• Question: Imagine, if you will, that you are alone in a void. There is no light to see with. The are no sounds to hear. There are no odours to smell. There are no items to taste. There are no objects to touch. There is not even any gravity to give you a sense of which way is up. You have no perception of any sensory input. Is it possible to learn anything in this emptiness?

    Asked by Alex Hurle on 22 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Joseph Devlin

      Joseph Devlin answered on 22 Apr 2015:

      Sure, you’ve already learned that you’re in a void, which presumably is a break from your usual place. More interesting is the possibility of learning lots of things based on existing information that you already possess. For instance, you may learn that you’re scared of voids, that you’ll desperately miss your spouse/kids/dog, that you really won’t miss your job, etc. Once the emotional response calms, you may consider other information such as math facts you know and begin to mentally manipulate them and learn new relations. For instance, you may know what a prime number is but never have been exposed to prime factorization. A bit of thinking about the relation between primes and other numbers may lead to you learning prime factorization. Amusingly, Douglas Lenat’s PhD thesis from Stanford (1976) was something he called the “Automated Mathematician (AM)” that did just this. Given a small set of basic math facts, it reasoned on them and generated a much larger corpus of knowledge (that it could also reason on). It was one of the very cool examples of true Artificial Intelligence but it made human mathematicians very irritated. Lenat would reply by saying “I AM what I AM” and leave it at that.

    • Photo: Katherine Weare

      Katherine Weare answered on 22 Apr 2015:

      Sure masses. Sounds like a kind of silent retreat. In this (alarming ) scenario you still have your body and breath, and mind. Ideal opportunity to take up that long promised meditation practice, and get in touch with your inner self, recurrent patterns of thought and emotional reactions, and learn a huge amount about yourself. Cf also ‘The butterfly and the diving bell’ by Jean Dominque Bauby for what is possible for someone with locked in syndrome.

    • Photo: Duncan Astle

      Duncan Astle answered on 9 May 2015:

      Interesting alternative slant on that question….

      We know that early sensory inputs are vital for cognitive and brain development. So, yes being in a void can still result in learning as an adult. However, an absence of sensory input will have a MASSIVE impact upon cognitive and brain development. There as very very very many good demonstrations of this. It can have a very large and general effect or in some cases a highly specific impact on learning (e.g. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v410/n6831/full/410890a0.html#close).

      Undiagnosed, a sensory processing deficit (or lack of appropriate stimulation as a result of neglect) can have a very profound effect on development and learning.