The Chaotic Brain


Most attempts to account for human behavior begin and end with the dueling explanations of genes vs. the environment. But even a synthesis of the biological and environmental theories does not seem to explain adequately the choices that humans make.

"Combining two forms of determinism gives little insight into the origin and meaning of choice in human behavior," write William R. Clark and Michael Grunstein in Are We Hardwired?, a discussion of the nature vs. nurture debate. To account for the role of human choice in behavior, the authors draw on chaos theory as it relates to the complexities of the brain.

Scientists use the word chaotic to describe systems in which slight changes in initial conditions quickly generate wildly different outcomes. Such systems are so physically complex that even though we have a detailed understanding of them we cannot accurately predict what will happen to them.

Clark and Grunstein cite the example of a small boulder perched on the crest of a hill. After we start the rock tumbling downhill, it begins to collide with twigs, bushes, and stones. Each collision creates a new set of future interactions as the descent continues; these slight changes in initial conditions constantly multiply, with unpredictable consequences. We cannot precisely predict the path the boulder will take because the complexity of its descent exceeds our ability to calculate, according to the authors.

The human brain generates its own system of chaotic behavior. As Clark and Grunstein describe it, "Individual nerve cells are incredibly complex. Information is brought to each cell through numerous extensively branched dendrites; a single nerve cell may receive information from a thousand or more other neurons, each of which was itself impacted by a hundred or a thousand inputs."

The variables multiply further: Hundreds of ion channels control the electrical potential that forwards information through each cell, while tens of thousands of other cells that make up a nerve cell tract interact with each other in feedback loops. The massive complexity of the brain's systems "could produce alterations whose impact on behavior would be as unpredictable as the pathway of a hypothetical boulder down a mountainside," argue Clark and Grunstein. …

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