Engage Brain

brainsWhen I attended the University of Washington, we had to learn the old-fashioned way—by studying. Now they are anticipating downloading information directly into students’ brains.

Literal brain dumps are actually still in the future . . . but researchers have documented the first indisputable brain-to-brain interface between humans!

My first paragraph is not an exaggeration of what researchers think may one day happen.

The project could also eventually lead to “brain tutoring,” in which knowledge is transferred directly from the brain of a teacher to a student.

The student would view this shortcut as advantageous. (It could also save a great deal in tuition expenses, if each course only took, say, an hour or two of brain interfacing.)

The university sees another advantage—circumventing limited teaching skills.

“Imagine someone who’s a brilliant scientist but not a brilliant teacher. Complex knowledge is hard to explain – we’re limited by language,” said co-author Chantel Prat, a faculty member at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and a UW assistant professor of psychology.

My main question is, what will the teacher do, once their knowledge has been transferred to a student?

Presumably they will be able to retain a semblance of their knowledge, unlike the experience of the unfortunate Orbanians. They rely on a nanite technology, and it leaves the brilliant brain in a childlike state after the knowledge is siphoned out of it. You can learn more about them in “Learning Curve,” a documentary about the Stargate project.

C.S. Lewis had a great deal to say about education. He was a popular professor, despite the fact many of his students were intimidated by his brilliance. It is possible that if his students were able to download his knowledge, it might have caused their crania to explode.

In one essay, Lewis explains the differences between education and training, declaring “If education is beaten by training, civilization dies.” (“Our English Syllabus”).

Lewis continues, arguing that learning itself, is something distinct. It is not marked by a transfer of knowledge, but by a hunger to grow.

Now learning, considered in itself, has, on my view, no connexion at all with education. It is an activity for . . . all [who] desire to know. . . .

Societies have usually held a belief . . . that knowledge is the natural food of the human mind: that those who specially pursue it are being specially human; and that their activity is good in itself besides being always honourable and sometimes useful to the whole society.

Oh, and if you are waiting to “learn” when they can download knowledge directly into your skull, consider this wise advice from Lewis.

The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. (“Learning in Wartime”).


The picture above shows two UW guinea pigs transferring brain waves to one another. (I am uncertain whether two-way transfer is already possible, or if one brain is forced to serve in a receptacle role.)

The article announcing the results can be seen here.

18 thoughts on “Engage Brain

  1. Pretty fascinating–and scary! C.S. Lewis got it right, and you paraphrased it so well: Learning is the hunger to grow, not the transfer of knowledge. And what about experience as a teacher? How much would be lost if this brain transfer should become reality. People would be brain-clones of their teachers.

  2. It certainly doesn’t sound like a very fun way to gain information. I would be very much surprised, though, if our scientists can, any time soon, overcome the fact that our brains store information contextually… meaning, I would think, that there would be serious translation issues involved in such a process. After all, complex knowledge and the ability to increase knowledge comes by process, not by rote. One would, I think, have to find a way of homogenizing brains before one could transfer experience (and knowledge is experience) which brings up even more ethical issues… and the question of the loss of future information and innovation due to limitation in human mental diversity. …I wonder if anything I just said means anything. ^_^

    I shall go prod the article, now.

    1. I agree with you that the complexities of the human brain will not soon (probably never) be replicated by humanity. That will not stop people from trying though.

      As for being “fun,” you’re probably right. Not too rewarding in one sense, but pretty cool to avoid all that heavy duty studying of things that don’t particular interest you. If we could download it like in the Matrix, and it only took an hour or two, I would consider learning a subject like tensor calculus. But if it took more than four hours, forget it.

      1. Good point. I have great difficulty with algebra, and it would be nice to just “learn” it without dealing with the fact that it frustrates me. But, at the same time, I feel that just “knowing” it would defeat the purpose…

  3. I think that even if we were able to transfer knowledge, we would fail to truly learn by that method. That is to say, I agree with Lewis/Aquinas/Augustine about the nature of learning and teaching. It’s not about the collection of information, but rather training ourselves to figure it out. Teachers, when they’re good, guide their students through that discovery, and genius’s who come up with new and better ways to do things enable us to discover more things more quickly, but invariably, we still have to struggle through the process ourselves. You can tell me what a triangle is all day long – transferring the information, the definition, the formulas, images – but I still have to struggle through the commonalities between triangles and the distinctions between triangles and other shapes. Memorizing “2+2=4” gives you no knowledge unless you can walk through the process yourself and then reapply it to other equations.

    The process of explaining is important because it’s how we carve the path for others – that’s why you can be a brilliant scientist and not a brilliant teacher. Simply transferring the knowledge from the brain of the scientist to the brain of the student wouldn’t give you any better handle on the material than if the scientist said that same information out loud – it would still need to be unpacked and rebuilt by the student.

    1. You’re right, of course. Simple knowledge of facts could only create a person who could respond in a rote way to queries. The ability to usefully process it–must less to think originally like a genius–is something altogether different.

  4. This is a technique that needs to be watched.
    It reminds me of scripted lessons for teachers. When with the textbook company, I worked rather closely with a big city superintendent with a large population of disadvantaged/underperforming students. He later became head of Federal Dept of Edu. I have/had concerned about mandating scripts for teachers as it is inflexible and not many teachers were skilled enough to adjust on the fly as needed and stay on track. That, he said is the problem: “I have so many teachers that really aren’t skilled enough to be in those classrooms. With scripts, I can at least be sure my kids are getting a basic level of knowledge….” He went on. It was a chilling objective evaluation. I can still remember it.
    Years have gone by and I’m now seeing the results of that technique. Our young people are very good at parroting, chanting, and waiting for cues to give the planned response. Higher level responses are fading from lack of practice in K-12. Writing skills – an act that displays real understanding of subject matter – are not only lacking in mechanics, but also presentation of thought showing the ability to apply knowledge in a focused logical fashion without resorting to emotion, generalities,
    Lewis was so on target.“If education is beaten by training, civilization dies.”
    A disturbing loop..and now a new option.

    1. Thank you for sharing your unique knowledge and experience. Yes, this trend has been increasing over the years. The whole “teaching to the test” approach is an act of desperation by educators who know they’ll be evaluated on their students’ success and are terrified by the prospect. I’m sympathetic to their plight. I doubt it’s ever been more challenging for teachers in America than it is today.

      1. Data running insane. But makes great charts for researchers…so they can get more grants ….students are not little data machines – far too many variables possible and at best it test scores are a small one day window on true knowledge….if the kid is sleepy, feeling sick, or had a fight with someone, all bets off. And teachers are shouldering most of the “blame.” Totally unfair and unreasonable. Thank goodness teachers show up everyday and continue on despite all.

  5. If one person could just put his knowledge in another person’s head, the second would be nothing but a copy of the first. The result would be, not a knowledgeable population, but a Matrix in which the machines have all the knowledge and the people are interchangeable agents of the machines. I like your point about the nature of learning.

  6. Pingback: On Teaching and Learning | Stories & Soliloquies

  7. Pingback: Using Your Entire Brain « Mere Inkling

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