The Illusion Of Complexity – Neuroactivity And Complex Behaviour

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Complexity (Chapter 6): The Illusion Of Complexity – Neuroactivity And Complex Behaviour.

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Nature gives us a lot of examples of complex behavior emerging from the interaction of many individuals. The members of an ant colony are capable of a wide variety of complex behaviors: finding and transporting food, constructing elaborate underground complexes of tunnels and chambers, defending their territory from invaders.

Such activity would seem to involve a great deal of planning, memory, and coordination. But there is no head ant who draws up a blueprint for the colony and gives directions to the worker ants. Instead, each ant follows a very simple set of rules, based on cues from its environment and from the activity of ants nearby.

For example… how do ants know to walk in a single file to pick up food, and then return in single file to the nest? They dont. They know three simple rules. First, if you come upon something that smells like food – pick it up! Second, when you pick up a piece of food, release a chemical signal… a pheromone. Third, if you come across a pheromone trail left by another ant… follow it!

There is no plan, no memory, no need for a leader to point the way. Three simple rules and a few environmental clues are all that is needed to orchestrate this remarkably efficient process.


The enormous complexity of living things has been brought sharply into focus by our efforts to create machines that mimic organic, living creatures. We now have robots that help in many fieldsBomb disposal, fire and rescue operations, hospital care, military drones and tanks. Our desire to build robots seems boundless.

We now have robots that can fly planes. On the other hand the robots that explore other planets can certainly perform feats no human should attempt. Only very recently has there been real progress in creating androids robots shaped like humans that can exhibit a wide range of our muscular and motor functionality. But we are still at the starting line when it comes to creating machines that can mimic human thought.


It is easy to imagine an ant or a robot as a mindless agent following simple rules that produce the illusion of complexity. But what of the human mind? Surely everything that humans do from designing skyscrapers to composing symphonies… is not the product of a few simple behaviors. And yet it might be…because everything that humans do (or think or feel) is the result of these basic units of brain structure – the neurons.

The human brain contains more than a hundred billion neurons. Just like a single ant could never build an anthill, a single neuron can’t think or feel or remember. A neuron’s power is a result of its connections to other neurons. Each neuron is connected to as many as a thousand of its neighbors. These trillions of connections provide the playing field upon which the complex activity of the brain takes place. Each neuron can turn its neighbors on or off depending on the signals it sends, and the resulting stable patterns of neuron firing represent memoriesand images and thoughts.

We don’t yet understand the relationship between neural activity and mental experience. We dont know what the precise pattern of a memory or an image or a thought looks like. We dont yet know how to read the cerebral “code” of the neurons. But by looking at the behavior of other complex systems – from anthills to computer simulations – we may yet learn some techniques that allow us to work our way up from the activity of a few neurons to see the structure that emerges from the whole.

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Duration : 0:7:14

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25 thoughts on “The Illusion Of Complexity – Neuroactivity And Complex Behaviour

  1. the part about …
    the part about reading the neurons in the brain reminded me of a study a came across not so long ago where some researchers managed to get reconstruct images (moving) from human brains, first thought was “damn in the near future we may be able to record our? dreams!” the images at the moment were very “low res” but were very similar to the images there test patients were shown for the experiment. awesome stuff!

  2. My friends, we sit …
    My friends, we sit here babbling like fools when all our answers simply? lay in one place… Oprah.

  3. @ralphzimmermann …
    @ralphzimmermann Societies have always functioned on fear though. Fear of the king, fear of the religious leader, fear of the government. There’s always someone at the top going “Either you do good things, which is? what ever I decide it is, or you’ll be put in jail/to death, sacrificed, etc”

    We even still have societies that think it’s their right/obligation to dictate the morals of other societies.

  4. @dexluther Morality …
    @dexluther Morality is a complex subject that i dont think we can discuss on here. my statement was purely ment in a simple sense such as “killing someone is bad” or “helping an old lady across the street is good”. my point being was, fear of a Gods punishment for doing? “bad” or not doing “good” is a poor way to live your life. That would mean that individual has not tasked themselves with taking responsibility for there own actions and proves they lack empathy. which society needs to work.

  5. @ralphzimmermann In …
    @ralphzimmermann In another sense this ‘moral’ behavior you speak of was decided by your society. It’s not necessarily right or wrong, it’s just the common behavior that society decided for itself. Now someone believing that this common behavior isn’t the right one for them should have the right to do so, and leave the society and form their own with their own moral values or join some other one. The problem with this is that it’s not possible. Your common moral view is forced on? everyone.

  6. well, if the Bible …
    well, if the Bible is god’s word – The ways of God are above human understanding; this would include human logic. “Vengenance is mine says? God.” He’s God. He’s in Heaven doing whatever he wishes.

  7. @b29349
    “Oh the …

    “Oh the vengeance he will have to deal out.”

    and for you this is a ‘good thing’? this is also one of? the main reasons i know your chosen ‘god’ does NOT exist. vengeance is not logical and a god most certainly should be don’t you think?

  8. Since the ant …
    Since the ant starts releasing pheromone when they find found, how do they find their way back to the nest then without any memory? Video? cheats by showing them find some found very near the nest. Probably the answer is cause they wonder a bit and meet some other paths leading to the nest, but that would mean that for a new nest (if we place ants at a newly create artificial nest), they wouldn’t easily find their way back till lots of food is randomly found and NEST is again randomly spotted

  9. @SirianKings yes, …
    @SirianKings yes, but that’s not all to it. watch the secret life of? chaos:)

  10. Guy: “Mr. Neuron, …
    Guy: “Mr. Neuron, how can you do all the awesome things you? do?”
    Mr. Neuron: “My dear boy… It’s all about who you know!”

  11. What are those …
    What are those weird park? things that start to float across the screen at 5:20? I see those in my field of vision sometimes…

  12. Tom Cruise is …
    Tom Cruise is scratching his head? saying “DUUUUUUUUUUHHHHH?????”.

  13. @estefez wonder …
    @estefez wonder how that vengence thing is working out…. have it lead to the police and jail thing? The Lord can do more than I ever could. Oh the? vengeance he will have to deal out.

  14. I think it should …
    I think it should have been mentioned more clearly that when the first ant finds food and goes to the nest emitting pheromone, the next ant who finds the trail it left doesn’t start emitting pheromone until it finds food. So when an ant finds only one crumb of food and emits pheromone, the other ants won’t enforce the route until they find food there themselves,? thus routes that no longer lead to food vanish. I’m not sure if I’m right but that’s the image I got.

  15. what are you …
    what are you talking about…

    fear is the reason you dont do things. Why dont you jump off a bridge?

    Because you dont? want to die. A fear of Death.

  16. @iwasborninyourbutt …
    @iwasborninyourbutt yes u will just die and thats it, u dont need to worry about or? karma. however if the only thing stopping you from acting in an immoral fashion is the fear of punishment you are a very sad human being and not in the remotest sense even worthy of your fictional heaven.

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