On Brains and Urbanism


Session Title:

  • Sensing Media

Presentation Title:

  • On Brains and Urbanism



  • Reflections on Space, Neurons and Cities Inspired by the Projects “Ways of Neuron” and “2 Cycles”

    “Steven Johnson coined the somewhat more precise term ‘interface culture’. The latter term is of particular interest because the world always shows itself through the interface. The interface is a semantic generating surface (in an abstract sense) of a medium.” _Hans H. Diebner.

    On Brains
    There is a common expression that addresses the delicate distribution of the different cortices, areas and cells on the brain as “Architecture”. Keeping in mind the enormous complexity, diversity and richness of the brain structure I prefer to use the metaphor of “Urbanism” to achieve a better understanding of the brain structure. Since the last decades of the XIX century with the rise of Phrenology and the production of images associated with that predecessor of Neurosciences, it is possible to find some formal coincidences between the division of specific areas of the head with the city map and its divisions.

    When I had the opportunity to do interviews with prestigious specialists and researchers about Neurosciences for the project “Ways of Neuron” — a prototype for an on line scientific documentary — I used to try to visualize in my mind the structure of the brain. In almost every case I got mental representations of systems which could be compared with the traffic of a large city, the electrical power distribution in a metropolis or the water systems of the Inca Empire. That was a useful way for me to imagine the large and complex series of connections on the brain (complex understood as the opposite of isolated not as the opposite of simple).

    Later on, I discovered Steven Johnson’s book “Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software”. Johnson had studied in detail the hidden connections of the evolution of these biological and cultural productions, finding the complexity as the crucial concept for the understanding of these diverse phenomena. Emergence that is a property of complex systems and it is the key point of the aforementioned book. In my opinion there are connections between the structure of the brain and the macro structures of a city. However more than formal coincidences, there are interesting similarities in the nature of processes that characterize both of them. For instance in brains and in cities some places have well defined borders and there are well known functions associated to these regions. Nevertheless there are also another processes that seems to be mysterious. Although cities as brains have regions which vibrate synchronically and this does not appear to respond to an obvious connection. It is possible to realize then that in these rich and complex systems everything is somehow interconnected and the vibrations and rhythm of every single neuron, or person could reflect and transform other remote spaces.