• Robb G. Best

How Your Brain is Like an Ant Colony

Ants are amazing. They can carry 50 times their body weight. Their total biomass worldwide equals the total biomass of humans. Fungus ants started farming 50 million years before agriculture was even a glint in early human eyes.

When it comes to teamwork, humans can't compare. There may be no "I" in team, but there are plenty of ants. Collectively, a colony of ants is capable of a variety of sophisticated actions—building intricate nests (out of their own bodies if they're army ants), fighting wars with other colonies, raising livestock, and yes, even raiding that picnic basket.

All this despite the long-established fact that ants are just not that smart. It's not unusual to see two ants struggling to carry a crumb in opposite directions. Although the number varies from species to species, the average ant has something like 250,000 neurons. To be fair, that's more than double the neurons of a lobster (100,000), but even a humble cockroach puts it to shame (1,000,000), and the average human blows that out of the water (86,000,000,000).

So how can an ant colony be so much smarter than an ant? Maybe a better way to think of a colony is not as a collection of individuals but as a complex system built out of simple parts, much like any complex system. No one screw or piston knows how to be an engine. The key is in specialization, coordination, and harmony between components.

This is all well and good, but the engine analogy breaks down pretty quickly: it's not as though there's an engineer with a blueprint somewhere, arranging the ants into the most efficient possible configuration and turning switches off and on. Despite her name, the queen ant has no hierarchal power and issues no executive orders. So how do ants do it?

The concept of emergence, order arising by pieces organizing themselves, no direction from the top needed, is memorably discussed on this episode of Radiolab. Ants communicate by emitting chemicals. An ant who finds food it wants to carry back to the colony leaves a pheromone trail. The initial signal is weak, but as other ants start to investigate and emit chemicals of their own, it grows stronger, until legions have assembled to lift that chicken drumstick.

Initially, the ants were scurrying in all directions, but from this chaos a gradual consensus forms. It's roughly the same process through which a viral video gathers steam, or a stock price is determined. And—perhaps you saw this coming—some neuroscientists suggest it's how our thoughts work.

No one neuron holds any special intelligence. No one neuron is "you." Like ants, they're tiny, simple beings at the mercy of chemical signals. As phys.org reports, a team of researchers in Spain suggests there aren't even leader neurons regulating the pulses in your brain architecture. Instead, they assert, individual randomly firing neurons give off waves, which urge other neurons to fire as well, amplifying the signal through "noise focusing", "an implosive concentration of spontaneous activity."

If there's no leadership among your brain cells, it seems to raise powerful questions of identity and free will. How different are we from ants, really? We can't form housing structures from our bodies and most of us don't eat aphids, but are we all ultimately just a collection of cells scampering after chemical signals?

For comfort, I leave you with this quote from beloved sci-fi author Madeleine L'Engle, who can see at least one clear distinction between us and the insects. "Human beings are the only creatures who are allowed to fail," she says. "If an ant fails, it's dead. But we're allowed to learn from our mistakes and from our failures."

It's through this self-examination that we have the capacity to grow and improve, to iron out our drawing skills or learn how to stop making the same relationship blunders. Ants don't have that luxury.

So the next time you see an ant crawling towards your picnic basket, you might allow yourself a second of sympathy for the little gal (and it is a gal; all foraging ants are female). Just be sure to brush her away before she's beating an emergent trail straight towards your sandwich.


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