May I Use Your Brain?

GoogleGlassImagine you’ve got a problem you are incapable of solving by yourself. Hard as you have tried for some time, you don’t have the slightest idea of whether there is a solution at all or not. One day you learn that your next door neighbour has been awarded a Nobel Prize. You summon up the courage to approach her and ask for her help. She kindly accepts to help you and, as soon as you begin your exposition, she starts smiling. Though she continues to carefully listen all the way through your explanation, she seems ready to interrupt you. You realise she knows the answer and you feel happy and sad at the same time.

Now you know the answer yourself. You can even go check it is correct. It simply works! Only thing is you still don’t know how to deduce the solution, and so easily! In consequence, you continue to struggle with the problem. You can enjoy the solution but you don’t know where it comes from. You can’t feel what deducing the solution is like. It is like having to find an old toy inside a large boxroom full of old furniture and dozens of small objects scattered on the floor. The room is in complete darkness, so that you alone will never be able to make it unless… you have someone telling you how: move forward one step, then turn right and move two steps, and so on and so forth. You will eventually be able to pick the toy at the other side of the room, but it is a completely different experience when you can turn on the light and see by yourself what to do.

This time it is even more difficult than the first one. You need to gather all your determination to knock on your neighbour’s door again and, when she opens it, to blurt out:

– Would you please lend me your brain to work it out the problem by myself?
– By yourself? She answers surprised.

Is it such a daft question? Well, let’s say that today it is not technically possible, but is it physically or ontologically impossible? We do similar things all the time. When you lack the physical strength to lift a heavy weight you can use a pulley.  You can go visit your neighbour’s home to watch a film in his new 120″ 4K TV. In both cases you “feel” the experience yourself: lifting the weight or watching the ultra-high quality images. I have my own favourite amplifying experience.

Tata Vista vs. Lamborghini Veneno
Tata Vista vs. Lamborghini Veneno

I love driving cars, and it is clearly not the same to drive a Tata Vista (75 hp) or a Lamborghini Veneno (740 hp). Both are fun, but let’s say you are driving on a one lane each way winding mountain road and you have to overtake another car. Phew! You change gear and step on the gas but it takes ages for the small Tata to pick up speed and the next bend is coming up. You have to step on the brakes and slow down to take the curve. Now the car in front is again way too far to allow for an easy manoeuvre. Change to the Lamborghini and overtaking it is a piece of cake. You approach it, and you do not even need to change gear. Just accelerate and the Lamborghini Veneno responds effortlessly with an apparently unbounded capacity. You just overtake the car, step lightly on the brake and take the next curve.

Unfortunately, when you face a hard intellectual venture, there is no way as yet to enhance your brain power in a similar way. Or more precisely, you can amplify it using a paper and a pen, a computer, wearing Google Glass or hiring a smart surrogate scientist if you like, but you cannot sense the amplification. You cannot go visit your smarter neighbour’s brain to see with the same clarity that he or she is able to see the solution to a problem. Can you imagine how amazing it would be to have the possibility to do something like that? To use a more powerful or simply a better trained brain to think your own thoughts when facing a hard intellectual task? Just think. You could enter into Shakespeare’s brain to let your imagination run wild and write a bit of poetry, or into Churchill’s brain to plan your own strategy to solve a conflict; or well, put your own wish here.

DrivingaLamborghiniThis apparently simple question touches upon one of the toughest problems we haven’t been able to solve yet: the mind-body problem. “What-its-like-ness” as described in Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?” is a subject of intense scientific and philosophical debate. We have no idea of what we call “thinking” actually means, or  more specifically, what “feeling” our thoughts means, what it is like to use Einstein’s brain. Amplifying our mind might or might not be the same as amplifying any of our “physical” capacities, be it our strength or sight or whatever. We can look at it as a sort of brain in a vat experiment, where instead of re-connecting your neurons by wires to a supercomputer, they are re-connected to your neighbour’s super-intelligence.

Intuitively I feel it should be possible. At the end of the day, when we learn something, when we develop a specific skill, we are amplifying ourselves. The first time we come across a simple mathematical problem, we can think it is something abstruse and be completely unable to understand it, but we can gain familiarity by studying the problem and getting our brain “adapted” to the subject matter. Eventually, not only will we be able to solve the problem, but we will feel that we understand it. The same thing happens when learning a language or any other conscious thinking ability. So visiting our smarter neighbour would be like fast-forwarding through that self-amplification process used with our own brain(1).

However our self seems to be inextricably tangled up with the physical infrastructure that support it: of course the brain, but all the sensorial inputs and the memories and all the stuff that determines the brain state in a given moment as well. What does it mean? It means that if we try to separate your “self”, the one who is interested in solving the problem above, from your body, in order to transfer the first to your neighbour’s just for the time you need to compute the solution “yourself”, very likely what will arrive there will be a “different” self, one that might not even be interested in solving that problem in the first place, and therefore completely unable to “feel” the solution.

Uh-ah. This is serious. Finally you have decided to keep your neighbour’s brain yourself. It suits you down to a T. You feel a bit guilty when you see your Nobel Laureate neighbour absently walking around as if trying to find her own self, while you go down to the garage to take your Lamborghini. However her brain seems to enjoy helping you drive like crazy with absolute precision. Maybe it was getting bored of so much intellectual workload and it seems in its element at the races.


(1) Though learning might not be all what’s necessary. IQ (or g) might also have an influence


  1. […] beautiful blend of poetry and philosophy, such a clean exercise of speculation and empathy as it is testing our ability to inhabit other sentient being’s lives, such a balanced criticism of our arrogance and narrow-mindedness. A delicious […]

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