Wednesday, June 22, 2016


The Triune brain, a visualization of the evolution of the human brain. Illustration by Joe Scordo for Hidden Scents: The Language of Smell in the Age of Approximation

Parts of the primate brain are made to deal with any potential situation. The way these highly adaptive brain parts work are by using recurrent loops that interfere with each other, in what is being called a “reservoir” network.

Perhaps we see headlines written like this because artificial intelligence work is typically performed by first predicting all potential situations (that is, until recently, with the advent of ‘deep learning’ techniques). In other words, the idea that a brain, or part of a brain, is designed to deal not with predictable situations but novel ones, is counter to this prevailing predictive technique.

I’d like to make a link here between this adaptive behavior and the fact that our sense of smell is not pre-coded but a blank slate. We do not have pre-existing preferences for smells, and the pattern of olfactory receptors in the nose seem to have no discernable pattern whatsoever because they're meant to learn anew for every creature and for every situation. This is because the way we interact with our organic environment is so complex, there can’t be a set of rules that work for every potential situation.

Smell is part of the mammal brain, and not rational thinking is part of the human brain. (Note that the mammal brain is not the same as the primate brain, which is only used as a term here to disambiguate it from the human brain…semantics!) Granted, primates have a prefrontal cortex too, and we have learned that there is not as much difference as once thought between humans’ and other animals’ brains. Nonetheless, smell is the animal inside us, and a link to our evolutionary past, and to a world much less predictable than the one we inhabit today.

Post Script, Jun 2016

No comments:

Post a Comment