There is, you might say, a selective pressure for living systems to increase the variety of things they can do. And increasing the things they can do, that means on the one hand getting the physiological anatomical features to do these things—which means increasing complexity—but it also means a kind of a cognitive increase: an increase in the number of things that they can sense and the amount of knowledge they have to know “How do I deal with these circumstances?” So the selective pressure is to increase the range of challenges you can deal with, and that is a progressive evolution. There is no doubt about that.

from Glimpsing the Global Brain (2021)

Portrait of Francis Heylighen

Francis Heylighen

Cyberneticist
Born: September 27, 1960

Francis Paul Heylighen is a Belgian cyberneticist investigating the emergence and evolution of intelligent organization. He presently works as a research professor at the Free University of Brussels, where he directs the transdisciplinary research group on "Evolution, Complexity, and Cognition" and the Global Brain Institute. He is best known for his work on the Principia Cybernetica Project, his model of the Internet as a global brain, and his contributions to the theories of memetics and self-organization. He is also known, albeit to a lesser extent, for his work on gifted people and their problems.

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Collective Consciousness and the Web

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Francis Heylighen collaborated with Shima Beigi on a research paper about the noosphere’s response to the global crisis, titled Collective Consciousness Supported by the Web: Healthy or Toxic?

Cover image for Glimpsing the Global Brain

Glimpsing the Global Brain

Complex systems theorist Heylighen and evolutionary biologist Wilson discuss a possible phase transition of humanity in which the members of our species become neurons in a planetary brain, utilizing the Internet as a shared exocortex.

Mind Outside Brain

A Radically Non-Dualist Foundation for Distributed Cognition

We approach the problem of the extended mind from a radically non-dualist perspective. The separation between mind and matter is an artefact of the outdated mechanistic worldview, which leaves no room for mental phenomena such as agency, intentionality, or feeling. We propose to replace it by an action ontology, which conceives mind and matter as aspects of the same network of processes. By adopting the intentional stance, we interpret the catalysts of elementary reactions as agents exhibiting desires, intentions, and sensations. Autopoietic networks of reactions constitute more complex super-agents, which moreover exhibit memory, deliberation and sense-making. In the specific case of social networks, individual agents coordinate their actions via the propagation of challenges. The distributed cognition that emerges from this interaction cannot be situated in any individual brain. This non-dualist, holistic view extends and operationalises process metaphysics and Eastern philosophies. It is supported by both mindfulness experiences and mathematical models of action, self-organisation, and cognition.

Noospheric consciousness

Integrating Neural Models of Consciousness and of the Web

The world-wide web has been conceptualized as a global brain for humanity due to its neural network-like organization. To determine whether this global brain could exhibit features associated with consciousness, we review three neuroscientific theories of consciousness: information integration, adaptive resonance and global workspace. These theories propose that conscious states are characterized by a globally circulating, resonant pattern of activity that is sufficiently coherent to be examined and reflected upon. We then propose a correspondence between this notion and Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere as a forum for collective thinking, and explore some implications of this self-organizing dynamics for the evolution of shared, global understanding.

The Global Brain as a Model of the Future Information Society

The Global Brain paradigm views the emerging global information network connecting humans and technology as a nervous system for Earth’s social superorganism. This special issue surveys opportunities and challenges in developing this potentially more intelligent, synergetic system. Contributions explore political, economic, and philosophical aspects, aiming to guide the transition towards a sustainable society empowering diversity.

The Global Brain as a New Utopia

The global brain can be conceived most fundamentally as a higher level of evolution, the way humans form a higher level of organization that evolved out of the animals. Although the analogy between an organism and a society can be applied even to primitive societies, it becomes clearly more applicable as technology develops. As transport and communication become more efficient, different parts of global society become more interdependent. At the same time, the variety of ideas, specializations, and subcultures increases. This simultaneous integration and differentiation creates an increasingly coherent system, functioning at a much higher level of complexity.

The Global Superorganism

An Evolutionary-Cybernetic Model of the Emerging Network Society

The organismic view of society is updated by incorporating concepts from cybernetics, evolutionary theory, and complex adaptive systems. Global society can be seen as an autopoietic network of self-producing components, and therefore as a living system or “superorganism”.

The World-Wide Web as a Super-Brain

From Metaphor to Model

If society is viewed as a superorganism, communication networks play the role of its brain. This metaphor is developed into a model for the design of a more intelligent global network. The World Wide Web, through its distributed hypermedia architecture, functions as an “associative memory”, which may “learn” by the strengthening of frequently used links. Software agents, exploring the Web through spreading activation, function as problem-solving “thoughts”. Users are integrated into this “super-brain” through direct machine interfaces and the reciprocal exchange of knowledge between individual and Web. (Published in Cybernetics and Systems ’96, p. 917–922.)