The Mind, a Masterpiece

You are a human—a living, thinking human. You are reading these words, understanding them. How? Your human brain is doing some work, obviously. Have you ever thought of how significant that really is? If not, let me show you; it might just “blow your mind”!

Is my brain really that great?

The letters a, b ,and c.

Well, consider the following examples:

First, take a look at the drawn letters to the right of this paragraph. You recognise them as “A”, “B” and “C”. But how does your brain just know that? It’s the very first time you see these letters drawn in this exact handwriting, with the exact size and angles, and possibly in the exact colour. Yet you recognise them. Interesting.

Second, imagine meeting a little old lady while waiting at a train station. Being polite, she strikes up a conversation with you, asking where you plan to go and telling you of her own trip. While she speaks, it’s the first time you hear certain words spoken in that croaky voice and posh accent. But you understand them! Your brain interprets these strange, new noises into words. Then you say something that offends her, and her angry facial expression and harsh tone of voice tell you that you have done wrong and need to apologise. Somehow, when you see the finer features of her face change and hear the shift in her voice, you just know that she’s upset!

Both these examples hint at the complexity of your brain. Our brains include a network of tiny nerve cells, called neurons, that receive information from other nerve cells, process it, and transmit the processed information. It is estimated that there are 100 billion of these in the human brain. Working together, these neurons allow our brains to interpret and respond to sensory input.

So, in the example of the old lady, your sensory nerves see and hear her. Next, the sensory information is carried via electrical and chemical signals through your nervous system to the neural network in your brain. Neurons up there then work together to process this information, enabling you to understand what she is expressing. This process uses not only what you hear and see in the moment, but also previously stored information (“memory” or “knowledge”). And it can store new information in memory, thus enabling us to learn.

This is all just a brief “tip of the iceberg”, but I think it’s safe to say yes, our brains really are “so great”!

What about computers and AI?

A large part of my BSc Honours studies was focused on artificial intelligence (AI). I learned a decent amount about neural networks—networks of processors (nodes or “neurons”) that work together to translate the data they receive into meaningful information and decisions. This way, a program can “learn” and act accordingly.

But wait, isn’t that much like our own brains? Yes! The neural network nodes are inspired by the neurons of the brain (of course, they are not the same, but the principles are not too different). An unfortunate misconception is that computers can perform better than the human brain. Besides, can’t a calculator find the product of 135 x 9.32 way faster than you can? Yes, but all it’s doing is multiplying those numbers. While you’re reading the problem, however, your brain is doing so much more.

The processing power your brain has is immense. What’s more is that we can do something that computers never can; we can form conscious thoughts. Imagine the power and complex processes required to do that!

What’s the significance?

Developing an artificial neural network from scratch takes a decent amount of understanding and work. Even then, the chances are it’s vastly limited. Indeed, the greatest AIs developed by teams of experts are nowhere near as powerful as the human brain.

So, suppose I showed you a basic neural network that recognises simple shapes. Not that complicated. Now suppose I told you that I didn’t actually intend to make it; I just closed my eyes, typed random letters on my keyboard, and boom! I got really lucky and ended up with a functional program. You wouldn’t believe me, because the chances of that happening are so slim that it’s basically impossible.

Why, then, assume the same for the ultimate neural network—your brain? Why assume it’s just a product of chance rather than (immensely) intelligent design? If each neuron is a processor that knows exactly what it must do, it’s much like a piece of code in the world’s most complex program. Only the Master Programmer could have fashioned such a thing!

This means a great deal. It means you are fearfully and wonderfully made. It means that you are a masterpiece. It means you are loved, for does the Artist not love His elaborate work? It means that maybe, just maybe, there is so much more to life than just plodding on from one day to the next.

Please, take time to think about this. Look at the birds flying outside, following their instinct to glide on the winds, find food, build nests. Are they not a masterpiece? Look at your own body, ponder its functionings. Are you not a work of art? Consider how awesome it is to be a living, thinking human. Are you not blessed?

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