What We Are
A human - or any animal, for that matter - is a multicellular colossus that consists of various cellular tribes. A cellular tribe is a community of certain cell types. A human, in a typical sense of the word, is an agglomeration of such various cell types as blood cells, adipose cells, muscle cells and neurons. Neurons are cells - at least, that's how we usually think of neurons. The Neural Tribe perspective is a fundamentally different narrative: it's an attempt to recognize that any life-form that is inhabited by neurons is part of our Neural Tribe.
The Neural Tribe (NT) perspective is that we are the neurons, not the specific body-forms we inhabit, not any other cellular blocks of our bodily habitats. Indeed, you can lose and/or replace (in theory) any type of cells without experiencing a change in your humanity. This is the promise of the next-paradigm prosthetics. Before too long we will be entering an era of cyborg, an era of brain-machine interfaces in which we hook into/plug into various types of assisting machinery. Before we got lost in the cyborg housing of the future, we have to, at least for once, get clear on what we are and what we aren't. The NT perspective is that Neural Tribe is a Species that inhabits a variety of life-form habitats (we live in human form, in bird form, in fish form, in insect form but we aren't the body-forms we inhabit).
What We Are & What We Aren't
So, the question is: who are we? We are that which we cannot be without. We can lose limbs full of muscle cells without a sense of being lost, we can take in an infusion of someone else's blood cells without a sense of being replaced, we can undergo a liposuction and get rid of pounds of adipose cells - all without losing our sense of am-ness, without losing our minds, without losing our consciousness, and a sense of personal continuity. So, then once again, what are we? We are our own neurons. This doesn't sound as strange when we say that we are our brains. But what is a brain but a colony of stand-alone neural cells?!
By the way, the brain isn't just inside the calcium casing of your skull; your brain is throughout your body-form because the nervous system that runs through the housing flesh of your body is just the extension of your brain, i.e. the extension of you; you are wherever you feel you are, wherever your neurons/nerves are.
The old narrative was: we are "humans," meaning we are thinking ape-like bipeds. The new narrative is that we are nervous systems, i.e. we are our neurons. "So what?!" you might ask. Well, here's the kicker: neurons are pretty much the same throughout the animal kingdom. Sure there are differences but, all in all, neurons are neurons regardless of the animal-form they inhabit. What this means is that if you identify yourself not with your human form but with the neurons that live inside, then the proper biological designation for what you are isn't "human" but "neuron."
Neural Tribe as a Species
I invite you to think of neurons not as just some cells that make up your brains but as your quintessential self. You are your neurons and your neurons are you. And: I invite you to think of neurons as a species and to recognize your neural kin throughout the animal kingdom. For example, when you look at your dog, the old you would think my dog is a... dog. She/he is a different species. The new you would look at a dog and see a dog-form with your neural kin inside. This way when you look at a dog or any life-form that is inhabited by neurons you will see your own kind. This is a kind of neural namaste, a neural tat-tvam-asi, a neural hello of self-recognition.
Why does this matter?
Three reasons: defining ourselves as a Neural Tribe (that lives across the diversity of animal housing) allows you to:
1) know what you are not
2) know what you are
3) relate to what you used to objectify as the not-you.
History of the NT Perspective
I came up with this idea when I was working on "Reinventing the Meal" (circa 2010). I am not sure of how original this idea is and, frankly, I don't care about its originality or lack thereof. I simply feel compelled to share this meme, this new human narrative as I hope it can help alleviate some of the problems of coexistence we struggle with on this planet. Another idealistic pipe dream? Probably.
The NT (neural tribe) perspective is not another echo of the Cartesian mind-body split. In proposing that we see neurons as a species I am not in any way denying the interiority of the neural experience. The NT perspective is not reductionism, it is a reclassifcation on cellular basis. The NT perspective takes a cladistic approach to re-defining what we are and what we aren't, with neurons being the operational taxonomic unit (OTU). But in so doing, the NT perspective does not limit itself to the classic scientific reductionism of the interior. We are the Neural Tribe, neurons and neural networks, capable of the entire spectrum of consciousness which constitutes our "humanity." The NT perspective does not say "we are just neurons." The NT perspective says: "we are sentient neural beings-in-residence, on a full continuum of consciousness." The NT perspective is a form of humanistic neuro-phenomenology.
Is This The Only Way to Look at What We Are and What We Aren't?
Of course, not. There are many different ways to see what we are and what we aren't. In my experience with "truth," everything is and isn't "this" or "that." Here's a link to a couple of essays of mine about an ancient Indian approach to knowledge called Syadvada. According to Syadvada, a fact is in the eye of the beholder. My [pgs'] particular choice to think of us as a Neural Tribe is just a reference frame with its pros and cons.
What Are My Credentials for Proposing This Idea?
I [pgs], by profession, a clinical psychologist. This gives me a certain knowledge foundation to talk about our brains and nervous systems. But that is not the basis for my "authority" on the matter. Profession aside, my most relevant credentials for this discussion of this sort are:
1. I am still alive.
2. I know what I am and what I am not.
3. I am myself a Neural Colony.
Neural Tribe Doctrine
We’ve known that any given organism is composed of individual cells as far back as 1839 when Theodore Schwann proposed so. It took about 50 years (until 1888) to extend this notion to the nervous system. Santiago Ramon y Cajal was first to seriously posit that nervous system consists of discrete (stand-alone) individual cells (neurons).
“When he started conducting research, Cajal was, like most scientists of his time, a reticularist, believing that the nervous system was a continuous network of interconnected fibers (Iturbe et al., 2008). The major proponent of the reticular theory was the German anatomist Josef von Gerlach. Based on observations made with his gold chloride method, he argued that the processes of contiguous nerve cells fuse to create a meshed network (Gerlach, 1871). In 1888, Cajal started a systematic histological study of the nervous system, making several descriptions and discoveries that would lead him to challenge the widely accepted reticular theory. These important discoveries took place between 1888 and 1894 and were published in the Revista trimestral de Histología normal y patológica (López-Munoz et al., 2006).” (source: Scholarpedia)
Neural Tribe Doctrine
Cajal’s Neuron Doctrine was that nervous system (i.e. you) is made of stand-alone neurons (of neurons separated by synaptic gaps).
The Neural Tribe Doctrine is that neuron is a species, that each of us is a neural colony, and that all of us – across various body-forms – are part of the same neural tribe.
Once again, Cajal’s Neuron Doctrine is : a nervous system is made of disconnected, stand-alone neurons.
Neural Tribe Doctrine re-connects the disconnected neurons into one Neural Tribe :
1. neuron + neuron + [....] = One Neural Colony/Local Neural Oneness
2. neural colony + neural colony + [...] = One Neural Tribe
Cajal found neural separateness. I am talking about neural oneness, about a platform for identification and compassion, and about the possibility (some day) of translocal neural oneness.
Translocal Neural Oneness
From the NT (Neural Tribe) perspective you are not a human but a neural colony that resides in a human body-form. And so am I. Both you and I are neural communities made of billions of stand-alone neurons yet each of us experiences ourselves as a singularity, as a oneness of am-ness. Your am-ness, your integrated sense of being and presence is local to you. Indeed, as a field of awareness you are a locality, a mobile space of experience (I wrote about this in more detail in Lotus Effect). What if we could connect two or more localities of presence (such as you and I) together? This is what I have mused about in my post Brain-to-Brain Interface (which is only a theoretical possibility at this time, but, nevertheless, a possibility). If we could somehow wire two neural colonies together, then you and I – the two localities of oneness, the two singularities of presence – would become one trans-local neural oneness. Our neural colonies would meet and merge into one trans-local neural pow-wow. A precedent of this sort (if or when it happens) will likely change the narrative of human culture forever.
In sum, the Neural Tribe doctrine is threefold: 1) a neuron is a species, 2) each of us is a neural colony, and 3) we – as individual neural colonies – collectively add up to one Neural Tribe across the entire span of animal body-forms.
Play with the idea a bit, see what it does for you.