The Real Matrix

anonymous matrix crossover wallpaper with V mask and message, we are anonymous, we are legion, we do not forgive, we do not forget, expect us
Anonymous Wallpaper

There are no adequate models of how the brain works. There are a lot of models, though. And, as they say in systems theory, “All models are wrong, some models are useful.”

Most brain models are the result of research projects. Someone sees a problem, comes up with a way to explain it, does some research, changes the model, and so on.

There are also models of the brain that are esthetic. An example is the holographic model of information storage in the brain. It is hard to imagine how very much empirical evidence in support of this model could be developed, but the model has its fascinations.

There are others, like quantum theories of consciousness or free will.

I am going to start offering one in this post, and some subsequent ones. It falls toward the esthetic end of the model continuum because it is a whole brain model and neuroimaging is still several years from being able to view the brain across all of its levels more or less at once.

My model is not about what reality is. I always thought it was peculiar to think that what our brains do gives us direct access to reality. This model is about how each of us creates and shares meaning over the always developing course of our lives. It is an evolutionary model, based on the idea that the brain evolved to help us individually and socially to adapt and anticipate.

The model is not original to me. I started thinking about it after reading a book, Making Up The Mind by Chris Frith, an entertaining, accessible, and dryly funny overview of research evidence related to how the brain uses its developed models to organize adaptive responses in life. My thinking could be called an extreme version of that model.

There are also many philosophical or conceptual versions of this same idea.

The other sources of the model were a variety of old neuropsychological research papers into how voluntary choice of movement occurs and what hallucinations are in the brain, mostly from Poland and the then Soviet Union.

So, let us say I have a formal event (a wedding or a funeral) to attend, and I spilled coffee on my only white shirt. I rush to the store, buy a new one, rush home, and rip the packaging off the shirt because I am now running late for the event. In the process, one of those little pins that are hard to find sticks in my arm. I swear and yell, “The pin hurt me!!”.

Now I know that the pin didn’t hurt me. It has been a long time since we have believed that the pin contains the essence of pain and that it transferred some of that essence when it stuck in me. We all know that causing pain has two different forms. One is that it is our brain that creates the agony and the other is that the pin triggered a series of brain events that result in our experience of pain. So creating pain and triggering pain are two different parts of the causal chain that result in our swearing. If the nerves between the site of the pain and our CNS were cut, we wouldn’t feel pain from the pin.

Also, the pin triggers our brain into noting the location of the pin so we can remove it and reduce the pain. This location is just as much a creation of our CNS as the pain, though we tend to think that the two parts of our unpleasant experience are different. One is real and the other is a concoction of our brain. My model says that in fact, the two aren’t different. The location and, for that matter, the whole arm are a concoction of the brain. More, the entire kit-and-kaboodle (which I will label as KaK so I don’t have to repeat it all the time) of our unconscious and conscious experience is created by our brain. Not just the outside world as in The Matrix, but also our self (and its parts)  and the interface between what we experience as outside and what we experience as inside.

So, to take one example, a hallucination is the brain acting as though, say, a person whose image we remember is actually in the outside part of the model. The brain puts that person outside and we experience the person as outside. There is an “other side of the coin” kind of error where a person experiences something in the outside model as though it were part of the inside model.

This model is an entirely unique personal creation of each of us over the course of our lives. It begins about 30 days into embryonic development and it continues until our brain dies, even if disease interferes with the constant work of building. It is self-correcting (within very real limits) through a process of error detection that uses our perception abilities and consequent updating (we notice a difference between our perceptions and our model and correct it). Much of its operation is not conscious, though you can see a pure sort of its operation in infants, where most of the world isn’t yet in their personal model.

And it is fluidly coherent, changing constantly as a direct result of our living, but always using meaning to tie together what our model is right now.

Next Post: So What?

Your Brain Has No Parts

cartoon showing various gut bugs paiting a picture of a brain
The Gut Biome and Brain Connection

Reduction is a tool used in research and day-to-day problem-solving. Reduction is a type of abstraction where you try to understand the whole problem through a single level or lens. Physics is a good example of the usefulness of reduction as a tool for problem-solving. Trying to understand all the things in the universe as arising out of a small number of forces and particles shows the value of abstract reduction.

Over the last 200 years or so, reduction as a tool has become reductionism as an article of faith.  The disagreements among us about the causes of problems like, for example, mental illness become “reduced” to fights about which level of reduction is the “correct” one (say biology or interpersonal relations or social justice). These disagreements about the right level of reduction to solve the problem of mental illness translate into irreconcilable differences over the correct intervention (say medication or therapy or social change).

We all get that a one level view of something like mental illness isn’t adequate, but with the template of reductionism firmly cemented into our thinking, all we can do is fumble through the interventions crafted from the various beliefs in different levels until we find an assortment of various tools from those different levels that we use to tinker, modify, or shift our symptoms.

There are other ways than single-level models to view complex problems like mental illness, but it is astoundingly difficult to give up reduction as an article of faith. Like any other bad habit, we will have to practice with a new way of thinking until it replaces reductionism. Perhaps the most obvious example of our addiction to reductionism shows itself when we are convinced by our fear that there is some simple cause for a complex problem that is threatening us or interfering with our life:

  • A particular political ideology becomes the one true answer to our social, economic, religious, scientific, etc. problems and only those who believe in that ideology without waiver can make that one true answer real (this is very similar to the old model of magic, in which our thoughts were manifested in the real world through incantations, spells, number diagrams, herbs, poisons, wands, summoning angels or demons, and so on. I suppose political platforms have taken the place of incantations).
  • Mental illness has a single (take your pick) medical, biological, dietary, environmental, psychiatric, social, political, religious, alien, or cosmic cause and only an intervention based on the correct choice of cause will always and reliably produce a “cure” (in fact, the entire belief in cure of anything is based on a reductionist approach to real problems in the real world).
  • Any model of progress or success (both forms of the idea of reaching perfection) as being due to some single personality characteristic, simple and repeatable technique, single skill, uniform and errorless belief system (think cult), a specific piece of literature, a specific moral stance, and so on.
  • Overall, we argue over whether competing theories of the solution to some problem are correct with the same vitriol accorded religious arguments. Sometimes the vitriol produces a particularly intractable form of violence that religion has visited upon the human race for eons.

A reductionist view of problem-solving sees problems at defective machines. The goal of problem-solving is to identify the broken part and fix or replace it.

Machines can be very complicated (say, a 787 plane or a space shuttle), but the approach to problem-solving is the same regardless of the complication. Identify the failure and replace it or repair it. The reason why this works with machines is because the parts of the system don’t change as the parts interact with one another.They age or break but don’t change their behavior permanently because of those interactions, no matter how complicated the system is.

But there are other kinds of systems besides complicated ones. Today, they are called complex systems, and their parts do change through interaction all the time. There is no more obvious example of a complex system than the one we carry around in our heads: Our brain.

The brain has been the subject of reductionist attempts at understanding for much of human history. Since the advent of experimental exploration, the various levels of brain function have competed with one another for the ultimate explanation of how brain complexity works and how it might be managed. Part of this reductionism was and still is due to the difficulty of doing research on the whole brain (all its levels at once). Also, the common assumption of reductionism makes us focus on the level that we think has the most to do with the problem in which we are interested.

The Connectome Project is building and integrating a complex set of technologies to enable imaging the whole brain while it is doing its thing to support whole brain study. But each part of this initiative is very complex and I have to believe that our habits of reductionism will continue to pose barriers to the necessity of multi-level understanding. So waiting for the end result of what I think is the right direction for science to pursue doesn’t help us right now.

When we say that the brain is doing stuff as a whole, we mean that it is using all those levels for everything it does every instant of our lives. And while it is difficult to imagine being able to understand how the many layers of function work if we view the brain as a machine or computer, there are ways to interact with complex systems of any kind to create real change and increasing understanding. Needless to say, these ways are not reducible to local repair or replacement of some part. They are the ways of interacting that evolution has produced in our brains for ordinary sociality with other people, animals, plants, and things as we do all the time every day.

And it is about time that we began to reflect on the wisdom of our brains and those tools of interacting with complex systems that we all have, and stop depending on useless metaphors and fruitless appeals to nonexistent truth outside the dynamic interaction that is our existence.

Time to grow up…..

Next Post: A Model of the Real Matrix

Using an Eddy to Support Advocacy

Micrograph of a neural synaps wuth a green globe holding many small neuotransmitter balls as the edge of the synapse gap
Micrograph of a Neural Synapse

One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.


We all know that it is impossible to craft a strategy that can truly manage chaos. Chaos is short term and its flow is unpredictable. We are in a time when chaos comes and goes as unpredictably as it ever has in my 70 years.

In my last post, I pointed to the metaphor of an eddy as a tool for managing an advocacy strategy in chaos.  How can we manage in chaos without being overwhelmed by it?

Mostly, people think of stability in chaos as retreating to a structure like a bunker. They believe they become safe by cutting off contact with the chaos, by “hunkering down” and waiting for the chaos to pass. Such an approach will work if the chaos is rare like a tornado. But we live in a world where one flow of chaos comes and goes to be quickly followed by another flow from an entirely unexpected direction. Finding safety in a bunker in this world can become a permanent way of living. If the chaos ever quiets, we may find a very broken and dangerous world when we emerge from our bunker. And there is always the possibility that the chaos simply won’t end.

An eddy isn’t a bunker. It is a flow with more stability than the middle of the raging river, but it is still a flow, not a structure. The eddy depends on the context (banks, boulders, trees, clay soil, etc.) of the river to keep reproducing an area of relative stability. There are two dimensions to maintaining and expanding an eddy for use in advocacy. The first is supporting the stable flow of the eddy and the second is expanding the stabilizing context of the eddy.

Stabilizing the Eddy

There are many ways we can stabilize our advocacy strategies, but they all boil down to not being pushed around by the chaos in the larger environment:

  1. The most important way we can stabilize our advocacy is to maintain and deepen our mission of advocacy. Mission drift, often driven by the unpredictable nature of non-profit funding, is the single most important cause of the “zombification” of advocacy so that our commitment to advocacy becomes no more than a commitment to stable funding (or the illusion of stable funding). See my presentation slide document on the two missions of every advocacy organization for more detail about how we lose our way.
  2. Parallel to deepening our commitment to our mission is deepening our commitment to the values that drive that mission. The only effective way to do this is to have everyone in your group or organization involved directly in mission-critical work. That includes managers, accountants, board members, even your funders, and suppliers. Internalized values are the best protection against the corruption of your work. The fastest way to undermine your work is to divorce some members or staff from those values by confining their jobs to things that are not directly driven by the values that underpin your advocacy vision. This is especially risky if people become managers or supervisors. It is also an issue for most nonprofit board members who come to view their role as financial control.
  3. Include values impact review as a specific part of every organizational change proposal, including new funding initiatives, reorganizations, media campaigns, and general fundraising efforts. You may need to simplify your message so that others can understand it, but watch out trying to broaden your appeal by undermining your values. Working on the story of your mission should be an ongoing task for everyone, and since management and fundraising don’t include this as a standard part of the job description, you will have to work to have authentic reflection and expansion/deepening of your story.

Expanding the Eddy

  1. Build partnerships with other stakeholders who share your values, and work to deepen your common understanding and commitment to the values that drive your advocacy. We often think we don’t have the time for this kind of work, but a broader collaboration stabilizes both your core mission and your organization.
  2. Build more regional stakeholder collaborations through the general strategy of bringing your values to the table of planning and policy venues. Examples could be local and regional emergency planning, education, local infrastructure, and similar initiatives that impact our lives, but often don’t include us.
  3. Constantly share stories that illustrate your values and you will find that they illustrate your vision and your mission. Using social media to tell these stories is now a necessity for all of us.
  4. Include involvement in supporting and participating in direct action when the opportunity presents itself. There is no better way to deepen value commitment and an understanding of your advocacy mission.

The framework of this discussion is really how to build and expand an eddy to make it easier to control your interaction with the chaos. It isn’t about getting rid of the chaos. Your advocacy and your group can be a model for other stakeholders and potential collaborators about how to negotiate the unpredictability and risk of our current reality.

P.S: I used the micrograph of a synapse for this post’s image because the many, many synapses of our brains are a core of how the brain prevents itself from spiraling out into chaos. Think of a synapse as a pause that allows for a short reflection about the importance and value of what you are about to do. Only when the next step is truly powerful and meaningful should we take it.

I’m going to start a series of posts about what other things our own brains can teach us about doing advocacy in complex systems.

Next Post: The Dynamic Wholeness of Your Brain

How Can An Eddy Help Us with Change Strategy?

swirling eddy in the clackamas river in oregon, with a very green rain forestlike bank
Eddy in Oregon River

Continuing with the flowing river metaphor from the last post, there are ways to build and support stability with your paddle even in a raging spring flow.

Eddies form behind boulders or other naturally occurring obstructions to the flow of a river.  A flowing river always fills every space it can.  You can think of the constraints of the bank, and other physical objects like boulders, as the context of the flow. If the river were to start drying up, the properties of the flow would change with every change in depth and water sources, because the physical geography of the context is tapped differently by any difference in the river flow. And our use of our”magic” (if limited) paddle would change accordingly.

Because the river flow is dynamic, and we don’t have a way to control the sources of the water in the river, we have to always think in terms of using our paddle to alter and respond to the local situation in which we find ourselves. It is much easier to do that in an eddy than in the rapids of the river.

We do this all the time. We look for immediately available places where our paddle(s) can be used to move us where we want to go.

But if you ask almost anyone how to change the impact of the river’s flow, that person will leap to the idea of controlling the flow as a whole, rather than focusing on local control of water flow or  local change of the context of the flow (digging the bank out to enlarge the eddy, for example).

Looking for an elected savior is trying to change the whole flow. Now, someone who has a bigger paddle and who can use that paddle to change your situation will look like a savior but isn’t ever changing the flow as a whole.

Who else wants the savior to use that bigger paddle to change the flow in their part of the river? How long will our claim on this savior’s support  “hold water”?

Looking for a silver-bullet ideology is also like trying to change the whole flow. I think that ideology is mostly a kind of membership card for a social group that has the same values or beliefs. I don’t think that truth is a meaningfully important part of any ideology. But the social network, especially the network’s core values, can be an effective tool for mobilizing an effort to change that local flow, and if you have lots of paddles all trying to change their own local flows using the same values, you can produce real change.

But remember that you aren’t changing the whole flow. You are directing a small part of the flow to expand the impact of the values and relationships you hold dear.

In carving out, building, and supporting a space to make our values real for those we hold dear, we need to understand just how fast and unpredictably the river flow is changing worldwide and put our hope in each other and our common efforts, not in some superstitious notion of directing the entire flow. We need to think of those with bigger paddles as tools we can use to support our network, but in no way should we buy into either saviors or ideologies and their claims to be able to control the entire flow of the river. Such claims are always a manipulation or a delusion.

Every bit of energy that we put into saviors and ideologies that doesn’t positively impact our values and network is wasted. And wasting energy while navigating rapids leads to sinking.

Next time, I’ll drag myself out of the river and dry off in the sun.

Next Post: What Is a Real-World Eddy Like?