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  It is only recently, with the development of computers, that a plausible model has arrived of how we think. Down the centuries, the question provoked a vast amount of speculation and quasi-philosophical scholasticism, which is fascinating—intellectual narcissism is a characteristic of the ‘thinking ape’—but which lacks scientific verisimilitude. The development of artificial brains may have cleared a path through all this undergrowth though ‘may’ is all one can say, as scientific investigation of the processes of thought is difficult and contentious.

Computers work by turning each piece of information they receive into digital code, and then manipulating it according to preset programmes. The basic processes are simple and mathematical; the programmes elaborate them into cat\'s-cradles of complexity. It is possible to make a crude analogy with the process of human thought. Our brains make an abstract model of each piece of information they receive, and then manipulate it according to such pre-stored ‘programmes’ as comparative analysis, logic and memory. It is open to question whether thought is possible without such ‘programmes’ and without any input of information and at what age such thought begins. The ancient Chinese conducted crude experiments, separating children from their mothers immediately after birth and bringing them up with animals, or in total seclusion, to see what languages they would talk or how they would describe the world when they grew up. (The children brought up with animals behaved like animals; those deprived of all stimulus became apathetic and died, or reacted to their first contact with the outside world, the first onslaught of experience, by going mad. The pathetic results of a similar kind of intellectual stunting filled the world\'s television screens in the early 1990s, when reporters were allowed into orphanages set up by the former Rumanian dictator Ceausescu.) In the abstract, one can imagine experimenting to find out when a child begins to think, and what its first thoughts are, but it is hard to work out what form such experiments might take.

The nature/culture debate of which the above is a form is one of the most absorbing problems facing students of human thought. A related question is the matter of child prodigies. Leaving aside how a child can play chess, solve mathematical problems, speak languages, make music better than most adults, where does he or she acquire the experience and knowledge required for such abstruse activities? They are forms of learned behaviour, and the child\'s prodigious ability must therefore consist in learning the basics, and seeing their potential for development, in a fraction of the time it takes most people. Another related matter is (what we call) inspiration. What exactly is it, and does everyone have it? Is it innate but latent (so that when it appears, in the work of a ‘genius’, it seems astonishing), or is it, like the ability of a prodigy, merely an enhanced skill at manipulating intellectual stimuli, and therefore learnable by anyone?

Such questions take us back from science to scholasticism. Theory is far more abundant than proof. Perhaps surprisingly, the same is true of something which at first glance seems much easier: the question ‘What happens physiologically, in the brain, each time we think?’ If the crude analogy with computers holds up, then the synapses of the brain are like the ‘gates’ on microchips, and we think by sending impulses along preselected paths. One problem with this analogy is that the brain is organic whereas computers are mechanical. There is no way, as yet, to build a computer which is anything but reactive, to make a machine which genuinely ‘thinks’ on the human model. Computer ‘thought’ is also unaffected by emotion; computers never tire or feel ‘inspired’. Another problem is that the brain\'s capacity, compared to that of any existing computer, seems to be infinite (or at least unmeasurable): a thought which has led some experts to make analogies not with machines but with the universe itself. This seems to move us into the realm of poetry, not science. But it is nevertheless possible that such ideas as chaos theory may provide useful, if mind-boggling, insights into the workings of the brain. KMcL

See also artificial intelligence.



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