"The Endless Knot: An Introduction" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endless Knot.  Let’s look at what paying attention to connections can tell us about language, history and thought.

The world is a complicated place.  We’ve all heard the pop culture references to six degrees of separation and the Kevin Bacon game, or the butterfly effect, in which chaos theory tells us that a butterfly beating its wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet.  One way of thinking about these types of things is interconnectivity.

Interconnectivity is a property of complex systems, which is a concern not just of scientists and mathematicians, but of social sciences such as economics, sociology, and anthropology, and I think that such an approach is useful for the study of history and culture too. A complex system is any system composed of many interconnected parts, in which understanding each individual part doesn’t mean you understand the whole system. In colloquial terms, it’s more than the sum of its parts. This is a phenomenon called emergence. An obvious example is weather and climate.

Perhaps the most notable example of emergence is the mind, which is seen as arising from the complex system of interconnected neurons in the brain. This approach to understanding cognition is known as connectionism. According to this model, human cognition (thought) is the result of the interaction of 100 billion neurons, each of which has several thousand synapses, for a total of several hundred trillion synaptic connections. The overall map of these connections is often referred to as the connectome, perhaps most famously by neuroscientist Sebastian Seung, who advanced the proposition "I am my connectome" in his notable TED talk. The idea is that, similar to the way your genome makes you physically who you are, your connectome makes you mentally who you are. According to this hypothesis, the pattern of these connections encodes all your thoughts, memories, and personality. It is because of the vast number of connections in the brain that something as complex as cognition can happen.

In addition to general cognition, our brains specifically have the cognitive faculty of language. Unsurprisingly perhaps, interconnectivity is important in language as well, and some of the cognitive approaches to language are based on this. For instance, in frame semantics, the meanings of words or concepts is structured not like a dictionary but like an encyclopedia. That is to say, you can’t understand a word without also knowing a large variety of related concepts. Thus, to understand the word ‘sell’, you have to know a number of related concepts in the domain of financial transactions, such as a buyer, money, and so forth. Thus, a word brings up a semantic frame of related knowledge, and it’s by that frame that we understand the word. Sometimes a word can belong in more than one frame, and thus have different meanings depending on context. Bank in the context of a river has a very different meaning than bank in the context of money, and you have to have a broad conceptual and cultural understanding to be able to correctly interpret such expressions as "a strong man", "a strong woman", "a strong smell", "a strong argument", and so on. Thus it’s the interaction of words that creates meaning. We can picture this as a kind of web of words that collectively produce a meaning not entirely clear from the meanings of the individual words themselves.

The world too is highly interconnected, as the six degrees of separation idea makes clear. You might also be aware of the history of science tv series Connections by James Burke.  Burke showed the often surprising lines of influence that drove scientific innovations. This was a direct challenge to the more linear view of history, and in particular the history of science and technology. Instead of progressing in small incremental steps, Burke sees innovation often taking surprising leaps from one seemingly unconnected area to another.  So it’s interesting to note then that the complex connections inside our heads mirror the complex connections in the world around us.  

In a sense then, I’d like to explore interconnectivity on two levels, the micro level of cognition and language, and the macro level of culture and history, and further, look at how these systems interact, since language, culture, and thought are constantly influencing each other. And it is no surprise, given the interconnected nature of our brains, that we are superb pattern recognition machines, and seem to be driven to seek out patterns in the complex world around us.  And given that these historical and cultural connections can often take quite unexpected turns, we have to cast our net widely when we’re seeking to understand the world.

One consequence of this is the need for interdisciplinarity.  For those not that familiar with the world of academia, universities are generally rigidly divided into a variety of disciplines. At the larger level, there are main groupings such as the sciences and humanities, which are further divided into departments such as physics, biology, English literature, history, and philosophy. There are certainly good organizational reasons for this kind of division, as it allows in-depth interaction within disciplines with others working on similar areas, and puts researchers and students with others of a like mind, who might best be able to appreciate their shared material.

I suppose ultimately this kind of division goes back to the medieval arrangement of education into what is known as the trivium and the quadrivium. The first level, the trivium with three subjects, is what we might now think of as the arts: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (that is logic). The second level, the quadrivium with four subjects, consisted of what we might call the sciences: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (that is the theoretical study of harmonics). The word trivium means literally ‘three ways' (referring obviously to the three parts) from Latin tri- ‘three' and via ‘way, road', and on a more literal level the same word was used to refer to a crossroad of three streets. From this also comes the modern English word ‘trivial’. Now I'm not suggesting that intense specialisation is trivial, but the research produced from increasingly specialised disciplines runs the risk of being appreciated by only a small few who are in the know. Now this kind of detailed work is very important for advancing and solidifying what we know about the world — quantum physicists may discover the fundamental operations of reality or paleographers may determine where a particular medieval manuscript comes from. But sometimes great advances come from the unexpected intersection of different knowledge sets, and because few people can be experts in more than one field, these kinds of perspectives can be missed.  Hence the need for INTERdisciplinarity, which seeks to make connections across the traditional boundaries.

That’s the background behind this approach to understanding the world around us, and why interconnectivity matters. On a more individual level, interconnectivity is one way our minds organize information, in other words associative memory, like the memory palace technique which has received much attention recently (most notably in the recent tv adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories). There are other techniques we use too though, other ways of knowing, such as narrative and metaphor. We tend to think of narrative and metaphor as simply literary techniques, but in fact they are much more fundamental than that.  It turns out that narrative and metaphor are basic tools the mind uses to organize and understand information. But more on that another time.

What we’re going to do here is start with an approach in part founded in those elements of cognitive science and cognitive linguistics I mentioned before, and use language, literature, and history to explore this web of connections.  Many of the videos you’ll see on this channel will start with a word as a jumping off point, with its etymology, that is the word’s history and origin, giving us a way to explore history and culture more widely, and then after that, anything’s fair game.  For the first little while you’ll also see videos which further explore these ways of knowing I mentioned: interconnectivity, metaphor, and narrative. And to highlight the connective nature of these ideas, I’ll use what are called concept maps to visualise them, showing the interconnections between the different elements.

After all, here we are on the internet and the world wide web, a vast interconnected world in which we can all dig deep down into our own specialities, but also share with others in a way unprecedented in previous human history. What better place to explore these connections, both old and new.

If you have comments or questions, I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, or leave them in the comment section below.  You can also read more of my thoughts at my blog, The Endless Knot.