This Is The Next Next Next

This Is The Next Next Next

We interrupt our scheduled startup- and travel-related programming to do a little bit of “far out, man” thought experimentation.

I came across an article on Quartz recently, discussing “Why major creative breakthroughs happen in your late thirties.” You should read the article, and look at the pictures, but the punchline goes something like “because you must spend the years before your late thirties learning all the things that are already known in your chosen field of inquiry.” Only afterwards can you apply your brain power to come up with something new.

For a visualization of the process of scientific discovery, check out Matt Might‘s “The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.”. Observe the long period of colouring inside the lines that you must go through before being able to break through.

What spectacular inefficiency! Human knowledge is doubling every year – and that rate is increasing. What happens when the amount of time it takes to get up to speed on a subject exceeds the length of the productive part of a person’s lifetime?

One way to mitigate this is to extend the time span of our productivity. The current views are that life expectancy will continue to rise and top out eventually somewhere around 100. It isn’t clear if human tissues could ever have an order-of-magnitude later expiration date. There must be much more targeted measures we can apply to increase specifically the window that a brain remains pliable enough to create (Lumosity, anyone?).

Another option is to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn the “someone already knows this” bits. Having access to information here is not enough – you have to achieve the feeling of having learned (also known as whatever out-of-my-depth physiological changes learning induces on a brain) without spending any time learning.

You can probably see what I’m driving at: an all-encompassing, infinite-capacity working memory. Human RAM of epic proportions. A sort of World Community Grid of brains. No, I’m not high.

There is a meta argument to consider here: what if the process of learning itself teaches you both how to get and, subsequently, create information? But, if the process of learning is the creation of new connections in the brain, like any other process, it should be possible to load it into memory as well.

So far I’ve talked about factual knowledge acquisition. What about emotional intelligence? Can we similarly load empathy, seeking first to understand, and other beneficial social skills into our collective working memory? Although research has shown that though babies have an inherent understanding of morality, it continues to develop as said babies become grown-ups. Can we shortcut this process?

In particular: could mere exposure to the emotional, mental, and physical scarring that victims of atrocities carry in their memories reduce the likelihood of such atrocities’ recurrence? My grandmother lived through the siege of Leningrad. For 2 years, 4 months, 2 weeks and 5 days, her family hung on by a thread, survived, just barely, among so many others that died of hunger in the streets and in their homes. Though 70 years have passed, she still cannot speak of it without crying. I cannot listen without crying. Could simply sharing such pain become a deterrent? Could we be better people for it?

One day, I hope to play a part in making this happen. For now, if anyone has pointers to more information in this area, please share – I will resort to internalizing it the old-fashioned way.