Neuroscience and Karma ► 09. Knowing, Learning, Memory, Intelligence

Posted: 05.07.2015

0. Jain Epistemology I

A. Consciousness is Knowledge

The Jain theory of knowledge, in its basic form, is closely related to and presupposed by the Jain doctrine of karman which forms the very basis of Jain ethies. Consciousness is the characteristic attribute of ail living organisms because each of them is a composite product of a body and a soul. As we have already seen, physical body, by itself, is an inanimate object, its animation is derived by the virtue of being intimately associated with the soul through citta[1] The soul is inherently capable of knowing all things with all their attributes - past, present and future. But this capacity is obscured in its worldly state of existence by knowledge-obscuring (jñānāvarṇīya) karman, and will depend upon the nature and extent of the removal/subsidence of this karman. Persistent endeavour in the form of repeated reciting etc. is believed to be one of the techniques for destruction-cum-subsidence of the this karman, thus leading to intellectual development.

B. Jñānāvarṇa Karman

The knowledge is inherent in the soul. In the pure and perfect state, the soul has infmiteness of knowledge (kevala jñāna). It does not shine fully because there is karmic matter to veil it. The knowledge is perfect when this veil is totally destroyed. It is imperfect when there is only partial removal and subsidence of karmic matter. Absence of knowledge is unnatural to soul even as darkness is foreign to the sun. It is the clouds of the karmic matter that obfuscate the innate knowledge of the soul.

There are five categories of knowledge and hence there are five sub-types of the knowledge-obscuring karman that veils them. Of the five types of knowledge,

  1. Mati-jnana (perceptual) and
  2. Śruta-jnana (verbal/scriptual) are born with the help of sense-organs, brain and mind.
  3. Avdhi-jñāna (clairvoyance),
  4. Manaḥparyāya-jñāna (cognition of mental modes)
  5. Kevala-jñāna (pure and perfect knowledge)

are independent of all physical assistance.

In this book, we are mainly concerned with the first two types. It should be remembered ihat the sense-organs are only external instruments, the different states of the soul being the internal i.e. the spiritual counterparts of them.

C. Mati-jnana (Perceptual Cognition)

This is developed in four stages, viz. (i) avagraha (perception), (ii) ihā (enquiry), (iii) avāya (perceptual judgement) and (iv) dhāraṇā (retention).

Avagraha, itself, is two stepped - arthāvgraha followed by vyañjanāvgraha. The former is the contact of the sense-data with the sense-organs, while the latter is indeterminate cognition of the object.[2] It is indeterminate because the distinctive characteristics are not yet cognized. Enquiry (ihā) which follows the avagraha strives or inquires for some particular characteristics and having found them results in a determinate cognition. For instance, in the first stage, a person simply cognizies the general existence of a sound, while in the second, he cognizies the nature of the sound also. Avaya (or apāya) is ascertainment of the right and exclusion of the wrong and ends with a determinate judgement. In the case of a sound, one determines that the sound must be that of telephone-bell and not that of the door-bell. The last stage is dhāraṇā which means retention of the perceptual judgement. It is threefold: (i) final determination of the object which includes the condition of non-oblivion in future (ii) resultant emergence of mental trace and (iii) the recollection of it again in future (memory).

D. Śruta-jnana (Verbal/Scriptural Knowledge)

Śruta which originally meant 'scripture' gradually came to mean any symbol, written or spoken, and finally was even identified with inarticulate knowledge. Both mati and Śruta are the results of partial removal and subsidence of karmic matter veiling the innate faculty of the soul. A soul could never be bereft of mati and Śruta. Even the one-sensed organisms, e.g. plants (vegetable kingdom) are held to be possessed of both these categories. To be bereft of these is to lose the nature of soul and become a non-soul. It is admitted that one-sensed organisms have neither the tongue to speak nor the ear to listen nor have they any symbol of their own. But, nevertheless they are capable of potential verbal knowledge.

Mati and Śruta are thus very much interdependent and it is difficult to separate them. In brief, we can say that perceptual knowledge that is due to the activity of sense-organ(s) is mati and when it is capable of expressing to others, in some manner, it becomes Śruta. The versatile knowledge of the objects of perception whose versatility is in proportion to the learnedness of the cognizer is Śruta-jnana.

It is not difficult to see that Jains recognize the words as well as other symbols such as physical gestures as Śruta. Thus there is akṣarśruta which comprises the shape of the letter (script), the sound of the letter (spoken letter) and its conventional meaning. On the other hand, there is anakṣarśruta comprised of physical gestures.

As stated above, mati and Śruta are dependent upon the help of various external organs. The other three categories, which are completely free from the dependence upon external instruments, are direct apprehension of truth and reality by the soul. Distance, spatial or temporal, is not a hindrance on the capacity of the soul to know. The question of physical contact or limited distance or size comes in only when the inherent capacity is limited. And the delimitation, even, is not ultimately due to some extraneous condition. It is due to the soul itself which has acquired the karmic veil by its own activity. It has also the ability to remove the karmic veil which can be partly or totally removed.

Scientific Epistemology


1. Knowledge in the Brain

Can the brain be said to contain knowledge? Do we know a given fact all the time or only when asked about it? The concept of memory-records in the brain helps us to reconcile diverse uses of the concept of 'knowing', such as - 'knowing that' and knowing how'. Just as knowledge can be recorded in books or in computers, so knowledge of different sorts is encoded in the brain all the time. We shall now try to find out how it is written there and how the record is consulted when we think.

(a) Thinking

Is thinking only a form of problem-solving? Actually it covers all forms of consciousness, awareness, with and without perception. Without perception, it is an internal questioning process i.e. testing hypotheses. If the store of information that we call knowledge is in the brain, then thinking involves the process by which some items are temporarily called from the store and used to solve a problem, perhaps only the simple one of identifying what is being heard—a telephone bell or an alarm clock?

(b) Daily Run of Thoughts

Throughout the day, we think a series of thoughts, one at a time. They may be aroused by stimulation from outside or by the internal operations of the brain. The thoughts that are thus called up may be visual or auditory or perhaps of a smell, taste or touch. They need not be verbal, though often they are. So a succession of thoughts follow a program, that is recorded in our brain as a combined product of heredity, karman, the custom of our tribe and our individual experience. Thus, all the thinking depends upon the organization and activity of materials stored in the brain. Without a brain, there is no thought. It is easy to conclude that the natural programs for thinking are those that run every day to promote one's life in his culture. He will, of course, use the methods, verbal and otherwise, that have been learned by virtue of inheritance of human capabilities and the environment. As stated earlier, the versatility of such program stored in his brain will be proportionate to his learnedness. 2. Learning and Remembering

(a) Learning

Learning is one of the processes by which programs are written in the brain. We learn because we are provided by heredity with programs that enable us to do so. These inborn mechanisms are not infinitely powerful, i.e. we cannot learn any thing or every thing. The power to learn will obviously vary between individuals and there may be limits, determined by everybody's karman, to what it is possible for any person to learn. We can say that a brain is not a general-purpose computer into which any information can be placed. It is more like one that already has a system of programs within it. The information at each point of a computer-memory is determined wholly by the programmer (though some computers include programs for search of the environment). Information can be added to the store and it can be totally erased and replaced by quite different information. Obviously, brains are not like this. Can you imagine total erasure of all the information in your head and its replacement? The memory of a person or animal is something that is constructed and grows as a result of a unique series of experiences and actions from conception onwards. It can be added to, but never wholly remade. Indeed, its very existence is only possible as part of that program of events that we call a lifetime.

(b) Remembering - What is memory?

Memory is man's record of experience. The ability to remember is essential to human personality uniting his past and present and creating a continuing sense of identity. And by drawing on the past, he prepares for the future. Thus memories are action systems that allow for the setting up of programs of action effective for survival. In human memory, there are two interrelated components, parts or systems known as short-term and long-term memory.

Before an event can be stored in the memory, it must be experienced. Short-term memory retains information long enough for the mind to grasp it and it stores an average of seven items (the length of a telephone number) at a time and erases older items as new ones are added. If one wants to retain an item for a longer time, he must rehearse it and transfer it to long-term memory. Are they two independent systems of memory or are they some how interconnected? We shall see this in the next section.

3. Engrains - Stable Memory Records

Long-term memory records must, surely, involve some physical change, for records of single events can remain for up to 100 years in man. Cyclic activity could not last for even a fraction of this time without becoming distotred. Moreover, procedures such as shock or anaesthesia do not disrupt such records. Nature of this change remains a matter or speculation and many theories have been advanced including the following three which are worth examining:

  1. a change of standing pattern of activity
  2. a change of some specific chemical molecules such as those of RNA
  3. a change in the pathways, themsleves, between neurons within the nervous system.

(1) In Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb's view, short-term memory is an active or dynamic memory: Sight or sound sets off a pattern of nerve-impulses in the brain. They circle a closed loop of connected neurons, just long enough for the brain to perceive it. This will, them, fade away unless, by some process of consolidation, more permanent structural trace is made. This structural trace, called Engram, would correspond to long-term memory. If the nerve impulses circle their selected pathways long enough, they could leave behind an indelible memory-record and thus convert the short-term into long-term memories.

(2) The hypothesis that memory has a chemical base is popular with biochemists. According to this theory, memory is coded in proteins or chains of molecules. A new protein called scotophobin was found in laboratory animals by Georges Ungar in 1970. But there have been no convincing experiment So prove that specific chemical molecules are involved in memory.

(3) The most influential theory and main basis for stable memory-records, again by Hebb, is that memories are fixed in the nerve pathways themselves. Everything known about the nervous system suggests that its coding depends upon the use of quite numerous distinct channels, each carrying a slightly different feature of the information. New behavior is, therefore, likely to be the result of new connections, not of the formation of specific molecules. Majority of neuroscientists believe that selection of pathways is the basis for the memory mechanism. Hebb suggested self-re-exciting chains, that is, the continuous flow of nerve-impulses along a pathway or loop alters the synaptic connections in some way. When the activity dies down, the new connections remain, creating a nerve network that stores a specific memory. Activating one or two neurons in the chain will tend to trigger the others and thereby bring the memory back to mind. Yet there is really no single piece of hard evidence for this belief. Electron-microscopy has brought the possibility of visualizing changed synapses, and hence of changed connections but has revealed that there are so many synapses on each cell that looking for those changed by learning is worse than trying to find the needle in a haystack. The concept of a distinction between short-and-long-term memory has been used extensively by neurologists and psychologists. Its validity is strongly indicated by the results of surgical removal of tissue of the temporal lobes and hippocampus of the brain for the relief of epilepsy. After removal of the hippocampus on both sides there has been found to be a very severe impairment of the capacity to set up long-lasting information stores, short-term memory remaining normal.

4. Categories of Memory

Two categories of memory are: memory for skills and memory for events. A study of the course of acquiring a skill, say to type or to play a musical instrument, reveals that at first, there is little progress. Then there is advance by jumps to new plateau of achievement and finally achievement of apparently unbelievable feats.

All animal memories can be considered as stored information for the performance of skills. Humans also have the facility to recall single events that occurred both recently and long ago. Capacity to do this may be one of our unique features. In order to find out what the memory system of the brain is like, it is probably wiser to begin by studying the memory for skills rather than events. This, of course, does not mean that the two sorts of memory are unrelated.

5. Strategies of Memorizing

Before we can find out how long-lasting memories are built up, we must discover how they are related to the basic programs for activity-strategies that have been growing in the brain since childhood. There is probably no discontinuity between acquisition of the earliest social skills and the memorizing of information by an adult. The mature memorizer transforms the information to give it meaning.

Re-coding for Memory

Psychologists are actively engaged in trying to discover the systems that are used to register information. One suggestion is that each unit to be remembered is accompanied by some ancillary information that acts as a retrieval cue. An example of such cues would be 'time tags' or 'place tags' - 'when did I hear that name?' or 'where did I hear it 7. It has been realized that storage depends greatly on meaning and on relating new information. The model may be formed by removal of unwanted material, leaving relevant connections.

All these may illustrate the richness, difficulty, and importance of work on the human memory system. The long-term store can perhaps at present best be described as 'a single semantic abstract memory system which contains both linguistic and pictorial information and which can be accessed equally well by words or pictures'. One might add 'or by any sounds, smells or tastes, or by touches or pains'. Blind and deaf people still have memories. Whatever system is involved must have a large component of association, whether between sights or sounds or meaning or emotional feelings.

6. Forgetting

If learning involves the formation of new connections, how does it come about that we forget? The easiest answer is that we don´t. Perhaps once something has passed into long-term memory, at least part of its effect may be there for ever. Early influences in childhood remain with us, at least to some extent and psycho-analysts will say that there are many buried 'unconscious' memories that can yet be recalled. It is quite likely that what we call 'forgetting' is, in fact, the interference of subsequent learning. It is assumed that 'memory traces' show some exponential decay with time, perhaps due to quasi-random neural activity, but there is little physiological basis for this.

The value of forgetting might not seem as important as that of remembering, but "if we remember everything, we should be as ill as if we remembered nothing" said William James. Aside from rare cases, forgetting is commonplace. Without this ability, our mind would be cluttered with useless trivial matter.

7. Prodigies of Memory

There are great variations between individuals in capacity to remember, and a few people have memories that seem quite fantastic. People with 'iconic memories' can study a page for a few moments and then recite everything written there. These people seem to have a literally photographic memory. This faculty is somewhat disturbing to our scheme for understanding the brain model as a semantically organized system.

Other memorizers report that they do, in fact, use programs that involve meaning. In his study, The Mind of a Mnemonist, Soviet psychologist A. R. Luria (1968) records that his subject memorized strings of items, even of nonsense, by placing each of them in some spot on a walk he would conduct in his head around a familiar place. As he walked, he would distribute the items around landmarks. He might place a pencil near a fence, a banner on a building, a shoe in a window. He could then recall them several years later. He evidently had some special freak of brain structure or activity that gave him the capacity to use place codes in far greater detail than is normal.

What we do in memorizing is to add to our set of programs of suitable actions. When we say that something becomes a symbol, we mean that it has acquired significance. Human beings have the power to continue to learn the symbolic significance of external signals, even when they are adult.

Avadhāna Vidyā (The Art of Memory Miracles)

In India, the faculty of memorising was very highly developed in pre-writing era. AH the treasures of scriptural and scholarly knowledge had to be preserved only in memory, handed down from generation to generation. This necessitated the development of a technique called "Avadhāna Vidyā" for achieving long lasting memory and faithful recollection whenever needed. The technique consisted of mainly associating the perceived object or word with another similar but more familia rand easily memorised object or thought. Concentration of mind, versatility of imagination and stability of intellect are three essential constituents of this technique.

An important facet of Avadhāna Vidyā is the use of the power of memory for instant mathemetical calculations, such as, higher roots of very large numbers. Demonstration of Avadhāna Vidyā[3] almost appeared to be a miraculous feat.

8. Intelligence

Intelligence is possessed by all humans to one degree or another. Both 'intelligence' and 'electricity' lack complete explanations that appeal to our common sense. Yet we do recognize the undeniable fact of their existence. Intelligence is something exhibiting all the abilities - to think rationally, to act purposefully and to deal effectively with (the) environment - that make mankind the highest order of mammal. This force is both deliberate, logical and predictable or disordered, intuitive and spontaneous.

Testing Intelligence

There is little relationship between perceptual abilities and intellectual achievement. French phychologist Alfred Binet, the father of modern intelligence-testing, argued that reasoning, judgement, comprehension and the capacity for self-criticism, rather than keenness of the senses, were the essential activities of intelligence. He found that brighter children performed at a mental age more advanced than their chronological age. An intelligence quotient, or IQ could be computed by dividing a child's mental age by his/her chronological age and multiplying that number by 100. The Stanford-Bine! Intelligence Scale, an IQ test, is still used today.

The Spectrum of Intellect

The attempt to define intelligence as a single general ability has been complicated by the discovery that the brain's left hemisphere appears to be analytical, linear and verbal while the right one ie synthetic, holistic and imagistic. Right and left hemisphere faculties could make for quite a spectrum of human intellect - from the mechanical or artistic geniuses on the one hand, who can hardly express themselves in writing or speech, to the highly articulate individuals at the other extreme, who think almost entirely in verbal terms.

What then do intelligence tests test? The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) measure our aptitude for convergent thinking or the ability to logically deduce correct answers. Divergent thinking, the ability to discover new answers considered crucial to creativity, is not measured by intelligence tests. Ability to get along with people, musical and artistic aptitudes and the mental gymnastics needed to play intricate games like chess, also, cannot by measured by intelligence test.

The fact that individual intellectual capabilities differ is as undeniable as the existence of the genius and the retarded. But the question is what are the causes of the difference? Heredity, environment or something else such as karman? The range of a person's potential intellectual development is determined by heredity as well as karman[4] while the environment determines the extent of development within that range.

Creative Intellect

Creativity is man's most precious ability. Creative insights require seemingly opposite ways of thinking - intuition and logic, fantasy and craftsmanship, inspiration and perspiration. For outstanding scientific discoveries, gift of fantasy has greater significance than rational, analytic thinking. On the other hand, artists must also be rational, besides having inspiration and fantasy, for transforming banal into the sublime.

According to one theory, creativity has four stages; (i) preparation (ii) incubation (iii) illumination and (iv) verification. The creative act, however, does not always happen in such neat sequence of steps.

Regardless of the sequence of stages, the preparation and verification stages tap the logical, verbal strengths of the left hemisphere while the other two - the heart of the creative process - use the gifts of the intuitive right hemisphere. In the division of labour between the two hemispheres, one-half of the personality emotes and dictates, while the other half listens and notates. Free from the shackles of verbal thought, the right hemisphere's ability to think in visual and auditory images, is crucial to artistic creativity. Nor is it less important for scientific creativity. In fact, combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in all productive thoughts.

Beyond a certain level of tested intelligence, there seems to be little relationship between IQ and creativity. At once self-centred and self-critical, creative people are as contradictory as their creative acts. They are intensely observant but thrive on complexity and confusion. In the words of a researcher, they are both "crazier and saner than the average person". While Socrates believed that "No one without a touch of the muse's madness will enter into the temple of art", today creativity is regarded as a sign of mental health. The integration of left and right hemispheres' thinking in creative activity produces a sense of psychological wholeness.

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