Introduction of the NT Meme
A human – or any animal, for that matter – is a multicellular colossus that consists of various cellular types. One way of looking at our nervous systems is that they are not really systems but colonies of stand-alone neuron (all neurons – as close as they are to each other – are separated by synaptic gaps and, as such, stand-alone). A cellular colony is a community of certain cell types. A human, in a typical sense of the word, is an agglomeration of such various cell types as blood cells, adipose cells, muscle cells and neurons. Neurons are cells – at least, that’s how we usually think of neurons. The Neural Tribe perspective is a fundamentally different narrative: it’s an attempt to recognize that any life-form that is inhabited by neurons is part of our Neural Tribe (NT).
The Neural Tribe (NT) perspective is that we are the neurons, not the specific body-forms we inhabit, not the non-neural cellular bricks of our bodily habitats. Indeed, you can lose and/or replace (in theory) any type of cells without experiencing a change in your humanity. This is the promise of the next-paradigm prosthetics. Before too long we will be entering an era of cyborg, an era of brain-machine interfaces in which we hook into/plug into various types of assisting machinery. Before we got lost in the cyborg housing of the future, we have to, at least for once, get clear on what we are and what we aren’t. The NT perspective is that Neural Tribe is a Species that inhabits a variety of life-form habitats (we live in human form, in bird form, in fish form, in insect form but we aren’t the body-forms we inhabit).
What We Are and What We Aren’t
So, the question is: who are we? We are that which we cannot be without. We can lose limbs full of muscle cells without a sense of being lost, we can take in an infusion of someone else’s blood cells without a sense of being replaced, we can undergo a liposuction and get rid of pounds of adipose cells – all without losing our sense of am-ness, without losing our minds, without losing our consciousness, and a sense of personal continuity. So, then once again, what are we? We are our own neurons. This doesn’t sound as strange when we say that we are our brains. But what is a brain but a colony of stand-alone neural cells?!
The old narrative was: we are “humans,” meaning we are thinking ape-like bipeds. The new narrative is that we are nervous systems, i.e. we are our neurons. “So what?!” you might ask. Well, here’s the kicker: neurons are pretty much the same throughout the animal kingdom. Sure there are differences but, all in all, neurons are neurons regardless of the animal-form they inhabit. What this means is that if you identify yourself not with your human form but with the neurons that live inside, then the proper biological designation for what you are isn’t “human” but “neuron.”
Neural Tribe as a Species
I invite you to think of neurons not as just some cells that make up your brains but as your quintessential self. You are your neurons and your neurons are you. And: I invite you to think of neurons as a species and to recognize your neural kin throughout the animal kingdom. For example, when you look at your dog, the old you would think my dog is a… dog. She/he is a different species. The new you would look at a dog and see a dog-form with your neural kin inside. This way when you look at a dog or any life-form that is inhabited by neurons you will see your own kind. This is a kind of neural namaste, a neural tat-tvam-asi, a neural hello of self-recognition.
Why Does This Matter?
Three reasons: defining ourselves as a Neural Tribe (that lives across the diversity of animal housing) allows you to:
1) know what you are not
2) know what you are
3) relate to what you used to objectify as the not-you.
Does this change anything? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. I don’t know… For me personally, it’s a good enough basis for identification and, thus, a basis for compassion.
History of the NT Perspective
I came up with this idea when I was working on “Reinventing the Meal” (circa 2010). Some of the “Rethinking Obesity” chapter is directly about this neural identity. I am not sure of how original this idea is and, frankly, I don’t care about its originality or lack thereof. I simply feel compelled to share this meme, this new human narrative as I hope it can help alleviate some of the problems of coexistence we struggle with on this planet. Another idealistic pipe dream? Probably.
Is This The Only Way to Look at What We Are and What We Aren’t?
Of course, not. There are many different ways to see what we are and what we aren’t. In my experience with “truth,” everything is and isn’t “this” or “that.” Here’s a link to a couple of essays of mine about an ancient Indian approach to knowledge called Syadvada to loosen up the hold of your old narrative on your mind. Might come in handy as you play with the neural-tribe meme.
What Are My Credentials for Proposing This Idea?
I (Pavel Somov) – by profession – a clinical psychologist. This gives me a certain knowledge foundation to talk about our brains and nervous systems. But that is not the basis for my “authority” on the matter. Professional credentials aside, my most relevant credentials for this idea are:
1. I am alive.
2. I know what I am and what I am not.
3. I am myself a Neural Colony.
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