The Mind Within the Net : Models of Learning, Thinking, and Acting by Manfred Spitzer
How do billions of neurons bring about ideas, sensations, emotions, and actions? Why do children play, and why do they learn faster than elderly people? What can go wrong in perception, thinking, learning, and acting?
The 1990s are the decade of the brain. In the past ten years the field of neuroscience has yielded a wealth of knowledge that allows us to study these questions within a framework created by neurobiology and neural network theory. Neurophysiology has told us a great deal about how individual neurons work, and neural network theory is demonstrating how neurons work together. In the years ahead, we can expect to learn much more about the underlying principles of neural networks and how they produce the higher cognitive functions.
How do networks built out of neurons work? How do they produce higher and the highest cognitive functions? What are their underlying principles? The first part of this book provides an introduction to the basic structure of neural networks. In the second part I report on some of the most important discoveries that have been made by studying neural networks. In the third part I describe in some detail several applications of network models that throw new light on normal and abnormal states of mind. In my view, insights gained from these models will change the way we think about ourselves and about other people.
What is this book good for? And for whom is it written? It may be argued that a complex mathematical theory about a specific class of cells is much too complicated to yield understandings relevant to real life. Obviously, I do not agree, for several reasons.
First, important discoveries in neuroscience have undoubtedly been made in the recent past. Secondly, these discoveries—because they concern such basic human activities as thinking and acting—are relevant not just to a few scientists but to the general public as well. Thirdly, as a psychiatrist, I am intrigued by the insights that have already resulted from several network models of mental disorder. In other words, computer models can help us understand what appear to be the most private if all human experiences.
Neuroscience and neural network theory can also make us understand why a toddler should listen to childrens songs rather than to complex music and why some elderly people have trouble finding their way around in a new environment.
Some may find it hard to believe that a mathematical theory’ can fundamentally change the way in which we think about learning, creativity, thinking, and acting, or how we can apply it in such varied domains as kindergartens, schools, politics, television programming, and retirement homes. It may even help us understand individuals struggling with mental disorders like problems of concentration or delusions. It is just these possibilities that motivated me to write this book.
In my view, what researchers have discovered is no longer just for the laboratory; it has become directly relevant to all of us. In this respect, then, this book is about your brain, your thoughts, skills, and actions, your children and our society.
This book should probably be read twice: once to get the main argument, and a second time to understand the details. Once the general ideas become clear, many things that may have seemed confusing will seem obvious.
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