An ineffable arrangement of neurons

Hank is one of two Anatolian Shepherds that work here at the farm. I was doing chores the other day and found him, as you see here, enjoying a bit of a break. Raising livestock, as we do, has provided many opportunities to observe a range of innate animal behavior. With lambing season now behind us many of these are fresh in my  mind, such as when a ewe will turn her attention immediately to removing remnants of the amnion from the airways of her newborn. The rooting and suckling of lambs which are but minutes old. A lamb’s dramatic struggle to stand. The vocalizations between ewe and lamb, many of which are only heard during the first day or so of life. And the ability of a lamb, in even total darkness, to imprint on its mother. Among all of the species we have raised, however, the most dramatic displays of innate behavior are those of our shepherds. The Anatolian was selectively breed in central Turkey, several thousand years ago, and is known for its hardiness, independence, and its keen ability to guard livestock, especially sheep and goats. Our dogs aren’t much to look at during the day, for while the sun shines they sleep; lightly, with one eye closed and the other tracking the flock. At dusk the dogs are on duty and patrol the perimeters of our pastures by night. To watch these dogs is a wonderment. They rarely bark but are capable of producing deep, intimidating, rumbles which seem to well up from the ground beneath their feet. Although they can move quite quickly, they don’t often hurry, but orient purposefully toward whatever requires their attention. Both Hank and Argus know, well before Joanna and I do, when an animal is in labor. Often, as parturition approaches, a ewe will separate herself at some distance from the flock and, if this should happen by night, she will surely have one of the dogs with her. Our best guardian, Sophie, would stay with ewes all through their labor and assist in cleaning the newborn. It is the habit of all the ewes to consume the afterbirth as quickly as it is produced and Sophie would assist here too. We have been told that this behavior reduces the risk of predation. As I photographed Hank the other day lambs scampered back-and-forth, across his field-of-view. Such behavior would elicit, from most any other dog, an innate, predatory (chase) response. True to his breed, however, Hank simply watched with the satisfaction that his flock was doing just what it should. He knows what he’s about. I close by wondering what, precisely, instinct might be and where we may find it in the animal brain. Surely, everyone who discusses the subject glibly comments that instinctive behaviors are hard-wired. To be sure, but that is too easy an explanation made by those unable to offer anything more. How is it that the activity of some genetically-programmed arrangement of neurons may result in the Anatolian absence of predatory behavior, while some other arrangement makes dogs of other breeds display the ancestral habit? I suppose if I knew the answer to questions like that I’d be famous. Short of specific answers, I delight in the fact that the ineffable arrangement of the more than 100 billion neurons of our own brains can explain all of human behavior. How could it be otherwise? For, surely, we have moved beyond the concepts of animal magnetism, spiritualism, and vitalism as explanations. Humans are animals which may be studied, and so it will be, through scientific inquiry, that we will come to know where our behaviors lie and the neural form they assume. For now we will have to marvel at their manifestations.


34 thoughts on “An ineffable arrangement of neurons

  1. It is so nice to see working dogs. Today, unfortunately, there is too much of a tendency – at least for my taste – to regard dogs in much the same way as people once regarded dolls – specifically as an accessory; something to be dressed up and paraded about in order to fulfill someone’s vanity. It’s easy to forget the tens of thousands of years; thousands of iterations of selective breeding that left the various breeds to well-adapted for the various roles–shepherding, hunting, guarding, drafting, rescue and such. These days, what I’m seeing runs at the edges of my moral sensibilities. Rather than being bred to end up suited to various tasks they are instead bred to conform to someone’s vision of how they should look regardless of what they means for their overall health and resulting quality of life. See here: Through all of that, though, there remain dogs like Hank. Willing partners, not looking for undue affection, only respect and that which is their due – a fair wage for good work.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Those who speak of “hard-wired” behavior in a derogative way simply lack the imagination of what can emerge from a complex system of interacting components. It is those terms that some philosophers of mind call “intuition pumps” – terms that remind us of crude machines (such as “hard-wired”) so that it seems to be self-evident that of course, absolutely “sacred human life” has to be different. But why? Call it “emergent behavior of a complex system” and it might sound more acceptable.

    In this context I am most interested in the question whether machines will ever “think” – I believe this is the same discussion. It is just logical that it is terribly hard to reach the level of complexity / intelligence that evolution has resulted in after billions of years – but I don’t see really valid counter-arguments except desperate attempts to maintain humans’ particular position in the universe (and the “hierarchy of all beings”).

    • No argument from me … I’m with you on these ideas all-the-way. I have no problem getting my mind around highly complex neural systems via simple arguments about variation and natural selection among competing organisms (over hundreds of millions of years). And I have similarly little difficulty with consciousness … the only difficulty is that I cannot envision, in a physical sense, what consciousness IS. Sometimes I think and think … and I sense myself sort of getting my mind around it … and then I look around the corner … and it’s GONE! I simply cannot get my mind around what consciousness might be. It HAS to have a physical basis … doesn’t it? I agree that the concept is the quintessential example of an emergent property. Perhaps our nervous system has reached some critical minimum threshold of numbers of neurons that consciousness just happens as a side consequence? We have 100 billion neurons in the brain doing the processing … and who knows how many more billions of sensory neurons providing input about all sorts of things. Neurons to sense light, touch, smell, taste, temperature, and on and on … perhaps the wondrous side-consequence of all this data is the ‘realization,’ on our part that we exist within the environment. Period … consciousness … awareness … if there’s enough sensory input … we can be aware that we exist. How’s that? D

      • I agree Dave! As I understood all these theories the sensory input is essential – consciousness might be something like the dancing of those emergent symbols, in reaction to that input … including also the interactions with ‘its own symbol’. Which is not really an explanation as we cannot step out of the system to the next level.

        • I guess I just find my hypothetical solution to the consciousness problem simple … even though we have yet to find evidence of it (a minor point). The neural system becomes more and more complex with the addition of layers … kind of like making a computer chip. Layers include circuits of neural sensory input as well as motor output. No problem, we’ve known these to exist for a century or more. At some (evolutionary) point there’s an additional layer of control neurons whose job it is to control, oversee, and modulate activity of the other layers. What’s so complicated? And this layer of control allows neuronal pathways to ‘monitor’ what’s going on in in pathways. The pathways become cooperative to the best advantage of the organism which possesses them. Aren’t the best solutions always the simplest and most elegant? We have systems like this in developmental genetics in which structural genes (analogous to the neural layers) control the development of individual phenotypes (body parts, for example) and what are called HOX genes (master control genes) control the structural genes. What’s really interesting is that small changes (mutations) in the control genes may be responsible for large changes in the expression of the structural genes. Some would say that this argument can explain why it is that even though, in a genetic sense, humans and chimps are very similar … they are, in the end, very, very different (because of very slight modifications of the genes which control development). So, all we need to do is map every neuron in the huaman brain (see, where my daughter works as a science writer) and all of this will be revealed! Ha, ha! If only it were so. Thanks for reading the rant of a crazy scientist! D

          • This sounds convincing (and I need to check out the bluebrain site… again… I was very interested in that type of modelling some years ago but lost track of it…). I admit that I sometimes – when reading the philosophical discussion – don’t get why it should be so complicated? But then I think I maybe miss something!

    • Years ago I recall, with excitement, getting my copy of Dan Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained” shortly after it was published. The further I got into the book the more I realized the author was much better at being argumentative than on understanding the nature of consciousness 🙂 It has not gotten any better. Ideas and their proponents come and go.
      Might was well spend time watching the icebergs that drift in. They’ll come and go too …

      • I think I wouldn’t disagree – had I read this book. In his review of I am Strange Loop (I have linked it in my recent post), David Deutsch says the ‘unconvincing half’ of Hofstadter’s book is taken from Dennet’s – which critics call Consciousness Denied.

      • Whatever (as the kids would say) … your photo notwithstanding … I am still convinced you live in one of the prettiest places on the planet. Having said that, there’s no denying it looks awfully, awfully, COLD! Brrrrr. D

        • The temperature was zero all day and guess what – today was the day I changed over the snow tires on the car. I’ll be doing the van tomorrow. It’s currently -1 and there’s a light dusting of snow. 🙂 yesterday I visited my buddy up at the coast guard base. We had lunch on the Henry Larsen, one of the ice breakers. Brad told me that last week while escorting a ferry the ice was so thick the 18000 hp engines couldn’t make headway and they had to come about. Yup. Still cold. Enjoy your spring for me too!

            • No but I’m not sure I’d want to these days. 🙂 Between the wind we’ve been getting and the pitching and rolling that comes from heavy icebreaking I’m not sure my stomach would be up to it!

  3. I love this post. I’ve been wondering if Carl Jung was onto something when he suggested humans have a collective unconscious, and if this could be like the thing we call animal instinct. But then, where within this structure of conscious/unconscious being, does the individual morph into the universal, or the other way around? So much to consider, especially in connection to other questions in our on-going conversations, such as, what is art (versus craft) and what is it, really, this thing we call spirituality? Perhaps these answers themselves are not relevant at all… maybe it is the question–the reminder that we know not everything–that is the point. Much here to ponder today!

    • Answers to questions such as that which you ask (rhetorically in this case) about spirituality do matter … they matter very much, and for more than one reason. I believe it is important to be able to point out, to those among the religious, that there are other facets to ‘higher’ intellectual or transcendent experience (if I can refer to it (whatever ‘it’ may be) that way) beyond those which may manifest in Churches, Synagogues, or Mosques. On another level, to be able to define (perhaps individualistically) what being a spiritual person really means has interest as well. Where does spiritual behavior reside? Why is it important that those of us who may consider ourselves to be spiritual BE spiritual? Does it have something to do with making an intellectual connection to something ‘else’? I do not know. Although the comments section of a WordPress blog may not be the best place for a back-and-forth regarding what it means to be spiritual, I believe it is important for those who consider themselves so to take the time to think about answers. The layers and dimensions of spirituality are many and complex. And, you know, in one way the pursuit of such answers is like the pursuit of art … the harder you push … the dimmer the answers become. D

      • I discovered Dr. Ramachandran’s TED Talk on mirror neurons a few months ago (, I think it was almost right after we had been exchanging comments on the nature of narratives, memory and truth. I was excited by all the possibilities of what can be discovered about learning processes and how empathy is manifested through the study of mirror neurons. Or to learn that such knowledge can help reduce phantom limb pain for people with amputations by using mirrors to trick the mind into thinking the limb still exists with the body (and thus can be soothed to ease the pain). I can imagine this type of neural research might lead to better understanding of memory and some types of mental illnesses and personality disorders. To my way of thinking, such research is as important to humankind as it was to determine that the planets revolve around the sun and the earth is not flat, nor was it made in a mere seven days.

        If a biological definition for the phenomena of artistry and spirituality is possible, I also wonder if it will be found along this sort of inquiry. As exciting as this is, I also dread the knowing… what if this limits me? What if someone says, ‘you can’t do this creative work because you’ll never be able to produce the good stuff, you’re biologically not capable.’? (Terrifying!)

        In these musings I think I discovered a small bit of insight into why people fight so hard to hold onto ignorance and mystery within their religious convictions. To make a crude analogy, I think religion is to spirituality what craft is to art. Both religion and craft is formula, a process of teaching (a school), but I think the real essence of art or spirit is too personal to define, and we cannot be told by anyone else what it is; I think art and spirit are discoveries we spend our entire lives in process of making (but never fully arrive, either). I keep asking, would I feel differently about myself if I were to learn that the parameters of my ability to experience anything beyond craft could be counted and measured by my neurons. Would I be angered to learn that no matter how much I practice, I could never feel that glimmer of artistry, ever? Would I despair? I suspect this is why people persist with religion… always the hope that they can feel something more, something special within themselves, and when I compare that to my own pursuit of art, I feel compassion for them.

        So, this is why I ask if we need to know. Perhaps there are some things about ourselves that should remained undefined, if only to give us something to do while we live out these lives of ours, waiting to become compost?

        • I’ve looked quickly through my comments and can’t find that I’ve responded to this M … and I should have … for I think you’ve done well with the paired parallels of Religion and craft, and Spirituality and art. Yes, religion is ‘of this world’ and practiced while spirituality is deeper, more personal, and (of course) from within. You should take a look at my reply to Elke concerning her comment, for a do not think I could recreate it here! Also, I really liked your very last sentiment, ” … if only to give use something to do while we live out these lives of ours, waiting to become compost?” Totally love it! Absolutely right on! D

          • I also have a comment from you that I have not answered, as connected with interdisciplinary thinking (hybrids?) in relation to the philosophers’ news website. I had written something lengthy, switched it to a post, but haven’t been able to conclude my thoughts. I think this conversation connects with all these considerations, and have found their way into Elke’s recent post on Hofstadter. I’ll let you get back to your work and weekend, and leave you with thanks for this conversation.

            • No worries … whenever the felt need to respond to a comment starts to weight on your conscience, simply open the window and let it fly and be free! Please don’t ever feel the obligation to get back … I would shudder to think you did. I comment because ideas come-to-mind … no need to re-reflect (as it were). And so, we did enjoy the day … 18 miles on our local Rails-to-Trails … it was a beautiful day and one we wanted to enjoy in anticipation of the coming rains. D

    • Thanks much Dan and please do take time, sometime, for a return visit. One-photographer-to-another, I took a quick look at Traun Photography and liked what I saw. Keep it up. D

  4. Last night we watched a show on PBS called “Inside Animal Minds.” At one point the narrator wondered whether an animal was performing a certain behavior by instinct or through intelligence, and I asked myself, as you did here, what instinct is, and where the line lies between instinct and intelligence. Like you, I have no answer.

    • It is when thinking about just this sort of science that I come up with a number of responses to the classic … if-I-had-one-wish … thing. If I had a wish, it would be to unravel the mystery of where memory resides. Or, more precisely, how it resides there. If I had a wish, it would be to unravel the mystery of where the capacity to learn resides. Or, more precisely, how it resides there. If I had a wish, it would be to understand the physical basis for consciousness. And, like you, if I had a wish, it would be to know the difference in the neural manifestations of learned and innate behaviors. Ahh, if I only had a wish. Thanks for taking the time to chime in. D PS: Darn … I forgot to add that, if I had a wish, I’d wish for 10 more wishes … or, is that against the rules we learned about such things in grade school?

      • Yes, to wish for more wishes was always considered outside the rules of that game.

        I’ve been wondering about the physical basis of consciousness for decades. The same about the related question of how a collection of inanimate chemicals can suddenly be alive.

    • Thanks … is it Julie? I just took a quick look at Gardening Jules and was suprised by ALL THE COLOR! You are lucky to have such a profusion of color at this time of year. We, here in Pennsylvania, are quite a bit behind you … but catching up! D

  5. Such a beautiful portrait and touching narrative. Hank calls to mind the famous statue, in Lucerne’s town square, of the lion laying down his life for his master. Hank comes from a valiant and noble breed it seems, and your description was touching. I enjoyed this very much.

  6. What a fabulous post and photo!! I always learn something new! Can’t believe the dogs eat the afterbirth too. Yikes. They surely must be bred to do so. Such precise behaviors. Amazing how nature works. Saw J’s FB cover photo. THAT has got to be an award winner. This one too.

    • Thanks … you’re rapidly becoming my most enthusiastic follower. Much appreciated. Now that summer is upon us I’ll (hopefully) have more time for important things, like time with the camera. Stay tuned. D

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