Brains and Societies

The Similarities Between Brains and Societies

Brains are filled with cells called neurons. The average neuron is connected to many other neurons via its dendrites and axon terminals. It receives information from some of the neurons to which it is connected (Through its dendrites), and sends information to others (Though its axon terminals). In other words, the dendrites are a bit like the neurons’ ears, and its axon terminals are analogous to their mouths. Here’s a short video showing what this process looks like:

Societies, on the other hand, are filled with people. People speak and listen. Some write. Some read. Most do both. Most listen to music. Some play it. Most cook. All eat. In other words, humans are a lot like the neurons of a society. They take in information, and they put out information.

There are many different types of neurons. As far as I know though, they all do something called firing. A neuron fires if it receives the right type and amount of
“information” from the neurons that are connected to its dendrites (Its ears). This “information” comes in the form of chemicals called neurotransmitters. Some neurotransmitters increase the likelihood that the neuron receiving them will fire. Others do the opposite.

If a neuron fires, it will send information to all the neurons “downstream” of it.

Humans behave in similar ways. If they receive the right type of information, in the form of a song, a painting, a book, a type of food, etc, they will usually let some of their friends know about it.

To recap, the analogy goes like this:

  • Neurons – Humans
  • Upstream neurons – The people a certain person listens to
  • Downstream neurons – The people who listen to a certain person
  • The firing of a neuron – A person telling the people who listen to them about something

Brains and societies are both forms of networks. In both types of network, certain types of stimuli cause many of the fundamental units (Neurons and people) to fire / tell their friends about it. In a brain, an example of one such type of stimuli might be the neurotransmitter dopamine. Many of the neurotransmitters within a human brain have dopamine receptors, and will fire if exposed to enough of it. A sociological equivalent of dopamine is hit songs. If a person hears such a song, they are likely to play it when their friends are around. Again, this form of sharing is quite analogous to the firing of a neuron.

Just as some neurons have receptors for dopamine, and will fire if exposed to enough of it, some people have figurative “receptors” for certain types of societal stimulus. I for example, seem to have a receptor for classical music. If I hear a classical song that I like, I’ll probably tell my other classical-loving friends about it. I don’t, however, seem to have a receptor for heavy metal music. I can’t remember ever hearing a heavy metal song that resonated with me, and that I felt compelled to share with any of my friends. There are of course other humans in the network that is society, that do have such receptors, and will be compelled to “fire” if they hear heavy metal music.

If a neuron is repeatedly exposed to the same neurotransmitter, it will increase the number of receptors on its surface to which this transmitter binds. By doing so, the neuron strengthens the connection between it and the neuron from which the neurotransmitter in question is being released. This is a bit like two people getting to know one another better and becoming closer friends.

Interestingly however, neurons can also become less sensitive to stimulus if they receive too much of it. If, for example, a neuron with dopamine receptors is exposed to too much dopamine, it will reduce the number of dopamine receptors on its surface. It will become desensitized to dopamine. For that neuron, dopamine is a bit like a song that it has over listened to, and gotten bored of. This phenomenon can actually been seen across the entire brain of a person who has been repeatedly exposed to the same stimulus. The net level of neuronal activity detected in the brain of the over-exposed person will decrease with each subsequent exposure to the stimulus in question. This macro phenomenon of lessening activity is called “repetition suppression.”

Of course, humans are far more complicated, and subject to change, than neurons. The inputs that cause humans to resonate and “fire,” and their outputs, are infinitely more diverse than the relatively limited number of neurotransmitters present within the brain (About 100). Humans can also evolve in their tastes to an extreme degree. There are plenty of songs that I used to love, that now do little to my state of mind if they come on the radio. Same goes for paintings, cuisine, books, ideas, etc. Despite these, and the many other differences, I still think that brains and societies are quite similar in their fundamental structure and functioning. In essence, they both serve as a medium through which waves of inputs and outputs resonate with and propagate through fundamental units.