Nervous system in a fruit fly larva, serial section TEM. Albert Cardona, HHMI Janelia Research Campus. Source.

Our neurons in unison

When our neurons fire together in their billions, something incredible begins to happen

Jon Brock
· 2 min read

This article was first published in the Waves edition of Lateral Magazine in February 2018


I don’t remember why we were clapping.

I was six years old, I think, perhaps seven, sitting with my classmates towards the back of the school hall. Our applause began as normal — the white noise of 300 children putting their hands together and apart, each with his or her own idiosyncratic rhythm. But then from this noise, a pulse emerged. A slow drum beat, quiet at first but growing ever louder as it picked us off one by one. Within a few moments, the whole school was clapping in unison.

I remember a strange exhilaration. A loss of control. Subsumed by the crowd. Slave to the collective rhythm. And then, as abruptly as it had begun, the spell was broken, the waves of sound subsided, and we were released, each to our own individual rhythms. And, finally, silence. I remember looking at my friend, cross-legged next to me, looking wide-eyed back. “What just happened?” we asked each other wordlessly.

We weren’t to know, of course, but this profound episode was far from unusual. Emergent synchrony is found throughout nature, bringing order to chaos, creating signals out of noise. It’s there in the coordinated flashing of fireflies, in the chirping of crickets, and the syncopated burping of frogs on a warm summer evening. You find it, too, in the firing of the heart’s pacemaker cells. And it’s there in our brains, where 86 billion neurons pulsate in complex electrical harmony.

This idea has held for me an enduring fascination. Neurons come in assorted shapes and dimensions — pyramidal, Purkinje, basket, spindle. But their core programs are in essence the same: accumulate electrical charge, and, when it reaches a certain level, fire an electrical impulse. On its own, each neuron is inconsequential, a dumb oscillator, cycling endlessly through the same program. Fire and recharge. Fire, recharge. But through feedback loops and dense interconnections, neurons gently nudge one another towards synchrony, forming and breaking alliances signalled by their common rhythm. And it is through these rhythms, through the dappled waves of electricity rippling through the brain, that our experience of this universe arises.


Continue reading at Lateral magazine.

Dr Jon Brock

Science writings: Neuroscience, psychology, science publishing, open science, science communication

Jon Brock

Written by

Jon Brock

Cognitive scientist, science writer, and co-founder of Frankl Open Science. Thoughts my own, subject to change.

Dr Jon Brock

Science writings: Neuroscience, psychology, science publishing, open science, science communication