Mass Action

by Siegfried Othmer | October 29th, 2008

Sometimes I still think back to the awesome precision exhibited by the Chinese drummers during the opening ceremony of the Olympics, along with the synchrony and cohesion of the dancers, the choreographed wave phenomena, etc. Among other things it was a demonstration of the timing precision of which our nervous systems are capable. And at many levels it was a demonstration of the power of the collective.

Soon after the Olympics David Brooks was moved to write an editorial on the same topic. In the West we tend to give priority to individual effort, whereas in the East we are seeing the rise of economic power among people with a much stronger social impulse. Their success makes the issue much more trenchant for us all. At the same time scientists are weighing in the issue, with the finding that our sense of individuality may to a large extent be illusory. We are much more strongly subject to social influences than we are aware.

The contest between individual decision-making and group action is currently on stage with the collapse of Western financial institutions. We are seeing individual decision-making submerged in wave-like phenomena of successive stock-market decline and recovery. The high salaries given to CEOs of financial concerns documents the hope and expectation that such individuals would be able to steer an independent course, but of course that was never in prospect. The financial companies largely moved jointly, in loosely coordinated fashion, into the abyss. The information about what everyone else was doing diffused rapidly through the financial network. No one at the helm was really in a position to opt out from the near-term opportunity to extract substance from the middle class via the housing bubble. Companies could have saved themselves all those excessive salaries and bonuses.

The reason for writing about this subject in these pages is that neuronal networks rely entirely on group action, collective action, to impose their will, so to speak. The individual neuron is completely irrelevant except as a momentary member of one group or another, in which role the neuron is hardly distinguishable from any other in the group. Further, the group action of neurons is subject to the same failure modes as group action on Wall Street. Excessive synchrony in the neural assemblies, or their excessive persistence in time, is disruptive or even hazardous to brain function, just as excessive synchrony in stock movements is disruptive to the smooth running of the ship of finance. Most of what our neurofeedback training is about is enhancing the mechanisms by which neuronal synchrony is modulated and controlled.

Once a seizure is under way in the brain, we have very little recourse medically. Stability against seizures and migraines, if any, must be built into the system for the steady-state. The same goes for Wall Street. Here the evidence of a relentless march toward instability has been clear for years. We’ve been writing about it from time to time in these newsletters—going all the way back to the power outage in Ohio in 2003. It was also in 2003 that the Economist Magazine first pointed out that an ominous housing bubble was getting underway in the United States. What in fact happened illustrates the power of the collective to override any loci of individual wisdom that may be found here and there.
The answer to the financial challenge does not lie in giving larger scope to the individual versus the group but rather in building stability into group behavior. It was a fact quite generally known even in my High School that the Wall Street bubble of 1929 was abetted by 5% margins, the ability to purchase stock with only 5% cash. This left no buffer when the market subsequently declined. Zero percent down payment on a home was that same error multiplied. It was pure madness, and the subsequent collapse was highly predictable.

Scope for individual initiative is essential for innovation, but as soon as innovation actually occurs it is immediately absorbed into a very groupy process to assure its propagation into the economy. Our own work with neurofeedback is a case in point. There had to be sufficient latitude and tolerance within the society for us to assert ourselves at the outset. The history of the field is testimony, however, that such latitude and tolerance is not plentiful, and it is not really cultivated as a positive value, either. We really succeeded early on mainly because no one was really paying attention! As quickly as possible, however, the propagation of neurofeedback became a matter involving a larger “community of belief” that was coming into being. Increasingly, going forward the growth of neurofeedback will be governed by group rather than individual behavior. There is also a downside to this: By now the forces within the neurofeedback community to stifle further innovation and new departures are already greater than those without.

In sum, then, individuality remains threatened precisely where it is most needed in our society, and it is valued and compensated highly only in relatively mature areas where an individual is actually circumscribed by group process.

There is yet another analogy to the nervous system, and that is to its highly hierarchical organization, which mirrors that of our economic arrangements. There is one major difference, however. In the brain hierarchy does not mean autonomy. Every sub-cortical nucleus is modulated by top-down cortical inputs and regulation becomes a loop function. There is no provision for rogue elements, and no tolerance. In our economy, by contrast, we give special dispensation to our top predators, who at the same time feel themselves entirely untethered by any societal obligations. Now that our system is in trouble, to whom do we give succor? Why to the top predators, of course. Someone needs to tell that to the herd.

When an entire society is regimented to one religious belief we call it a theocracy. When every aspect of a society is subject to government control, we call it totalitarianism. But when a whole society is in thrall to commerce, we call it liberty…. In fact, our own sense of liberty and of individuality is largely illusory, while the real autonomy in our society has been misallocated to the top. Sensibly our Founders arranged for lots of checks and balances in our government to act as mutual constraints. Our nervous system is full of such checks and balances. They are obviously biologically necessary. In the political and financial worlds, however, the checks and balances have gradually been neutered. We are living with the consequences.

Siegfried Othmer, Ph.D.

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