I am back into blogging, after over two months of pausing. This winter semester I am going, probably, for record workload in terms of classes: 630 hours in total. October and November look like an immersion time, when I had to get into gear for that amount of teaching. I noticed one thing that I haven’t exactly been aware of, so far, or maybe not as distinctly as I am now: when I teach, I love freestyling about the topic at hand. Whatever hand of nice slides I prepare for a given class, you can bet on me going off the beaten tracks and into the wilderness of intellectual quest, like by the mid-class. I mean, I have nothing against Power Point, but at some point it becomes just so limiting… I remember that conference, one year ago, when the projector went dead during my panel (i.e. during the panel when I was supposed to present my research). I remember that mixed, and shared feeling of relief and enjoyment in people present in the room: ‘Good. Finally, no slides. We can like really talk science’.
See? Once again, I am going off track, and that in just one paragraph of writing. You can see what I mean when I refer to me going off track in class. Anyway, I discovered one more thing about myself: freestyling and sailing uncharted intellectual waters has a cost, and this is a very clear and tangible biological cost. After a full day of teaching this way I feel as if my brain was telling me: ‘Look, bro. I know you would like to write a little, but sorry: no way. Them synapses are just tired. You need to give me a break’.
There is a third thing I have discovered about myself: that intense experience of teaching makes me think a lot. I cannot exactly put all this in writing on the spot, fault of fresh neurotransmitter available, still all that thinking tends to crystallize over time and with some patience I can access it later. Later means now, as it seems. I feel that I have crystallized enough and I can start to pull it out into the daylight. The « it » consists, mostly, in a continuous reflection on collective intelligence. How are we (possibly) smart together?
As I have been thinking about it, three events combined and triggered in me a string of more specific questions. I watched another podcast featuring Jordan Peterson, whom I am a big fan of, and who raised the topic of the neurobiological context of meaning. How our brain makes meaning, and how does it find meaning in sensory experience? On the other hand, I have just finished writing the manuscript of an article on the energy-efficiency of national economies, which I have submitted to the ‘Energy Economics’ journal, and which, almost inevitably, made me work with numbers and statistics. As I had been doing that empirical research, I found out something surprising: the most meaningful econometric results came to the surface when I transformed my original data into local coefficients of an exponential progression that hypothetically started in 1989. Long story short, these coefficients are essentially growth rates, which behave in a peculiar way, due to their arithmetical structure: they decrease very quickly over time, whatever is the source, raw empirical observation, as if they were representing weakening shock waves sent by an explosion in 1989.
Different types of transformed data, the same data, in that research of mine, produced different statistical meanings. I am still coining up real understanding of what it exactly means, by the way. As I was putting that together with Jordan Peterson’s thoughts on meaning as a biological process, I asked myself: what is the exact meaning of the fact that we, as scientific community, assign meaning to statistics? How is it connected with collective intelligence?
I think I need to start more or less where Jordan Peterson moves, and ask ‘What is meaning?’. No, not quite. The ontological type, I mean the ‘What?’ type of question, is a mean beast. Something like a hydra: you cut the head, namely you explain the thing, you think that Bob’s your uncle, and a new head pops up, like out of nowhere, and it bites you, where you know. The ‘How?’ question is a bit more amenable. This one is like one of those husky dogs. Yes, it is semi wild, and yes, it can bite you, but once you tame it, and teach it to pull that sleigh, it will just pull. So I ask ‘How is meaning?’. How does meaning occur?
There is a particular type of being smart together, which I have been specifically interested in, for like the last two months. It is the game-based way of being collectively intelligent. The theory of games is a well-established basis for studying human behaviour, including that of whole social structures. As I was thinking about it, there is a deep reason for that. Social interactions are, well, interactions. It means that I do something and you do something, and those two somethings are supposed to make sense together. They really do at one condition: my something needs to be somehow conditioned by how your something unfolds, and vice versa. When I do something, I come to a point when it becomes important for me to see your reaction to what I do, and only when I will have seen it, I will further develop on my action.
Hence, I can study collective action (and interaction) as a sequence of moves in a game. I make my move, and I stop moving, for a moment, in order to see your move. You make yours, and it triggers a new move in me, and so the story goes further on in time. We can experience it very vividly in negotiations. With any experience in having serious talks with other people, thus when we negotiate something, we know that it is pretty counter-efficient to keep pushing our point in an unbroken stream of speech. It is much more functional to pace our strategy into separate strings of argumentation, and between them, we wait for what the other person says. I have already given a first theoretical go at the thing in « Couldn’t they have predicted that? ».
This type of social interaction, when we pace our actions into game-like moves, is a way of being smart together. We can come up with new solutions, or with the understanding of new problems – or a new understanding of old problems, as a matter of fact – and we can do it starting from positions of imperfect agreement and imperfect coordination. We try to make (apparently) divergent points, or we pursue (apparently) divergent goals, and still, if we accept to wait for each other’s reaction, we can coordinate and/or agree about those divergences, so as to actually figure out, and do, some useful s**t together.
What connection with the results of my quantitative research? Let’s imagine that we play a social game, and each of us makes their move, and then they wait for the moves of other players. The state of the game at any given moment can be represented as the outcome of past moves. The state of reality is like a brick wall, made of bricks laid one by one, and the state of that brick wall is the outcome of the past laying of bricks. In the general theory of science, it is called hysteresis. There is a mathematical function, reputed to represent that thing quite nicely: the exponential progression. On a timeline, I define equal intervals. To each period of time, I assign a value y(t) = et*a, where ‘t’ is the ordinal of the time period, ‘e’ is a mathematical constant, the base of natural logarithm, e = 2,7188, and ‘a’ is what we call the exponential coefficient.
There is something else to that y = et*a story. If we think like in terms of a broader picture, and assume that time is essentially what we imagine it is, the ‘t’ part can be replaced by any number we imagine. Then, the Euler’s formula steps in: ei*x = cos x + i*sin x. If you paid attention in math classes, at high school, you might remember that sine and cosine, the two trigonometric functions, have a peculiar property. As they refer to angles, at the end of the day they refer to a full circle of 360°. It means they go in a circle, thus in a cycle, only they go in perfectly negative a correlation: when the sine goes one unit one way, the cosine goes one unit exactly the other way round etc. We can think about each occurrence we experience – the ‘x’ – as a nexus of two, mutually opposing cycles, and they can be represented as, respectively, the sine, and the cosine of that occurrence ‘x’. When I grow in height (well, when I used to), my current height can be represented as the nexus of natural growth (sine), and natural depletion with age (cosine), that sort of things.
Now, let’s suppose that we, as a society, play two different games about energy. One game makes us more energy efficient, ‘cause we know we should (see Settlement by energy – can renewable energies sustain our civilisation?). The other game makes us max out on our intake of energy from the environment (see Technological Change as Intelligent, Energy-Maximizing Adaptation). At any given point in time, the incremental change in our energy efficiency is the local equilibrium between those two games. Thus, if I take the natural logarithm of our energy efficiency at a given point in space-time, thus the coefficient of GDP per kg of oil equivalent in energy consumed, that natural logarithm is the outcome of those two games, or, from a slightly different point of view, it descends from the number of consecutive moves made (the ordinal of time period we are currently in), and from a local coefficient – the equivalent of ‘i’ in the Euler’s formula – which represents the pace of building up the outcomes of past moves in the game.
I go back to that ‘meaning’ thing. The consecutive steps ‘t’ in an exponential progression y(t) = et*a progression correspond to successive rounds of moves in the games we play. There is a core structure to observe: the length of what I call ‘one move’, and which means a sequence of actions that each person involved in the interaction carries out without pausing and waiting for the reaction observable in other people in the game. When I say ‘length’, it involves a unit of measurement, and here, I am quite open. It can be a length of time, or the number of distinct actions in my sequence. The length of one move in the game determines the pace of the game, and this, in turn, sets the timeframe for the whole game to produce useful results: solutions, understandings, coordinated action etc.
Now, where the hell is any place for ‘meaning’ in all that game stuff? My view is the following: in social games, we sequence our actions into consecutive moves, with some waiting-for-reaction time in between, because we ascribe meaning to those sub-sequences that we define as ‘one move’. The way we process meaning matters for the way we play social games.
I am a scientist (well, I hope), and for me, meaning occurs very largely as I read what other people have figured out. So I stroll down the discursive avenue named ‘neurobiology of meaning’, welcomingly lit by with the lampposts of Science Direct. I am calling by an article by Lee M. Pierson, and Monroe Trout, entitled ‘What is consciousness for?’. The authors formulate a general hypothesis, unfortunately not supported (yet?) with direct empirical check, that consciousness had been occurring, back in the day, I mean like really back in the day, as cognitive support of volitional movement, and evolved, since then, into more elaborate applications. Volitional movement is non-automatic, i.e. decisions have to be made in order for the movement to have any point. It requires quick assemblage of data on the current situation, and consciousness, i.e. the awareness of many abstract categories in the same time, could the solution.
According to that approach, meaning occurs as a process of classification in the neurologically stored data that we need to use virtually simultaneously in order to do something as fundamental as reaching for another can of beer. Classification of data means grouping into sets. You have a random collection of data from sensory experience, like a homogenous cloud of information. You know, the kind you experience after a particularly eventful party. Some stronger experiences stick out: the touch of cold water on your naked skin, someone’s phone number written on your forearm with a lipstick etc. A question emerges: should you call this number? It might be your new girlfriend (i.e. the girlfriend whom you don’t consciously remember as your new one but whom you’d better to if you don’t want your car splashed with acid), or it might be a drug dealer whom you’d better not call back. You need to group the remaining data in functional sets so as to take the right action.
So you group, and the challenge is to make the right grouping. You need to collect the not-quite-clear-in-their-meaning pieces of information (Whose lipstick had that phone number been written with? Can I associate a face with the lipstick? For sure, the right face?). One grouping of data can lead you to a happy life, another one can lead you into deep s**t. It could be handy to sort of quickly test many alternative groupings as for their elementary coherence, i.e. hold all that data in front of you, for a moment, and contemplate flexibly many possible connections. Volitional movement is very much about that. You want to run? Good. It would be nice not to run into something that could hurt you, so it would be good to cover a set of sensory data, combining something present (what we see), with something we remember from the past (that thing on the 2 o’clock azimuth stings like hell), and sort of quickly turn and return all that information so as to steer clear from that cactus, as we run.
Thus, as I follow the path set by Pierson and Trout, meaning occurs as the grouping of data in functional categories, and it occurs when we need to do it quickly and sort of under pressure of getting into trouble. I am going onto the level of collective intelligence in human social structures. In those structures, meaning, i.e. the emergence of meaningful distinctions communicable between human beings and possible to formalize in language, would occur as said structures need to figure something out quickly and under uncertainty, and meaning would allow putting together the types of information that are normally compartmentalized and fragmented.
From that perspective, one meaningful move in a game encompasses small pieces of action which we intuitively guess we should immediately group together. Meaningful moves in social games are sequences of actions, which we feel like putting immediately back to back, without pausing and letting the other player do their thing. There is some sort of pressing immediacy in that grouping. We guess we just need to carry out those actions smoothly one after the other, in an unbroken sequence. Wedging an interval of waiting time in between those actions could put our whole strategy at peril, or we just think so.
When I apply this logic to energy efficiency, I think about business strategies regarding innovation in products and technologies. When we launch a new product, or implement a new technology, there is something like fixed patterns to follow. When you start beta testing a new mobile app, for example, you don’t stop in the middle of testing. You carry out the tests up to their planned schedule. When you start launching a new product (reminder: more products made on the same energy base mean greater energy efficiency), you keep launching until you reach some sort of conclusive outcome, like unequivocal success or failure. Social games we play around energy efficiency could very well be paced by this sort of business-strategy-based moves.
I pick up another article, that by Friedemann Pulvermüller (2013). The main thing I see right from the beginning is that apparently, neurology is progressively dropping the idea of one, clearly localised area in our brain, in charge of semantics, i.e. of associating abstract signs with sensory data. What we are discovering is that semantics engage many areas in our brain into mutual connection. You can find developments on that issue in: Patterson et al. 2007, Bookheimer 2002, Price 2000, and Binder & Desai 2011. As we use words, thus as we pronounce, hear, write or read them, that linguistic process directly engages (i.e. is directly correlated with the activation of) sensory and motor areas of our brain. That engagement follows multiple, yet recurrent patterns. In other words, instead of having one mechanism in charge of meaning, we are handling different ones.
After reviewing a large bundle of research, Pulvermüller proposes four different patterns: referential, combinatorial, emotional-affective, and abstract semantics. Each time, the semantic pattern consists in one particular area of the brain acting as a boss who wants to be debriefed about something from many sources, and starts pulling together many synaptic strings connected to many places in the brain. Five different pieces of cortex come recurrently as those boss-hubs, hungry for differentiated data, as we process words. They are: inferior frontal cortex (iFC, so far most commonly associated with the linguistic function), superior temporal cortex (sTC), inferior parietal cortex (iPC), inferior and middle temporal cortex (m/iTC), and finally the anterior temporal cortex (aTC). The inferior frontal cortex (iFC) seems to engage in the processing of words related to action (walk, do etc.). The superior temporal cortex (sTC) looks like seriously involved when words related to sounds are being used. The inferior parietal cortex (iPC) activates as words connect to space, and spatio-temporal constructs. The inferior and middle temporal cortex (m/iTC) lights up when we process words connected to animals, tools, persons, colours, shapes, and emotions. That activation is category specific, i.e. inside m/iTC, different Christmas trees start blinking as different categories among those are being named and referred to semantically. The anterior temporal cortex (aTC), interestingly, has not been associated yet with any specific type of semantic connections, and still, when it is damaged, semantic processing in our brain is generally impaired.
All those areas of the brain have other functions, besides that semantic one, and generally speaking, the kind of meaning they process is correlated with the kind of other things they do. The interesting insight, at this point, is the polyvalence of cortical areas that we call ‘temporal’, thus involved in the perception of time. Physicists insist very strongly that time is largely a semantic construct of ours, i.e. time is what we think there is rather than what really is, out there. In physics, what exists is rather sequential a structure of reality (things happen in an order) than what we call time. That review of literature by Pulvermüller indirectly indicates that time is a piece of meaning that we attach to sounds, colours, emotions, animal and people. Sounds come as logical: they are sequences of acoustic waves. On the other hand, how is our perception of colours, or people, connected to our concept of time? This is a good one to ask, and a tough one to answer. What I would look for is recurrence. We identify persons as distinct ones as we interact with them recurrently. Autistic people have frequently that problem: when you put on a different jacket, they have hard time accepting you are the same person. Identification of animals or emotions could follow the same logic.
The article discusses another interesting issue: the more abstract the meaning is, the more different regions of the brain it engages. The really abstract ones, like ‘beauty’ or ‘freedom’, are super Christmas-trees: they provoke involvement all over the place. When we do abstraction, in our mind, for example when writing poetry (OK, just good poetry), we engage a substantial part of our brain. This is why we can be lost in our thoughts: those thoughts, when really abstract, are really energy-consuming, and they might require to shut down some other functions.
My personal understanding of the research reviewed by Pulvermüller is that at the neurological level, we process three essential types of meaning. One consists in finding our bearings in reality, thus in identifying things and people around, and in assigning emotions to them. It is something like a mapping function. Then, we need to do things, i.e. to take action, and that seems to be a different semantic function. Finally, we abstract, thus we connect distant parcels of data into something that has no direct counterpart neither in the mapped reality, nor in our actions.
I have an indirect insight, too. We have a neural wiring, right? We generate meaning with that wiring, right? Now, how is adaptation occurring, in that scheme, over time? Do we just adapt the meaning we make to the neural hardware we have, or is there a reciprocal kick, I mean from meaning to wiring? So far, neurological research has demonstrated that physical alteration in specific regions of the brain impacts semantic functions. Can it work the other way round, i.e. can recurrent change in semantics being processed alter the hardware we have between our ears? For example, as we process a lot of abstract concepts, like ‘taxes’ or ‘interest rate’, can our brains adapt from generation to generation, so as to minimize the gradient of energy expenditure as we shift between levels of abstraction? If we could, we would become more intelligent, i.e. able to handle larger and more differentiated sets of data in a shorter time.
How does all of this translate into collective intelligence? Firstly, there seem to be layers of such intelligence. We can be collectively smart sort of locally – and then we handle those more basic things, like group identity or networks of exchange – and then we can (possibly) become collectively smarter at more combinatorial a level, handling more abstract issues, like multilateral peace treaties or climate change. Moreover, the gradient of energy consumed, between the collective understanding of simple and basic things, on the one hand, and the overarching abstract issues, is a good predictor regarding the capacity of the given society to survive and thrive.
Once again, I am trying to associate this research in neurophysiology with my game-theoretical approach to energy markets. First of all, I recall the three theories of games, co-awarded the economic Nobel prize in 1994, namely those by: John Nash, John (Yan) Harsanyi, and Reinhard Selten. I start with the latter. Reinhard Selten claimed, and seems to have proven, that social games have a memory, and the presence of such memory is needed in order for us to be able to learn collectively through social games. You know those situations of tough talks, when the other person (or you) keeps bringing forth the same argumentation over and over again? This is an example of game without much memory, i.e. without much learning. In such a game we repeat the same move, like fish banging its head against the glass wall of an aquarium. Playing without memory is possible in just some games, e.g. tennis, or poker, if the opponent is not too tough. In other games, like chess, repeating the same move is not really possible. Such games force learning upon us.
Active use of memory requires combinatorial meaning. We need to know what is meaningful, in order to remember it as meaningful, and thus to consider it as valuable data for learning. The more combinatorial meaning is, inside a supposedly intelligent structure, such as our brain, the more energy-consuming that meaning is. Games played with memory and active learning could be more energy-consuming for our collective intelligence than games played without. Maybe that whole thing of electronics and digital technologies, so hungry of energy, is a way that we, collective human intelligence, put in place in order to learn more efficiently through our social games?
I am consistently delivering good, almost new science to my readers, and love doing it, and I am working on crowdfunding this activity of mine. As we talk business plans, I remind you that you can download, from the library of my blog, the business plan I prepared for my semi-scientific project Befund (and you can access the French version as well). You can also get a free e-copy of my book ‘Capitalism and Political Power’ You can support my research by donating directly, any amount you consider appropriate, to my PayPal account. You can also consider going to my Patreon page and become my patron. If you decide so, I will be grateful for suggesting me two things that Patreon suggests me to suggest you. Firstly, what kind of reward would you expect in exchange of supporting me? Secondly, what kind of phases would you like to see in the development of my research, and of the corresponding educational tools?
 Pierson, L. M., & Trout, M. (2017). What is consciousness for?. New Ideas in Psychology, 47, 62-71.
 Pulvermüller, F. (2013). How neurons make meaning: brain mechanisms for embodied and abstract-symbolic semantics. Trends in cognitive sciences, 17(9), 458-470.
 Patterson, K. et al. (2007) Where do you know what you know? The representation of semantic knowledge in the human brain. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 8, 976–987
 Bookheimer,S.(2002) FunctionalMRIoflanguage:newapproachesto understanding the cortical organization of semantic processing. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 25, 151–188
 Price, C.J. (2000) The anatomy of language: contributions from functional neuroimaging. J. Anat. 197, 335–359
 Binder, J.R. and Desai, R.H. (2011) The neurobiology of semantic memory. Trends Cogn. Sci. 15, 527–536