Ray Kurzweil’s "Hybrid Thinking" Misunderstands the Brain
Sentience and the limbic-cortical play are what make us human.
Posted Jun 12, 2014
I love Ray Kurzweil and his brilliant and encompassing mind– his grasp of technology past, present, and future, and the singularity. However, in his ‘Ted Talk’ - “Get Ready for Hybrid Thinking” he does not fully grasp the biology of the brain and consciousness. Instead, like most Artificial Intelligence theorists, he mistakenly imposes a technological model.
When we consider the evolution of the human species, what makes us human is not defined by our unique human functions, such as opposable thumbs, abstract thinking, reasoning, or computational abilities—those are good. The defining feature of our species is the creation of human consciousness. And this is precisely what our brain is organized to do. Human consciousness is the vehicle of our evolutionary adaptation, for our thriving, surviving, and propagation. It has adapted to serve our actual lives. We are social beings and we live it out with family, friends and community, where we form intimate relationships, we propagate; raise our children; teach them the values and mores of our culture; and give them the tools for survival. The whole human story is encompassed and created by our consciousness. Its two central features are the creation of sentience and the representational re-creation of the external world as a play in the theater of the brain with characters, self and others, feelings, plots, scenarios, and landscape.
Human beings are purely biological organisms. Just like all other organisms, we evolved to be what we are, as has our brain. As such our brain and its operations reflect the basic principles of nature. One easily notices that the brain has an odd irregular bi-lateral form. Only technological inventions have geometric regularity and straight lines. As an organ of the body, it is in fact a fractal, like all the rest of the body, as well as all of nature, and all of matter - subatomic, atomic, and galaxies. Fractals, as I addressed in “The Major Fallacy of Neuroscience is that the Brain is a Computer Stuck on Top of a Body.” can be defined most simply as a detailed pattern repeating itself. They are easily seen in crystals, pineapples blood vessels, trees, cells, heartbeats, snow flakes, clouds, lightning bolts, the galaxy, and DNA. Cell differentiation masks that our entire body is a fractal. The brain is a differentiated fractal, with its neuronal architecture reflecting its adaptational functions.
Let us look at the biology of the brain and then the biology of consciousness. During the two months we spend as an embryo we go through incredible transformations which recapitulates the history of phylogeny. And then we enter the fetal period. Throughout these seven months, we produce, on average, three million brain cells per minute. At peak times, our neural cell replication takes just an hour and a half! By adulthood, our brain is composed of a trillion cells, a hundred billion of which are neurons. Not surprisingly, half of our DNA is devoted to the development of the brain. Our brain is body. Our brain morphogenesis is body.
The morphogenesis of the human brain is extraordinary. Neural tissues develop from ectoderm cells. They morph into the neural tube and then the primitive brain and peripheral nerves. These brain cells migrate and continue to differentiate into the various parts of the brain. The cells of the cortex align themselves through six orderly migrations, all sequenced from DNA directions. After these very active cell migrations, our individual neurons morph further, sending out long axons and dendrites (receptor extensions) to hook up its trillions of connections to other neurons all throughout the cortex and all the way down his spinal column. These processes continue throughout fetal development.
Then our neurons secrete myelin, a fatty tissue insulation sheath around his axons, which speed up nerve impulses up to a hundred times faster. The pattern of myelinization accompanies the developing functionality of the maturing brain, and continues on until adulthood. The frontal lobes, which process intention and coordinate feeling for judgment, are the last part of the brain to myelinate. They are not fully myelinated until the end of adolescence. You may notice that teenage judgment reflects this neural immaturity.
The final aspect of fetal brain development is the hooking up of connections between the cortical neurons via the synapses. Each dendrite may have as many as thirty thousand synapse connections that use a hundred possible neurotransmitters. The neuronal mapping all over the cortex and the rest of the brain utilizes trillions upon trillions of synaptic connections. These synapses began to form at about the fifth month of pregnancy. The neuronal mapping continued to establish itself throughout the rest of intrauterine life.
The cortical brain operates by mapping our experience. These brain maps extend all throughout the architecture of the cortex. As the brain mapping becomes increasingly complex, higher and higher levels of order form. When circuits of brain maps get linked to millions and billions of circuits of brain maps, they can be activated as one map. The limbic system is central to all of consciousness. The function of the fetal amygdala and limbic system is to map the survival interactions with the maternal environment. This brain circuitry links the body, hormones, subcortical brain, and the cortex—the amygdala for impulses of fear and pleasure; the hippocampus for gluing memories; the cingulate gyrus for attention and autonomic functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure; the hypothalamus for regulating the autonomic nervous system; and the thalamus, the relay station from the sub cortex.
By the time we are born, these limbic circuits have matured and are sufficiently organized for the foundational appetites and rudimentary emotions of fear, anger, alarm, sadness, satisfaction, pleasure, hunger, and thirst. We all map our maternal attachment, responsiveness, and provision experience through the limbic system since early in fetal life. The morphogenesis of the limbic system is progressive and continues in the newborn and throughout development.
At six weeks old, the newborn’s foundational appetites and crystallize into a feeling of tenderness and sweetness. This constitutes the cohered feeling of the being of the baby. This is the beginning of consciousness. It has no representational form other than a feeling of tenderness. Likewise the mapping of the limbic-cortex creates a formless feeling of the persona of the mother. These two formless personas relate together by feeling. The beginning of consciousness is this rudimentary play in the brain. I call the feeling of self, the Authentic Being, which is a synthetic recreation of the person. This non-representational feeling of the persona of self is human sentience.
Keep in mind that that consciousness is created by the limbic system and is grounded in feeling. Kurzweil is correct that we develop higher and higher levels of order which eventually create symbolic form. But it is not ‘modules’ that create culture and consciousness. It is the limbic system. It will take three more years for the mapping of experience and brain maturation to create representational consciousness. When sufficiently mature, the personas will then have form as representational images of self and others. Our representational image of self then becomes the self we ordinarily know ourselves to be. However, the Authentic Being underlies our representational self and remains throughout life as the source of our authenticity, our conscience, our loving, our creativity, and a deeper sense of self. It is often mistakenly taken to be the soul or spirit. All throughout life, feeling is the ground for judgment and thinking in the service of survival. It is not, “I think, therefore I am.” It is actually, “I feel, therefore I am.”
The evolution of the structure and function of the limbic cortical brain is at one with the creation of the play. The morphology, organized structures, and pathways of complex neuronal webs throughout its architecture create the patterns of patterns of patterns that enable the characterological drama. This is the limbic-cortical processing that allows for the meaning and coherence of our moment-to-moment functioning in life. The creation of images of personas, their emotional relatedness, and life plots—the full range of tragedy and comedy—is the drama. It constitutes the top-down processing of our individual selves and our emotional and relationship life. The coherence of human consciousness is the highest level of order of the human genome. We walk around all day long, each of us, in this brain-body synthetic bubble of consciousness, our genetic endowment. See “The Secrets of Consciousness, The limbic-cortex is organized as a drama in the brain”.
The characterological drama of human consciousness is our adaptation to and is consonant with living the human life— the life of the individual and relatedness to others. As a recreation of self and the world, consciousness itself is a fractal. It encompasses our surviving, our child rearing, our imagination, and our culture. It allows us to function as the individual and social animals we are. It creates the meaning landscape of human experience. This landscape encompasses the symbolic representations of human experience—self, others, relationship, and drama—in myths, narratives, literature, art, nursery rhymes, songs, movies, hieroglyphics, plays, belief systems, dance, journalism, cave paintings, fashion, religious incantations, and theologies.
Kurzweil’s ideas about how the brain works are incorrect. The brain is not a system of ‘modules’ of increasing complexity, never mind 300 million of them that operate at high conceptual levels. The brain operates as activated limbic-cortical circuits that generate top down processing. For sure linkages of mapped circuits creates higher and higher levels of order that creates symbolic form, but not as a stack of modules. High levels of order are generated by sufficiently comprehensive linked circuits of circuits of circuits of brain maps. Kurzweil’s biggest misconception is that an expansion of the neocortex takes a qualitative leap and generates culture. But this hypothesis is not grounded in fact. The qualitative creation of culture, creativity, and imagination comes from the feeling play, not come from increased memory storage capacity. They come from sentience, the Authentic Being, from relatedness and feeling. We process our life through the top-down limbic cortical play as a self, grounded in the formless Authentic Being.
Furthermore, Kurzweil’s understanding of his wife’s perfume is faulty. It activates her top-down persona which is anchored in feeling in his brain. It does not derive from the brain making estimates by trial and error until it comes to the correct conclusion. The brain does not operate like an experimental scientist. They do not come from modules that stretch down to the senses. Activated top down activated circuits are activated by the senses.
Kurzweil defines the ‘laugh neocortex’ as the center that detects humor. Yes, this location of neurons exist, but they are incorporated into circuits of the play. They do not operate in some stand alone way unless you are doing brain probes.
Jeopardy is not a model of brain operations. It is a thinking and memory game, just an artifact of the organization of brain mappings. As a game it is knowledge-lite, i.e. automaton connections on a higher level. The correct answers are mindless linkages. It’s relevant that correct answers are embedded in deeper circuits of play knowledge rather than simple stand alone facts. And tapping into that is the secret of correct answers.
I understand that Kurzweil is talking hybrid rather than pure artificial intelligence. But it is really not that different. With artificial intelligence we have autonomous thinking and built in survival modules. I’m quite sure his prediction of linking our brains to the cloud is possible and will probably happen as he predicts. However, sentience and the limbic-cortical play are what make us human. His hybrid would make us robotic and more like a machine. I find this a scary proposition.
I want to add a footnote. Theories, like Kurzweil’s are at odds with biology. This always lead to magical thinking and false beliefs. Kurzweil is the same guy who believes that he can bring his father back from the dead. That will not happen. This is an anti-biological fantasy. What he really needs to do is change his own brain, the only way that happens – by mourning and moving on. And if he went the other way and wanted to bring him back by cloning him, that wouldn’t work either. We can certainly technically clone our genetics. But the evolving person would have a completely unique set of environmental conditions. The actuality of responsiveness, deprivation and abuse would create a completely different and unique play of consciousness, even though the temperament would be the same. This would not be the same person. He would not have his father back.
Robert A. Berezin, MD is the author of “Psychotherapy of Character, the Play of Consciousness in the Theater of the Brain.