Brain Governance Metaphors

Metaphors! Metaphors communicate quickly and efficiently, yet they are prone to all sorts of errors. But given the lacks of facts about any given topic, and the limitations of brain power we have to hold together the complex relationships between those facts we do have, there are often no literal explanations (if, “literal” can really be thought of as the opposite of “metaphor”), that can substitute pleasingly enough for a metaphor, and thus, we are stuck with metaphors. Metaphors!

With that intro, what metaphor is best for how our minds work? Using models of government is one approach. William James (1890) felt we had a dictatorial neuron (“pontifical cell”) that ruled our consciousness. But in 1941 a physiologist, Charles Sherrington argued against a dictatorship and instead for a democracy of nerves: “a million-fold democracy whose each unit is a cell.”

Biology professor Ari Berkowitzis and director of the Cellular & Behavioral Neurobiology Graduate Program at the University of Oklahoma wrote a fun article for Scientific American exploring various neural government metaphors. My diagram above shows three models he discusses and the neural examples he state fall in each model.

Berkowitzis tells us that crickets and crayfish have pontifical cells (giant single spike neurons) — these cells are dictators and await no other cell’s input before making the organism react.  But those organisms also have back-up oligarchy (small set of neurons) which act more slowly but ready to help when needed. The human brain uses neuronal oligarchies to recognize human faces.

As for democracies, most neural systems sum together the input of huge groups of neurons, weighing them in various ways and sum or average the input for a final output.  This is a slow but more accurate method of analysis.

But no one system rules. It seems we can simultaneously have many different forms of neural government working simultaneously. Read this fine article if your are interested in a more careful discussion.

Here at Triangulations I use the many-selves model of consciousness, which can accommodate these many governmental models.  For at any time, among our many-selves, is could be a dictator, or an oligarchy or the summation of democratic input that determines any given particular behavior.  I’d say that the truth is too complex for any metaphor, but that is always what we’ll end up with — a metaphor. So my suggestion, keep your mind full of many metaphors for the same issue.

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Secular vs. Religious Solutions for Europe: Tom Holland

First Things is a conservative intellectual Catholic magazine.  I read it for about a year when I worked with a very devout Catholic physician who challenged me to read it.  First Things authors, in my experience, love to show off their erudition, often at the expense of a coherent message.

I was surprised when The Browser, a nonreligious on-line article aggregator, recently recommended the First Things article “All the East is Moving“. The article is by Tom Holland  and its opening blurb it says, “No longer at war with Islam, Western Europe had less need to define itself as Christ­endom, and could favour secular values over religious ones. We have come to believe that secular values will always prevail in modern societies: Is it time to revisit that assumption?”   Later in the article, he supports his thesis saying, “We don’t have too much Islam,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, “we have too little Christianity.”

It is a long article with some interesting historical information but disappointingly little support for his main thesis.

Interestingly, I found an article in the British site, “The New Humanist” where the author, Alom Shaha, interviews Tom Holland (a historian, writer and broadcaster) saying , “Tom Holland is a Christian who – by and large – doesn’t believe in God.”

Shaha states further about Holland,

When I ask him if he actually believes in the existence of a god he replies “There’s a sort of nagging, god-shaped hole in the back of my mind and the simulacrum of a god that I use to fill it is a Christian one. I could read the account of the passion, go to church on Easter and feel this is true, feel that it is articulating truths that affect me far more profoundly than I could possibly put into words, I feel myself in communion with the vast inheritance of Christian faith, I find that moving and at moments like that, I think “is this what it’s like to believe in god?” However, he also tells me that “I have seen no evidence that would satisfy me that anything supernatural exists. I have seen no proof for god.”

Tom Holland, seems to identify with an idealized version of Christianity — and he says he does so out of gratitude for his upbringing and inheritance. Tom’s article at one moment shows he knows the problems in Christian history, at the next he blindly idealizes what Christianity has to offer.  Readers can see if they agree. 

Holland’s Christianity involves an idealized non-historical Jesus’ supposed Sermon on the Mount which can be seen when he says, “no text has done more to underpin the construction of a new and multicultural identity for the [European] continent than the Sermon on the Mount.”

But the Sermon on the Mount seems to be a mishmash of sayings (probably even prior to a supposed Jesus), some contradictory to other sayings and some just nonsense. Several authors have pointed out these problems with the Sermon on the Mount, but see this article for an example “Iron Chariots“.

Holland’s article talks about the fascinating connections between Tolkien, magic weapons and the Nazis.  So if you want to read a typical Catholic “First Things” article which shows off erudition, rambles a bit and all the while it does not show the best evidence for their thesis, read Holland’s article (a non-believer in god(s) but who embraces Christianity in his identity).  I actually enjoyed the Nazi and Tolkien stuff.

Questions for Readers:  Do any of you non-theist readers have a “ simulacrum of a god” that you use.  Holland does, and uses it to label himself a Christian.  What do you think of that move?

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The Illusion of Moral Development

Morality_PyramidDo humans improve their moral reasoning as they mature, or at least do they have the potential to gradually develop a superior morality?  Confucius and Aristotle ideas felt that way. Jean Piaget (a Swiss psychologist 1896 -1980) developed a theory of stages of moral development in children. Lawrence Kohlberg  (1927 – 1987) carried Piaget’s work further with a modified model going into adulthood —  and it is perhaps now one of the most popular models. And of course there are other models.  To the right is Kohlberg’s model and you can see some other outlines here.

But I am skeptical about progress, moral or otherwise. I view each human as having many different moral calculators in their mind.  Indeed, the development of the calculators occur at different times for different folks, but I think we all maintain many calculators.  See my post on the Moral Mind.  So it is not that we progress into different moral spheres, but I think we use these different calculators depending on the situations we find ourselves. Some may use one or more calculator more often than others, and indeed some may have never developed some calculators, but we all use more than one calculator and more often than we think.  We like to think of ourselves as more homogenous: of having one set of beliefs, of having one set of morality and such but we are many selves — we are much more complicated.

I think it is a mistake to look at these as a pyramid or as progress, instead, each calculator has its own unique set benefits and its own set of shortcomings, depending on the situation — that is why so many have evolved.

Your thoughts?


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The Whole World is Immoral

I just read an interesting NPR article called :”Fish Have Feelings, Too”.  And it had many interesting facts about fish the writer made ridiculous conclusions — see if you agree. The author is Jonathan Balcombe, director from the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy — so you could imagine what his agenda is.

Here is the logic of his article:

  • Fish are animals.
  • Fish feel pain.
  • An animal has sentience if it feels pain.
  • If an animal feels pain, it also feels pleasure.
  • If a being feels pain and pleasure, it has “moral traction”
  • If animals can feel pain and pleasure, it can have good days and bad days.
  • “Moral Traction” is the bedrock of ethics.
  • So if we want to be ethical or moral, we must not cause a fish (a sentient being) to have a bad day.
  • Therefore we shouldn’t catch and kill fish.

Animals, plants, bacteria and more hunt and kill each other daily.  I guess Balcombe would rather a world of nothing but vegatation — well, at least vegetation that does not harm other vegatation.  For otherwise, why is he trying to get us to stop eating other animals when they all gladly eat each other and us.

I don’t get his argument — though I do understand his preferences– and disagree with both.  How about you?


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Poetry: Donald Hall

Summer Kitchen
—by Donald Hall

In June’s high light she stood at the sink
With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink,
And crushed garlic in late sunshine.

I watched her cooking, from my chair.
She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.

“It’s ready now. Come on,” she said.
“You light the candle.”
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.


See more excellent poems in Sabio’s Poetry Anthology


  • About the Author: Donald Hall (1928-) wiki, NPR, NPR2 (fascinating)
  • It is poetry like this that helped me to start enjoying poetry
  • ‘Tis amazing how love can change the simple and the ordinary into a miracle

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Poetry: Seamus Heaney

The Skylight 
— by Seamus Heaney

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.
But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.


See more excellent poems in Sabio’s Poetry Anthology

About Seamus Heaney (1939-):  The Wiki article, The Poetry Foundation

My Impressions:

  • Enjambment: In poetry, lines with broken syntax are called “enjambment“. Enjambment is in stark contrast to rhyming couplets or other rhyming patterns — which most of our minds have been raised on. Enjambment has always been aesthetically painful to me — perhaps like Jazz or Sitar music is to others, whereas I love both of those. Nonetheless, over the years, I have slowly gotten to the point where I don’t let poetic enjambment bother me — mind you, I still don’t love it, but it won’t stop me from appreciating a poem. Yet in Heaney’s “The Skylight” I actually appreciated his enjambment — I am not sure why. It is fun to have something outside of one’s familiarity finally stir one’s heart.
  • Skylights: I hold an ambiguous aesthetic relationship with skylights too. But in this poem, I felt the author surrendering aesthetics for the other, the lover, and falling slowly and trustingly into her/his influence — a sort of healing.
  • Jesus Healing: The final reference to Jesus-healing-story, was a perfect fit: a hole in a roof and a healing. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the story is shared in the synoptic gospels Mark 2  and Luke 5 while Matthew 9 has a bit of a different story of Jesus healing a paralytic lying on a bed.
  • Biblical Literacy: Biblical references may have rung true to many readers decades ago, but Biblical literacy is down. Yet perhaps in Heaney’s Ireland, it may have been much higher. Just as knowing the Bible helps with Western literature, in Eastern literature you may need knowledge of the Mahabharata (Indian) or the Shahnameh (Persian) or the I Ching (Chinese) to mention a few. There is too much to know out there.  I even get lost in conversations with others because I don’t watch TV shows or know sports. But it is fun when we understand allusions because they give depth to a story.  Learning about the unfamiliar and relaxing into their unknown aesthetics can be healing, eye-opening and enriching.

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Recovering Joy

Learning from TakiTaki was 16 years old and had a newspaper delivery route in his small Japanese town.  Like every morning for the last two years, he was riding his moped around with his load of papers strapped to his moped when, for a few seconds, his attention drifted and Taki tragically blasted headlong into a parked car.

Taki’s parents had given up on their son for all-but-dead when 6 months later he miraculously came out of his coma. Sadly, Taki had lost control over the right side of his body but his mind was not affected. It took him a year to learn to walk with a walker, and another year to get enough coordination to drop the walker. His gait was awkward, but he had won more independence.

Five years after that disaster, Takis showed up at my rural doorstep as a foreign exchange student – he was regaining more and more independence. Hand written on his application, Taki mentioned a “minor” physical handicap but I had overlooked that note, so was surprised to see a young man limp, with great effort, up to my door. “Minor” physical handicap?  Well, that already told me a lot about Taki. And soon  I learned that it was not with “great effort” that he walked, but he was used to his condition by the time I met him — it was his “normal” effort.

At that time I was a professor in a rural Pennsylvania university with two young children.  I thought the exposure to foreign students would be good for my son in our ethnically homogeneous community (my daughter was too young).  But I was naive, of course, both of my kids were too young to remember any of this (and thus this post).  Instead, all this was to add color to my life — and it was immediately clear that it would not be Taki’s Japaneseness in rural Pennsylvania that would be enlightening, but his indomitable spirit.

I did my best to show Taki a good time in our little town: I took him out to pubs, local restaurants, college classes and kite flying. One night, I even introduced him to chewing tobacco. You see, Japanese don’t chew tobacco, and though I no longer chewed myself, Taki saw lots of folks chewing and had asked me about it. So I thought, “What the heck, this could be fun.” It was horrible, of course, and his head was spinning for about a half-hour and the nausea was not fun.  But Taki was very happy and proud to have tasted Pennsylvanian tobacco chewing culture that day. As the Japanese say, “we had made a memory”.

But the real reason for this post is to share a different very special, touching experience I had with Taki that touched my heart.

One day Taki and I drove by a bowling alley in town and Taki shared with me that he use to be a bowler. In my 7 years in Japan, I had never run into Japanese person who bowled — I was fascinated, so I asked him more about his days of bowling in Japan. But Taki became tearful during our conversation. With no significant control over the right side of his body (his former dominant side), Takis had never bowled since his accident and our conversation reminded him of his huge loss. No matter how much his condition had become “normal” for Taki, he privately often sadly remembered the normal he desired. So I let the conversation end, to stop the tears, and soon we were talking about other things and laughing.

Two days later, however, I was thinking about what to do with Taki during his last week with us. And as is my nature, I decided to take a big chance: “Takis, I have an idea, tomorrow why don’t you join me and some of my students at the local bowling alley?” He was shocked and did not know what to say, but he finally decided to give it a try. He agreed to just go and watch.

We weren’t at the bowling alley for more than 20 minutes when he decided to participate. He rented some shoes and carefully picked out a ball. My graduate students, like me, were a bit nervous with him.

Sure enough, it was very awkward. Takis stumbled a bit down the alley, threw the ball with his left hand and we all watched each ball pathetically land in the gutter time after time.

However, in the end of our first game, in the very last frame, Takis threw a slow careful ball down the alley that made a perfect arc into the center pins and made a strike — all ten pins tumbled.

And then, to all our amazement, in the next two games, Taki slaughtered all of us with incredibly high scores. He had figured it out. Pins flew while he bowled only strikes and spares. Using his natural athletic mind and his strong spirit, he figured out a way around his handicap and reclaimed his former skills. It was amazing.

The beaming pride and happiness in Taki’s face as we congratulated him in his victories, will stay in my mind forever.  Thank you Taki.

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