That the brain is hardwired or softwired is one of those half truths that drives the wires in LI’s own brain haywire. The idea that the nerve is a wire goes back, as we have shown in various previous posts, to suggestions made by Newton, and taken up in the eighteenth century by people like Hartley. Although strictly, the metaphor then was more of a kind of string imparting pulses, or vibrations. Galvani’s experiments suggested that the nerve was the locus of animal electricity – it was like the wire coming out of a Leyden Jar.
Now, in truth, there is no wire that I meet up with in the course of my day to day encounters with electricity that is like a nerve. The string idea, of course, still exists in the notion of nerve ‘fibers’ – which is only to say that the way in which the nerve had to be modeled on artifices of human manufacture as it was understood goes deeply into the way nerves are talked about. On some level, we are all naturally Hollywood voodooists – we make little dolls and explain human beings on the basis of those little dolls.
However, though fibers are what one might call a built in metaphor – they have become parts of the way that nerves are described - wires are not – wires retain the status of an external model to which nerves are compared. Saletan’s recent racist article at Slate about how whites are smarter than blacks, the one in which he based his science on the work of two well known racists and then backed off, due to the fact that he, in the five minutes of omniscience that he’d given to the subject, had neglected to review any of the literature on the subject, provoked a huge and hugely stupid discussion of IQ and genes, with the assumption that genes are the thing we should look to to explain our mental life. Genes, we are assured, either hardwire or softwire our brains. In fact, our brains have been examined for a long, long time by neurology, and if we want to understand human intelligence – something that is much different than IQ, which is the result of a very early twentieth century textual invention called an IQ test – we should look to what the neurological sciences say. In other words – the underlying notion that genes determine the way the brain is ignore the fact that the way the brain is is highly and necessarily plastic; and that plasticity is expressed in the constitution of the neural network. We have wiring systems that primitively approximate this – routers in a telephone system can connect x’s call to y via one group of telephone wires or wireless transmissions or another. Selection, here, also primitively embodies something that happens in the selection of neural pathways, in that the number of calls can select out one route over another – that is, the router can use some algorithm to determine if too much use is being placed on one pathway and route a given call to another pathway.
But the whole router/wire thing, here, not only lags behind the complexity of the brain, but it leads us to misunderstand the basic distinction between nerves and wires: nerves are made of discrete nerve cells. The junction between them is a synapse, where chemical mediators bear the impulses. The image of the wire has been the basis for two historical misunderstandings in neurology. The first was the dispute between Ramon y Cajal and Golgi about the structure of the neuron – with Ramon y Cajal rightly understanding neural cells as discrete from one another, and Golgi holding onto an older, continuous hypothesis, with the nerves imagined as things like wires – and the second, as Valenstein, in his history of neurophysiology in the twentieth century, puts it, was the “war between the soup and the sparks” – with those who dismissed chemical receptors, or the “sparks’ group, unconsciously bending their model to the model of the wire, Newton’s vibrations translated into Galvani’s electricity. Of course, the soup won – but oddly enough, we don’t talk about hard soup and soft soup. Although, indeed, that would be a better metaphor – but it would make the body seem more like something whipped up in a kitchen than engineered by Edison. I needn’t go into the masculinist anxieties that such images conjure – we can see them all around us, can’t we?
In actual fact, the direction of influence is now going the other way – we are developing wire networks that are more souplike, so that we no longer speak of wires. But these archetypes of engineering still litter our ordinary discourse.