I recently saw the cool new movie Inception—where the term “inception” means the implanting of an idea into the brain of a target by way of hacking into the target’s dreams. And as those of you who have already seen the movie know, the plot plays with this idea in a recursive way—the dream hacking is conducted in dreams within dreams, making for a mind bending movie experience, and, of course, sufficient ambiguity between dreaming and reality to allow for many Hollywood sequel directions . . .
Watching the movie was a particularly enthralling experience for me because two key themes flowing through The Learning Layer are dreams and recursion (and, ok, because I’m a bit of geek I suppose). Yeah, The Learning Layer is most fundamentally a book about next generation organizational learning, but it’s also a book of many layers, and the undercurrents of dreams and recursion are never far away.
Why the undercurrent of dreams? Well, it has become increasingly clear that the purpose of dreaming is that it is a process for rewiring the network of the brain. The strengthening and weakening of connections in a network is the essence of learning, and dreaming, particularly during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, appears to be when meaning is made of the raw information we have taken in during the day through a process of appropriately editing the wiring in our brains. Which may be why, not just humans, nor even just mammals, but every organism with a brain that has been closely examined seems to need sleep. So in The Learning Layer I make the case that if we want our systems to learn effectively they better have the capacity for the equivalent of dreaming.
Why the undercurrent of recursion? Because it’s what invariably lies behind new, unpredictable, emergent phenomena. Recursion is the idea of a feedback loop operating on basic units (e.g., network subsets), and it can give rise to something of a different nature than the individual units on which it operates. Not surprisingly, it’s a fundamental property of the brain, a property that leads to that peculiar little phenomenon emerging from our network of neurons, our mind. And so if we want truly emergent qualities to spring forth from our systems, recursion better be at their core.
In other words, just like our brains, we need our systems to be architected to embrace recursion, and also to dream! And what makes our mind even more powerful and yet so wonderfully unpredictable is the capacity for self-inception. That is, myriad feedback loops can be brought to bear in the vast network that is our brain whereby one part of the brain can modify another part of the brain. This can happen unconsciously (e.g., during our sleep) and/or consciously (i.e., self-inception). In fact, as in the movie, the boundaries between dreaming and inception can become fuzzy, and I relate in the book a simple experiment you can perform on yourself to illustrate this:
You can easily see that feedback dynamic at work whenever you awaken from a dream. If you don’t try to remember the dream, you will almost always forget it. But if you will yourself to recall more details of it, and then remember it, you can make the memory of the dream consolidate, potentially forever. When you do so, one part of your brain literally physically affects another part of your brain, which in turn may later influence other parts of your brain, and so on, for the rest of your life. Your mind will never by quite the same because of that little whim to remember that particular dream!
It’s really quite amazing if you think about it (yep, another opportunity for self-inception!). But maybe even more amazing is that we can actually architect our systems to do the same thing. That’s the essence of the learning layer concept—we provide our systems with the ability to recursively modify themselves based on their experiences with us, which amounts to modifying the connections among the representations of us and our content. And that, of course, is the analog of dreaming. Or maybe it’s not just dreaming, maybe it could be considered self-inception. I suppose that’s just a question of whether that system self-modification is performed consciously or unconsciously . . . 🙂