The intricate pattern of the brain: the collective mind and experience

Humans can communicate with other humans. This ability makes us innately different from all other animal on earth. Because we have language, we can retain knowledge for other humans, even after our deaths. We can pass it on in the form of teachings. Or we can write it down for others to read, now and in the future. Together, we form a giant collective brain: the collective mind. This article is part of a series of articles. I would recommend that you read those first, before you read this. And again, I am no psychologist or sociologist, so take this with a grain of salt.

What if we could pause physical evolution on earth somehow. And let’s also suppose that we leave enough room for the other animals to live in. If we could keep this state for a million years, then the lion will still hunt the antelope in the same way it does now. But in a million years, the human race will be completely different. By then, we must have colonized other star systems. After a million years of science, we will have, no doubt, invented many wonderful things. Humans don’t need physical evolution anymore to evolve into an ever more powerful entity.

The collective mind

Because humans have language, we have the ability to retain knowledge for future generations. Because we can use tools, we can even write down these teachings, so that there doesn’t even have to be a master-student relation to pass knowledge down. All you need to do, is write down what you want to pass on, and store a copy of that work where future generations can find it.

In this way, humans can build up more knowledge collectively than they can individually store in their heads, and they can aid each other, each using their own specialized knowledge. This combined knowledge is (much) greater than just the sum of its parts. In this way, humans form a collective brain that works very similar to an individual’s brain. Look at it like this: an individual’s brain is made up out of a big pattern of logic, that can “catch” and analyze any pattern they recognize in external stimuli. To recognize these patterns efficiently, they have to have had past experiences with these patterns. When two humans with different skill and knowledge sets come together, it is as if this pattern is extended. The overall pattern of these two humans, who can communicate, can now “catch” more external stimuli than before, simply because they have more “logic plasticity” between the two of them. On top of that, the plasticity that is not unique to their skill and knowledge sets that the two of them kind of share, will now be double monitored. If one of them has a mistake in their plasticity pattern, they can be corrected by the other. The “sub-patterns” of the collective mind are therefore not connected by synapses, but by language. Language transports the pattern from one “sub-pattern” to the other. When there are even more humans, this ability becomes even greater.

The collective mind then uses its “nodes” in the same way that the individual’s brain does. It stores its knowledge in an area of the collective mind. This area is a person. These persons can, just like memory objects, be reused, and mixed and matched. A mathematician can be useful in science, but also in business. This way, the persons of the collective mind can build even bigger objects than they could have if they were just alone.

These persons do have a big header. A header in computer programming is a bit of information that describes the file the header is attached to. This is necessary for a computer to understand what type of file it is working with. When I say that humans have a big header, I mean that they have a lot of knowledge that, for the collective mind, is basically a copy of the rest. It is not really useful for the collective mind. We all know how to walk, we all know how to eat food and so on, but for the collective mind this knowledge is not so useful. It is just necessary for its “nodes” to function.

The evolution of the collective mind and the experience chain

There once was a member of the genus Homo who discovered how to make fire. As we all know, this was a very important discovery for humankind. No one knows who invented fire, and yet, in some way, they are still with us.

Humans pass on knowledge, like the knowledge of how to make fire, to future generations. This passing on of knowledge I want to call the experience chain. So, the first Homo to discover fire passed it on to their children, who passed it on to theirs, and so on, and so on, and many times so on. It is important to note that this experience chain of the knowledge of fire is still with us today. The chain between the first Homo who created fire and us still remains. In other words, their added knowledge is still in the collective mind.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. The first Homo to discover fire might not have passed on this knowledge to another. This chain of experience might have been broken. This actual discoverer of fire has then been forgotten. There is nothing that connects us to them. So when I write about the first Homo who discovered fire, I am talking about the first in our experience chain.

And so it goes for all knowledge that humans retain. The first wheel, the first iron, the first horse saddle. All of these have been retained by the collective mind, at least to some degree. Of course, not all knowledge is retained. Some knowledge has been lost. It is not known how original Damascus steel was made, because the master-student experience chain has been broken.

This form of knowledge retention was a new form of evolution on earth. Homo evolved into an organism that could retain collective knowledge. This gave it so much of an edge that it effectively rose out of the circle of predator and prey. To use a caveman cliché, they were no longer hunted by the sabre-toothed tiger, but they hunted the sabre-toothed tiger. Because Homo could start to evaluate their plans, they could come up with even better ones. They could retain this knowledge among themselves and pass it on to future generations for them to fine-tune even more, a process that is still going strong today. The other predators would be no match for Homo, and it would only get worse for them. Because of its ability to retain, evaluate and fine-tune knowledge for their collective mind, Homo did not only become top predator, it stood outside the animal kingdom, unchallenged by any animal that does not have a collective mind. A new layer of evolution was added to planet earth.

Evolution of ideas follows the evolution of traits

It is interesting to note that the evolution of ideas follows the same pattern as the evolution of traits. What if an evolving animal develops a certain trait, let’s say it has offspring that can swim faster, making it able to outswim predators? If this trait becomes important to survive, because of the presence of fast predators, for instance, then it is sort of “locked in”. If this species has offspring that does not have this trait, then those will be eaten. The predator will simply be too fast. So, only offspring that has this trait will survive. Only if further down the tree of evolution other traits are developed that make this quickness trait obsolete, will this trait be “unlocked” and offspring can survive even if they don’t have the quickness trait.

And so is it with ideas. We don’t know how the first human in the chain created fire. This specific knowledge has been lost. The knowledge was passed down many generations, I have no doubt, but over time other ideas made these specific fire making ideas obsolete. Like this, good ideas are “locked in” and obsolete ideas are “unlocked” and can be safely forgotten. The result is, just like with physical evolution, an idea that is ever more effective. In modern day, we make fire with lighters.

Language and the collective mind

An important tool in the development of the collective mind is language. Without it, we cannot really effectively build up a collective mind. We can teach by showing, but we would not be able to retain knowledge in some other way. And if there is a temporary loss of the need for a skill, and the skilled die before the need is returned, then there is no way of teaching. So, if there are no mammoths to hunt in the area, then the knowledge and experience of hunting mammoths is lost. If they then move to another area where there are mammoths, then they have to reinvent the skill. If they have language, they can pass the knowledge on with or without the mammoths, if they choose to do so.

Language also makes it easier to cooperate with each other during a hunt. This means that Homo could change its strategy on the fly. This made it even harder for predators to stand above Homo.

I don’t know which species of the genus Homo first developed language, but any form of language that can retain even the smallest bit of collective memory is superior to none at all. So when I write about language, I mean any form of communication, no matter how rudimentary, that can retain and pass on knowledge to form a collective mind. So even a well working set of grunts could suffice, or certain gestures, as long as all in the collective mind understand what the grunts or gestures mean.

Quick evolution of intelligence

So, we now have a set of Homo communities that each form their own collective mind. These communities will have offspring. Like with us, their offspring will be divided into smart offspring and less smart offspring. Since the collective mind elevated Homo into a new layer of evolution, one without competition, it only competed with itself. It was no longer many predators against much prey, but Homo against Homo. This meant that the smart Homo was truly on top of all, while the less smart Homo would be defeated, either directly in battle, or by simply by being outhunted with superior hunting strategies. This way the smart quickly reproduced. Their offspring could also be divided into smart and less smart. The smart had no competition, and the same would happen. I want to speculate that this might be the reason that intelligence evolved so quickly.

This cycle would then make Homo smarter and smarter, until we reached Homo Sapiens. At this level the division between smart and less smart still existed (and still exists today) but the difference relative to the total amount of intelligence that Sapiens is capable of, it is just not enough to make the smart be able to exterminate or outcompete the less smart. So here, the physical evolution of smartness kind of stopped.

Animals at this stage became set dressing. They were part of nature. The flowers, the trees, the wolves, and the bears, they all formed one understanding of nature in the collective mind of Sapiens. Remember that battle where the Roman army had to a fight an army of bears? No? The animals weren’t even on their radar. They were just nuisances. It was other Sapiens that the Romans were worried about, not nature.

From hunter-gatherer to farmer

Once Sapiens became so dominant over nature, it could think about something that no other animal had done. It could stay in one place and grow its food locally. It could do that, because it had knowledge of how to grow plants and crops, but also because it had the ability to keep predators away. They now no longer had to waste energy on something that might quite literally be a wild goose chase. The collective mind was now so dominant, that it decided where nature went and not the other way around, though with some exceptions. It was ready to build civilizations.

Of course, there were many other conditions that had to be met for Sapiens to be able to start farming. But I speculate this is a necessary condition.

Colonization and the experience chain

And so Sapiens started to develop its collective mind more and more in their civilizations. It started to invent new devices with which they could subdue nature and other Sapiens. They invented swords, shields, bows and lances, but they also developed better ways of staying alive. They invented mills and ovens. They invented ways of distributing food. All of this meant that these humans could live together in ever larger civilizations. The only threat to these humans were other humans. These helpful inventions made it that living in a big civilization meant that you could build up a big army.

And so civilizations like in Europe, but also elsewhere, grew and invented even better weapons and ships. With these ships they started to sail all over the world. And there, they encountered other humans. They subdued these other humans with their superior weapons and told them what to do. This gave the Europeans a lot of opportunity to build up knowledge in their own experience chains. They no longer had to stand behind the plow themselves. Instead, they could let others do the work for them, often in the form of slavery. They could build food, gain resources, and gain experience in trade. These resources they got from the colonies would make it that the people back home now had time to do other things than farming. They now had time to educate themselves and their children. And with this knowledge as a fundament, and so much time on their hands, they could learn about nature better, and invent more useful stuff, like better tools, weapons, or better ships. All of this was fueled by the energy exercised by the people in the colonies, whether they were slaves or not, and injected into the economy of the colonizing power. This led to even more build up of plasticity in the brains of people living in the colonizing country. The people became skilled, knowledgeable and experienced.

The downside was, the experience chain in the colonies was completely smashed. The local population was only allowed to do manual labor, often in the form of slavery. There was no more experience chain in governance, military, building, sailing, and so on. For centuries, they were denied to build up their own experience chain. So while in Europe, for centuries the experience chain got to be fine-tuned, while the people also enjoyed their riches, in the colonies the people were kept uneducated. They were not allowed to participate in the experience chain, to the detriment of their descendants even today, I would argue.

The collective mind is a very powerful thing. It just takes a long time to develop in a society. In the Netherlands alone, I think we spent about fifty billion euros on education and science each year. We are a country of seventeen million people. But our collective mind isn’t build up out of one year of education. It is build up out of many decades of education. And that is just mentioning the education for people who are alive today. That already equates to trillions of euros. But the collective mind was not empty when these people were born. The experience that was in it, also cost a lot of money to build.

Building up the experience chain in former colonies

People in the West wonder why people in Africa seem so amateurish to them. That is because it is very hard to build up so much plasticity in people’s brains, so that they become skilled and experienced. It took us centuries of fine-tuning of the collective mind to come to where we are today in Europe. In Africa, they have basically just begun, because of colonization.

Now we could try to share our collective mind with the people in Africa. I would be a big proponent of that, but it can sadly enough only go so far. There are two main reasons why it is going to take former colonial countries a long time to build up their experience chain.

First of all, our collective mind is fine-tuned to the societies that we live in. So the Dutch collective mind is fine-tuned to Dutch society. So when a Dutch business has some logistical problem, it needs a solution that will work in the Netherlands. So the Netherlands has got a ton of experienced people who know how to solve logistical problems in the Netherlands. Now, if this business would also operate in the United States, then the Dutch logistical solutions might not work. Their skill set is not fine-tuned to the US. What businesses do, then, is hire locals. They are the ones who have the fine-tuned experience. So if we would teach the people in Nigeria how to operate their businesses, then it would only work partially. Their businesses need to be fine-tuned to their countries. And that is something that just takes time.

Secondly, it takes years of learning, trying and ultimately doing to build up the experience level of a professional. And for an efficient society, you need everyone to have built up sufficient amounts of knowledge and experience so that the collective mind can function properly. In other words, you might be smart enough to build your own business, but if you cannot find skilled and experienced workers, you are going to get nowhere. And if there are not enough skilled people to build enough roads, then it is going to be a bumpy ride, literally and figuratively. And again, building plasticity is very expensive.

Experience chains can be abused: experience traps

When slavery ended in the US, the slaves were free. But free does not mean equal. After they were freed, they needed jobs to be able to take care of themselves. Their only experience was in manual labor, like picking cotton. They had no managerial experience, no military experience, no governmental experience, no experience in building businesses and so on. And even worse for them, this lack of experience could be recognized by the color of their skin. So, when employers had to hire employees for something other than manual labor, they knew that African Americans would not have the same experience as whites. So they hired the people with the most experience, being whites.

This lead to unequal sharing in the experience chain. So later in the history of the US, when African Americans started to get civil rights, they still did not have the experience. And this inexperience could still be “seen” in their skin color. Now, in modern day, the African American community has caught up a lot, and therefore their poverty and the problems that are associated with poverty have diminished. But they have not gone away completely.

Before World War II, the Jewish communities in Europe and the US were very poor. For centuries, they had been excluded from the experience chain in certain ways. They were, for instance, only allowed to work in certain professions. This led to enormous poverty among Jews. This also led to problems that are often associated with poverty, like crime and mental health issues. This “proved” to people that Jews were bad people. Ultimately, this culminated in the most heinous crime ever committed on earth, the holocaust.

After the holocaust, Jews started to be accepted in the experience chain. They were no longer excluded from jobs and got promotions equal to the promotions of non-Jewish employees. They could therefore collectively start to make equal money as well. This gave them the ability to send their children to better schools. Within decades, Jews had gone from the outcast of society to equal participants in it. Having a Jewish name is no longer a reason to not get hired in most places in the West. If outcast groups will get equal chances to work, they will become equal in the experience chain and ultimately equal in social standing.

Sadly enough, for the African American population, and the African European population as well, the collective responsibility that seems to come with their skin color is still a hindrance to their progress. And as long as you can gauge someone’s participation in the experience chain by looking at their skin color, this spiral upward will continue to go slowly.

And like this, minorities can get trapped. If they are being denied access to the experience chain, they will fall behind. The chance that someone from that group is experienced is small. The chance of mental health issues is large. Therefore, they are not hired. They stay in the trap. Therefore, they get no money. Because of poverty, they develop mental health issues more than average, and no work means no experience. And therefore they don’t get hired. It is a cycle that can nastily trap minorities.

When a minority is not included enough in the collective mind and is not allowed to build up experience in the same way as other groups, they will have below average experience. I want to call this experience deficiency.

Escape the trap

The Soviet Union is the most successful chess country in world’s history. To achieve this, they seem to have taught a lot of children chess. I don’t know for sure, but I think that chess was mandatory in school in the Soviet Union. This way, they could discover anyone who was good in chess. Once discovered, the chess talent could be rigorously trained. This led to a string of high level Soviet chess players that dominated the game for many years.

When a certain minority is trapped in an experience trap, there is often a way for an individual to get out. For instance, Jews were discriminated against a lot before World War II and could not really make a career in many professions. This meant that Jewish children didn’t have a lot of choices if they wanted to be successful. One way of doing this was to become very skilled in something that would be accepted by the antisemitic majorities of the countries where they lived. One such skill was playing the violin. So many Jewish boys (men mostly played the violin back then, not women) who wanted to become successful must have at least tried to see if they could play violin, so that they could become rich and famous. This way, those Jewish boys who were very talented would almost always discover their talent, and then they would train it. I want to speculate that this led to a string of very successful Jewish violinist, like Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, or Yehudi Menuhin, among others.

In modern day, Jewish boys (and girls) have a lot more options. If they want to become rich and famous, they don’t have to play the violin. So the contribution of Jewish violinists diminished somewhat.

African American children don’t have the same chances as other children in the US. They are held collectively responsible for the crimes committed by others with the same skin color (they should act normally). But in sports, discrimination is more difficult. Ultimately, it is about who runs fastest, scores the most goals, or whatever measurement of victory the sport has. The African American child sees that their chances lie here. If they are good in sports and can beat the other, they will be successful, no matter how much discrimination there is in society. So, African American communities will therefore filter out all the sports talents in this way. Where white children will more often choose science or business, African Americans will focus more on sports, which has a more level playing field for them. This, I speculate, then leads to an overrepresentation of African Americans in professional sports. Of course, the more African Americans are accepted as equals and individuals in the collective mind, the more this will dwindle.

Minorities excelling in certain areas and not others are a sign of an experience trap.

The experience snare

When a dictator is in power, they fill all the positions of power with their friends. If this situation remains for too long, the country can get experience snared.

The experience snare becomes apparent when the dictator has to go. A new leader is chosen. They have to appoint people to be in these very same positions of power that only the friends of the dictator have experience in. They have become unmissable. A newly chosen leader might choose to appoint all new people to these positions, but he will quickly find out that so much amateurism is going to be disastrous. So the newly elected leader starts to divide the power among the former powerful and the new powerful. But the former powerful, who are now again in power, have no interest in helping the leader. They will sabotage their leadership and mock the amateurism of the new people in charge. This will lead to a downfall of the newly elected government.

If anyone in a society tries to snare positions of power, from judges to journalists, and from civil servants to police officers, they should be immediately prevented to do so. If the snaring continues for too long, the snare will be set, and it is going to be very difficult to get rid of it.

In conclusion

The collective mind is an important ability that humans have. It makes us stand above all other animals. It allowed us to create civilizations and start an evolution of the collective mind that will only get smarter the older it gets.

The experience chain is the way in which the collective mind retains its knowledge. Your ability to interact with it will greatly increase your chance of success.

Now on to the next article. It is an interesting one. It is about free will, or lack thereof.