The structure of the brain is often described as an immense tangle of electrochemical connectors called neurons. These neurons number around 100 billion in the average adult, and their ability to connect and disconnect lets us drive a car, gargle after brushing, watch TV, read Shakespeare, play chess, and a myriad of other things including playing the piano, if indeed you play.
Even if you don’t play, just thinking about playing the piano is making your neurons work. Their activity is frequently compared to a series of switches flipping on and off. They do this at amazing speed, sometimes firing in clusters of 10,000 or more at a time.
This image—a myriad of switches, waiting obediently and dronelike for activation—is something we can wrap our minds around. The sheer numbers and speed of neural operation is difficult to contemplate, but this concept certainly seems easier to picture than say the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics.
After all, that’s how computers operate, and isn’t the brain essentially a superpowered, complicated organic computer?
Not so fast, says Daniel C Dennett, Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. In a piece entitled “The Normal Well-Tempered Mind”, he depicts the neuron as “a little agent with an agenda...much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch.”
Billions of years of evolution have endowed our brain cells with much greater capacity than simply electrochemical slaves toiling in the brain’s pitch-black darkness.
Neurons appear to create relationships and alliances, just as quickly dissolving those ties along lines we do not, and may never, understand. Dennett points out that you don’t have to worry about the circuits in your laptop going rogue. In the brain, we might call this switch insurrection, an errant thought or, on the more extreme end of the spectrum, cancer.
We can observe neural firing, but explaining the activity beyond that becomes problematic. We don’t possess the kind of language that might accurately ascribe some form of primitive intention or desire to neural actions. (The oddity of this last sentence only serves to accentuate the problem.) Dennett postulates that the ‘free wheeling aspects’ of neurons gives rise to everything from imagination to creativity to mental illness.
The very idea of neural plasticity and the brain’s ability to reorganize its cellular structure after a learning event or trauma suggests that neurons must be more than mere slave switches. In Dennett’s view, they aren’t part of some hierarchal controlled systems bureaucracy, but rather a collection of individuals coming to together in a more democratic way, with just a tinge of anarchy thrown in for good measure.
This explains a lot of things, including why your actions are not always in sync with your intentions, because as most of us might now appreciate, keeping your neurons in line can be a full time job. By comparison, your laptop is pretty well behaved.