a thing is determined by way of its true Being, by way of the truth of the given being. But we are now seeking not the truth of essence but the essence of truth. There thus appears a curious tangle. Is it only a curiosity or even merely the empty sophistry of a conceptual game, or is it-an abyss?” (Heidegger, 75-76).
So where does creativity come from? It can’t just be a glorious swamp monster from the abyss of our unconscious, or can it? If we just cut and paste collective ideas into a file folder, we might combine a few students’ best work. But that would just be a copy or imitation of a stark original. Jean Baudrillard famously dubbed this a simulacrum; a feeble attempt at a depiction of an original destined to fall short of the primal mind-magic, the product of which was, itself, originally an imitation of that magical eureka moment. Stocco and his team in Seattle seek to create and utilize “computational and mathematical models, neuroimaging techniques, and brain stimulation methods to determine and predict how these mental representations are encoded in the brain, how they are transformed into behavior, and how this knowledge can be used to improve learning and skill acquisition.” (Stocco, online). Are they finding our real and essential human magic there? And can all those moments of inspiration be reduced to a series of binary codes? It’s tantalizing to consider a print-off (ok, an app download) of our genius at work.
Maybe the proof is in the pudding; after all, being around real people involves a collective conversational process. At AU, this process involves conversation within ourselves as we take notes and consider different approaches to the course material. Years ago, I began attending a local sociology club and soon realized how little textbook sociology was being discussed; in those most human of fields, the social sciences, personal opinion easily stands in for rigorous discourse about the ideas of a litany of theorists. Group discussions often veer away from their ostensible disciplinary rubric. As AU students our education suffices to provide us with a credible and illustrious academic background in our field of study so that, upon encountering academics from brick and mortar universities, we can hold our own in conversation because we’ve learned and evolved with our course material. In a sense we’re already programmed into our academic discipline, computer or no.
Beeps and Boops and the Technology of Thought
It’s the subtleties of interaction that a map of Tetris misses out on but these are still fascinating times for neuroscience; of course, the underlying materialist ideologies do seem to desire a removal of the lustrous mystery from creativity but hey, that’s where we AU students in the social sciences get to flex our learning and provide balance to the discussion. All of this synergy would certainly make for an interesting painting if a brainscan computer expressed us that way.
The closer we get to the abstractions of daily human existence the murkier a possible map of our real thoughts, replete with contradictions, loop-de-loops, and backdrops, becomes. Yet just as photographs can piece together a recollection of a wedding, and crucially incite us to remember things lost to the sands of Kodachrome or Photoshop time, so too could even a rudimentary map of our more esoteric ideas potentially help future artists and thinkers, scientists and caregivers, do a better job at being their educated human selves. Life can be made to appear as a Now. And a now. And a now once again—in perpetual flashbulbs with limited context. But we the humans are good at making sense of a stack of data, especially if we relate to its thematic content and contextual message.
To sit back and analyze like a computer, then, is one way to understand the creative process. Another is to consider the source itself; are we creating from singular flashes of inspiration, bolts from the blue? Compared to solving an eminently solvable puzzle, how might we map the ephemeral and wondrous world of inspiration itself? AU is about inspiration; surely we’d not have returned to school if we didn’t feel a certain ephemeral yet insistent pull towards the proverbial halls of academia.
Where Does the Truth Lie?
To return to Heidegger, creativity surpasses a mere transition (perhaps by brain-wire) between an original creative spark into a tangible expressive artifact. To begin with the final product, say a gorgeous poem, is to assume that it expresses an antecedent mental state. Yet, “in fine art the art itself is not beautiful, but is called so because it produces the beautiful. Truth, in contrast, belongs to logic. Beauty, however, is reserved for aesthetics” (Heidegger, 162). If we’re in an AU group forum seeking the finality of problem-solving we’re in the land of truth; if we’re working together with others to create something beautiful the art is in the making and the triggering brainwise of expressions of a beautiful nature.
A Rubix Cube might be beautiful when it’s completed but what human monkey among us has the patience for one? Their essence is an exercise in frustration. Creativity may well spell itself out best by someone simply removing the stickers from a Rubix Cube and affixing them each to their appropriate side such that the cube appears finished. Who’s to know when the outcome is the same? As in math, where the answers reside in the back of the book, there is more than one way to skin a logical cat. Instructors often suggest working backward from the final sum; yet, how could brains connected start at their end and work back into the original impetus for mutual collective production? Typically at AU, our creative production involves considering many aspects of ourselves as they relate to the course material such that multiple versions of our singular identity connect in a written pastiche or collage.
As with Meyers’ poem, it’s expressively clear why Heidegger states that “This is neither a poetic painting of a fountain actually present nor a reproduction of the general essence of a Roman fountain. Yet, truth is set into the work.” The truth of experience, of our multifaceted private mental realms, allows us to share with fellow students, beloved peers, and family relations, something especially significant for us otherwise isolated AU students. We at AU aren’t bunked into a collective corporeal landscape with our fellow students. Instead we get to amalgamate our learning with the unique social worlds we find in our daily life.
To be an adult learner is to combine the artistry of life with the pedantic details of course material; there may come a time when we can plug into our AU peers, but, for now, the joy is in the creative distance we employ away from the conformism of a social setting. It can be an isolating experience, but isolation can also be splendid; plus, no one bugs us to borrow our notes or filch our ideas!