We didn’t really understand the human heart until the mid 17th century, when engineers developed vacuum pumps to move water out of mines. Anatomists realized that such pumps provided an excellent analogy for what the heart does and how it does it. As technology advanced, we used it to learn about our own biology.
In the 20th century, with the advent of the digital computer, we humans reached a similar conclusion-by-analogy: computers show us how our brains work. In the computer, we see elementary logic, various switches flipping on and off, and memory cells that hold information in its most elemental form – binary digits. Perhaps our brains work the same way.
The brain-as-computer analogy has never been perfect, however. The computer, for instance, has a central processing unit (CPU) that manages pretty much everything. The brain doesn’t appear to have an analogous organ. Rather, human thinking seems to be diffuse and decentralized. Indeed, much of our thinking seems to occur outside our brain; the mind is, apparently, much bigger than the brain. Similarly, we can precisely locate a “memory” in a computer. No such luck with a human brain. Memories are elusive and difficult to pinpoint.
Further, the brain is plastic in ways that computers are not. For instance, a good chunk of our brainpower is given over to visual processing. If I go blind, however, my brain can redeploy that processing power to other tasks. The brain can analyze its own limitations and change its functions in ways that computers can’t.
Given the shortcomings of the brain-as-computer analogy, perhaps it’s time to propose a new analogy. Having absorbed a healthy dose of Daniel Dennett (see here and here), I’d like to propose a simple alternative: the brain functions much like the United Sates of America.
That may sound bizarre but let’s go through the reasoning. First, Dennett points out that brain cells, as living organisms, can have their own agendas in ways that silicon cannot. Yes, brain cells may switch on and off as electricity pulses through them, but they could conceivably do other things as well. Perhaps they can plot and plan. Perhaps they can cooperate – or collude, depending on how you look at it. Perhaps they can aim to do things that are in their best interests, as opposed to the interests of the overall organism.
Second, Dennet notes that all biological creatures descended from single-celled organisms. Once upon a time, single-cell organisms were free to do as they pleased. Some chose to associate with similar organisms to form multi-celled organisms. In doing so, cells started to specialize and create communities with much greater potential. However, they also gave up some of their primordial freedom. They worked not just for themselves but also for the organism as a whole. Perhaps our cells have some “memory” of that primordial freedom and some desire to return to it. Perhaps some of our cells just want to go feral.
And how is this like the United States? The original colonies were free to do as they pleased. When they joined together, they gave up some freedom and created a community with much greater potential. We assume that each state works for the good of the union. But each state also has strong incentives to work for its own good, even if doing so undermines the union. Similarly, each state has a “memory” of its primordial freedom and an inchoate desire to return there. Indeed, states’ rights are jealously guarded.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that we have a microscope as big as the solar system. When we examine the United States, we see 50 cells. Each cell seems to be similar in function and process. We might assume that they always function for the good of the whole. But when we look closer, we see that each cell has its own agenda. Some cells (Texas?) may want to go feral to recapture their primordial freedom. Other cells are jockeying for position and advantage. Some are forming alliances and coalitions with like-minded cells to accomplish their aims. Red cells seem to have different values and processes than blue cells.
Could our brains really be as chaotic as the good old USA? It’s possible. If nothing else, such an analogy frees up our thinking. We’re no longer in a silicon straitjacket. We recognize the possibility that living cells may have complex agendas. We start to see possibilities that we were previously blind to. I would write more but I suspect that some of my neurons have just gone feral.