I took a neuroscience class my freshman year of college. I learned partway through that it was a weed-out course. That explained my grades. I was struggling. It felt like I was taking a chemistry, biology, and psychology class all at the same time, mostly due to the fact that I was. I didn’t struggle to find it fascinating, though. I remember more from that class that I barely passed than I do from maybe any other throughout my four years of college.

I think that class might have been the first time in my student career that I contact a teacher or professor outside of class out of outright curiosity. That day’s lecture had been on how a stimulus signal gets generated and travels all the way to the brain. We learned about the electricity generated by sense organs, and the literal biological circuit that transmits that energy and information within from one neuron to the next, making leaps across synapses, if and only if there is still enough energy. I was fascinated to learn the mechanics of something that I’d so taken for granted that it had never occurred to me to wonder how it worked. It felt so strange that a discussion about how the feel of touching something gets from your fingertip to your brain involved discussions of voltage potential, sodium, potassium, water. In the end, as complicated as it was to get there, the “design” was so simple. Our sense organs (all of them) generate minute amounts of electricity, a signal or impulse, not so different from the one that travels through an 1/8th-inch cable from an electric guitar to an amplifier (you also generate minute amounts of electricity when you strum an electric guitar, when the strings you’ve struck vibrate over the magnets in the pickup in a tiny version of what happens in the dynamo in a hydro-electric dam). Neurons are not connected to one another, though, so for the signal to get from one to another it has to hop over the synapse. To do that, it must build up enough charge (called “action potential”). If it doesn’t build up enough charge, the signal stops at that neuron and never reaches the brain (thus not making it through the “voltage gate”). It also matters that your neurons are working properly, which is where the sodium and potassium and water come in. In short, french fries make good brain food for a good reason.

The thing that stuck in my brain that I was so curious about was how inefficient this system is. So many signals are getting lost! Are important ones getting lost? How could we know? Do we have nerves in our bodies that we aren’t aware of because they don’t generate a strong enough signal at this stage in our evolution? I wrote my professor and asked, “What if there was a way to hard-wire the neuronal connection, thereby ensuring that every signal made it to the brain? Could it give us improved sensory perception? Is it possible it could grant us new senses?” I was already working on my superhero costume ideas.

“Not likely,” I remember him saying. “More likely you’d lose your mind because it would be like someone put the volume knob up to 10 on every sense you have. You’d feel like you were on fire, standing right in front of the loudspeakers are a rock concert, with someone pouring acid into your mouth and shining high-beams into your eyeballs. Oh, and smell, too. You’d go crazy.”

He reminded me of what he’d said in class, that I probably hadn’t heard because I was too busy deciding whether I was more of a cape-and-boots kind of guy, or more robot exoskeleton. “The inefficiency is the beauty of this design. It’s what gives you the analog curve that gives you subtlety of stimulus.”

The difference, I realized, between touching the side of a warm coffee cup and touching a burner on a stove is your nerve endings generating a lot more electricity—enough that the action potential can be met by more of the signals, ensuring more of them reach your brain. Signals getting lost is part of the design, a very important part that allows for a rich depth of experiences in analog—soft, medium, hard—rather than digital—quantized in a way that would feel much more like a binary on/off. Are important signals getting lost? They shouldn’t be, because if they were important your sensory organs should have generated more voltage.

There’s a saying in business that is often credited to Peter Drucker: “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.” I’ve also heard it phrased as “you are what you measure,” which is more honest and accurate in my estimation, especially in this example:

Knowing many things doesn’t teach insight.

Heraclitus, via Roger von Oech

Prophets have told us for hundreds of years (at least as far back as Diderot in 1755) that we were headed for an information overload. I remember a lot of red-faced men on the television in the 1980s warning us that the information age—telecommunications, computers, media empires—was upon us, and we weren’t sure if the human brain was ready for it. “You’re meant to live in a tribe no bigger than the Dunbar Number.” “You’re not meant to be worried about a drought on the other side of the planet.” We were all going to end up addicted to information, and our mental health was going to suffer from the stress that came with all that new input. And they hadn’t even envisioned smartphones, online social networks, or the internet-of-things.

I’m not here to discuss whether their concerns were founded, or whether the last forty years have proved them right or wrong. I’m curious, though, if they missed what I missed. A hard-wired society could “lose its mind” analogously to the hard-wired human. But does the hard-wired society also lose the elegance of the voltage gates? What does it feel like to sacrifice the analog curve, the subtlety of human behaviors across a society?

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