John Adams, the second president of the United States, was a man full of anxieties, vanities, narcissistic traits, and personal grudges and vendettas. Let’s pick one of his traits for study: narcissism.
Not everyone is vain and narcissistic, which brings us to our first observation:
- Not everyone expresses all human traits. Extreme narcissism, as we also observe with our current president, Donald Trump, is thankfully rare. Society thrives on a distribution of traits and specialized (often rare) actors, e.g. charismatics, egomaniacs, etc.
Since we all share 99.9% of the same DNA, it follows that trait variations among us are not genetically determined. Donald Trump’s sister, who shares his DNA, is not an extreme narcissist, which brings us to further observations:
- It’s likely that in utero signals and hormones, not genes, select the brain developmental path to establish brain circuitry for these traits, after conception but before birth. In other words, innate (i.e. “born with”) doesn’t mean genetically selected. Changing someone’s genes can’t change their traits, as these are assigned by an in utero lottery.
- It also follows, since Donald Trump has the same genes we all do, that the developmental instructions for every human trait are present in all of us (in our collective DNA), although not all traits are selected for development (or expressed to the same magnitude). We don’t swap in and out the genes to implement narcissism; they lay dormant in all of us who are not narcissists.
Furthermore, any neuroscientist will tell you that modern AI techniques (“deep learning” and back propagation and machine learning and neural networks), while useful to apply to specific problems, are not an accurate model of how the brain works. Let’s look elsewhere. What do we know?
- Each of the 100 billion neurons neurons (cells) in your brain has a complete (2 meter long) copy of your DNA, and can read genetic patterns and (perhaps) write back to that DNA tape.
- Not only neural development instructions are stored in DNA, but also run-time instructions (models) can be read by neurons to enact traits like narcissism.
- All our traits, desires, compulsions, fears, and passions bubble up from our subconscious mind into conscious awareness, where we make up after-the-fact rationalizations for why we act the way we do (see “Free Will,” by Sam Harris, for a review of the evidence for this). Nobody can train you to be a narcissist, unless you’re one of those rare people who listens to their parents (and why would they train you that way?). If your traits come from your subconscious, they must be mostly innate (stored in your 2 meter long DNA tape), because you don’t learn them from experience.
If the brain doesn’t work like an artificial neural network, how does it work? Here’s a guess:
- The cortex is like a giant football stadium. Individual neurons, joined together in a large web, each connected to thousands of other neurons, can initiate waves that broadcast messages across that stadium; they send signals to request non-local information, or to transmit a fact to any other interested neuron in the brain.
- Each neuron is assigned a unique number, which it can convert into a broadcast frequency (carrier wave) and send additional information across the cortex.
- Each neuron, even as it dutifully passes along each oncoming wave, is always listening for information in those waves (like a mini fast-Fourier signal processor). The football stadium of the cortex is criss-crossed by thousands of concurrent waves, each representing different facts.
- Each neuron is assigned a specific task, outlined in its DNA. Somehow, each neuron is able to arbitrate with all other neurons in the brain, so that no two neurons pick up the same task (although groups of neurons may be assigned the same basic task and through context add subtle differences, like the million or so similar neurons in the retina having a similar function.)
- Each neuron reads and carries out a specific DNA instruction script (e.g. recognizing a specific pattern in the senses, enacting a series of steps, or laying out a long term plan). Each neuron stores its own local memory of historical facts, as it can read/write to its own local DNA tape.
- Furthermore, the shared patterns stored in our collective human DNA, in order to operate correctly, assume that every human perceives the world the same way. In order to implement a trait like narcissism, the environmental cues that trigger or satisfy it must be encapsulated into the same identifying number. In other words, the “adoring smile from sycophant” that narcissists crave must be perceived the same way by the senses (reduced to the same symbol, by a single neuron, and represented by the same script) across all humans.
- Finally, concepts can be read from DNA (serially) by the neuron, transmitted across the cortex (as brain waves) to any other interested neurons, and perhaps recorded back to neural DNA as memories.
So, where does this leave us with the trait “narcissism”? How is narcissism implemented in DNA, as both neural development scripts, as well as neural run-time instructions? That will be the topic of the next blog entry, along with more complicated innate strategies, like planning, keeping a secret agenda, holding a long term grudge, etc.