Knowledge in whose brains?

Just recently I ran into a text stating (yet again) that knowledge can only be found inside (human) brains.
While experts in the field of artificial intelligence are working hard in hopes of disproving that statement, I have trouble accepting it at all.

Brains contain more than ‘just’ knowledge. Or not?

Which part of the stuff we store in our brains constitutes knowledge? Our senses receive loads of data to store in our brains. A lot of these data are frankly ‘noise’, things we see but which our brain more or less successfully tunes out for being irrelevant. It’s like a huge spam filter in our heads. By the way, this filter may help to explain things like:

  •  Why do some people in cities seem indifferent or oblivious to most of what’s going on around them?
  •  Why do people who visit a busy city for the first time look dazed and move (too) slowly? Hmm. How do you decide what is noise that can be safely tuned out?
  •  Why do people not notice friends in the street? If you get a lot of remarks from your friends “didn’t you see me across the street, I waved and yelled” then you’re probably better than average at tuning out other people as though they’re so many trees. Or you were checking your phone of course.

Absorbing information and turning it into knowledge?

At school, this natural spam filter means any new information needs to prove its relevance before it’s admitted to your permanent storage.

  • For new languages, it means that if you need to learn a list of new words, checking them twice just before a test may mean you pass the test. A week or so later most of us will have forgotten those words. A tip on Quora was to repeat learning them every day for a week. The seventh time round (well, more or less) something happens. Your brain decides – apparently on the basis of that repetition – that this information is part of your daily routine so it must be stored efficiently. When next your temporary storage space is emptied, the information is still somewhere else in your brain.
  • For quite a few subjects, it means that you need to find out where and how the new information fits in with things you are familiar with already. That may mean you need to repeat the 200 or so words you learned previously just to allow your brain to make new connections between them and arranging them neatly.

So you end up with a ‘body of knowledge’. Or do you?

At this point, all you’ve done is storing information. Which is an important skill. But also a rather basic one. Under the right circumstances, even ducklings will store vital information after a couple of repetitions. Allow me to explain.

A duck’s life

We live near a small lake (or a big pond) with quite a lot of ducks. Nearly every early summer, a blue heron will go from eating fish to eating every fuzzy duckling that swims unwittingly into his reach and even stalking duck mothers with their little ones.

A few years ago, two ducklings survived out of a nest of ten. Their mother had forsaken them when there were about four ducklings left. By that time we’d already saved one of them by scaring the heron into dropping the duckling he’d just grabbed.

Having your siblings snatched out of the water just two (human) feet away from you will, at some point, even impress a fuzzy little duckling. The two ducklings that lived long enough to outgrow the danger of turning into a heron’s lunch were very wary of anything that came too near or hovered over them! They’d swim out of reach then turn and eye any passer-by keenly (in case you’d brought anything edible).

Out of those two, one turned into a young duck mum who managed to keep at least four of her ducklings alive the first year. Whenever she spotted anything suspicious she’d send her little ones deep into the reed beds to hide.

So ducks can store information in their brains…
Or is this knowledge?
And how can you tell the difference?

(We didn’t actually tag the duckling in order to recognize her later on. She just developed a rather annoying way of quacking. A loud, non-stop, monotonous series which doesn’t indicate whether the merciful end to the racket is getting near yet. Her mum would have taught her differently I suppose.)

Knowledge transfer among ducks?

A lack of words and the skill to talk about things that are not actually present probably means this vital knowledge doesn’t get passed down to the next generation unless there is indeed a heron lying in wait every year. Plus, it’s quite possible that as the years go by without personal danger to our now more experienced duck mother, the importance of being careful may fade. Does the novelty of having 10 ducklings wear off after a couple of years?

The transfer of (seemingly irrelevant) knowledge is tricky even if you’re not human.
So a final word of advice to my duckling readership:

Don’t go near the heron.

What’s a heron? Oh, here we go…


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