I was an avid reader of Frank Herbert’s Dune series of novels. One interesting thread in the books was that at some point, long before the start of the first novel, humans revolted against thinking machines (and in Herbert’s politico-religio-scientific melange, he called it the Butlerian Jihad). A response to the destruction of all the thinking machines was the Mentat, a human trained and drugged to replace computer thinking and feats of calculation.
The concept has alway fascinated me. And when I think of all the things the mind has been shown to do I can’t help but think that we can indeed map what a modern-day Mentat might be able to do.
Have you ever read an ancient epic poem, such as Homer’s Iliad? The Iliad, like many other ancient epic poems, was initially an oral poem, passed on from person to person, long before it was a written poem. While we think of this as a feat of memory, clearly this is something we see in other areas with people who can remember Pi to many digits, pianists who can play long orchestral concerts, and little kids who can memorize cards before they can read.
A recent article in The Verge mentions a study of “loci,” a method also knows as the “memory palace,” where a mental map of places is used to remember objects. Indeed, this process might affect the brain.
“It shows that superior memory on that level is not something that is just inborn talent, but is something that essentially can be learned by everyone”
When I hear that techniques like this one actually cause changes to the brain, I start thinking again of Mentats.
For example, I have heard tales of savants who can make highly detailed drawings in a distributed fashion, the final drawing only revealing itself as the patches grow and connect. Or the folks who can name the day of the week if you give them a date, or, even, remember a day completely if you give them a date. Or how about folks who can calculate large numbers instantly?
These abilities are in our brain and technically we should be able to train for them. My one concern is whether these Mentat-like abilities and our neurotypical abilities are mutually exclusive, sort of like an autism spectrum.
Pulling it all together?
One last thing: Adderall is a common drug to treat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. But it also a coveted college studying drug, as it seems to help one concentrate and focus (and if you catch The Expanse, you’ve seen the Martians use something similar).
What other drugs out there allow us to tap into our mental skills? How can we start training our brain for feats of memorization, calculation, recitation?
For sure, these capabilities are out there and we have many examples. But can we pull them together and give someone the wide-ranging computational and inference abilities of a Mentat?
What do you think?
Image from The Verge