Being Human 2012

The Science of Human Experience

Palace of Fine Arts / San Francisco, CA March 24, 2012 9am - 5:30pm

Hive Mind: Your Brain is Like a Swarm of Bees

Posted on Friday, March 2, 2012 at 4PM

One of the most difficult-to-digest premises of Ego is the idea that we don't have a singular coherent self that drives what we do. This notion may challenge concepts of identity that many of us hold dear, but the fact is that our brains behave like a beehive, buzzing with competing ideas that eventually must reach a consensus, or at least drown out disagreement. Cornell University neurobiologist Thomas Seeley has discovered that the hive mind is more than just a metaphor, showing that there are remarkable parallels between how brains and beehives commit to a course of action without a central planner.

Neurons are like bees, and the brain is like a swarm. When bees decide to move the hive in the springtime, scouts go in search of new locations. When they return, they dance to show which place they liked the best. But how does the swarm finally decide where to move? By marking bees that had visited different places, Seeley and his team differentiated between factions. They then noticed that bees would head-butt one another during the "argument", causing them to stop dancing. Receiving enough head-butts, the bees arguing for one location would eventually stop. Seeley argues that our brains behave similarly, with the loudest neurons drowning out the rest, a process he called cross-inhibition.

Seeley and his team propose that cross-inhibition may be a general strategy for decision making, and indeed, their findings in bees recapitulate features of decision making and pattern formation in other systems. The remarkable unifying theme in all of these systems is how an aggregate swarm intelligence is built from just a few kinds of simple, local interactions between agents. Both neurons and bees are presumably unaware of how their impulses and signals transcend the individual, and lay the substrate for a grander, collective intelligence.

Does the brain make decisions by drowning out disagreement? It's certainly an interesting idea, and computer models for decision-making seem to agree with it. How all the competing thought processes in our brain come to a consensus remains a mystery for now, but there is no question that they are competing. Rather than conceive of our decisions as the product of a united ego, it's more realistic to think of them as the result of a vibrant and argumentative committee meeting.

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