self-preserving nature of neurons

Daniel C. Dennett, philosopher, on the self-preserving nature of neurons which is the basis for understanding neuroplasticity of the human brain:

We’re beginning to come to grips with the idea that your brain is not this well-organized hierarchical control system where everything is in order, a very dramatic vision of bureaucracy. In fact, it’s much more like anarchy with some elements of democracy. Sometimes you can achieve stability and mutual aid and a sort of calm united front, and then everything is hunky-dory, but then it’s always possible for things to get out of whack and for one alliance or another to gain control, and then you get obsessions and delusions and so forth.
You begin to think about the normal well-tempered mind, in effect, the well-organized mind, as an achievement, not as the base state, something that is only achieved when all is going well, but still, in the general realm of humanity, most of us are pretty well put together most of the time. This gives a very different vision of what the architecture is like, and I’m just trying to get my head around how to think about that.

Dennett thus argues that each neuron is far from being a simple logical switch, and further explains, that neuron is a little agent with an agenda, “and they are much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch.” Dennett describes a number of ways the brain spontaneously reorganizes itself to changing conditions — and says that a neuroscientist who doesn’t have an architecture that can explain how this happens, and why this is, has a very deficient model.

He continues: Why should these neurons be so eager to pitch in and do this other work just because they don’t have a job? Well, they’re out of work. They’re unemployed, and if you’re unemployed, you’re not getting your neuromodulators. If you’re not getting your neuromodulators, your neuromodulator receptors are going to start disappearing, and pretty soon you’re going to be really out of work, and then you’re going to die.

This is a fascinating perspective, one that offers a kind of Darwinian approach to brain cells. He’s basically saying that neurons, like organisms, are subject to selectional pressures, and by virtue of this, have to find ways to adapt and stay useful in the brain. The end result, in conjunction with other adaptive processes, is the advent of a highly functional and well-tempered brain that works to keep the host alive. Think of it as a kind of “selfish neuron” hypothesis.

Link to the conversation with Daniel C. Dennett: The Normal Well-Tempered Mind

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