But I am prepared to take this concept of hope and intelligence further yet. For I am now convinced that hope, in this broader definition, describes not just a virtue, not just a vitalizing and energizing power, but it also describes the way humans think.
Jeff Hawkins is the whiz kid inventor of the palm pilot. He’s also am arm chair neuroscientist. In his provocative book, On Intelligence, Hawkins describes a new paradigm for human intelligence summarized in the concept of “predictive intelligence.” Hawkins believes that our conventional metaphor for intelligence—a super-sophisticated computer capable of processing millions of bits of data in record speed—is totally misguided. It is not the number of functions that make for human intelligence. It is the process of “hierarchical memory” that makes it so incredible. Here’s how it works:
Making a Meaningful Memory:
§ We encounter some raw data through our senses (such as seeing a tree for the first time). The eyes report a variety of data—everything from shape, to color, to size, to texture. These data enter the neural system called the Behavioral Brain (brain stem) where they exist as tiny electro-chemical impulses. If this is our first experience with such an event, there will be no real “understanding” of what we are looking at—just raw data. If we have a previous memory of “green” we will recognize the “green” and it will trigger some recognition. The same with “big” or “small”. However, if we have never seen a tree before, we will not know what we are looking at for there is no concept of “tree” in our memory.
§ The raw data are stored temporarily in the Affective Brain. In the Affective Brain the data probably consists of disjointed bits of information: brown, green, spindly, large, etc. The Affective Brain consists of the Limbic System, responsible for such things as emotions, attitudes and motivations. Seeing this “new sight” may create a high level of cortical arousal where we try to figure out what we are looking at. At this point, the Affective Brain will send signals to the cortex to search for familiar and recognizable correlates.
§ Long term memories of this sort are stored in the Cognitive Brain (neo-cortex). If the neural model sufficiently matches a stored memory model, the neo-cortex would send a message back to the Affective Brain consisting of its previously stored neural model. Similarities and differences might be noted as would the previously stored affective components of the memory (for example, how it made us feel). If there was no satisfactory match with previous neural models, it may stimulate further inquiry (curiosity). In any event, if sufficiently arousing, this new data may be stored in the hippocampus for a time (a few hours or days at most) and possibly be eventually stored long term in the neocortex.
Note that when we have an experience, the data are fed raw through the Behavioral Brain and into the Affective Brain where they become mixed with emotion and where a search of the long term memory storage may be conducted to attach meaning to the data. In the Affective Brain, new experiences are most likely disjointed, seemingly incoherent bits of experience. It is only when the Cognitive Brain finds a match that it can make sense. Note that this explains dreams, to some extent. Dreams are the immediate activity of the hippocampus and its menagerie of disjointed and random data assembled in often bizarre ways.
In terms of memories, note that upon further experiences with similar events, it takes less and less raw data to attach meaning to it. This is the predictive component in memory making.
Thus, for example, if we are seeing a tree for the first time and have no correlative memory of our own we have to absorb the raw data but also rely on someone else who understands what we are looking at to make it meaningful (such as a book on trees or a friend who is standing near looking with us). But let’s say we go for a walk the next week and see the same thing. This time (unless we have a memory disorder), we don’t have to repeat the entire process. For a neural model will have been created in our long term memory that will “instantly” correlate to the tree. We may only have to see the very top of a limb to “know” what it is. Eventually, we may become so familiar with the sight that we can walk right by it without “noticing.” This is what Hawkins means by predictive intelligence. After enough experience (and memory storage) we only need to see a little bit of data to “predict” what it is. We may not even have to see it with our eyes. We may be so familiar that just walking a certain number of steps along a path arouses the memory of what lies beyond and we can “predict” what it is and what it looks like based upon past experiences. Of course, this can backfire. What if, for example, someone cut the tree down the day before?
Intelligence is predictive—it is constantly attempting to “fill in the gaps” and make sense of the data fragments we are experiencing. The way it arranges the raw data (fills in the gaps) depends on the authoritative neural models that become established. There is a reason why some neural models are established and controlling and others are not. I have not yet found neuroscientists talking about it, but at some point, neural models are accepted as “true” or “false. Authority figures into this as well.
Thus, when we experience pain we have to somehow “predict” or “fill in” the meaning. For example, we ask questions:
Ø What will happen to me?
Ø Will I continue to feel this way?
Ø Will I feel worse?
As the experience of pain and the unknowns continue, the questions will likely become more complex:
Ø How many others have experienced this?
Ø Why do I feel so alone?
Ø It isn’t fair that I feel this way?
Ø Where is God?
But notice that all the questions are rooted in the same issue: finding a neural model that explains or gives meaning to the gaps in the raw data of the experience.
This is where biblical hope becomes so critical. Hope is actually a neural model that exists in our brain. As a neural model its purpose is to fill in the gaps of our knowledge and to supply meaning to the events in our lives. It does this by assembling and arranging the data, most often putting it in a larger context so that we reframe and reinterpret it in a new way. Does this mean that hope explains all the details of our disease? No. Does it mean that hope tells us how long it will last and how painful it will be? No. Not directly (although biblical hope does factor eternity into the mix). Hope doesn’t function strictly on a cognitive or rational basis. Paul said in Romans 8 that “hope that is seen is not hope at all.” In other words, once we can “see” (cognitive understanding) an outcome it is no longer a matter of hope or predictive intelligence. But “if we hope for what we do not see then we eagerly wait for it with anticipation.”
Hope is intimately connected to our Affective Brain so it supplies more than just information. It also triggers emotional responses such as attitudes and motivations. There are pleasures involved in having unknowns. There are also motivational issues. For example, when a person is facing an unknown outcome of a disease the very unknowns force a level of attention to details in his life he might otherwise ignore.
I think this is what St Paul means when he says that hope forces us to “eagerly wait” for things with “anticipation.” Expectation has its fears but also its pleasures. Why do we wrap the Christmas presents and leave them under the tree weeks before? Why do we play hide and seek? There are values in the unknowns of life that we would be impoverished if we rejected.
Hebrews says that hope is an “anchor for the soul” (Hebrews 6:11). For various reasons, God plans that we pass through many valleys and mountains in our earthly existence. There are times of pleasure but also times of pain. What can sustain us through it all is one thing: hope—that is why Hebrews describes it as an anchor for our souls.
Hope is more than just wishful thinking. It's essential for survival. And this Advent Season, my hope for you is that you fill in the gaps of your own experiences with the authoritative truth that comes from God himself.