The secret of human intelligence

10 min read

By Oleksandr Kostikov

brain nature

“Science Facts Can Be Much More Astounding than Science Fiction”

Stephen Hawking

I continue to introduce you to a series of articles on the nature of human intelligence and the future of artificial intelligence systems. In the previous article “Artificial intelligence vs neurophysiology: Why the difference matters” we found out that the basis of the work of any biological nervous system is not a computational function (like in a computer), but a reflex or a prepared answer.

But how then did our intelligence come about? How did a biological system repeating pre-prepared reactions become a powerful creative machine?

In this article, we will answer this question in the language of facts. Creating our intelligence, nature has found a simple and at the same time ingenious solution, which is not devoid of a great mystery, which we will also touch.

Forget about our own uniqueness—we are just part of the system

To understand how our intellect works, we must, first, abandon the obsessive and selfish idea of our own uniqueness. For the past 150 years, scientists have been constantly trying to find evidence of the biological uniqueness of our brains. There is a stereotype in science that something in our history has become a kind of magic wand, thanks to the “magic influence of which” we got our intellect. At first, we were told that the work made a person, then they began to repeat about language and social connections, now the idea appeared that the reward is enough.

All this, of course, is our fantasies, dictated by innate existential egocentrism. We are pleased to think that we are the pinnacle and even the goal of evolution. In fact, the human brain is just another stage in the development of life. As soon as the first two neurons united into a common chain, the creation of an intelligent nervous system became inevitable for the biosphere of our planet.

How it all began

The functional basis of any biological nervous system is a reflex, or a simple path along which a nerve impulse goes from one neuron to another. The word “path” is very important since this is the most important difference between biological intelligence and the artificial intelligence we create. Our thoughts are not special signals, but special pathways along which nerve impulses travel.

A chain of neurons is a reflex

Any unconscious reaction is just a chain of interconnected neurons. This chain is a previously prepared and in the past the most successful variant of reaction to a specific stimulus or life situation. To create a reflex, the nervous system must first gain experience, which means that in the process of creating such an experience, only those organisms survive that accidentally gave the correct answer. Losers die.

This allows simple nervous systems to develop and even create complex patterns of behavior (like bees and ants), but this is a very slow way of development, which requires multiple changes in generations of living organisms every time there is a need to create or consolidate new skills, which means new ones. types of reflexes.

How nature accelerated, or reflex modernization

To develop new skills faster, a simple and very effective solution was found. Why check the correctness of the reaction in real life when, instead, you can trigger the training reflex without final action. The nervous system was divided into an active network, involved in the direct control of real reactions, and a passive network, which creates and uses circuits of neurons but does not really control any physical actions.

A training base for new solutions and new reflexes

A relatively large nervous system can afford to select some of the neurons for a model imitation of reflexes. These neurons, not participating in real actions, act as a kind of training site for real actions. One example of such activity is the mirror neurons discovered at the end of the last century, which are excited both when performing a certain action and when observing the performance of this action by another organism.

Model imitation greatly accelerated the creation of new reflexes, which means it allowed the modernized nervous systems to survive even under conditions of learning.

Biological neurons

Making mistakes is not so dangerous now

What we are now talking about in simple terms is the most cutting edge of neuroscience. The fact that the human brain has a passive mode network (DMN or default mode network) was discovered quite recently – at the beginning of the 21st century, and the fact that this network is involved in everything that we call intelligence became known only a few years ago.

Development of imitation or how a training or passive network triggered consciousness

Very quickly, living organisms with large nervous systems began to dominate living nature. Modeling the reaction in the head before giving the command to the muscles has proven to be very beneficial for survival. Predators began to use it especially successfully.

Very soon, the nervous systems learned to model not only individual reflexes but whole complexes of reactions that form behavioral strategies in difficult life situations.

For these purposes, in addition to imitating external objects, the nervous system needed to imitate itself as an object participating in the paradigm of modeled events.

This is how consciousness appeared

All hominids (except for humans, these are chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and others), as well as elephants, killer whales, dolphins, and even some birds (for example magpies), have nervous systems capable of virtual flexibility and modeling complex situations.

The brain began to model action using the same neurons that can participate in a real reflex. But this means that some of the voracious nerve cells began to work not on the momentary task of responding, but on the reaction scheme necessary to create patterns of behavior in the future. This required further increasing the grouping of active neurons and allocating additional energy for them.

And then the problem arose

The development of biological intelligence ran into an energy impasse. The larger the brain got, the more difficult it is for the body to smooth out peaks in energy consumption. This is clearly illustrated by the example of our brain. With 86 billion neurons, of which 16 billion are in the cerebral cortex, the brain consumes 20 percent of the energy available to our body. A fairly accurate RMR (resting metabolic rate) test indicates that for any mental activity (even during sleep) we need 12 to 20 watts, and for the whole body to work from 60 to 100 watts. 50 percent of the glucose produced by the liver and entering the blood is used by the brain neurons, which make up only 2 percent of our total body weight. In fact, our brain, even at a minimum activity, consumes the maximum energy that our body can allocate for this. Any significant increase in the energy consumption of our nervous system will inevitably create a mortal danger for the relatively weak energy system of our body.

In a nutshell: everything related to the brain in the literal sense works at the limit of the body’s capabilities

For comparison, the average PC in sleep mode consumes only 10-20 watts, while when running resource-intensive programs, its power consumption increases 10-20 times – up to 200 watts.

It is not difficult to calculate that, with such a balance, if we want to dramatically increase the power of our brain, we will simply die or at least faint.

For this reason, our brain generates approximately the same number of impulses regardless of the situation and the current task. The energy consumption of the brain remains practically constant regardless of what a person is doing, whether he is resting or solving complex intellectual problems. In any case, local deviations from the average power consumption do not exceed 5 percent.

Don’t think it’s just a human problem

All large nervous systems have rested against the energy ceiling of energy consumption and development. Our brains are nothing unique when compared to the brains of other animals with a developed nervous system.

After carefully analyzing the parameters of cerebral circulation, you can calculate how many calories the human brain receives (adjusted for the difference in weight) and compare these data with 15 species of primates and other mammals. As a result, it turns out that the human brain loses in this indicator to some species of monkeys and even lemurs.

In terms of the parameters of the development of the cerebral cortex, we are not leaders either. There are animals with the same or even larger cerebral cortex. The black dolphin, for example, has 37 billion neurons in the cerebral cortex (humans only have 16 billion).

Dolphins

Why is the energy limit so important when investigating the nature of human intelligence?

This suggests that if we want to understand what our intellect is, it is not enough for us to study how conscious and planned activity is formed. It is important to understand why our brain activity is so effective. Dolphins and gorillas are highly intelligent animals, but they do not have a creative intelligence even remotely comparable to ours. We need to look even deeper and find out what makes our completely ordinary (in biological parameters) nervous system so effective.

Why, what’s the secret?

To answer this question, let’s ask ourselves, how do we generally define the presence of intelligence?

Now I will not fool you with lengthy conclusions. Let others fantasize, but I’ll just say that intelligence is the ability to solve a problem in the most successful way.

We differ from animals in that we know well how to figure out how to “do it.” We are quickly and relatively easily able to create a complex sequence of actions necessary to achieve the desired result.

But the more actions you take, the greater the chance of error, but we are surprisingly few mistakes.

This ability to “not be wrong” and in difficult situations to come up with something that really works is the distinctive side of a strong innovative intelligence – our intelligence.

We are distinguished from animals not by how we think, but by what result we do it

The human brain is an ordinary object of living nature, but it is surprisingly prolific in making the right decisions. And if we want to understand our intelligence, we must figure out why we are so lucky with the right answers.

This was not always the case!

When 40-60 thousand years ago, genetically indistinguishable people from us, whom we now call Cro-Magnons, appeared on the planet, several other types of people had already lived on Earth for a long time. These were other species, but nevertheless, they were also people.

For example, at the time, Neanderthals existed on the planet for more than 100,000 years. Neanderthals, like us, knew how to communicate, use fire, live in communities, and, in addition, their brains were on average larger than ours. But in over 100,000 years of development, Neanderthals could not create even a remote semblance of our civilization. The Neanderthals definitely had consciousness, but they certainly did not have our type of intelligence.

On the threshold of mystery

Remember in the first article I talked about symbiosis (combining two organisms). The simplest answer to the question about the unexplained success of our brains is that perhaps something helps us find the right solutions. Something additional helps our nervous system to build those chains of neural reaction (thought) that lead to the right decision, and therefore to success.

The junction point, or how symbiosis works

Our brain is arranged in such an interesting way that the path along which a nerve impulse runs depends on how exactly the docking nodes—synapses connecting nerve cells—neurons are triggered. These junction points—synapses—have tiny transmembrane proteins—ionotropic receptors—ion channels that allow ions (such as sodium or potassium) to pass through biological membranes and thereby generate a nerve impulse.

In fact, all our thoughts and decisions are chains of interconnected neurons, the configuration of which depends on how exactly these tiny transmembrane proteins on the surface of nerve cells work. Remember at the beginning of this article I said that the basis of the work of our brain is not a specific signal, but a path of neurons. So, what exactly this path will be (and therefore what the thought will be) depends only on these ion channels and transmembrane proteins that control them.

brain nature

A simple yet shocking assumption

When, many years ago, at the Department of Physiology, I simulated different modes of the synapse, I suddenly discovered that there may be another mechanism in the human brain to control the work of these very ligand-dependent ion channels. This second mechanism can cause a spontaneous transition of electrons from a higher to a lower energy level (or reversibly), which, as a result, will open ion channels, and therefore begin or change a nerve impulse. Moreover, this second (hidden) mechanism can work without mediator molecules, and therefore without precursor signals.

In simple terms, in the very structure of our nervous system there is a possibility for external influence, the result of which will be a corrected or even completely new nerve impulse: our thought.

It’s like disassembling a computer, suddenly finding an external communication unit or a previously unknown connector that allows you to discreetly control the entire system.

It was at this moment that I thought that, if such an opportunity exists, perhaps it is being used. In this case, our nervous system consists of two levels and works as a symbiotic system. It turns out that our brain is a box with a double bottom!

For the skeptics, I want to point out that I did not find a second system, but I did find a possible connection point.

Idea check

In biology, as in mathematics, any action inevitably predetermines the result. If this or that organ receives support, then it loses part of its activity and inevitably begins to decrease. If, for example, you constantly ride the elevator (the elevator will help your legs), instead of constantly walking up the stairs, the muscles in your legs will become weaker and slightly smaller in size. If all this repeats from generation to generation, the muscles in your offspring will gradually begin to acquire signs of vestige organs, which will decrease from generation to generation.

Unexpected truth

It may seem completely unthinkable, but anthropological research suggests that our brains are really shrinking rapidly. Over the past 40 thousand years, our brains have become 15 percent smaller! The average brain weight of a modern person is 1,250-1,300 grams, while several tens of thousands of years ago (in the evolutionary sense, this is literally a moment ago), the brain of our direct ancestors weighed an average of 1,500 grams. During this time, almost all parts of the body have increased, but the brain has become smaller.

Conclusions

When a completely ordinary student with average abilities suddenly begins to answer any questions better than anyone in the class, the most correct thing is not to fantasize about a miracle and hidden genius, but to look for someone who prompts him.

Our intelligence is not the result of improvements in the design, power, or size of the brain. This is the work of the normal nervous system, which is paired with something that we have not yet identified

The symbiosis hypothesis is an extremely simple and at the same time revolutionary concept. If a series of experiments confirm the violation of the correlation in the work of ion channels involved in the circuits of excitation of neurons in the human neocortex, we will be able to experimentally confirm the presence of a dynamic interface. This will be enough to state the fact that our intellect is the result of the work of a dual system.

The most interesting thing about all this is that in such a concept, symbiosis is not a historical curiosity that happened thousands of years ago, but a real biological process that makes you human right now.

So, examining the nature of our intellect, we will touch on the most exciting mystery of our appearance on this planet.

In the next article, I will talk about what artificial intelligence will be in this case and how it will work in a completely unusual and unexpectedly effective way. 

I promise something that you get to know will surprise you a lot.

About the Author

Oleksandr Kostikov

Dr. Oleksandr Kostikov is a medical doctor by education. He previously worked in a research group dealing with molecular systems in human neocortex synapses at the Department of Physiology of the State Medical University and the Department of Physics of the Ivan Franko University in Lviv, Ukraine. He is now in Canada, where he is working on a new theoretical concept about the nature of intelligence but also allows that aims to to create a completely new unusual type of artificial intelligence.

1 COMMENT

  1. It’s becoming clear that with all the brain and consciousness theories out there, the proof will be in the pudding. By this I mean, can any particular theory be used to create a human adult level conscious machine. My bet is on the late Gerald Edelman’s Extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. The lead group in robotics based on this theory is the Neurorobotics Lab at UC at Irvine. Dr. Edelman distinguished between primary consciousness, which came first in evolution, and that humans share with other conscious animals, and higher order consciousness, which came to only humans with the acquisition of language. A machine with primary consciousness will probably have to come first.

    The thing I find special about the TNGS is the Darwin series of automata created at the Neurosciences Institute by Dr. Edelman and his colleagues in the 1990’s and 2000’s. These machines perform in the real world, not in a restricted simulated world, and display convincing physical behavior indicative of higher psychological functions necessary for consciousness, such as perceptual categorization, memory, and learning. They are based on realistic models of the parts of the biological brain that the theory claims subserve these functions. The extended TNGS allows for the emergence of consciousness based only on further evolutionary development of the brain areas responsible for these functions, in a parsimonious way. No other research I’ve encountered is anywhere near as convincing.

    I post because on almost every video and article about the brain and consciousness that I encounter, the attitude seems to be that we still know next to nothing about how the brain and consciousness work; that there’s lots of data but no unifying theory. I believe the extended TNGS is that theory. My motivation is to keep that theory in front of the public. And obviously, I consider it the route to a truly conscious machine, primary and higher-order.

    My advice to people who want to create a conscious machine is to seriously ground themselves in the extended TNGS and the Darwin automata first, and proceed from there, by applying to Jeff Krichmar’s lab at UC Irvine, possibly. Dr. Edelman’s roadmap to a conscious machine is at https://arxiv.org/abs/2105.10461

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