The young scientist who enters a well-equipped laboratory for the first time—–well equipped not only in the physical sense, but also because it has the intellectual atmosphere required for carrying out important research—–has not merely entered a particular set of rooms. His formal training at school and college, the discussions with his first supervisor, his earliest experiences in a research institution, the community of scientists that he has joined by becoming a member of this institution—all these things leave profound and lasting traces in the neural circuits of his brain.
― Jean-Claude Changeux
The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge
What is the difference beteen man and great ape?
The brains of the two species share the basic cortical regions, but somehow man has gained an extra capacity for this symbolic work. Both man and ape can see the lines and patterns that make up letters, but only man can put the letters c-a-t together as a set of arbitrary phonemes of the word cat which triggers an associative avalanche regarding this furry creature, infesting our homes, yet related to lions and tigers. Those shapes signify both orange and black, fancy and stray, all activated within the reader’s brain, entirely absent from the brain of any other creature on earth.
Whether you call this culture, learning or the stabilization of common neural networks across brains, language is a metalevel concept, but entirely subsumed within individual human brains. It is both a pattern of sound or lines– “cat” and an individual pattern of neural activity that is represented differently in each brain. The language and reference to the furry creatures maps across brains, the pattern within the brain is entirely individual.
How could anyone ever “read out” my thoughts? The patterns inside are are arbitrary and private. It would require running through everything I know and looking at the pattern of synaptic and neuronal activity for each stimulus to create a map between the cultural concepts and my private cortical encoding of the meaning and associations.
And that’s just a three letter word.
“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”
― Gabriel Garcí a Márquez,
Gabriel García Márquez: a Life