The Brain as L.A.

Jonah Lehrer with an interesting thought experiment

“LA is a big urban metaphor for the brain. Sigmund Freud famously declared that civilization, or kultur, was simply a magnified version of the individual mind. He should have visited Southern California. For me, LA is simply the cortex set in concrete, lots and lots of concrete. Those freeways are big spindle and pyramidal cells – they connect the disparate areas – and the numerous downtowns (Century City, Santa Monica, the SF Valley, etc.) represent the many functional modules inside the mind. Everybody complains that LA has no center – there is no there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein – but isn’t that the point? The brain doesn’t have a center either, and it works beautifully.

And then there’s the lack of central planning. LA is a confederation of neighborhoods that aspire to the condition of suburbs. This means that the city lacks any sensible grid or unifying structure. (Compare this to the arithmetic perfection of Manhatten, which is all right angles and straight lines.) Highways cut across streets, hills disrupt the boulevards, and mass transit remains mostly a joke. The upside is that LA defines functionality on a very local level. Venice Beach is so different from Studio City which has nothing in common with Hancock Park. All of these little urban villages are designed to be separate. And yet, something interesting emerges when these seemingly isolated civic fragments are forced to share an area code (or three).

The brain works the same way. Our cortex is an accident, a conglomeration of used biological parts that we’ve borrowed from other creatures. It’s a jerry-rigged concoction of isolated neighborhoods (the amygdala, insula, ACC, etc.), each of which gives off its own special vibe. At first glance, it’s hard to see how something meaningful could emerge from such a mess. But that’s where we come from.”

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