Bill Benzon’s Busy Bee Brain

Read the whole thing, it’s one of those ideas that’ll stay with you. Excerpt:
There is now a pretty strong consensus that the cerebral cortex (which is, by no means, the entire brain, but it is likely that this is where culture is carried) is organized into small columns of neurons. In a 1978 essay Vernon Mountcastle called these minicolumns and suggested that they have about 100-300 neurons each. He estimated that the neocortex consists of 600,000,000 of these minicolumns. He also suggested that these minicolumns are organized into macrocolumns, about 600,000 of them — implying that there are hundreds of minicolumns per macrocolumn. (Mountcastle was clear that these numbers were just order of magnitude estimates & that is all I need for my purposes.) That makes these macrocolumns roughly the size of a typical invertebrate nervous system of 10K to 100K neurons. So, here’s my metaphor: Your neocortex consists of 600,000 buzzing bees going about their business.

The point of the metaphor is that, just as individual bees are autonomous agents (which must, nonetheless, feed and reproduce in a group), so the macrocolumns are autonomous agents (which are physically coupled to many other such agents). Bees go about their business by sensing optical and chemical gradients and features and by moving their bodies and excreting chemicals. The macrocolumns are not directly connected to the external world, but they have extensive inputs and outputs to other macrocolumns and to other regions of the brain and nervous system. From a purely information processing point of view, they are as capable of action as are bees. They “sense” neurochemical gradients in the intersynaptic space and act on their sensations by excreting chemicals into that space.

5 comments to Bill Benzon’s Busy Bee Brain

  • JLPP

    This is a really interesting article! Thanks for posting it. As an aside, when we lived in Malaysia, we went to Kuala Selangor to watch the synchronous flashing of the fireflies. Very memorable. Doing a little googling this morning, I discovered this:

    Link text

    Sad, and maybe prophetic in the context of Bill Benzon’s discussion of the human brain.

  • Sorry off-topic:

    Animata is an open source real-time animation software, designed to create animations, interactive background projections for concerts, theatre and dance performances.

    see more: http://animata.kibu.hu/

    Very nice “sita sings the blues”, thanks CC!

  • John Browne

    Thank you. It’s likely that the senses we don’t really consciously recognize (&/or cultivate) come into play at many levels through many creatures… schools of fish & flocks of birds are the most obvious, maybe. I have ‘sensed’ this connection when working with others in many settings, and have discovered that self-consciousness at such moments tends to throw one ‘out of synch’ with the group… whether playing music or planting trees… or wrestling a piano up 3 floors on a narrow stairway. (The harder, or more physical the work the less likely that one’s “group-sense” is disrupted, in my experiences.)

    In the link above to the plight of the fireflies it’s a bit unsettling to see the young, freshly-planted palm there in the middle ground between camera & interviewee in the clear-cut. Mercy! ^..^

  • Thanks for the link, Nina.

  • Douglas Hofstadter describes an (imaginary) intelligent ant colony, using just the same analogy, in Escher, Gödel, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. While the individual ants making up the colony are nonsentient, the colony itself can converse (in a complicated way) with other characters in the story. Paradoxically, the colony’s best friend is an anteater.

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