Perception, Language, Learning and Neural Stuff


Direct perception is the first line of teaching. Learning how to learn by seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling forms the basis of all subsequent learning. As learning becomes more abstract, fewer students can get over the hurdles of intellectually perceiving that which can not be directly experienced. The computer provides an excellent medium for the instruments of science which extend our senses to be used to provide experience directly to students. A much broader population of potential learners is available to the "direct experience" provided by the technologies of multimedia. Of course the present state of the art is limited to see and hear, but that is sufficient for many experiences.

If properly employed, computer technology is capable of providing direct experience to students at a fractions of the cost of real direct experience, for some things. For example a coil of wire, a nail, some iron filings and a battery is a far better way to experience magnetics than through a computer simulation. Two tin cans and a piece of string is a cheap way to learn the basics of sound and telephony. But to experience the force of the solar wind is tough to do without a computer. Likewise, landing a spacecraft on the moon is an ideal experience to convey through computer simulation.

The capability to couple see and hear experience to underlying logic and mathematics allows many complex concepts to be conveyed in much less time than is required for a professor standing in front of chalk board. However, the professor is the catalyst necessary for the student to go back and see what was being experienced and to dig down into the underlying ideas and concepts involved.

Teaching and Productivity

To the teacher, a computer is only as good as the productivity which it provides. To the manufacturer the educator is only as good as the product reference he gives. Manufacturers place computers in schools to be seen, the more visible and flashy the application the better. TV new coverage? ... even better. The teacher sees diversions that break the line of concentration that the student is pursuing. Even in textbooks we see the conflict between the content that is good to teach from and the content that appeals to the legislators and their constituents that will approve the textbooks. A textbook that teaches well will not get approved. The textbook that gets approved won't teach.

The primary employees of computer related manufacturing companies on campus are sales and marketing people. The ones who need to be there are the research and product planning people. Schools in general and Universities in particular are in the knowledge business. The computer industry has considered themselves in the information business, but they are reaching the limits of information technology.

Information Explosion / Knowledge Compression

Knowledge, is the pure essence of information. Information is exploding. Knowledge compresses. Each breakthrough in science and math involves the merging of previously disparate events of conditions and merges them into a more unified, i.e. compressed form. Each new theory produces a shorter book. The old triple integral differential equations of Maxwell, as taught a hundred years ago, is now a few pages of vector equations. The old stuff gets compressed to make room for the new stuff. You can still only cover so much material in a one semester course.

Language and Knowledge

A hot area of development in the computer software industry is the search engine. Today, most search engines are sophisticated forms of keyword searches. This was the very latest technology thirty years ago. Now it has hit the wall. Searches are now being augmented with antonym and diverted with homonyms. As stated by ??? in the May issue of Wired magazine, a search for "film" misses all of the references to "movies" but includes the reference to "oil film".

To extract knowledge from text based data bases one must address the issue of language. What do the words mean. More specifically, what did the originator of the words mean.


A second for Michel Foucault. (I always remember the name of the first of his books that I read as " The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Knowledge". It is actually ...An Archaeology of Human Sciences", he wrote "The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language" the next year, 1971) His books such as "Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison" and "Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason" are studies centered on what people meant by the words they used. He studies their actions through the writings of the period and deduces from their actions what their words meant. He shows that some basic concepts such as "madness" and "sickness" and "education" have changed significantly in the past several hundred years. Implicit in Foucault, is the premise that the meaning in language is determined by the speaker/writer, not by some fundamental nature of the language itself. His concept of discourse, I like to extend to dialogue.

The conversation between two people, or student and teacher, always has the question of "what do you mean by that". This is the condition that allows a teacher to be effective. This question lets the teacher rephrase the statement into language which is appropriate to the student. This is the condition which limits class size.

Choosing Outfits

I can't remember who told this story, but last week one of my friends was relating a story about a teacher who was teaching computers to junior high students. His approach was to use the quicker students to work with the slower students. He had over heard two girls in dialog about how to configure a computer. Both girls were friends and there was no overtone of who was quicker or slower in their conversation. Just a conversation between two friends, one trying to relate to the others need to understand a fundamental concept. Rather than talking in terms of computer hardware and logic, the discussion was about outfits and logic. The girl trying to explain was saying "it's simple, it's just like choosing an outfit... you can't use a green leather purse with red, patent leather shoes!" (or something like that). The second girl quickly grasp the logic when it was expressed in terms which she understood.

Art, Science and Commerce

The dialog which needs to take place is between university researchers who know what the next generation of knowledge products needs to do and the product planners and industry researchers who are responsible for implementing these products. These are groups who don't normally converse. Industry researchers talk to people in the Computer Science Department but not people in the Humanities Department, or the Zoology Department, or the Music Department, or the Art History Department, or the Anthropology Department. Engineering, Science and Math departments have traditionally supplied the workforce for the computer industry, so they have had better communication with it.

Independent / Dependent

Manufacturers of computers have their own agenda when helping educational institutions adopt and adapt to computers. To them, dependency on their product is an attribute to be pursued, while to the institution, the opposite case should be pursued. No one wants to hire an employee who is dependent on the computer adopted by their employee's alma mater. An educational institution seeks to educate, to convey knowledge to, to render graduates capable of independent thinking, and independent action.

The University and Business

But all of the departments of the university are now deeply into the use of computers. And some natural sciences departments, may have significant methodologies and techniques already developed that could speed the development on revolutionary new products. If you want build a machine to fly you have to talk to people who study animals that fly. If you want to build a machine to think you need to talk to people who study animals that think.

What Computers Can't Do Yet

Some marketing people think that the computer should be used for everything. Many thinking people know there are tasks for which no computer has yet been developed. Some of these people may hold the key to the future. An opportunity exists for corporate product planners to gain access to fundamental new ideas which are being investigated and expanded on campuses today, but not in the traditional departments which they have talked with before. This is a new set of professors, many of whom have not been concerned with the interests of commerce and industry.

One point is important to remember. Ideas are not patentable. Only the embodiment of the idea is patentable. The ideas will be available to everyone, first come, first served.

Speech and Neural Systems

An article today (April 11, 1996) in the Austin American Statesman with an L. A. Times byline by Robert Lee Hotz was headlined "Scientists say they've found how the brain uses words, ideas. Apparently, it is based on an article in the issue of Nature magazine published today.

The researchers are from the University of Iowa College of Medicine and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. The group at Iowa was led by Hanna and Antonio Damasio. To quote: "The findings constitute physical evidence of what experts say is a remarkably complex neural system that underlies even the most common everyday speech.

The researchers said the interactive networks "do not contain in explicit form the name for all persons, animals or tools. We suggest instead they hold the knowledge of how to reconstruct a certain pattern," such as the smallest phonetic units in a language capable of conveying a distinction in meaning like the 'm' of 'mat' and the 'b' of 'bat' in English. "It is not true that you have a central dictionary in the brain', Antonio Damasio said. "Depending on the kind of concept you are dealing with, what you have in the brain is a dictionary access arrangement.

The thing that is even more intriguing is that when you come up with words that correspond to different concepts, the parts of the brain that are involved turn out to be different themselves. "What we are suggesting is that this is extremely dynamic and linked to each individuals experience," he said. "Our knowledge is built on bits and pieces of many aspects of a given thing - shape, color, movement, taste - those things are not going to be laid down in one single place." he said.

Bill Bottorff,
April 9, 1996

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