How many ways are there to put information into your brain?
The main possibilities that I am aware of are these:
- The control of the growth and development of your brain by information
contained in your genes.
- Learning from experience, including both passive observation of the
world, and active exploration of how you can interact with the world to
achieve your goals.
- "Importing" information from the brain of another person. This method
sub-divides into two major sub-categories:
- Observation of another person, with the aim of imitating their
behaviour, and, perhaps somewhat indirectly, imitating their
- Accepting information communicated by language (in the prehistoric
past this would have been entirely by spoken language, which is most
relevant to the topic of this article, but in more modern times this
would also include reading).
Reliability and Efficiency
Two basic criteria for judging the relative merits of these different
methods of loading information into your brain are reliability and
efficiency. Consider each of the methods listed above:
- Genetic control of brain development: The original
source of this information is evolution by natural selection. Information
acquired this way can be considered quite reliable, as it is based on
millions of years of experience, i.e. the experience of your ancestors,
judged directly according to success in reproduction. But the amount of
information that can be loaded in this way is very limited, and the
information cannot be updated very quickly to deal with new
circumstances, as the rate of evolution in information terms is probably
not more than a few bytes per year.
- Learning from experience: This is reliable in the
sense that your experience of the world is very real (although there is
the problem of statistical variation, where your own experience may not
always be an accurate predictor of what is going to happen in the
- Observation of another person: The advantage of
deriving information from other people is that other people's brains
already contain a lot of information about their own experience, and if
you import that information directly rather than go through the same
experience yourself, you can save yourself a lot of time and trouble.
Unfortunately, imitation is a rather limited method of acquiring
information. It can be useful for learning the basics of specific
physical skills, but attempting to determine the internal thinking of
another person from observation of their actions involves too much
hopeful guesswork to be of much use. (Which brings us to the last option
- Learning by listening to what others say: This is both
the most efficient and the least reliable method. In as much as language
can describe a substantial portion of our knowledge, experience and even
how we think, talking and listening can be a very efficient way of
transferring information from one person to another. But if a person
simply accepts the truth of whatever they are told, they are vulnerable
to manipulation by any other person willing to tell that person untrue
statements (that only serve the interests of the person telling
Any system which is designed to acquire information must contain in its
design information about how to acquire information. This leads to the
bootstrap problem, i.e., how do you import that information into the
system in the first place? The term "bootstrap" is used particularly in the
computer industry, where it is applied to the question of how to load a
program into a computer.
The basic answer to this question is that a program must be loaded into
the computer's memory using a program-loading program.
But how did the program-loading program get there? In modern computers the
program-loading program is part of the operating system, which is
loaded into the computer at startup time from a boot disk. There has
to be some program which knows how to load the operating system from the boot
disk, and this program is normally found in the BIOS, which is a fixed
read-only memory built into the computer. The problem of knowing how to load
this program is solved by designing into the CPU an initial instruction
pointer value, which tells the CPU to start executing the program found at
that point in memory when the power is turned on.
Of course the BIOS program was written, compiled and tested on some other
computer, and we could attempt to trace the history of where that program
came from and which program on some other earlier computer loaded it,
and so on.
Somewhere very early in the history of computers, very simple bootstrap
programs were hand-wired into computers, supplemented by data which was
entered using simple data-loading switches.
Analysis of program-loading programs reveals dependency relationships
between programs and the other programs that load them. We can look for
similar dependencies in the four information importing methods given above
for the human brain:
- Genetic information is "loaded" by the process of natural selection,
which only depends on the existence of a reproducing life form (which
ultimately depends on the origin of life from non-life, but this happened
a long, long time ago, certainly long before the "invention" of brains).
Modern science is finding ways to directly load genetic information from
other sources by means of genetic engineering, and we cannot rule out the
possibility that one day this will be applied to the construction of
human brains, but for the moment this is too hard, and it is also
considered by many to be morally unacceptable (although many of the more
pragmatic objections to genetic engineering have to do with the risk of
failure rather than the risk of success).
- Learning from experience depends at a minimum on the evolution of the
mechanisms by which such learning occurs. From what is known about
classical and operant conditioning, such mechanisms can only account for
learning situations where feedback about the result of a given action
follows very soon after its performance. Similarly, perceptual learning
must be based directly on perceptions of correlations occurring within a
particular moment or within a short time-frame. This is not to say that
humans are not capable of learning based on results of actions that do
not immediately follow those actions, or based on observation of events
separated by long intervals of time. But this type of learning depends on
pre-existence of a worldview which provides rules about how to
understand causal relationships between events and actions separated by
long intervals of time, where this worldview is sufficiently complex
that it must be loaded into the brain by the last method in this
- Learning by imitation can be instinctive, and therefore only needs to
depend on genetically provided information about how to learn.
- Learning by listening is the most problematic. Simple acceptance of the
truth of what you hear is something that could be genetically programmed,
but it does create vulnerability to manipulation. Reliability can be
increased by applying critical consideration to spoken information before
it is accepted as true, but there are some major difficulties with this
- Firstly, it is likely to substantially reduce the efficiency of
listening as a means of loading information into the brain, as the
time taken to verify propositions is likely to substantially exceed
the amount of time it takes to state them. This reduction in
efficiency could be a significant difficulty if there is a
possibility of benefitting from the loading of a large quantity of
"pre-learnt" culturally provided information about the world.
- Secondly, the information required to most efficiently and reliably
appraise spoken information is information which itself can only
easily be provided via spoken communication. Which returns us to the
- And thirdly, the amount of information required to form a
worldview which is sophisticated enough to quickly and efficiently
appraise any spoken information may be much larger than the amount of
information required for a worldview comprehensive enough to deal
with most of the contingencies of everyday life. From an evolutionary
point of view, only the second problem (i.e. the contingencies of
everyday life) needs to be solved.
The Uncritical Listening Hypothesis
The above analysis suggests a hypothesis about human information
"bootstrap": that the human brain has a tendency and an ability to accept
spoken information uncritically, under at least some circumstances.
This hypothesis seems somewhat counter-intuitive, given our everyday
experience that we do not readily accept spoken information which our own
critical faculties warn us is unreliable or unconvincing. But there are
certain aspects of human experience which are compatible with it:
- People the world over believe in religions as a function of the social
environment that they live in (consisting of other people all or mostly
believing in the same religion). Many of these religious beliefs seem
"irrational" to someone belonging to a different religion (or to no
religion at all).
- Hypnotism is an altered mental state where a person uncritically
accepts the truth of what they are told by the hypnotist.
- There are various mind-manipulation techniques which are used by
salespersons, confidence tricksters and cult leaders to make people
believe things and do things which a "rational" person would not do.
Each of these phenomena is traditionally accepted as resulting from a
weakness of the mind – an inability to rationally distinguish truth
from falsehood. But once we realise the necessity of an efficient "bootstrap"
process for loading an informed worldview into the human brain, we should
not be surprised to discover that there are situations where a person
uncritically accepts the "truth" of whatever they are told, because such
uncritical acceptance is a basic part of the brain's growth and development.
In general we would expect uncritical listening to occur mainly in early
childhood, where a child can receive information from their parents, who can
perhaps be trusted to have their own child's interest at heart.
However, common experience is that even young children do not believe
everything that their parents tell them, or do everything that their parents
tell them to do (far from it in many cases), which suggests that there may be
special triggers which cause children to lower their barriers to acceptance
of new information, and uncritical acceptance only occurs in situations where
these triggers occur.
For example, one trigger might depend on observation (by the child) that
the behaviour and body language of a parent are consistent with that parent
not having any hidden agenda behind the content of their current speech. This
trigger and other triggers may continue to have some effect even into
adulthood, but perhaps only in situations where the benefits of quickly
acquiring information about how you are supposed to think – whether
that information is true or false – exceed the risks and costs of being
Uncritical Listening and Human Evolution
The development of uncritical listening may have played a major role in
human evolution, and may, for example, be one of the major factors to
distinguish "modern" humans from close relatives such as the Neanderthals.
The rapid spread of new ideas within tribal societies by means of
uncritical listening would have enabled the rapid reproduction and mutation
of culture, in that a random change in worldview of one person might be
rapidly propagated to other members of a tribe. Of course many such mutations
would be negative, but in the long run the benefits of positive mutations
out-weigh the costs of the negative mutations. The cultures of peoples that
changed too conservatively would end up being "left behind", and they would
become extinct due to being less competitive, suffering from less access to
resources needed for survival, and also suffering extermination by more
efficient methods of warfare and tribal genocide.