Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Archive for February, 2012

Sheep Cyclones, Ant Death Spirals, Ouroboros and Alien Hands

The meme is my shepherd. Or at least it is sheepherding these wooly creatures which, probably scared by the auto, attempt to run faster and faster one after another without realizing they are in the end only circling the car itself.

This particular situation where herd behavior can reinforce itself is reminiscent of Richard Dawkins’ concept of meme, and it does illustrate how a self-replicating-behavior can flourish even in detriment of the hosts, in the case, the sheep. I found it particularly amusing since this video seems to demonstrate in practice how “mysterious” sheep circles may emerge (click on the image for the Daily Mail take on the issue)

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This is an actual phenomenon (link with more recorded instances). And the detrimental effect on the host is also demonstrated on another instance of it, in another species where individuals are even more prone to following one another.

It was first described as a ant mill, and they can be quite considerable in size, reaching more than a thousand feet in circumference. But an “ant death spiral” is a much more interesting name, and it does express the fact this self-reinforcing behavior will lead to the eventual death of the ants by exhaustion. Sheep seem to be a bit more sophisticated in this aspect.

The mills, circles or “death spirals” can also be seen in caterpillars and fish, but these are all instances of individuals following one another and collectively falling into a never-ending loop. Since we are making connections here, we can also point out to this adorable waltzing cat:

As anyone who has seen a cat or a dog try to catch their own tail, like an Ouroboros Serpent, they seem to fail to realize it’s their own tail they are catching. It’s as if they are not aware of their own body, and the tail has a mind of its own. With this fragmented existence, a self-reinforcing cat waltz may form.

Which in turn takes us to the story of Karen Byrne. “Her left hand, and occasionally her left leg, behaves as if it were under the control of an alien intelligence. Karen’s condition is fascinating, not just because it is so strange but because it tells us something surprising about how our own brains work”, tells Dr Michael Mosley. Click the image for a nice summary of the Alien Hand Syndrome and a video of Byrne’s “alien” hand actually attacking herself.

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This, like many other neurological conditions, does offer a glimpse of our brains. Alien hands can exhibit quite complex behaviors which are not perceived as being initiated by the person. Your brain can do that, and yet, despite them being felt as alien, it’s part of yourself, it’s just that a drastic brain surgery can upset the delicate balance of the sense of agency. But when you find yourself whistling a tune or tapping the table without even noticing, right there is a very subtle disconnection of the sense of agency showing itself in everyday situations. Along with the sense of ownership, it can also be manipulated.

Plato and Freud created allegories of the soul and mind as a chariot with conflicting horses and drivers, but our mind can be much more fragmented than just two, three our four parts. Perhaps a herd of several sheep, or thousands of army ants may be a more appropriate (and fun) allegory for our billions of neurons, with all the cautionary warnings that sheep circles and ant death spirals may raise.

That one single self is constructed from that is part of the greatest illusion of all.

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