Vision in the Context of a New Theory of Intelligence


Finished this book on the flight to Clearwater Beach at the beginning of the month, but haven’t made the time to write about it yet. It is authored by Jeff Hawkins, co-founder of the neuroscience research company Numenta. I recall being mesmerized by his previous book, On Intelligence, published 17 years ago. His model is in the mold of Dalve Purves and Beau Lotto regarding the neurobiology of visual behavior about which I blogged 10 years ago, combined with Al Sutton’s concept of building a visual space world and Eric Kandel’s vision lying in the brain of the beholder (see here).

As part of his model, Hawkins cites the image created by Edward Adelson knows as the checkerboard illusion as a powerful example of the difference between the brain’s model of the world, or what you perceive, and what is sensed.

Hard to believe that squares “A” and “B” are the same color? Have a look:

Of if that isn’t convincing enough, here is another approach:

Hawkins writes: “To call this an illusion is to suggest that the brain is being tricked, but the opposite is true. Your brain is correctly perceiving a checkerboard and not being fooled by the shadow … the brain only knows about a subset of the real world, and what we perceive is our model of the world, not the world itself.” Continuously predicting what its inputs will be is an intrinsic property, and one that serves an essential role in learning. Taking on the classical view of vision as a hierarchical sequence of steps like a flow chart, Hawkins says that vision cannot work that way because it is not a static process. “Vision is an interactive process, dependent on movement … an active sensory-motor process … Vision, I realized, is doing the same thing as touch. Patches of retina are analogous to patches of skin. Each patch of your retina sees only a small part of an entire object. The brain doesn’t process a picture; it starts with a picture on the back of the eye but then breaks it up in to hundreds of pieces. It then assigns each piece to a location relative to the object being observed.”

This isn’t a book that I would suggest you rush out and buy, though it is an enjoyable read. Rather, take the tine to watch Jeff’s presentation below. If that whets your appetite, then take the plunge.

One thought on “Vision in the Context of a New Theory of Intelligence

  1. Just a small comment, crazy how it was almost 60 years ago that Merleau-Ponty said “vision is the brain’s way of touching” and here Hawkins is revitalizing that idea in 2021. To quote another Frenchman, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (more things change, the more they stay the same).

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