neurons fire“A neuron fires a spike after deciding that the number of inputs urging it to switch on outweighs the number telling it to turn off,” write Terry Sejnowski and Tobi Delbruck in Scientific American article “The Language of the Brain.” (my italics). This point alone is not really what the article is about. But the language of how we talk about the language of the brain matters just as much as the language of the brain itself.

So, what about it, you ask. “A neuron fires a spike after deciding…” What would happen if we asked the authors of this article, Terry and Tobi, if neurons decide? What would happen if we were to try to ask them to account for this turn of phrase? My guess is that they’d dismiss it as just language. Perhaps, they’d say: “Neurons don’t really decide, they fire. Brains decide… Neurons themselves are not really that sophisticated, not conscious enough to decide in the way that we – the brains – decide.”

Perhaps, I am wrong, perhaps, they’d say: “Sure, when we say ‘neurons decide’ we are not being figurative, we mean it literally – after all, brain is neurons, if brain’s decision-making is an artifact of collective decision-making of any given neuron, then neurons do decide.” I’d like that kind of answer but I wouldn’t bet on it.

You see the curious thing about neuroscientists is that they study themselves (indirectly mostly) but – in the course of their self-study – they end up objectifying themselves and reducing their own phenomenological complexity to metaphors. I am pretty sure that Terry and Tobi don’t believe that neurons actually decide. I am pretty sure that Terry and Tobi believe that neurons just fire – sort of mechanically, in response to chemicoelectrical stimuli (which is correct but is not the whole picture, of course).

Put differently, the curious thing is that while we – as a culture – marvel at our brains we do not marvel at neurons; while we accord the miracle of consciousness to the whole of what we are, we are hesitant to acknowledge the neural building blocks of our overall consciousness. We are afraid of what that means. We are afraid to acknowledge the consciousness of the lowly neurons that we literally are. And it’s exactly for this reason that the language of how we talk about the language of the brain is a mixture of reductionistic facts and intuitive metaphors (that we rush to take back as soon as we are asked to account for them).

I don’t know Terry or Tobi. Perhaps, we are on the same page. But Terries and Tobis of modern neuroscience – generally – do suffer from this linguistic ambivalence. It’s time we say a neural namaste to ourselves. It’s time we – the neurons – decide to go ahead and unconditionally anthropomorphize the very neural humanity that we ourselves literally – not figuratively – are.

More on Neural Tribe

Related: Brain is a Myth and Brain is Not an Organ But an Organization

Neuron photo available from Shutterstock