Outside the Box

September 4, 2009

Most of the great discoveries that have totally transformed our lives came from thinking “outside the box.” The thinkers themselves, from Archimedes to Einstein, usually just call it insight, as if they had contrived to tap into an idea already floating in the ether. But that is a cop-out explanation, so we are entitled to ask, “What box?”

The box represents the limits of conventional thinking. Inside the box we are hampered by a host of long-accepted assumptions: that light travels in straight lines; that two and two make four; that good always prevails over evil, etc. To think outside the box means to discard dubious assumptions and simply ask, “What if … ?”

For example, extensive research is being devoted to explain human memory, and most of it assumes neural impulses that place sensory impressions in storage must be in some kind of code facilitating later retrieval. Here the box is built out of existing knowledge: the Morse code, the DNA code and the digital codes that make the Web possible, all of which carry meaningful information in the coded message itself. But the code remains uncracked.

My own modest contribution to the problem is to ask, “What if there is, in fact, no code?” What if the neural impulses arising from stimulation of a particular sensor travel, purely by chance, to a number of undedicated storage cells, like water poured into a greasy sieve, establishing a unique pattern of dedicated cells distributed randomly throughout the cortex and a dedicated network of activated neurons leading back to the original sensor?

Remembering that “neurons that fire together, wire together,” random stimulation of any one of these dedicated memory cells immediately reactivates the whole network, including the original sensor cell, thus reproducing the original message as if it came from outside the system rather than from the storage complex.

This concept of a message being defined by its routing rather than its content has momentous consequences. It allows for any given storage cell to participate in a number of discrete messages, permitting recall of associated memories for either part or full forgetting when a network section is damaged; for dreams when whole suites of patterns are reactivated by automatic maintenance signals to maintain the integrity of each pattern; and, in fact, for an explanation for practically any other mental activity.

The obvious objection, of course, is the horrendous number of neurons and memory storage cells required to record every signal emitted by every sensory cell over a lifetime. Actually, at something over 100 billion neurons and possibly a trillion storage cells, there is ample capacity.

Moreover, the participation of any given cell in a number of different memory patterns, the suppression of non-significant signals and the abandonment of damaged and rarely used patterns during the nightly reactivation process combine to bring the available capacity well within the requirements of a lifetime.

Of course, all this is pure conjecture, intended only to show that you can construct a new paradigm merely by asking “What if … ?” For established fact, consult the Web for, say, 2014.

 

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