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An ode to Randomness

ilja's picture

What is inside our head? How do humans ‘work’? Where am I in the brain? These are all questions that I thought I would find through looking at the brain structures and pinpointing ‘me’ somewhere inside.  During the semester I realized that this way of exploring was problematic and often wrong. People who look for truth instead of actual understanding will have only follow their expectations and look for confirmation of them. Oftentimes school fosters this kind of thinking, it provides us with security and ‘truths’. In neurobiology we learned to think differently; we learned about the boxes but we learned to think outside of the boxes as well. It made me feel uncomfortable at first, not to look for truth and to see how my brain ‘makes things up’. The summaries of observations that we looked at showed us that the importance of insecurity and a continuation of research and change might be the most important thing of all. The change sustains the randomness in life, it accounts for the diversity and thus also for the uniqueness that makes us who we are. 


My mother always told me; “there are only two securities in life: things will always change and we all die”. Although this might not seem a very appealing way to describe human existence, I came to appreciate this saying over time. When things are bad it will not stay that way forever; things will change. Also you should make the most of life since it will end someday. Now I also come to think of these two certainties in life as being part of human behavior and important in evolution. I used to think that knowledge and understanding created growth and new ways of thinking. Now I believe that it might be the randomness within people that creates these opportunities.


The structure of the brain also seems to be built around the idea of randomness. The reason why it is hard to predict behavior is because it is not organized according to a top-down principle. There is no coordinator, or one single system that determines everything; instead the brain has many different structures that together produce outputs. In Neurobiology we started to call them “motor symphonies” because they are a “symphony” of neurons which together create an output. Furthermore it is important to realize that not only the inside structures but also the environment and our own outputs influence our behavior through the reafferent loop (2). The randomness within the brain can thus be found within the ‘random’ cooperation between these structures. Behavior is not pure chance (8); it is more a combination of different factors in which randomness plays its part and which makes behavior unpredictable to a certain degree.


The idea of randomness as being an integral part of human behavior is represented through the Harvard Law of Animal behavior; “under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases” (12). This does not mean that everything is up to chance and that there is no control but it does mean that there is room for variability (7). As Professor Grobstein put it in one of his essays; “Intrinsic variability in general, is a contributor to behavior, not an explanation of it.” (12) I see it as being variability in the coordination of the different contributors to behavior. The genes, the environment, the individual experiences, all the different structures in the body, down to the level of single neurons are interactions that can be described as “Determined but ill-mannered” (12). Meaning that if the different factors influencing behavior can be well understood but there will still always be the randomness part of human behavior.


Behavior is thus not all up to chance (indeterminacy of behavior (1, 9, 10)) but there is variability and this is even desirable. When a prey has to escape a predator an “optimal strategy” would be to “include deliberate randomization of behavior” (12). This way the prey will increase its chances to escape. The randomness is not disorderly any longer; it is a strategy. It can also explain risk-taking within humans and might make us understand why we get a thrill out of rollercoaster’s and by taking risks that might not seem explainable when looking from a society that does not benefit from randomness (5). Furthermore, it explains human curiosity and our desire to explore.


We can also think about human creativity and how this would fit into the randomness, it might lead into why we appreciate art that is unique and different. All these things have importance in daily life in terms of education and learning. Our inputs and outputs are not independent entities but form a circle that continuously compares information from which we learn unconsciously. New experiences and random behavior are thus vital to our learning. Listening to what is being said might trigger a circle of thought but simply following what is being told to you will not help us grow in the long run. That is why uniqueness and variety is important in art and appreciated by the masses. We like to have new experiences, see things in a new light since it helps us learn and think. The randomness in our behavior is a way of survival (6).


The meaning behind randomness and the spark of variety that we have gives us new, interesting ways of looking at life. When people try to find explanations, reasons behind why “things happen”, there might not be a truth or a certainty but that is not a bad thing (8). The reason why this sounds appealing to me is because it saves some of the mystery that surrounds individuality. That there will be more questions about our desire to explore and take risks, about how to adapt our education to facilitate thought and to see where new diversity might lead our ways of thinking.


The randomness of behavior might also be important in explaining the concept of free-will. Some might say that the randomness creates uncertainty and a lack of control but without this lack of control there would not be the freedom to do “what you damned well please”. The concept of free-will is another big topic as well as human exploration and creativity that need to be further explored. Essential to these understandings though is the underlying thought that we will never be able to accurately control a situation or to make individuals behave the same. We cannot control for this variable and this might also be important when thinking about cloning and genetic engineering. In this sense it is good that there is still some mystery surrounding individuality and that we are not able to pinpoint ourselves inside our head. The symphony is there to protect our uniqueness.                        



1. RESTAK, RICHARD M. “The Physical and the Psychical”. 7 March 1982. The New York Times. 27 March 2009.


2. Grobstein, Paul. “Bio 202, spring 2009 notes”. Spring 2009. Serendip. 27 March 2009. /exchange/courses/bio202/s09/notes.


3. Hirsh, E. Aaron. “Guest Column: A Dash of Chance”. 20 January 2009. The New York Times. 27 March 2009.


4. Grobstein, Paul. “Evolution/Science: Inverting the Relationship Between Randomness and Meaning”. 28 January 2008. Serendip. 27 March 2009. /exchange/node/1954.


5. Alspector, Emily. “Risk-Taking and the I-Function”. 7 april 2008. Serendip. 27 march 2009. /exchange/node/2305.


6. Tucker, Lacey. “Connections Between Neuroscience and the Theory of Multiple Intelligences: Implications for Education”. 1999. Serendip. 27 March 2009. /bb/neuro/neuro99/web3/Tucker.html.


7. Zimmer, Carl. “Expressing Our Individuality, the Way E. Coli Do”. 22 April 2008. The New York Times. 27 March 2009.


8. Belkin, Lisa. “The Odds of That”. 11 August 2002. The New York Times. 27 March 2009.


9. Honderich , Ted. “Indeterminism”. 1995 The information Philosopher. 27 March 2009.


10. N.A. “Where and When is Randomness Located?”.  Information Philosopher site. 27 March 2009.


11. Grobstein, Paul, Oristaglio, Jeff, Radojic Milan, and Butoi Bogdan. “The Magic Sierpinski Triangle Order dependent on randomness”. 1992. Serendip. 27 March 2009. /playground/sierpinski.html.


12. Grobstein, Paul. “Variability in Brain function and Behavior”. 1994. Serendip. 27 March 2009. /bb/EncyHumBehav.html.



Paul Grobstein's picture

the importance of insecurity

Are you really persuaded?  "It made me feel uncomfortable at first" ... none of that left?  There must be a reason why you used to and other people continue to "look for truth," no?  Can you really just abandon it that easily?   Can you persuade others to?  Would you want to?  What would cultures/the world be like if you did?