A New Take on Human Intelligence

What does slugger Barry Bonds have in common with renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking?

Their brains work in much the same way.

At least that's consistent with a fascinating new theory about the nature of intelligence.

For many centuries humans have wondered about what it is inside their noggins that makes them so much smarter than other animals. Some of the brightest intellects have struggled, and failed, to define intelligence.

Is it some abstract gift that simply makes us smart? Is there a mind, separate from the brain, that allows us to add two and two, and reflect upon the cosmos, and compose operas? Are we unique on the planet, or do other mammals also have intelligence, though less sharply tuned?

Our lack of understanding of what it is that allows us to understand is underscored by the inane definitions of intelligence found in almost any reference book. My computer's built-in encyclopedia defines it as the "capacity to learn or to understand." The massive dictionary that sits beside my desk defines it as "mental ability."

Gee, thanks.

Historically, the study of intelligence belongs in the domain of psychologists, and more recently, neuroscientists. So it may be a little unsettling to learn that one of the freshest attempts to get a handle on intelligence comes from outside both those fields.

Going Out on a Limb

Jeff Hawkins is a computer wizard who is best known as the founder of both Palm Computing and Handspring, but in recent years he has become obsessed with the human brain. He doesn't cut it open, and he doesn't peer inside with any of the nifty new gadgets that have allowed scientists to pinpoint which areas of the brain "light up" when stimulated. Instead, he just thinks about it.

All that thinking has resulted in a book, "On Intelligence," which Hawkins has co-authored with Sandra Blakeslee, who writes about science for The New York Times, and in the interest of full disclosure, is an old friend of mine.

Hawkins is a little out on a limb, because there isn't a lot of evidence to back up his theory, and he could turn out to be dead wrong, but at least he has provided what he describes as a "new framework" for understanding intelligence.

Briefly put, Hawkins thinks intelligence is nothing more than memory, and the ability to predict.

Hawkins, who longs for the day when he and his colleagues will be able to produce an artificial "brain" that can think better than humans and not be encumbered with all the baggage, like emotions, that can distort our reasoning. He doesn't think these futuristic computers will ever look like us, or feel like us, or be the chummy robots shown in sci-fi flicks.

But they might be able to run our air traffic control systems, or explore other planets and do so with extraordinary intelligence.

But first, he says, computer scientists have to throw out much of what they have believed and adopt his theory. The human brain doesn't work like a computer. So scientists are on the wrong track if they think they're going to build a super fast computer that can think like Stephen Hawkings. Or even Barry Bonds.

Of Memories and Predictions

It all came to him in April 1986 when he was sitting in his Northern California office, just thinking, of course.

"I was contemplating what it means to 'understand' something," he writes.

As he glanced around his office he saw things he was familiar with, furniture, books, that kind of stuff. And suddenly, he says, he had an "aha moment."

He "understood" his office. That's because his eyes fell upon a blue coffee mug that he knew, from personal memory, wasn't supposed to be there. And therein lies the essence of Hawkins' theory.

The human brain is filled with memories from previous experiences. That memory bank provides the basis for what we expect to encounter in the world around us. So if you look around the room in which you are sitting, you will see objects that your brain has already predicted will be there, based on its memories.

Intelligence really gets down to work when the prediction turns out to be wrong -- as in the case of a blue coffee mug that we suddenly realize shouldn't be there. Our eyes send messages to the brain, telling it that something is amiss, and the brain amends its memory bank and sends a message back down the chain of command, telling the observer what to do. Or perhaps more accurately, predicting what will happen if the observer takes a particular action.

That may not seem important if the invading object is just a coffee mug, but it could make a lot of difference if it's a lion on the loose.

Why We All Can't Bat 1,000

That is, of course, a horribly truncated version of Hawkins' theory, because it's pretty hard to reduce an entire book to a few paragraphs. But he lays out his case convincingly, and it does help explain a lot.

As in the case of Bonds, the famed slugger really shouldn't be able to hit the ball so often and so hard that most pitchers prefer to make him walk instead of letting him hit. How could anyone know exactly where a baseball, traveling at more than 100 mph, will be at the precise moment for the bat to meet the ball?

Many have argued that it's just not possible to do that, at least very often.

Hawkins' theory suggests that all those years of swinging a bat have produced an enormous memory bank that is so complete that Bonds can predict where the ball will be even before it leaves the pitcher's hand. That's one manifestation of what we call "intelligence."

So, one might ask, why can't we all do it?

Because we don't all have the same experiences, or the same body, or even the same interests.

But, Hawkins argues, we all do essentially the same thing. We all predict what we are going to find in the world around us, based on past experiences and a warehouse full of memories. And that, he says, is intelligence.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.