Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

whole greater than sum of its parts

"smashing clocks together to discern their inner workings" — angels-demons

Like most research into mycorrhizal networks, asking questions about Voyria involved collecting them, thus severing their connections to the web. I’ve spent days doing it. And days thinking about the irony of cutting the very connections that I was studying. Of course, biologists often destroy the organisms they hope to understand. I was used to this idea, as much as it’s possible to get used to it. But severing the connections in a network to study the network felt unusually absurd. The physicists Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers remarked that attempts to break down complex systems into their components often fail to provide satisfying explanations; we rarely know how to put the pieces back together again. [...] We know, in short, that wood wide webs are dynamic systems in shimmering, unceasing turnover.

Entities that behave in these ways are loosely termed “complex adaptive systems”: complex, because their behavior is difficult to predict from a knowledge of their constituent parts alone; adaptive, because they self-organize into new forms or behaviors in response to their circumstances. You—like all organisms—are a complex adaptive system. So is the World Wide Web. So are brains, termite colonies, swarming bees, cities, and financial markets—to name a few. Within complex adaptive systems, small changes can bring about large effects that can only be observed in the system as a whole. Rarely can a neat arrow be plotted between cause and effect. Stimuli—which may be unremarkable gestures in themselves—swirl into often surprising responses. Financial crashes are a good example of this type of dynamic nonlinear process. So are sneezes, and orgasms.

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Today, “network neuroscience” is the name given to the discipline that attempts to understand how the brain’s activity emerges from the interlinked activity of millions of neurons. A single neuronal circuit within one’s brain can’t give rise to intelligent behavior, just as the behavior of a single termite can’t give rise to the intricate architecture of a termite mound. No single neuronal circuit “knows” what’s going on any more than a single termite “knows” the structure of the mound, but large numbers of neurons can build a network from which surprising phenomena can emerge. In this view, complex behaviors—including minds and the nuanced textures of lived, conscious experience—arise out of complex networks of neurons flexibly remodeling themselves.

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angels-demons Brown, Dan. Angels & Demons. ↩︎ 1

entangled-life Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. ↩︎ 1 2