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.