Are You a Hive Mind?


By Wil Forbis
May 1, 2016

The Our Wacky Brain collection:

Every Thursday I am faced with a challenge. Thursday is garbage day in my San Diego neighborhood and, as the manliest member of my household, I am tasked with the job of putting the garbage out on the curb. Waste management trucks come to pick up non-recyclable garbage every week. They come to pick up recyclables every other week. I have a very poor memory so my question every Thursday is whether or not to put out the recyclables.

Fortunately, I have devised an almost foolproof system. I simply look around to see what my neighbors have done. If a sizable amount of people has put out their recyclable bins then I do so as well. Even if I don’t know whether this day is a recyclable day, I can count on being able to access the information from my neighbors.

Of course, the question is: how do they know? Presumably, a lot of them are just doing what I do--- looking for signals from their neighbors. It's even likely that some neighbors look to see what I have done to determine their behavior. But some people, somewhere on the street, either have good memories or look up the answer somewhere, and determine whether it's a recycling day. Information gets passed down the line.

My neighborhood is essentially a little network and it's one that makes intelligent decisions (about garbage anyway.) So what is a network, really? It's a group, for starters. But it's a group where the individual nodes can influence each other. And these connections of influence can be strengthened or weakened. If I notice a particular neighbor always put his recyclables out on the wrong Thursday, I start to ignore him----our connection is weakened. If one neighbor is always spot on and, and even gets it right when holidays throw the schedule off (as does happen) then I make a point to follow that neighbor---our connection is strengthened.

Neighborhoods are not the only networks we see in the world. We're all familiar with computer networks; the Internet is one humongous example. Human society is another network. So are troops of baboons. Bacteria colonies are another, as are hives of bees or colonies ants.

A Hive MindBees and ants are interesting subjects for study. Much like my neighborhood network, bee hives and ant colonies are capable of much more than you would think creatures of their limited intellect could be. They can create giant dwellings, stage elaborate battles (including chemical warfare), perform complex calculations, set up transportation systems and farm for food. How do such simple creatures accomplish this? How do they achieve their goals and create their habitats? As I once asked in relation to reports of a giant ant village that had been discovered:

How can a population of feebleminded creatures design a habitat of such complexity that it is clearly beyond their individual intelligences? Do the ants have some kind of bizarre and complex communication system by which the bits of information possessed by individual ants can somehow be combined into a group ant intelligence?

The answer, I think, gets into the particular nature of the networks that ants and bees operate in. These are strongly hierarchical networks where each node---ant or bee---exists to serve a queen at top. But what’s good for the queen is good for the survival of the whole network. So everyone wins, as long as everyone sticks to their place in the hierarchy. This gives these creatures, as entomologist E.O. Wilson once described it, a “unity of purpose.”

Also, ant and bee networks are very social. There is a lot of information passed between individuals via bee dances or ant pheromone trails. With all this dense information processing, ant and bee groups are capable of a kind of “computation” that would be far beyond the capabilities of an individual ant or bee.

Are humans like bees and ants? Are we part of a hive and subservient to a hierarchy? Do we pass information between ourselves in ways that enable the larger group to make decisions? Or, to offer a more disconcerting thought: are individual humans a kind of hive to themselves? Are we a colony of individuals who form a greater whole?

The Hive of Humanity
Let's looks at the "humans are part of a hive" idea first. Certainly we understand that we are social animals and that we influence each other. If you were a hermit, if you weren’t in contact with your peers and larger society, you never would have gotten that idea to stump for Bernie Sanders or put that Justin Bieber poster on your wall. (You do have one, right? He's the ginchiest!) We all acknowledge the influence of our friends, family members and icons---people who have steered our lives in directions we never would have ventured towards if left to our own devices.

But that sort of behavior doesn’t feel like a hive mind, does it? Perhaps the question here is whether we are subconsciously influenced by our peers to do things we might not consciously choose to do.

We have observed what we call a mob mentality in humans. Hoards of screaming soccer fans leave a match and descend into the streets, smashing cars and breaking the noses of fans of the other team. It’s hard to imagine the individuals in these situations behaving in such a way if they weren’t part of a crowd. Something about being part of a group with a shared identity alters people’s identities. (As I write this reports are coming in of violence and property damage occurring in response to a Donald Trump rally. )

Next, consider spread of psychogenic diseases and other mass hysterias where people begin to share symptoms of diseases that are housed only in their minds. A few years ago I commented on the case of the girls of LeRoy in which...

a seemingly contagious disease... spread Tourett’s-like symptoms among teenage girls in a small town. The catch to the story is that many neurologists and doctors observing the case think the “disease” is psychogenic – essentially mass hysteria with no environmental or biological cause.

The case of LeRoy is but one of many similar cases reported throughout history.

There are other, less egregious examples of group behavior. Fashion and decorating trends, fads, stock and housing bubbles are all examples of people acting in concert, often for no apparent rational reason. (Red is the new black? Why?) Seen through this lens, even something as simple as everyone singing the national anthem at a baseball game has an odd feel to it.

Need more evidence? I’ve written in the past that much of our moral behavior seems to have an automaticity to it. We seem wired for systems of morality designed to encourage individuals to get along in within groups. (Not so much for getting along with individuals in other groups, as our opposing soccer fans would point out.) We call this behavior “reciprocal altruism” and it follows an unspoken rule: help others (in the group) as long as they help us back in our time of need. People who merely take favors end up ostracized (which, in the case of tribes living in nature, can mean death.)

What about the hierarchical nature of ants and bee networks? Humans like to think of themselves as egalitarian creatures but are we? Celebrities---the queens of our hive---seem to have an inordinate affect on us. Beyonce comes out wearing a funny hat and suddenly everyone is wearing funny hats. Ben Affleck says he's voting for this candidate and some people's views are changed (including people who dislike Affleck enough that they vote against whoever he's for.) This is not rational decision making, this is the network/hive mind steering the decisions of the individual.

In all these situations---mobs, mass hysterias, , reciprocal altruism, celebrity worship---we are being driven to behaviors by other nodes on our network, like bees or ants controlled by their hive.

The Human Hive
Let's turn to the second way of looking at things, the idea that we as individuals are a living network comprised of many nodes. No one, of course, will refute that we are made up of trillions of cells and that those cells form various organs in our body including our "thinking organ," the brain. We also realize that much of what these cells and organs do is outside of our conscious control. We don’t order our lungs to breath, they just breathe automatically. (We can choose to not breath, but see how long that lasts.) When a viral invader enters our body we don't command our body’s immune response to kick into gear, it just does. If we correlate our individual cells to the individual ants and bees and our organs to groups of ants and bees, then we---our “selves”---are really more like a hive, albeit a hive with consciousness.

Now, it's not all that disconcerting to realize that our body and its processes are in many ways beyond our inspection and outside of our control. After all, you don’t really feel like you “are” your arm, but rather that your arm is something you have access to. If you lost your arm in an accident or ninja attack, you would be despondent but you would still feel like you exist in your totality. We think of our minds---our “selves”---however, as one complete unit, not a network of bits and pieces. But is this the case?

Consider the following scenario. You are sitting on the couch and you suddenly lose your ability to recognize words. (This does happen to people, often the result of stroke.) The letters that once seemed familiar are now just strange symbols. Then you lose your sight altogether. Then you lose your hearing, taste, touch and indeed all your senses (including weird ones like your sense of balance and proprioception.) You now have no sensory information coming in to your brain. Then you lose your memory, your ability to conceive of numbers, your ability to use language and on and on. At what point would you say your mind has died, that you have ceased to be “you”?

There is, to my mind, no correct answer to that question. But I bring up this thought experiment to make the point that we---our selves---are really made up of many different functions: our sensory abilities, our cognitive abilities and such. We are not one entity, but rather a collection of a "seeing self,” a "memory self," a "reading self" and on and on. These are the nodes in the network that is our mind.

Those nodes, of course, correspond to actual tissue in the brain. There are neurons dedicated to seeing, neurons for hearing, for reading words, for memory, for recognizing faces, etc. (We know this partly because almost every one of these functions I described above can be lost to stroke or brain trauma.) Some people even have a Jennifer Aniston neuron---a brain cell that fires when think of or see the esteemed comic actress.

(You might ask, at this point, what about the soul? My thoughts on that here.)

Now the funny thing with these aforementioned brain functions is that we don’t consciously control them. I don’t order myself to understand what someone who speaks my native language is saying, I just do. I couldn’t turn that functionality off if I wanted to (aside from plugging my ears.) The “language-understanding” neural networks in my brain force their translations into my consciousness. The same can be said for my seeing networks, my hearing networks and on and on. I am a collection of different groups of cells performing various kinds of functions and handing the results to the top dog. I feel like one entity, but I am really made up of the contributions of many.

An interesting question arises. First consider that you are a conscious network made up of other smaller networks. And also consider that you are part of various networks---your neighborhood, society at large, the human species. Is it possible those networks to which you belong are conscious? As I asked in a blog post not long ago

…are we --- individual humans --- nodes in a larger intelligence, a super advanced ant colony? Are we merely parts of a machine whose complexity is so vast and overwhelming that we can't begin to comprehend it?

Dig it, Daddy-o.

 

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