Associative Trails, Connectivity, Networks, Rhizomes, Learning

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As is my wont, I’m throwing together a bunch of semantically charged bits, following an only partially conscious, mostly intuitive process, a kind of ADHD fluttermind effect that arises in my brain. To nail down some of these flighty connections and intuitions, I will explore it further here. As much as possible, I will seek to make the gist of my “associative trail” meaningful for others. This post follows my having watched Gardner Campbell’s conversation with Jon Udell and Jeremy Dean about [Vannaver Bush’s] “As You May Think,” Annotation and Liberal Learning, along with other texts and videos on cognition, on neuroplasticity, on technology, on memory and on learning. I have not marked the various intellectual rabbit trails that I’m pulling together here, but will seek to do so, over time, probably using

Part of the way that I’m thinking about this is straightforward “old-school” analogy (which is a kind of connection across difference). Here’s the way I’m thinking: I know that brains work through a complex mechanism of dynamic networks. We still don’t know exactly how consciousness and thinking arise from large numbers of interconnected neurons stimulating each other in certain ways, but that seems to be how our brains — our mind-generators — work. It amounts to connections that are dynamically self-managed and networks of interactions that collectively effect cognitive functions. Over time, in the neuroplastic, self-organizing brain assemblages of neurons develop increasingly complex dynamic structures from which arise cognitive functions. Those dynamic structures iterate and reiterate, scaling up their complexity and reach until, in time, they generate those effects or results or entities that we identify as “thought,” “learning” and “mind.”

Learning takes place by making new connections, by building networks of stable, reiterated meaning, by noting and favoring the way in which certain stimuli produce a kind of “pow!” — a cognitive effect that is satisfying, impactful, meaningful. Here, I’d like to think by analogy for a bit. Let’s suppose that, in some sense, individual human beings function as if they were single neurons. Once the input coming from another neuron is powerful enough, crossing a certain threshold, it moves the receiver of that input to act. A human being receiving a powerful cognitive input — that “pow” that triggers a certain thrill — will then  respond to the stimulus (or stimuli). A set of stimuli reaching a certain level will trigger a reponse that becomes a further stimulus for one or more others in a network, which can then produce cascades of neurons firing and networks blazing with activity. Those neurons (persons) and networks (social connections, collaborative relationships, institutions, groupings) light up, interacting with other neural nodes or concepts or cognitive bits and pieces. Over time, connections are forged, then strengthened (or in some cases, pruned), leading to a dynamic yet stable pattern of learning.

What I’m trying to suggest is that there may be ways in which learning is both individual, but also collective. There may be ways in which this whole process of associative trails reinforces significant patterns over time. And from those patterns emerge the dynamic yet stable results of collaborative learning. Individual learning, intuitions and associative trails count. Yet perhaps, they are all the more impactful when they connect to — and reinforce or modify — others. After all, if we think about scholarship, or even about intellectual culture more generally, it is about individual cognitive processing, but also about connection, about convergence on truth, about verifiable, mutually agreeable (and therefore stable) structures of knowledge. (Here, I’m assuming that the “pow” is recognition of truth that is its own reward. In some cultures or circumstances that value might not hold.) Generally speaking, I think, it’s about communities of learning, of research, of thought. And now, with emerging open technologies and new tools that facilitate collaborative learning over time — from traditional scholarship, for example, to online learning communities and web-based annotation tools like — we have have better modalities of learning, new ways of making connections and associations of deep and resonant value that shape communal thinking. Such tools help construct layers that may ultimately result in more complex, more meaningful, more impactful learning.

(I guess the question that one must now ask is:  How one goes about pruning those associative trails or those connections that are not helpful or productive? How does one choose or discern? A difficult question.)

Another way to think of it is as a kind of learning ecosystem. Each part of that system can function individually, but the true beauty of the ecosystem is the way in which everything is interconnected in a kind of dynamic but generally stable system of interchange, mutual benefit, exchange, stimulus and reaction. I think of the vast mycorrhizal networks, loosely connected with tree root systems that help regulate forests, for example. (One suggestive video to watch on this topic is Susan Simard’s TED Talk on “How Trees Talk to Each Other.”) This way of thinking about it — seeing analogies and correspondences between neural networks, mycorrhizal networks, communication networks, networks of learners — resonates in significant ways with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s  Mille Plateaux (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1980) [A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1987)].

If the modality that I am talking about amounts to facilitating the growth of complex, multilayered, interconnecting and interpenetrating ecosystems of thought, of learning, of mind, my earlier difficult question can be rephrased to wonder what the analog for biochemical mechanisms that regulate or shape the overarching system might be. What complex dynamic process will “select” the strong and meaningful nodes and connections for building resiliency? What processes will target those connections that are destined to be pruned because they contribute too little to the long-term survival of the complex system?

Is there, in fact, a way in which learning, technology and connection are weaving themselves together for the construction of some greater learning/thinking entity? (Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere?) Is this thread simply delusional? Those questions merit further thought. I’d be interested to hear other perspectives on these random musings.