Saturday, March 14, 2009

Embodied brain

I saw a brief presentation yesterday by a computer science Phd, which asked the provocative question, Which is smarter a baby or a computer. The presentation was more an invitation for non-specialists to think about the problem. There were chemists, theologians, a professor from the design department and your truly wearing the duel hats of philosophy and art history.

the discussion ultimately found that the comparison wasn't apt, and that babies were good at learning and ultimately contextualising, whilst computers were good at processingwithin set perameters. However, the young scholar pointed out that computers were being taught to contextualise.

When I read this article it occured to me that we achieved this ability because our intelligence is embodied. The octopus can think because it's intelligence is much more embodied than just in it's brain. As we are trailing along the same swath of evolution, perhaps we should look at our nervous system as contributing much more to our abilities to think. Certainly, most people tend to notionally consider the nervous system as dumb sensors and control cables. But it would be easy to hypothesise that those feedback systems have greater influence than generally thought of. How much of our thinking goes on in our body, rather than being processed in the brain?

The idea of embodied experience tends to go to meaning, and Prof. Deb Roy refers to humans and "thinking" computers as meaning machines. How else do we find meaning without addressing a physical world? Does the decentralised nervous system of the octopus offers a variation on embodied intelligence somewhat different from our own?

In my own work, the issues of an embodied intelligence responding to an architectural environment(is that a redundant expression?), I look at the aesthetic response. This offers one sense of meaning, and it is certainly a visceral- embodied! - route to meaning. 

This offers a range of paths to consider the embodied subject in relation to architecture and the environment in general. I am especially hopeful that it opens out the subject specific discourse of scholars like Lucas Crawford in a way that can merge and interact with a scientifically rigourous discourse. Queering or "trans-ing" the hard sciences without reducing their explicative power.

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"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster