Information = Knowledge?

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information

T.S. Eliot, from “The Rock” (1934)

Since those bleak pre-war days when Eliot put down these lines, our world has galloped on at even greater speed, with a velocity ever more dizzying. This of course is in great part aided by the advent of the computer and the information age. It has created such wealth and prosperity utterly unimagined a mere seventy years ago. But has all this made our lives better? Are we wiser and happier? We should be, if information = knowledge.

What is information? To begin with, there is the internet with its hundreds of millions of web pages. And there is the information already contained in books, maps, manuscripts in libraries around the world. Not to forget all the great paintings and sculptures preserved in our museums, churches and temples – yes, visual material is information. And furthermore there is the earth’s vast reserve of hidden information: from its cosmic and geologic past to the living present, bacteria to barracuda, that we are still trying to uncover and understand. Since the dawn of civilisation, we humans have asked all these questions: Is the universe living and evolving? Does it have a beginning and an end? Where did life come from? When did it start? How does it work? Why must we die? We have come a very long way.

If we say that the information we gathered of our world in the two hundred years of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could be equal to all that we had known from the previous five thousand, what are we to expect in the twenty-first century? While ever better computers can manage this information, does it have meaning without human interpretation? And is our brain prepared to cope with this deluge? Are robots poised to take over?

In short, has all this information enriched our brain and body, our lives? Can we now be disease-free and pain-free as we demand? After all, information is supposed to improve our lives. Has it? Perhaps not. Because the sad truth is that most of us actually have a constant headache, and back ache. Will we be able to survive this information invasion?

Yes, there is a tremendous amount of knowledge conveyed in all this information, knowledge and wisdom from all the people who have lived before us; knowledge and wisdom from people who are still living and searching now among us. If we can gain knowledge and wisdom from reading Plato or Confucius, then why have so few of us become wise? If all religions teach us to love one another and not to kill, why is there still so much hatred in the world? And throughout history, how much killing has been done by people claiming devotion to their religions?

There is a gap here. It seems obvious to me if by reading great philosophers we have not all become wise, and by learning religious teachings we have not all become peaceful and loving, then the information we gained from these books has not really reached inside us, or turned into the knowledge it conveyed. Remembering the writings and teachings apparently has not created knowledge. Confucius said, in answer to whether he learned many things and kept them in his memory: No, I seek a unity all-pervading. [1] What he meant could become clear if we allow that information is not knowledge.

Peter Gärdenfors, professor of Cognitive Science at Lund University in Sweden presented at the symposium Learning in Museums a compelling argument to make a distinction between information and knowledge. [2] He calls information an external medium the quantity of which does not necessarily bear a positive relationship to knowledge. More bytes and bits do not always mean more knowledge. He believes our common conflation of information with knowledge results from thinking of our brain as a computer. He considers knowledge in these terms: Knowledge is nothing you have for just abstract reasons; it is something you can use in practical problem solving. To put it another way, knowledge determines your action in response to a situation.

The web provides information, a book provides information, a picture or painting provides information. However the knowledge that is conveyed in that information that we receive does not become knowledge until it has been digested and absorbed by us. It is like food. Unless all the meat and vegetables we eat have been broken down: proteins into amino acids, carbohydrates into simple sugars, and fats into fatty acids, our body cannot absorb them at all. While in the digestive tract, the food is not really inside our body. Only after absorption into the blood stream is the food part of our body and useful. Is there something as clear cut in transforming information into knowledge?

What happens when we read something, like a newspaper? Say we notice there have been new, additional security measures at the airport. One person might make a mental note: tomorrow when I leave for Rome, I need to allow more time for check-in. The piece of information, i.e. increased security in the airport interacted with information from the person’s own memory: that security measures make check-in longer. The end result is that his next action is changed: he goes to the airport early. Thus the interaction of external (newspaper) and internal (memory) information results in something new in him, something that alters his course of action. We may call this knowledge.

On the other hand, another person reading the same piece of information, someone who perhaps had been in a plane hijacking may react very differently. He may cancel the trip. Now this action is not a typical one but uniquely his own. The internal information (his memory) he recalls is very different from the other person. In each case, we might say that they have arrived at different knowledge: because knowledge is unique to and attainable only by each person, individually.

Knowledge is thus internal and can exist only inside a person. It manifests itself as action. But if he tells it, it becomes external medium – information.

Although we now know a lot about perception and memory and how it can be retained, we still do not know how information is turned into knowledge. There is neuro-biological evidence that our brain has a hardwired system where information is filed in a hierarchical manner, from general to specific, which can be retrieved in various combinations as situations demand. [3] In forming memory that lasts more than a few hours, we know that protein synthesis via the action of genes inside our cells is required – thus energy (i.e. effort) is needed. Also, that simple animals like snails are capable of one form of memory, the reflex. And memory is also not just stored in our brain and nerve cells but is carried in other cells of the body, and is very much modified by emotion. Emotion decides whether a cell retains certain memories and not others. [4] In fact, we have identified the molecules that knock on a cell’s surface to tell it whether to retain or recall certain memories. These are the peptides, (the so-called information molecules) – endorphin, produced in our body during ‘runner’s high’ – is one example. The story of its discovery is worth telling.

Peptides are not new. Many long-known hormones and neurotransmitters are peptides. What is new is the discovery of receptors for them – a discovery that revolutionised our conception of mind and body. The opiate receptor for morphine was discovered in rat brain cells in 1972, by Candace Pert, later a research professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. [5] The morphine molecule fits very specifically onto this receptor on a cell’s surface to cause a chain of reactions – resulting in the effect that morphine has on us, a sense of calm and euphoria. But after the discovery, a natural question came up. If our body made this receptor (sort of a lock on a cell door), shouldn’t it have made a key? Three years later, endorphin, our body’s own endogenous morphine, was indeed discovered – the key found. This time by a Scottish team at the University of Aberdeen. Subsequently, and astonishingly, endorphin and its receptor were found throughout the body, not just in the brain. As more peptides and their receptors were discovered, many circulating freely in the brain and body fluids, researchers have now realised that our brain and our body are actually in constant and silent communication with each other.

This peptide-receptor network forms what can be called a second nervous system, albeit a chemical one, but one far more ancient, occurring even in single-celled animals, long before there were nerve cells, much less the nervous system. Nerve cells, or neurons, make up our brain and spinal cord and the nerves that go to every part of our body: heart, stomach, arms, legs, skin etc. This is what we commonly call our nervous system. It transmits impulses electro-chemically, neuron-synapse-neuron or neuron-synapse-muscle, and is very rapid. It has been estimated, however that only a very, very small portion (maybe less than 2 per cent) of messages in our body is transmitted this way – the rest by the peptide-receptor network, usually working beneath our consciousness (and working more slowly but pervasively). It can however be brought into the conscious, as with the yogis or bio-feedback. Could knowledge be the result of an integration of the nervous system and the peptide-receptor network – the conscious and the non-conscious body/mind?

The actor Michael Caine once told the story of an early audition as a young actor. The script required him to open a door to walk on stage. But a chair was in the way and he froze. The director told him later never to freeze on stage: if it is a drama, throw the chair; if it is a comedy, trip over it. It would be unthinkable that the exact same situation ever happened again in his career, but that piece of information had certainly led to some kind of knowledge for him, a process that requires the thinking brain, consciousness. But what is that knowledge and where does it reside in him? No one knows. For an actor to make such a split-second response on stage, the knowledge almost has to be carried in something that permeates the body as well as the brain, i.e. the peptide-receptor network. For the thinking brain to make a decision and send instructions to all the appropriate muscles to act in concert would take far too long. Caine himself called it muscle memory.

Just exactly how do we learn, i.e. turning information into knowledge? Or arrive at that ‘unity all pervading’ as Confucious seeks?

Cognitive psychology has now distinguished at least two kinds of learning: learning ‘how’ and learning ‘what’. Learning how to ride a bicycle is implicit, the memory is experiential and cannot be consciously recalled. (Though the initial faltering efforts would be conscious). Learning about names and places, on the other hand, is explicit, and can be consciously recalled, forming explicit memory which is what we refer to when we talk about memory. The two types of memory involve different parts of the brain. But there is more. Research on brain-damaged patients has found that implicit learning goes far beyond just riding bicycles. Researchers have long observed that in amnesic patients (cannot form new explicit memory), their perceptual skills and memory involving forms and shapes were intact even though they could not recall what they had learned. More importantly, both kinds of memory are retained in the cell using identical molecular mechanisms, indicating a common evolution origin. [6]

Nicholas Serota, director of Tate Gallery in London, in his book on the dilemma of museums of modern art may have touched upon these two types of learning. [7] He makes a distinction between providing experience and providing interpretation in an exhibition. When a gallery shows the works of a single artist, for example, Jackson Pollock or Donald Judd, with all proper ambience conducive to ‘concentration and contemplation’, it is providing an experience. This obviously creates a situation for implicit learning, involving all the bodily senses. On the other hand, a deliberate juxtaposition of different works or periods sharing some characters that may not be apparent, that provokes thinking, requiring interpretation on the part of the curator and the viewer – is a very explicit form of learning. He believes a balance of the two in a show is the goal of the modern art museum. Allowing simultaneous or sequential activation of our implicit and explicit pathways of learning would certainly deepen our engagement, likely leading to knowledge. This process requires consciousness. What is consciousness?

Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, had turned his attention in the latter part of his career to the study of human consciousness. He believed that consciousness was enhanced by visual attention, his chosen area of research. [8] He speculated, quoting William James, the early twentieth century American psychologist: consciousness is not a thing, but a process.

Crick could well be right. For we now believe that memory is really a process, not a thing: it is the coordinated firing of impulses between two neurons, strengthening their connection. Vibes, if you will. Thus knowledge is likely a process as well – a unity all-pervading? And what is wisdom? Collective knowledge? Universal intelligence? Perhaps Life itself.

An essay © by Cecilia Wong
2005-2009 London


[1] James Legge (Translation), The Chinese Classics, Vol. 1, Confucius Analects, The Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean, Hong Kong University, 1861, Book XV, Chapter II, p. 158.

[2] Peter Gärdenfors, Knowledge vs. Information, Art Bulletin of National Museum, Stockholm, vol. 5, 1998.

[3] Joe Z. Tsien, The Memory Code, Scientific American, July 2007, p. 34-41

[4] Perhaps this is where the analogy of perception with our digestive system ceases. While digestion occurs in our digestive tract and is the same for everybody in turning whole foods to small molecules, our visual perception appears to pre-sort (or pre-digest) information even before we accept it into our memory, consciously or unconsciously, and is highly individual and emotional.

[5] Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion, Simon & Schuster, London, 1997.

[6] Eric Kandel of Columbia University made significant contributions to our understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms of memory. A Harvard-trained psychiatrist, he received a Nobel in 2000 for his research in the new field of cognitive neuroscience.

[7] Nicholas Serota, Experience or Interpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1997.

[8] Francis Crick made these remarks in an essay he contributed to a book by Rita Carter on the brain.

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