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Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Gnostic Neuron - A Simple Model of a Complex Brain


(Originally posted July 17, 2020)

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." - Albert Einstein


I understand how the brain works. Well enough. I’m serious. Researching the nature of neural connection and the word “knowledge” lead me to a startling conclusion:

Neurons literally create and define knowledge at the instant that they fire.

What does this even mean? How can biology create something as abstract as knowledge, let alone define it? This assertion begs a detailed clarification, which I’ll provide in due course, but here’s a quick overview. 

Neuronal knowledge is not the same as information. Information is an objective subset of knowledge. Information is represented by a state expressed in some medium outside the skull. In contrast, knowledge starts from within and is inherently subjective, and ephemeral. Each bit of knowledge is the product of a specific neuron, at a specific moment, and only exists for that moment. 

Most significantly, knowledge is not stored as a “state” in the neuron. Instead of storing states, neurons evolve a very specific “sensitivity” to each experience. When a similar circumstance reoccurs, that neuron fires again in re-cognition of that specific bit of what is best described as knowledge, and then adjusts its sensitivity to be more effective at cueing for this knowledge at the next opportunity.

A neuron’s knowledge has utility which is quite different from that of information, but no less significant. As other neurons fire, their specific knowledge joins in a convergent abstraction that has evolved to create more complex meaning from that particular experience. A signal representing this knowledge also diverges out to any other neurons that may find it useful. Ultimately, these somewhat divergent, but primarily convergent and hierarchically organized experience nets both compete and cooperate to form cues which drive scripts of muscle movement known as behavior. 

In the temporal background, mostly out of the critical path, the cortex creates models of the world using a form of stateless simulation expressed as feelings from both sides of the brain. “Processing” our thoughts in our left brain, and envisioning solutions in our right, are both higher-order forms of this particular trick. The result ranges from primal proto-knowledge all the way to information, and ultimately something approaching the truth. But by degrees.

The key to understanding the brain is, neurons create knowledge, and most knowledge is created by neurons. It’s only the quality and character of this knowledge that varies, and varies widely. Once we begin to focus on what each neuron knows, and how knowledge dynamically changes, can we begin to build a simple model of a complex brain.

If you’ve spent any time studying neuroscience or human behavior, this idea of neurons creating and defining knowledge may at first seem comical, radical, bizarre, or worse - meaningless. My first reaction was to laugh out loud. My second was, could it be this simple? I couldn’t look away. 

Over time I have refined this gnostic model of the brain. Now it’s hard to see neurons as anything other than creators of knowledge. And that’s just the beginning. This concept changes not just how I see the brain, but how I understand the world. I now see knowledge in the actions of everyone I meet. Like green letters dropping down the screens from the movie, “The Matrix”, I see bits of primal-knowledge coming together in life to form effective behavior, and ultimately emergent insight about everything I experience.

Am I delusional? Perhaps. But with a clear understanding of this first principle of the neuron, the brain begins to make a lot more sense. Once I understood that neurons created and literally defined knowledge, figuring out how this happened became a lot easier and revealed the brain’s multifaceted architecture, yielding a map of astounding complexity largely based on this one simple principle. This collection of cooperating and competing survival solutions called the brain is ultimately reflected in our language and culture, but by degrees. It evolves as knowledge, information, and ultimately, wisdom.

Words are literally the expression of this knowledge in the process of becoming information. When pre-motor neurons fire, they cue a script of choreographed muscle movements in the diaphragm, throat, tongue, and lips to create sounds. Or in the fingers to create writing. Words are the result of this knowledge. So are memes. What I’m about to present is not merely the redefinition of the "word" knowledge. It’s a radically different understanding of what it means to define all words. It even sheds light on the hard problem of the brain. But it helps to address the simple model first. Later we can speculate about consciousness. 

In due course I’ll describe a collection of tricks that evolution has used to evolve a way to evolve. It yields a very different, yet powerful way of thinking about the brain. And reality. And no, I don’t understand all the tricks of the brain, only a few. But these tricks are applied disproportionately yielding a shadow of an overview which has for me become a simple model of the brain. Needless to say, understanding this nature of knowledge has extraordinary application in our everyday interactions with the world, from science to art, and philosophy.

Yes, I realize how audacious this claim is, probably better than most. I’ve been casually working on this problem for decades, but more intensely over the last few years. I’ve collected well over a thousand pages of technical descriptions, notes, and references, but all of that detail would only distract at this point.

A comprehensive model of anything needs to account for all known observations. This of course is currently impractical in the case of the brain. There’s simply too much data to even document, let alone validate (at least by any one person). We need a simple model of the brain first. That starts with a framework, or better yet, an overview. We can fill in the details as our understanding evolves. The challenge is to generalize in a way that incorporates what we know, yet keep those generalizations broad enough to account for all the detail we’ve yet to discover. A fool’s errand? Perhaps. 

Assertion Salad

No generalization’s worth a damn, including this one. - Oliver Wendell Holmes

To keep things flexible, I’ll first present these generalizations as a collection of poetry, a sort of free-verse association for concepts and ideas about the brain. The result will be an assertion salad, not unlike a word salad, but somewhat less random, and hopefully a bit more useful. 

Some of these assertions will contradict others in various ways, some will be sweet, some salty. Some may even be unsavory. Think of it as an evolving recipe. What broad generalizations, what simple assertions can you make about the brain? Your salad will vary from mine depending upon the aspects of the brain you’ve focused on. Yours will have the ingredients you tend to appreciate, but keep your options open for new ideas and flavors.

This particular assertion salad informs my current casual and intuitive overview of the brain. Some of these assertions are more probable than others. Some may ultimately be dead-wrong, but intriguing at the moment. All are useful. 

I suggest you literally document your own assertion salad by challenging mine, or just checking off the ones you agree with for now. Steal freely -  that’s the key to great art. Create some new ones. Play with the concepts until they feel right, until you find significance. You can always come back for seconds. Or make a completely new salad. This exercise should ultimately evolve a more tasty result, and hopefully yielding a better understanding of the brain:

The brain is embodied, and the body is embedded. - Gerald Edelman.


The brain is a reflection of the world that drove its evolution.

As an individual brain is a reflection of that individual's experience.

As our culture is a reflection of our collective experience.

Which is a reflection of the brain's architecture.

Which of course, is part of that world, creating a circular dependency.

The brain is divided left and right, providing for a necessary isolation.

The two sides of the brain are redundant, by degrees.

The two sides of the brain specialize, by degrees.

They could accomplish neither if fully integrated.

The two sides of our brain are actually separated by...

a common corpus callosum.


The left side of our brain deals with logic, tools, and language,

but not exclusively so.

The right side of our brain deals with colors, music, and visualization, 

but not exclusively so.

Together, both sides of our brain create many useful dichotomies.


The brain is multifaceted.

The brain is layered phylogenetically from the brainstem...

up, out and forward.

These layers are best understood as creatures…

from our evolutionary past.

The layers and sides of our brain both...

compete and cooperate to yield behavior.


The nature of the brain is mostly chemical.

The brain is not electronic.

It's not even electrical.

Electricity is an abomination to the brain.

But ionic charge is the not-so-secret-sauce within the neuron.

Ionic brain waves are an artifact of re-cognition, not its cause.

Neurons that fire together only sort of wire together.

The brain is analogical.

There are no "states" in the brain.

Nothing in the brain is hardwired.

The brain is plastic by degrees, and in critical phases.

An old dog can learn new tricks.


The brain does not compute, but can fake it when needed.

Computers simulate the world by changing states in a logical system.

The brain simulates the world in a more subtle and elegant fashion.

The computer is fast, digital, largely synchronous,

and mostly serial in its operation.

The brain is slow, analog, mostly asynchronous, and profoundly parallel in its operation.

Envision "sense-decide" as opposed to "stimulus-response".

We are inherently subjective, only aspiring to the objective. 


The predictability of our world ranges from random to determinant,

but these limits are only asymptotically approached.

Reality ranges from complete mystery to the known,

but these limits are only asymptotically approached.

Knowledge ranges from hunch to conviction,

but these limits are only asymptotically approached.

Knowledge is that which is significant in our world.

Each person's world is defined by their subjective experiences.

Objective reality stands apart.

Behavior ranges from predictable to seemingly random when objectively observed.

But these limits are only asymptotically approached.

Behavior always reflects our subjective knowledge.

Behavior is a collection of cooperating and competing...

theatrical cues and scripts.

Cues and scripts are how we dance with the world.

         Consciousness is a collection of cues and scripts marinated in that cauldron of chemistry contained within our skull.

The brain is a collection of evolutionary survival tricks.

These tricks are applied disproportionately and decursively.

The brain is more complex than complicated.

Evolution has evolved a way to evolve.

Our brain is in a dynamic operational loop with the world.

Everything you experience occurs within your skull.

But is only an approximation of our shared and objective reality.


Knowledge is what happens when a neuron fires...

That neuron has found significance.

Nothing matters until something moves.

All decisions are emotional.

Everything matters when something moves.

Knowledge is useful.

Neurons create knowledge.

Only some knowledge becomes information.

Wisdom is knowing that truth is a limit only asymptotically approached.

We are each a thousand creatures... 

                                 who have evolved a million tricks...

                                                                             over a billion years.

And one trick need not preclude another.

Playing With Your Brain

If you recognize some of the above assertions, you’re fairly current with our brain culture. Hopefully a few will challenge your sensibilities. That’s the objective. They were meant to make you wonder. Most of these observations are not mine. They are versions of things I’ve encountered from others. With some, I’ve taken a great deal of liberty. The objective at this stage is to suspend disbelief and treat these concepts as an exercise in art. We need to play with them. Think in terms of finger painting when you were in kindergarten. Get messy. There will be plenty of time for science later.

I actually wrote a text editor back in the 1980s to help me with creative thinking. It’s called Sudden View. Click the link and watch the quick video. If you’re curious, download a copy and explore. Copy and paste from the text above. Sudden View is fully functional and very helpful in tossing assertion salad. Or use your favorite medium. Some prefer a whiteboard, others, crayons on cardboard. Whatever works for you.

I will explain my thinking about each of these assertions in due course. All of them will be presented multiple times and in multiple ways, each time with increasing specificity and speculation. You’ve just finished reading the first version of this simple model. 

If you’ve read this more than once, it may seem to have changed. That’s because it probably did. What’s useful today may not be useful tomorrow, or worse, may even be detrimental. I want to keep my thinking flexible and plan to treat this content as a dynamic document like a gated Wikipedia entry which will evolve as I get useful feedback. Initially, it will be progressively published as a series of blog posts. Feel free to follow or link at any time. Share as you will, and check back later for more. For now, let’s get back to our assertion salad.

If the above poetry speaks to you in any way, you’ve likely spent a great deal of time thinking about the brain and/or human behavior. I hope I can help you along your path, and you along mine. If you’re purely a spectator, that’s fine for now. But I hope you’ll get involved in this effort to understand the brain. To be candid, I’m making this up as I go along, so I need your feedback. Here’s how I hope to inspire it:

I’ll start with an important question to help frame the problem and create the above assertion salad which was in turn informed by this Gnostic model. This will be followed by some unlearning critical to our salad mix. Then I'll describe how neurons create knowledge, and define it. Next, I’ll present an evolving description of the brain starting with a single neuron and ending with a simple model of the human brain. If using the model itself to inform general assertions seems like circular reasoning, it’s not. It’s merely circular presentation. Modeling the brain ultimately starts with the neuron. So will I.

I’ll describe the ideas that informed this model in the way I came to know them over my lifetime of subjective experience, especially the parts I had to unlearn. That’s the reason some of this presentation will be a memoir. Here’s a sample:

My very first memory was from when I was three years old and sitting on a rock wall in front of my grandmother’s house where I lived. I was straddling not only the wall but also a concrete and stone post which originally held a gate. At the time of this memory, all that was left of the gate was a single board of the frame held by one bolt at its center. I don’t know what happened to the gate or other bolts, but the remaining one allowed this board to rotate about the face of the post to a horizontal position. As a typical three-year-old, I’d put my feet on this board which became a wing I could bank left or right. This seat, post, and board became my airplane, not unlike Snoopy’s doghouse. I recall flying my airplane and going to many places in my mind. I remember it well. Or do I?

A couple of years later my father took me on a real airplane ride with a friend of his. As a five-year-old, I had to sit on his lap, but I got to fly a real airplane for a few minutes. Thirteen years later I had my pilot’s license, followed by an instrument rating. Flying for me has always been a joy inspiring an immense sense of freedom.

I’ve since wondered many times about this first “memory” and how it was stored in my brain. Did my later aviation ambitions affect the content or recollection? Much later I remember my grandmother telling me I’d spent hours on that rock wall. Did my memory simply come from hers? Or did I modify the genesis of my own memory? Perhaps a bit of both? She wouldn’t have known about the dynamics of that board, nor did she mention it, yet that aspect remains vivid for me. But back to the brain.

As we proceed beyond our assertion salads, I will mostly ignore genetics, imaging, brain waves, and the rest of the more recent technical fields, especially anything having to do with the electron (once I carefully dismiss it). What’s left? Chemistry, connection, and the concept of knowledge. Oh, and a bit of theory about evolution informed by the practices of Tao and Zen. But first I need to challenge some common assumptions with a very important question, then plant a seed of doubt about the limits of information theory, and even science itself.

Before we get to that question, here's one final question for this section:

If not from neurons, from where does knowledge spring?

<continued in the blog post below>

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