The Wisdom of the Synapse: From Patterns of Neuronal Transmission to Principles of Human Communication



Editor's Note: Parallel Paper Presentation from CBHD's 2007 Annual Conference, Bioethics Nexus: The Future of Healthcare, Science and Humanity.


The synapse refers to the intercellular junction where chemical information is transmitted fro one neuron to another. This paper will examine the natural patterns of information flow at the synapse as a small scale paradigm for considering both constructive and pathological forms of communication among human communities. For example, one feature of the brain is its astonishing interconnectedness. The human brain's 100 billion neurons utilize more than 300 trillion synapses to process thoughts, including those that underlie the brains capacity to interpret, reflect upon, and interact with the external world and communicate with other persons. Despite the vast number of neurons, the brain rarely descends into internal anarchy. Like instruments in an orchestra, individual neurons wait their turn, receiving input from as many as thousands of others prior to expressing their own signals at the right time. Functional groups of neurons will bounce information to another group and back, eliciting feedback or engaging in planning, modeling or rehearsing, so that the final response is balanced and coordinated, drawing from multiple resources within the brain and with awareness of external reality. Inhibitory systems such as those on the frontal lobes exert judicious control over other brain systems, which, if allowed, to dominate thought, could lead to abnormal behavior. Pathological activity at synapses can also be instructive. Incoherent neuronal signaling may generate a null effect. Overstimulation may be followed by lethargy and apathy. Excessive synchronization, in which all neurons discharge identically in unison, can result in seizures. Some persistently aberrant signals, such as the encoding chronic pain in the absence of ongoing tissue injury, can distract, alarm, and intrude into other thoughts. These and other brain phenomena represent an elegantly designed neural communication network that designers of artificial intelligence and digital information systems seek to emulate. As electronic media reshape human communication, it may be helpful to look to the design of the brain not only to learn more efficient means to the process of information exchange, but also for insights into beneficial, diverse, compassionate, aesthetic, and genuinely human forms of communication in an increasingly digital world.


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