Is individuality possible?

I mentioned recently the interesting case of several schoolgirls in a small town who have developed Tourette’s like facial and body tics. The behavior is presumed to be psychogenic – the girls are “giving” each other the disease in a process of empathy gone awry – a extreme version of our Zelig-like tendency to match the vocal inflections and body gestures of people we want to like us. Our old friends the mirror neurons – neurons that fire both when you perform an action and when you watch others perform the same action – are presumed to be involved.

In “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” Oliver Sacks reports observing a woman on the streets of New York who had (presumably) Tourette’s. She fell into a fit of imitating the numerous passerbys around her. He describes the scene…

I have seen countless mimes and mimics, clowns and antics, but nothing touched the horrible wonder I now beheld: this virtually instantaneous, automatic and convulsive mirroring of every face and figure… The woman not only took on, and took in, the features of countless people, she took them off. Every mirroring was also a parody, a mocking, an exaggeration of salient gestures and expressions – a consequence of the violent acceleration and distortion of all her motions. Thus a slow smile, monstrously accelerated, would become a violent, milliseconds-long grimace; an ample gesture, accelerated, would become a farcical convulsive movement.

This sounds like mirror neurons gone insane – forcing the gestures and expressions observed by the eye onto the brain (and from there to the face and body.) Sacks notes that it resulted in a feedback loop – people passing her became angry at her imitation and soon her face was mimicking their anger.

Now, a while back I was contemplating the world on ants. How can they construct their vast underground cities when each individual ant has only meager intelligence? They seem to be able to coordinate their efforts (even with no language as we understand the term) for the good of the colony. If individual ants can act as parts of a greater whole – gears and levers in an orgnic machine – an interesting question pops up related humans. I phrased it as…

Are we — individual humans — nodes in a vast cosmic intelligence, a super advanced ant colony? Are we merely parts of a machine whose complexity is so vast and overwhelming that we can’t begin to comprehend it?

I’m not sure this intelligence really would need to be cosmic, but, do we, as social beings, have our minds subtly acted upon by our fellows? Is the behavior of this Tourette’s woman or the behaviors of these psychogenic schoolgirls merely an extreme version of something we all do? If so, what does that say for autonomy? It becomes clear that the only way to live as an individual is to avoid all your fellow humans and their mind controlling influences. If one approaches, perhaps saying something like, “Hey Wil, I’ve got that PowerPoint presentation you were asking about,” we should whip out our ninja sword and cleanly remove their head from their shoulders.


2 Responses to “Is individuality possible?”

  1. John Saleeby

    Here is a joke one of the Patients at the Hospital told me today -

    What kind of bees make milk?



  2. wil

    Shouldn’t that be (or “bee”) MooBees?


    Here’s one: What kind of Bee makes a lot less music than it used to?