The beginning of wisdom 3.0

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece

Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece (Image via Wikipedia)

According to the Bible’s Psalms and Proverbs, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

But long before the Bible was written, the greatest men and women in ancient times (times in which travel could be difficult and dangerous) journeyed from all over the world to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi seeking answers to their most burning questions.

Over the door of the temple they found the inscription “Know thyself”.

“Know Thyself”

The phrase “Know thyself” has been attributed to Pythagoras, Socrates, and a number of other Greek sages, but it is thought to have originated in pre-history, perhaps from the time of the Mother Goddess and the Gaia religion. It has been found in many other places, including ancient Icelandic runes.

In fact, it has been suggested that this phrase sums up the whole of ancient philosophy.

What does it mean?

The implication of the inscription’s exact placement above the entrance to the Temple at Delphi is perhaps that self-knowledge is a pre-condition to all further knowledge. In other words, “Know thyself before thou entereth in here and bother the Oracle.”  Without meeting that prerequisite, further inquiry may be pointless. You just might be wasting the Oracle’s precious time and your own.

The seat of consciousness? (Click image for full size)

But what is self-knowledge and how is it obtained? What is the self? Is it the body, the mind, the soul, or is it all of these? At least in the case of the ancient philosophers it was probably a combination of all three. The distinctions were not as clearly drawn then as they can be today. However, in the context of our modern perspective, it may be safe to say that the ancients were not really talking about knowing human anatomy. It is more likely that they were thinking about consciousness.  People still differ about the “seat of consciousness”, whether it be the soul, the brain, the universe, or any number of other things.

According to modern opinion, human beings (homo sapiens, from the latin “wise man” or “knowing man”) are thought to be self-aware by nature. Is this natural self-awareness the same as self-knowledge? Surely the whole of ancient philosophy would not be dedicated to exhorting the need for something that all human beings already possessed!

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but how many of us really knows how to examine our lives? I think we assume we’d know how to do that if we chose to, but do we? The brain evolved in some very idiosyncratic ways, and self-examination was apparently not high on the to do list for natural selection.

Nevertheless, we modern humans, especially the best and brightest of us, tend to assume that our own personal self-knowledge is something we come by automatically in the course of all our experience and all our spontaneous and natural thoughts and feelings about ourselves. 

 

The small percentage of us who have studied psychology or participated in some kind of psychological counseling or therapy(such as Freudian analysis, aroma therapy, or the currently popular cognitive behavioral therapy) tend to assume that we are especially knowledgeable about ourselves. We may even have become self-conscious.

“Self Observation”

On the other hand, the really sophisticated philosophers among us (we know who we are) may believe that self-examination, self-observation, introspection, mindfulness, meditation, and other forms of psychological mindedness prescribe specific kinds of education, work, or practice that one must pursue in order to acquire greater insight into and mastery of the workings of ones own mind.

Those willing to explore the outer limits of knowledge may also believe that a guru, an extraterrestrial intelligence, or an altered state of consciousness has conferred special self-knowledge upon them mystically.

Some may have come by their heightened self-insight chemically.

Though having belonged at some time or another to all of the above groups,  I have recently settled down to the more pedantic pursuit of following the research on cognitive neuroscience.

“fMRI Brain”

Be all that as it may, however, what all of the above paths to self-knowledge tend to have in common is the problem of motivation and discipline, or the lack of it. So I was delighted with myself when I hit upon the following idea: what if the video game industry could be induced to produce exciting, psychologically addictive video games based on some or all of the above methods for increasing self-knowledge?

Lo and behold a few days later I accidentally found this:

The “Know Thyself” game

A Lost Soul. An Unruly Subconscious. A Second Chance. A Role-Playing Game.

What if you were suddenly without any memories, held in a dream prison by your own subconscious, and the only hint you have of who you might be is a single statement repeated over and over in your head?

Know Thyself is a game for three to five players for an evening’s entertainment. One person plays an amnesiac in a fever dream hell and the others play that person’s subconscious & people from their past. The game features bizarre, unreal play due to a special deck of playing cards.

This is not actually a video game, and there are no photo-realistic, kick-ass action avatars, but it seems like a small step in that direction. For more information (but not much) see Tomorrow the World Games.

Could this at last be the true philosopher’s stone, the long sought-after secret to transforming unemployed couch potatoes into enlightened beings, the key to awakening the dormant wisdom we need to save the world?

First there was the beginning of innate, natural wisdom in human pre-history, the first dawning of wisdom in the world (beginning of wisdom 1.0). Then there was the beginning of conscious, formal wisdom in individual cognitive development and human culture (beginning of wisdom 2.0). Now begins the promulgation of that most radical and fundamental form of wisdom, self-knowledge, by the new and improved process of electronic video game addiction (beginning of wisdom 3.0).

Video games that promote self-examination and good mental hygiene? Gee whizz, Batman! That could be the beginning of a whole new age of wisdom and enlightenment for humanity.

The current “Known Universe” of video games is relatively flat…

Go now and carry this eureka-quality epiphany to the four corners of the video game world!

Poor Richard

ADDENDUM 9/15/2010

In reply to a post called

______________________________

Mind change – a moral choice?

______________________________

at the Open Parachute blog , I posted the following comment:

In “The Beginning of Wisdom 3.0″ I argue that brain changes or cognitive influences caused by video gaming could, if the games were appropriately designed, be very constructive. In fact, I suggest video games as a delivery system for a whole spectrum of positive cognitive re-engineering efforts addressing such issues as “predictable irrationality”, “cognitive self-defense”, cognitive self-assessment, cognitive therapy, etc.

“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

As we all know, video games can be extremely compelling (if not addictive), and users can obsess over them for hours and days at a time. If a game meets enough of the criteria needed to make it compelling to a target audience, users can be expected to gladly consume any educational content embedded int the game. This is well-established and has already been extensively exploited in a broad range of educational software and interactive video products.

I advocate robust research and development efforts aimed at producing state-of-the-art video games designed to teach actual cognitive skills and abilities, with or without explicit, factual educational content.

At the simplest level, games might be designed to train users in critical reasoning skills such as the use of sound logic and argument or the recognition of logical fallacies.

On a deeper level, games might be designed to reveal a user’s implicit associations and unconscious cognitive biases and even to assist the user in altering such biases.

On a deeper level yet, information gleaned from cognitive neuroscience might be applied to correct pathologies, compensate for deficits, or improve a wide variety of targeted cognitive or neural processes.

The psychological and neural consequences of using video games may very well be undesirable or even harmful if some or all of the impacts are arbitrary, unintended, and unexamined. On the other hand, if the impacts are intentional and constructive, video games might help us fix a whole panoply of thorny problems. They could become a virtual panacea for any and all correctable neuro-cognitive disorders of thinking, reasoning, and behavior.

Video Game themes that could be adapted for cognitive skills/hygiene

These projects have a potential to be made into video games or other spin-offs that could be designed not simply as entertainment products but also as educational tools–both pedagogical and dialectical–perhaps the first of their kind.

An Economical Bestiary (PRA 2010)

PRA 2010′s “Economical Bestiary” is a work of  hypertext literature — a blog-based book– about economic myths and facts. The work analyzes economic myths and political misconceptions and  in many cases relates the misconceptions to irrational cognitive biases. A video game based on the Economical Bestiary could be designed to teach critical reasoning skills, propaganda self-defense, logical fallacy detection, discovering and altering implicit associations, etc.

One object of the game would be to take-over the status quo government/economy, based mainly on accumulating economic and political points–but some violence is inevitable… and good for suspense.

I suppose it would have to go all “Global”, with economical and political beasties from multiple nations slugging it out.

The ultimate ULTIMATE objective might be an egalitarian, steady-state civilization that would solve global warming, etc. At the very least, the players would have to prevent and/or survive any number of possible catastrophes, regardless of who was in power.

If it were done right it might be a fun game for business- and politically-minded people of just about any age, and it might get some people to think harder and smarter about how to save the world at the same time.

The game could continue to evolve, becoming more realistic, until it actually started spilling out into reality with people creating real alliances and institutions.

The Inner Hunchback (PRA 2010)

Synopsis: In Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notradame, each character has its own individual point of view, drawn from trusted sources such as religion, academic or political authority, kinship, popular culture, traditions, etc.  Hugo  leads the reader through each character’s reality, giving us privileged vantage points from which to glimpse the insights, errors, and cognitive biases of each and providing us an opportunity to assemble a “bigger picture” of our own.

Animal Farm 2.0 (A nail-biting modern sequel to George Orwell’s original novel) (PRA 2010)

Synopsis: Over a course of  years, an average family farm is gradually transformed into a corporate animal death camp, complete with an ersatz animist-fundamentalist theocracy that secretly serves the human corporate overlords. There will also be sinister, mad scientists doing gene-splicing experiments on plants, animals and humans alike….Too scary for young readers? Don’t worry–it all comes out right in the end!

The Illustrated Treasury of Cognitive-Bias Fairy Tales and Folk Stories (This project will be posted shortly on PRA 2010)

Poor Richard

Related Information:

The Quantified Self: Self Knowledge Through Numbers–a catalog-in-progress of all the self-tracking tools out there

Dozens of tools are listed in  14 categories. Some tools gather and analyze data collected by mobile devices and sensors. A sampling:

Mood

ButterBeeHappy
CureTogether Anxiety, Depression, Mood Tracking
Facing Us
Gotta Feeling
Gratitude & Happiness
GratitudeLog
Happiness for iPhone
Happy Factor

Productivity

1DayLater
BaseCamp
Blueprint HQ
BubbleTimer
EtherPad

Stanford  Encyclopedia of Philosophy Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Introspection , as the term is used in contemporary philosophy of mind, is a means of learning about one’s own currently ongoing, or perhaps very recently past, mental states or processes.

Self-Knowledge In philosophy, ‘self-knowledge’ commonly refers to knowledge of one’s particular mental states, including one’s beliefs, desires, and sensations.

Introspective People Have Larger Prefrontal Cortex

Lumosity “Brain Games –Scientifically designed brain fitness program. Lumosity is designed by some of the leading experts in neuroscience and cognitive psychology from Stanford and UCSF.”

NASA-funded game aims to make science more appealing

Last week a curious, free release popped up on Steam: Moonbase Alpha, a NASA-funded game where up to six players can team up in order to save a near-future Lunar base crippled by a meteor strike. The game is just the first release from NASA’s Learning Technologies program, which aims to help raise interest in the space program through gaming.

“The US is facing a crisis in technical fields,” explained Laughlin. “There are not enough students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics to fill our national needs in those areas. NASA literally cannot function without STEM graduates. The big goals for NASA Education are to get more students into STEM fields of study and graduating into STEM careers. It’s also the president’s goal with the Educate to Innovate initiative. Moonbase Alpha was developed in support of those goals.”

Gamers beat algorithms at finding protein structures (ArsTechnica.com)

Today’s issue of Nature contains a paper with a rather unusual author list. Read past the standard collection of academics, and the final author credited is… an online gaming community.

Scientists have turned to games for a variety of reasons, having studied virtual epidemics and tracked online communities and behavior, or simply used games to drum up excitement for the science. But this may be the first time that the gamers played an active role in producing the results, having solved problems in protein structure through the Foldit game.

Starting with algorithms, ending with brains

Foldit uses some of the same conventions typical of other computer games, like a few simple structural problems to give new users a smooth learning curve. It also borrows from other online gaming communities; there are leaderboards, team and individual challenges, user forums, and so on.

Though very few of those who played Foldit had any significant background in biochemistry, the gamers tended to beat Rosetta when it came to solving structures. In a series of ten challenges, they outperformed the algorithms on five and drew even on another three.

By tracing the actions of the best players, the authors were able to figure out how the humans’ excellent pattern recognition abilities gave them an edge over the computer. For example, people were very good about detecting a hydrophobic amino acid when it stuck out from the protein’s surface, instead of being buried internally, and they were willing to rearrange the structure’s internals in order to tuck the offending amino acid back inside. Those sorts of extensive rearrangements were beyond Rosetta’s abilities, since the energy changes involved in the transitions are so large.

The authors also note that different players tended to have different strengths. Some were better at making the big adjustments needed to get near an energy minimum, while others enjoyed the fine-scale tweaking needed to fully optimize the structure. That’s where Foldit’s ability to enable team competitions, where different team members could handle the parts of the task most suited to their interests and abilities, really paid off.

The Nature article makes it clear that researchers in other fields, including astronomy, are starting to try similar approaches to getting the public to contribute something other than spare processor time to scientific research. As long as the human brain continues to outperform computers on some tasks, researchers who can harness these differences should get a big jump in performance.

Science gleans 60TB of behavior data from Everquest 2 logs (ArsTechnica.com)

Researchers ranging from psychologists to epidemiologists have wondered for some time whether online, multiplayer games might provide some ways to test concepts that are otherwise difficult to track in the real world.

Jaideep Srivastava is a computer scientist doing work on machine learning and data mining—in the past, he has studied shopping cart abandonment at Amazon.com, a virtual event without a real-world parallel. He spent a little time talking about the challenges of working with the Everquest II dataset, which on its own doesn’t lend itself to processing by common algorithms. For some studies, he has imported the data into a specialized database, one with a large and complex structure. Regardless of format, many one-pass, exhaustive algorithms simply choke on a dataset this large, which is forcing his group to use some incremental analysis methods or to work with subsets of the data.

Srivastava then gave a short tour of the sorts of items the team is trying to extract from the raw logs. He apparently has graduate students working on non-traditional figures like the “monster composite difficulty index” and an “experience rate measure.”

Noshir Contractor described how the data was allowing him to explore social network dynamics within the game. He described a variety of factors that are thought to influence the growth and extent of social networks, such as collective action, social exchange, the search for similar people, physical proximity, friend-of-a-friend (FoaF) interactions, and so on. Because these are well-developed concepts, statistical tools exist that can extract their signature from the raw data by looking at interactions like instant messaging, partnerships, and trade.

Williams pointed out one case where having access to the server logs allowed the researchers to identify some serious skewing in the responses to the demographic surveys. Older women turned out to be some of the most committed players but significantly under-reported the amount of time they spent in the game by three hours per week (men under-reported as well, but only by one hour). The example highlights the risk of using self-reporting for behavioral studies and the potential of the virtual world data.

Blizzard [World of Warcraft] negotiating with researchers for virtual epidemic study (ArsTechnica.com)

A strange phenomenon struck the virtual inhabitants of World of Warcraft. A disease designed to be limited to areas accessed by high-level characters managed to make it back to the cities of that virtual world, where it devastated their populations. At the time, Ars’ Jeremy Reimer noted, “It would be even more interesting if epidemiologists in the real world found that this event was worthy of studying as a kind of controlled experiment in disease propagation.” The epidemiologists have noticed, and there may be more of these events on the way for WoW players. There were a number of features in the virtual outbreak that actually mimicked the spread of and response to real-world epidemics.

Modeling Infectious Diseases Dissemination Through Online Role-Playing Games, Balicer, Ran D. (Epidemiology: March 2007)

As mathematical modeling of infectious diseases becomes increasingly important for developing public health policies, a novel platform for such studies might be considered. Millions of people worldwide play interactive online role-playing games, forming complex and rich networks among their virtual characters. An unexpected outbreak of an infective communicable disease (unplanned by the game creators) recently occurred in this virtual world. This outbreak holds surprising similarities to real-world epidemics. It is possible that these virtual environments could serve as a platform for studying the dissemination of infectious diseases, and as a testing ground for novel interventions to control emerging communicable diseases.

Neurobiology of Meditation

How Meditation Reshapes Your Brain Max Miller on October 6, 2010 (BigThink.com)

—”Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence,” (2009) by Antoine Lutz in The Journal of Neuroscience [PDF]

—”Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation,” (2007)  by Michael Posner in the journal PNAS

Know Then Thyself

by Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks to little, or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

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