Selfish neurons and human enhancement

In October of 2009, I heard Dr. Kenneth Harris give a talk at Imperial College's Neuro-science Technology Symposium on what I will call the capitalist brain. Now by this I do not mean the brain of a capitalist nor even the brain as molded by one (e.g., the news media has popularized the developing practices of neuro-marketing, which use brain imaging techniques and other tools of cognitive science to better foster brand loyalty). Harris was proposing what he described as an untested theory - that the brain's growth and development might resemble capitalist market exchange.

The talk was called The Neural Marketplace: a Theory of Brain Organization through Retroaxonal Communication. It was one of several that followed a poster session where graduate students from Imperial and elsewhere in London's neuroscience community presented their completed research projects. Harris began his lecture by asking what the brain is for, then stating, dryly, that "as we all know" the brain is meant for muscular contractions and the regulation of glands, and this requires that it process sensory information. The big question in cognitive science, he said, is how the "internal representations" necessary for such activity could exist in the brain given the actual structure and activity of neurons, which appear to be unidirectional and structurally rather uncomplicated. As an example he referenced a sort of cognitive metaphor popularly known as the “Halle Berry cell,” which suggests that even phenomena as specific as the faces of famous actresses might have particular cells designated to them that fire when they appear. Somewhere in that cell the representation of Halle Berry somehow exists, Harris told the audience. But how is this possible?

Harris claimed to prefer models that stress behavioral salience, i.e., connections which survive and end up making up the structure of the brain are ones favored because of their consequences outside the brain itself. This means that understanding the organization of the brain requires understanding how behavioral inputs are translated into cognitive structure. Within cognitive science, one solution to this dilemma is to propose the existence of a “hidden layer” between inputs and outputs, one which could develop a sort of memory about connection strengths and create a selective bias for some connections/inputs over others based on feedback mechanisms. The problem, others have suggested, is that there is no evidence of a hidden layer of this sort. Neurons don’t talk backward, electrical signals only go one way, so intervening neurons between inputs and outputs would not offer a way of “learning” through feedback to favor particular connections. Harris’ proposal is that neurons communicate in more ways than through electrical signals and that this has been overemphasized by “us” simply because it stands out and is easy to measure. He lists a wide range of materials that neurons exchange and release that could serve to backchannel inputs that have satisfactory outputs (behaviorally speaking), i.e, that are good to listen to. After proposing different means by which this could happen, which he will test in his new lab at Imperial, Harris presented a new model of neuron communication as one of a “market economy” wherein neuron “entrepreneurs” compete for attention from other neuron “consumers” that bias their selection and either favor them – “buying into what they have to say” – or ignoring them and letting them wither and die. If Halle Berry cells continue to exist, it is because they are considered behaviorally salient enough to warrant survival above other, less salient representations. Through a supply chain system, where different inputs are distributed across a variety of neuronal connections, a behavioral “product” eventually emerges that either allows the organism to survive and successfully compete in its environment or itself wither and die. Here competition between neurons is the basis for successful competition between organisms and species.

Ignoring for the moment how it is that recognizing the face of Halle Berry helps ensure survival, Harris' talk is clearly reminiscent of the socio-biological rhetoric critiqued by Marshall Sahlins in the Uses and Abuses of Biology (1976). Sahlins points out how much biological metaphors of competition and fitness borrow from capitalist ideologies about human nature. For example, one could just as easily describe the brain as a planned communist economy ("from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs"). After all, it is never individual messages but the totality of cognition that is behaviorally salient. As psychologist J.J. Gibson, proponent of the ecological theory of vision, liked to point out, vision is only made meaningful as it occurs through multisensory engagement with the environment. Perhaps some neurons better serve the whole network as information transmitters while others are sacrificed by macrophagic glial cells for the greater good. Indeed, glial cells would not outnumber neurons if regulation of the neural marketplace were less important than exchange.

But there is more to this story. Harris' talk hints at a shift in new bio-scientific research whereby the neuron, like the gene before it, is becoming both subject and object of investment. If neurons are being imagined as producers and consumers in a neural economy, it is partly because like many other body parts, the brain has become a frontier of speculative investment and hype surrounding bio-capital and human enhancement. New kinds of experimentation are being heavily funded by corporations and states which endeavor to make converging technologies a new site of value production. As with many techno-scientific innovations, the U.S. military is firmly in the lead. In late 2001, less than a mile from the recently attacked Pentagon, a group of prominent scientists and politicians met to discuss the future applications of cognitive science, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information science in the enhancement of human beings, state security, and the production of wealth. Of all the technological transformations imagined in the final document they produced, the only to come to fruition thus far are the unmanned aerial vehicles (or "drones") controversially deployed along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But public narratives of enhancement only rarely discuss military applications, far more common are the possible medical implications of converging technologies (although these too may receive funding from the military industrial complex). The Symposium and Harris' talk were sponsored by Imperial College's Institute of Biomedical Engineering, a postgraduate research facility which aims to apply "advances in technology to enable people to lead independent and productive lives despite illness, ageing and disability." The co-discover of the double-helix structure of DNA, James Watson readily embraces the religious implications of these possibilities of second creation: "In the past, we thought our destinies lies in the stars, now it lies mainly in the genes … for the genetic dice will continue to inflict cruel fates on all or many individuals and their families who do not deserve this damnation. Decency demands that someone must rescue them from genetic hells. If we don´t play God, who will.” This is one vision of the future of human enhancement, another is designer babies and Gattaca. To the extent that converging technologies are being developed to remake not only the body but the mind, “neuro-capital” could be proposed as a novel category of financial investment in the materials and processes of brains and their application in the uneven development of the human economy. If one outcome of investing in and extracting neuro-capital could be possible cure for neuro-degeneration, such as dementia and Alzheimer's, another is the so-called brain gain revolution and rising disparities in who can afford the modifications necessary for elite education. One could argue that the brain is not only a site upon which cultural models of human nature and society are projected - as in Marshall Sahlins' critique. Rather, it is increasingly an object through which human possibilities and hierarchies may be created anew. Perhaps one day through the force of new soldiers, cognitively enhanced to spread the free market ideologies in their heads abroad.

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Comment by Josh Reno on December 23, 2010 at 7:44am

The dominance of market ideology is not then simply a matter of defensive posture and something that resembles religious faith. It is also a matter of available technologies (including existing models) that
appear to make it easier to move in one direction rather than in

Couldn't agree more, John, thanks for posting.  My main limitation in being able to respond is based on the fact that my 'fieldwork' on this subject is limited to the talk I just mentioned.  That is what is useful about the OAC forum, in my view, that I can just run off some thoughts without sufficient ethnographic detail.  But I take your point, there is surely a practical set of issues involved here as regards 'modeling' of complicated phenomena.  I am not sure that market metaphors fit the bill, however, more research is needed to convince me they are not merely suggestive to neuro-scientists for flatly ideological reasons.  Although, to be fair, I did not argue that 'Ideology X, therefore Y' (although I may have implied it strongly); both Keith and I agreed that that old Sahlins' take wasn't sufficient.  I tried to argue something more like 'Practical activity X, therefore Ideology Y'.  That is, my point was that as neurons and brains are becoming sites of investment and productivity, markets seem to make sense to account for them.  It's not an arbitrary association, in other words, but one of resemblance and contiguity.  But ultimately this is flimsy without more evidence and, to follow up on what I take to be your main critique, I agree that it does not really take seriously the challenges of that practical activity (i.e., knowing about brains).  In fact, that is why I left 'black-boxed' the whole question of why neurons should be the focus of neuro-science in the first place - the answer I believe would be precisely that they provide one of the clearest means of accessing 'what's going on inside'.  Although there have been increasing efforts (including from folks like Dr. Kenneth Harris) to de-privilege the neuron and figure out what else is going on (hence the work on glial cells).

M, thanks for your post as well.  I am also interested in cognitive anthropology, which I would not consider this post to be a part of, per se.  It is closer in genre to science studies.  It is more anthropology of cognitive science, if you like.  But I would be interested in thinking about ways to bridge the two.



Comment by M Izabel on December 20, 2010 at 11:18pm

Human brain is an interesting model for cultural/social analysis, but it is nothing but just that, a model.  My interest in cognitive anthropology does not focus merely on modeling.  Culture has to be there for it to be anthropological and separate from what neuro-scientists are doing.  Anthropologists should not shy away from the complex relationship between nature and nurture that is becoming a cliche. Human brain, neurotransmitters, receptors, organelles, etc. can explain to us concepts about structure and agency in a different way.  In our sense of taste for example, we can ask if food controls our taste or our taste controls food.  So, studying food cultures can be cognitive not just nutritional, ecological, political, economic, etc.

Comment by John McCreery on December 14, 2010 at 6:19am

The most important idea is to replace history with nature. 

On first reading, this sounds right. The more I think about it, however, I wonder if it would be more accurate to say "conflate history with nature."  For if history is being replaced by nature, in the various fields cited, nature is increasingly conceptualized historically, as a matter of critical paths forming complex systems rather than mechanically reproducing a status quo or always tending to equilibrium. 


I am also a bit concerned in both Josh's original post and Keith's critique about the  way in which both arguments remain at the level of "ideology X, therefore Y." The abstraction may work at this level, but I wonder what we would see with a bit more granularity.

Serendipitously, I am currently reading John H. Miller and Scott E. Page (2007) Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press. The authors are doing a marvelous job of explaining technical matters in an engaging and literate style. They write,

All modeling requires the faith that, as Borges expresses it, we can occasionally turn the sand of the real world into stone. Effective models require a real world with enough structure that some of the details can be ignored. This implies the existence of solid and stable building blocks that encapsulate key parts of the real system's behavior. Such building blocks provide enough separation from details to allow modeling to proceed. (p. 35)

At the same time, however, models must be detailed enough to account for at least some of the ways in which the world surprises us. The usual way to produce a better model is to add detail to existing models, and therein lies the point toward which I am wandering. If one were to ask why a neurobiologist would turn to economic models that assume market competition to explain the behavior of neurons, at least part of the answer lies in the fact that potentially relevant models already exist that make similar assumptions and thus (this being their competitive advantage) enable the neurobiologist to move ahead with his or her own research without having to reinvent some already fairly common wheels. The dominance of market ideology is not then simply a matter of defensive posture and something that resembles religious faith. It is also a matter of available technologies (including existing models) that appear to make it easier to move in one direction rather than in another. 


If this analysis is correct, the critic who can only say that the models in question fail to include cooperation will instantly face the question, "And how would you model that?" Without the relevant technical competence, the critic in question is easily ignored by members of the modeling community who are, for better or worse, far more influential in today's world than the critic is likely to be.

Comment by Keith Hart on December 12, 2010 at 4:09pm

Thanks for posting this, Josh. It is about time that we had a chance to debate here the rise of evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, neuro-economics and the rest. While I acknowledge the prescience of Marshall Sahlins's critique of socio-biology, it is a bit old hat by now, just as is Marx's observation that Darwin reproduced the ideology of Victorian capitalism in his own way.


For some time now I have toying with a list of components of what, for want of  a better label, I call 'the American ideology'. This is not exclusively American of course, any more than the German ideology was just a fad of the young Hegelians. One empirical source for this is blockbuster non-fiction. I will just mention a few of its elements now: history is replaced by nature, meaning that nothing can change and the loss of Western power is thus an illusion; deference to the military; celebration of the free market; as exemplified by Bay Area internet enteprises. I could go on, but you may get the idea already.


The most important idea is to replace history with nature. This served the interests of liberal political economy in the ascendency of western capitalism and it does a similar job when resisting its decline. Any historical approach to understanding modern society would have to acknowledge the ephemeral character of contemporary institutions. The naturalisation of the same works to mystify that fact. The whole project fo social science has the same purpose. It only becomes manifestly absurd when the neurologists are rolled out in defence of our society's decadence.

Comment by John McCreery on December 12, 2010 at 3:27pm

I am irresistibly reminded of Bruce Sterling's classic science fiction story "Swarm" (1989, Crystal Express, pp. 3-28; originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April, 1982).




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