Friday, April 10, 2009

controlling flies and our embodied mind

We can come to understand human behavior much better if we look at seemingly simpler organisms and their hardwiring. The video in this post shows how a fly can be 'tricked' into 'thinking' that it flies with a different speed than it does, by dynamically modifying its perceptual environment. In a sense, a fly is behaviorally not much more than a bunch of light sensors wired in a particular configuration to a few muscles. A fly does not know its speed; its flying behavior has just emerged through evolution from its rooting into a perceptual environment so that it can maximize its own chance of survival and in a sense, happiness, within this environment.

Concepts like speed and space are just constructions of the human mind in order to create explicit predictive models of the world so that they can actively explore different ways to happiness, gradually becoming more independent of wild nature. The technological environments we create for ourselves are still mostly reflections on our Newtonian conception of a three dimensional space that we occupy, with the mind being distinct from it, creating models of this physical space. Our cities, our houses, our gadgets, our interfaces and even the microchips we build are in a not so far-fetched way direct translations of the pure Cartesian grid. Think of it the next time you're sitting in a public bathroom where all walls are paved with these white square tiles, and it becomes obvious how you are treated by your world; an object, a linear, mechanistic machine, needing to be controlled rationally.

In a world where everything becomes highly dynamic, sensitive, and instantly adapting, a new embodied intelligence will arise where the increasing uselessness of static concepts like space and linear time, and rationalism in general, will intuitively become clear to us, but we realize how we are directly and holistically coupled to our environment, our cosmos. Fundamentally, we are not much more than this fly, blindly reacting to the patterns our universes present us with based on our neural hardwiring. The difference is that obviously we have thousands of times as much neurons, and we can perceive our internal structures and consciously steer their growth. We are never static entities, but always molding ourselves on our paths in life. Our plasticity, or even liquidity and ethereality, is very much a new cultural realization that makes us see that we never were what we thought we were.

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