Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Happy New Year Humans

This is a quick post to wish all readers a belated Happy New Year, and now that it has somewhat reluctantly arrived, a Happy New Term!

Last year was pretty amazing in many ways. In terms of the 'Humans Not Robots' web project, it was startling to see the counters reach 10,000 hits on the main site and 100,000 downloads on the TES Resources page. The big hope in all of this is that awareness of difference amongst learners is being raised - and school communities are being helped practically by the various resources and information on offer.

To set off on a hopefully equally exciting and challenging year, I am going to treat you all to a part mind-blowing, part mind-boggling quote from 'The Dragons of Eden' by the legendary Carl Sagan - a book I was fortunate enough to receive as a gift on Christmas Day.
"Most neurobiologists believe that the neurons are the active elements in brain function, although there is evidence that some specific memories and other cognitive functions may be contained in particular molecules in the brain, such as RNA or small proteins. For every neuron in the brain there are roughly ten glial cells (from the Greek word for glue), which provide the scaffolding for the neuronal architecture. An average neuron in a human brain has between 1,000 and 10,000 synapses or links with adjacent neurons. (Many spinal-cord neurons seem to have about 10,000 synapses, and the so-called Purkinje cells of the cerebellum may have still more. The number of links for neurons in the cortex is probably less than 10,000.) If each synapse responds by a single yes-or-no answer to an elementary question, as is true of the switching elements in electronic computers, the maximum number of yes/no answers or bits of information that the brain could contain is about 1010 X 103 = 1013, or 10 trillion bits (or 100 trillion = 1014 bits if we had used 104 synapses per neuron). Some of these synapses must contain the same information as is contained in other synapses; some must be concerned with motor and other noncognitive functions; and some may be merely blank, a buffer waiting for the new day's information to flutter through.

If each human brain had only one synapse- corresponding to a monumental stupidity - we would be capable of only two mental states. If we had two synapses, then 22 = 4 states; three synapses, then 23 = 8 states, and, in general, for N synapses, 2N states. But the human brain is characterized by some 1013 synapses. Thus the number of different states of a human brain is 2 raised to this power - i. e., multiplied by itself ten trillion times. This is an unimaginably large number, far greater, for example, than the total number of elementary particles (electrons and protons) in the entire universe, which is much less than 2  raised to the power 103.
It is because of this immense number of functionally different configurations of the human brain that no two humans, even identical twins raised together, can ever be really very much alike. These enormous numbers may also explain something of the unpredictability of human behavior and those moments when we surprise even ourselves by what we do. Indeed, in the face of these numbers, the wonder is that there are any regularities at all in human behavior. The answer must be that all possible brain states are by no means occupied; there must be an enormous number of mental configurations that have never been entered or even glimpsed by any human being in the history of mankind. From this perspective, each human being is truly rare and different and the sanctity of individual human lives is a plausible ethical consequence."

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