Human Potential

September 2010


Most humans agree that that sheer survival is not the only thing that matters to them, in a fundamental way, in their lives or in the lives of others. If we asked a highly intelligent computer to analyze how we could maximize the sheer number of humans alive on earth, it would probably describe a scenario in which humans are wired up in little boxes, which they never move from, connected to the bare minimum needed to keep them alive. Most of us agree that this is not what we want. What good would it be to have a trillion humans on earth, if those humans ended up being semiconscious robots, similar to the old image of “the Borg” in Star Trek? Nevertheless, when decision makers implicitly measure progress only in terms of survival or numbers of people or GNP, they move the world towards that kind of “ideal.” There has in fact been motion in that direction in the world in this century – making it all the more important that we pay explicit attention to other dimensions of human life. Of course, if we all die, that will not do us much good either; we need to be able to think hard about survival, as something necessary, but we have to make sure than the human quality of life or human potential enters into our focused strategic thinking as well.

          But how do we do this? What does really matter, above and beyond sheer survival? How could we create the kind of dialogue which makes it possible for people to discuss such issues, and make some kind of progress in keeping them on the table and doing justice to them?


2011: Neural Networks As a Path to Self-Awareness (draft), Proc. of the International

Joint Conference on Neural Networks, IJCNN2011, IEEE.


          Most people on earth depend on a set of beliefs, expressed in words, which include a strong commitment to a particular religion which, it says, tells us what is really important in human life, above and beyond sheer mundane survival. Certainly there are some modern people who have no respect for such beliefs, and would be quite happy to ignore and trample on what most people believe is most important. That tendency causes counter-reactions, and comes back to threaten everyone’s survival. Survival itself demands that we have a deeper dialogue on these issues.

Click here to see slides I presented in 2008 in the World Dialogue of Civilizations.

          Therefore – in writing this web page, I began with a discussion of the world’s major religions, one by one, trying to pull out what is most fundamental and true, versus the dangerous barnacles caused by power-seekers and naivete and such. My underlying assumption has been that these huge human cultures, evolving over centuries, express a lot of valid human experience and wisdom and valid “revelation,” but have also been marred by the persistent presence of human foibles as well. I also inserted a bare bones version of what I believe – how to reconcile a scientific viewpoint with the realities of direct human experience expressed in human religion and culture and in my own experience.

          Here I will carry this further.

          Not only my beliefs, but my decision to study the human mind scientifically, have their roots in a stream of personal experience and thoughts about ethics, which Bob Krone invited me to describe in a chapter for one of his books.

          At the end of the day, after we analyze what we believe from religion and philsophy and science and life experience, we still face the basic question of ethics: which way is up? What is the path forwards to becoming “better people,” to better expressing our human potential, to “be all we can be”? To live up to our fullest most important capabilities and our deepest duties?

          Based on what I have learned, I think of human potential as a kind of “two step” process (though the two steps actually occur in parallel to varying degrees).

There is mundane human potential – developing the full potential of our bodies and brains, living in the mundane world. There is the ladder of progress from there to the full expression of something I think of as “cosmic consciousness.” Can we make room for both in human society? At all levels, from young childhood to old age?

(Years ago, trying to make it real for young children, I was happy to help in the founding of a new Quaker elementary school, which really tried to make good on full development of “mind, body and soul” – and faced some age-old challenges while doing do. The course on conflict resolution and the meditation exercises form around the world helped, as well as efforts to enrich the Meeting experience.)

          For the first stage, I have mainly stressed the need for “sanity,” the transition to telling the truth to ourselves, which is the main overarching theme in my web page on the scientific study of the mind. Of course, Confucius got there first, and I always try to give credit to him and to Freud, even though modern science lets us understand the underlying principles better than we could in the old days.

          We all know that there are many people who dream of consmic consciousness or salvation or getting to heaven who never really get anywhere, because they basically just go crazy. The intense emotions and complex realities are more than they can really cope with. The fall into believing whatever is convenient for them to believe, whether true or false, or just plain beautiful fantasy. There are many paths up the mountain, but a heavy dose of sanity may be the best starting point. As I look around me, both at physics and at religion, let alone politics, I believe that we would all be doing better if we paid more attention to the discipline of sanity, earlier in the game and more persistently. (Certainly florid delusions without any real foundation are common both in physics and in religion these days.)

          However – mundane human potential, full development of the brain, involves more than just Confucian-style sanity. In that sense, my web page on scientific psychology may create the wrong impression. If you look at it more closely – there are actually three big types of “sanity,” four basic challenges to the normal, fundamental workings of a brain which is physically healthy:


1.     “Semiotic sanity” or “integrity,” the issue stressed on the mind web page, in my own earlier personal experience, and in the earlier version of this web page. This challenge is unique to humans, among animals on earth, because only humans depend on words and symbolic reasoning enough to get them in trouble. Not only words but mathematicas are a crucial part of this, because we cannot be fully self-aware unless we know enough mathematics to express certain aspects of our selves which cannot be expressed clearly without it. How can we be fully aware of the “cosmic within us” if we cannot even be fully aware of the mouse within us? As I type this, I am also rewriting a book chapter on “strategic thinking” for a book on leadership in Science and Technology, edited by William Bainbridge, which has some bearing on this.


2.     “Memory sanity” – an issue stressed by Freud. Because of a brain mechanism which I call “syncretism” (see pages 17 and 18 of a recent talk to mathematicians), human feelings and behavior can be warped or aberrated by undigested traumatic or euphoric experience. Note the word “undigested”! All healthy humans open themselves up to new experiences and memories, which are not digested immediately. To “digest” a memory means expanding our global understanding of how life works, so that a memory which previously seemed like an anomaly can now be understood. Freudian psychiatrists know that reliving a traumatic memory before we are able to digest it can actually make a mental condition worse. An expanded global understanding of reality is therefore crucial to greater sanity in this sense. Memory sanity is relevant to all mammals, and perhaps even to all vertebrates.


3.     “Empathy sanity.” I am adding this as I type… because it really is fundamental. It is the twin of semiotic sanity. It is a matter of using and being aware of a fundamental capability/machinery of the human brain not shared by mice, but monkeys do share it. Humans and monkeys both possess “mirror neurons,” which allow them to “import” the experience of other people and learn from them as if it were their own experience. This defines the very database that syncretism works from, that our learned emotions and expectations are grounded in. Even in the analysis of dreams, I claim that humans work from that expanded database, and that this is crucial to the correct analysis of dreams.


4.     “Caution sanity.” This is perhaps the most problematic of the four, as it represents a kind of outer limit which no humans ever escape. It is related to technical issues in “discount factors” and “penalty functions,” which some of us understand very well as challenges to intelligent systems, but require more research. (PERHAPS I will have some new mathematical research to report on this within a few years, if bureaucracy and barnacles do not prevent it.)


Because caution sanity is especially tricky, I will say a bit more about it before getting back to larger issues.

          As an example – mammal brains have evolved to maximize some measure of the ultimate outcome of their lives. In economics, this would translate into something like a zero interest rate in evaluating the future. (In the journal Energy, in 1990, I have a long article discussing how to translate this basic ethical concept into more workable economics.) But if we try to follow up on that concept, we run into a practical problem. We cannot actually look ahead to the future millions of years with any accuracy at all. If we try, without knowledge, we can get lost in all kinds of unreal speculation. We can thrash around in a way which doesn’t lead to real progress, even with respect to the goal of making life better over the next million years. Even if our brains and our information sources could let us “see” centuries ahead in a useful way, we could achieve that vision more easily by pushing forward from where we are today (or working back gradually from posisble outcome states).

          Basically, the brain has hard-wired damping mechanisms which allow us to account for uncertainty – to detect when we are on thin ice in our thoughts – and to expand our zone of understanding effectively without wasteful thrashing. (Heidegger would call this expanding the “Being”.) How to do this without losing the fundamental, larger goals is a great challenge for those designing minds, and for those understanding and using them. The larger the “Being” space, the more challenging the boundary conditions may become. This is certainly an issue for higher intelligence as well.

          Of course, psychologists have developed lots and lots of taxonomies for human development, which try to account for everything from diverse expereince to physical brian damage to genetic diversity, from knowing specific dates in history to more basic capabilities of the mind. Those specifics are important. Still, it helps to understand the underlying “machinery,” which Piaget calls the levels of “accomodation and assimilation,” underlying all that complex emergent behavior.

          What about fostering the further steps, from full mundane sanity (and physical health?) to “cosmic consciousness,” the full expression of the true spiritual side of human existence?

          That seems rather challenging in today’s society. Today’s society understands how abhorrent, unnatural and even evil it was when ancient Chinese would tie up the feet of young girls, so that they would never grow and the women could never walk. But so many religions today – as corrupt as those who sought to control women by violating nature and weakening humanity – do the same to the souls of all those they claim to teach to. At the same time, similar narrowness and intolerance in science has also caused problems which I discussed at the start of this essay. The first steps out of that mess, in my view, are: (1) greater cultivation of mundane sanity, which, in my view, should be enough to bring any intelligent human to the kind of evolution I have seen myself ; (2) development of the kind of dialogue on earth – both mundane and spiritual – which makes room for just enough reconciliation of science and spirit, to empower more of us to go further, even without universal consensus. (Of course, the United States itself was founded based on the goal of achieving exactly that kind of empowerment of humans.)

          But even that is only a beginning. The follow-up is extremely rich and important. I have tried to scatter hints and guidance related to later stages all throughout these web pages… but as I type, today, the time is not yet right to say a lot more. Perhaps the time would be right for a new kind of school for adults in this area.. perhaps even using some of the same symbols I use in discussing the underlying science. But how? And how to overcome the problems which have limited the great schools of the past? Another time…



Additional comments on memory sanity:


Some people, like scientologists, have imagined that the ideal state of mind is a “clear” state where people’s behavior and expectations are not perturbed at all by emotionally charged memories, either traumatic or euphoric. Of course, it is natural and good to try to digest such memories, to become more clear in that way. But it is equally natural to try to grow in understanding, by adding new memories to the pot. The natural state of growth is a process in which older memories are better understood and digested, but important and exciting new memories are added – memoreis which, by being important and novel, may present new challenges to understanding and mental digestion.

When people stay “clear” by creating a barrier to new experience, that becomes a typical problem in itself.


This dynamic has an interesting relation to the work of the psychologist Valiant of Harvard. Valiant has done a fascinating study of the lives of Harvard graduates, teasing out which factors in their psychology led to happiness and success or unhappiness in later life, going by each person’s own ideals of happiness and success. The factors he studied were “defense mechanisms” – the mental strategies people use to cope with painful experiences. Of course, painful experiences and traumatic memories are almost the same. Denial and repression of traumatic memory was one of the defense mechanisms which led most to failure and unhappines. (You could say that the trauma was not “cleared.”) But blocking new experience which doesn’t fit one’s present global model is just as bad.


One of the most positive and successful defense mechanisms was “postponement.” This doesn’t mean postponing one’s work – though of course there are times when one should respond to problematic

new or emails by “sleeping on it” first, or by building up resourtces first before tackling the problem head-on. In Valiant’s context – there are times when one simply is not yet able to digest or understand a painful experience or situation clearly; instead of repressing it or denying its importance, one can put it on a kind of inner “list” of things to try to get back to and to try to deal with, but not immediately. Notice that these last two sentences basically represent the same strategic principle, one in dealing with the outer world and one in dealing with oneself. 


Speaking of Harvard – Ellen Langer’s work on “mindfulness” is also very consistent with what I see in the mathematical models.


It’s important to understand that there are different levels of understanding here of what goes on in the brain. Long ago, Piaget distinguished between three levels of understanding of human development:

(1) the deep level of “assimilation and accomodation,” understanding the underlying universal dynamics, analogous to Newton’s Laws, which govern the mind; (2) the level of “stages,” which Piaget himself emphasized – the study of major visible trends and changes in human development; (3) a very practical level, which is very real but so diverse and complicated one can never reach full closure on it. It’s important to understand that these three levels support and enrich each other, just as physics and chemistry can enrich each other. In my intellectual work, I have mainly focused on the deep level, but have also tried to make more connection to the others, seeing that enrichment, and also (since 1971) to explore higher dimensions of human potential building on that deep level as well as empirical inputs as a foundation.


Freud himself also began with the deep level, in studying neurons and flows of information at the neuronal level. But that goes beyond the scope of this essay. It is a key part of the history of backpropagation, which I have discussed elsewhere.