How Bitcoin is Like A Giant Cybernetic Meta-Brain.
Decentralization, social media graphs and full nodes in the Bitcoin ecosystem resemble the structures of and communications between neurons within a brain.
Bitcoin is a new phenomenon with unique characteristics not exactly like anything we’ve ever seen before. It has been compared to a living thing, and to a mycelial network. And it continues to evolve.
In this paper we explore the similarities between brains and Bitcoin, and ask if Bitcoin actually exhibits a behaviour comprarable to ‘thinking’. Specifically, we examine how the evolution and growth of Bitcoin and its community of users, bitcoiners, have taken on properties seen in the structure of brains:
- We draw the parallels between structures in brains and what their equivalents are in the Bitcoin ecosystem.
- We outline how the decentralized communication process between bitcoiners has similarities to how thought itself occurs in brains.
- We explain why this analogy holds only for Bitcoin (for now at least) precisely because of its decentralized attributes.
This paper is intended to be informative, thought provoking, fun, and hopefully, to some readers at least, fascinating. This is not a scientific paper, and should not be judged on the standards of proving a scientific claim. Rather, it is a speculative thought piece intended to stimulate ideas among readers, especially bitcoiners and would-be bitcoiners. We have also erred on the side of brevity, leaving further explorations of its ideas for other bitcoiners, or in future writing, podcasts, live discussions and more.
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Bitcoin is a unique and new type of entity in the world. It operates unlike anything else. This confuses many people who cannot fathom how decision-making and the contemplation of ideas operate in Bitcoin.
Yet, when we look to how actual brains are structured, we observe many similarities between brains’ structure and how the Bitcoin ecosystem propagates and contemplates ideas.
Brains are highly complex physical structures composed of specialized cells that form a dynamically changing network of connections with one another. These cells send electrical impulses across these connections. Somehow out of this activity consciousness, thought-formation, memory and even free-will arise.
This paper will attempt to demonstrate that the Bitcoin ecosystem replicates the structure and activity we see in brains, although some of the equivalents are virtual/digital instead of physical.
To make our comparison and explore it we must begin by first explaining the relevant parts of brains and what we know about their workings.
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3. What’s a Brain?
(Note: This section is a primer. Many details are intentionally left out to make this paper shorter and more accessible to a wider audience. We only include what is essential for the paper’s hypothesis. We ourselves are not brain experts, and this quick lesson will not make you one either.)
If we look simply at the physical structure of a brain we can describe it as a network of interconnected neurons.
Beyond its physical structure, we know that brains are where the sense data from an animal’s sensory organs are integrated into perceptions. Within this structure memories are formed and stored. In human brains, complex thoughts take place that form concepts, which are used in language. We don’t know exactly how this happens, but we do not need to know how to know that a brain does, in fact, think.
Part I: Neurons
Neurons are also known as nerve cells. They are specialized cells that receive input and send output using electrical impulses.
The Anatomy of a Neuron:
Neurons have three basic parts:
- Cell Body: First is the cell body, which is the central part of the neuron. The cell body contains the nucleus. Among other things, each nucleus stores a copy of the DNA of the animal it is a part of.
- Axon and Axon Terminals: Second is the axon and the axon terminals. The axon is the part of the neuron that physically reaches out to other neurons. At its tip, the axon branches out into many axon terminals. These axon terminals are the part of the neuron where its electrical impulses go — where they terminate. A neuron can have hundreds or even thousands of terminals.
- Dendrites: Finally, there are the dendrites, which are the parts of the neuron that receive the signals from the axons terminals of other neurons. A neuron can have thousands of dendrites.
There are two other concepts of a neuron we require for our discussion:
- Action Potential: An action potential is the electric impulse that a neuron transmits to its axon terminals. These have the potential to, but not the certainty of reaching the dendrites of other neurons.
- Synapse: A synapse is the juncture, or point of connection, between one neuron’s axon terminal and another’s dendrite .
Part II: Neural Connections — The architecture of the Brain
- Basic Building Block — Neural Connections: Axon terminal → Synapse → Dendrite: The basic building block within brains is that a neuron can connect some of its axon terminals to other neurons’ dendrites, separated by a synapse. This establishes a one way connection in which the first neuron may potentially act upon other neurons through transmitting an action potential.
From this basic building block, neurons can form very complex inter-connections:
- Thousands of connections: Each neuron can have thousands of axon terminals and even more dendrite connections leading to very large numbers of connections for each.
- Bi-directional communication: Two neurons may connect their axon terminals to each other’s dendrites and thus form a bi-directional connection with each other.
3. Feedback and feedforward loops: Neurons may also be “daisy-chained” together so that they are indirectly connected. There may also be indirect two way “daisy-chain” connections.
Part III: Action Potentials — the Signals in the Brain:
As already mentioned, action potentials are the electrical impulses transmitted by neurons. To successfully send a message from one to another, the first neuron must have its axon terminals connected to the second one’s dendrites and the electric impulse it transmits must successfully cross the synapse. Success requires the correct neuro-chemistry in the synapse and is affected by the “shape” (amplitudes, frequencies and durations) of the electrical signal itself.
Part IV: The Uniqueness of Each Neuron
When looking at any neuron’s set of connections to and from other neurons and the synaptic characteristics of those connections, it turns out that each neuron has a unique connection graph — each is as unique as a snowflake. Each neuron thus has unique experiences of how and when it is successfully stimulated and how and when it successfully stimulates other neurons.
Part V: Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity
Individual neurons can die and new ones can be born. This happens all the time. When neurons die, their connections are broken. When new ones are born they gradually develop new connections. The birth of new neurons is called neurogenesis.
The development of new connections and severing of old ones is called neuroplasticity and it continues throughout the entire life of an organism.
Part VI: The Thinking, Conscious Whole
Somehow, although we don’t know exactly how yet, consciousness arises in the brain.
Our consciousness remains intact throughout our lives, even though many individual neurons die and many others are born, and as different connections between these neurons are formed and severed. We do not suddenly cease to be ourselves with the occasional deaths and births of new neurons or through the changes in their connections.
Our consciousness clearly does not reside in any single neuron or any small group of neurons. Consciousness and thought arise from the aggregate interactions between the many neurons.
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4. Comparing Bitcoin to a Brain.
With the basics of brain composition behind us, let us now move on to the fun part and see how what is going on in Bitcoin is similar to a brain.
Instead of focusing solely on the technological aspect of Bitcoin alone, we make the case that it is the synthesis of its technological elements joined with the organic, human elements of the system that is highly analogous to a brain.
Part I: Bitcoin’s Nucleii and its DNA — Full Nodes and the Blockchain:
In the section on brain anatomy above we described how each neuron contains a nucleus and within the nucleus a copy of the creature’s DNA is kept. This is where we begin our comparison to of brains to Bitcoin:
Every serious Bitcoiner runs a Bitcoin node. Each one of these nodes carries a precisely identical copy of the entire history of Bitcoin, starting from the genesis block and leading up to the present, called the chain tip. This record is commonly called the blockchain. Every node also enforces the rules by which new data can be added to this history.
Just as every neuron in a brain contains in its nucleus a copy of the host creature’s DNA, so too, every bitcoiner carries in their node a precise copy of Bitcoin’s DNA, the blockchain.
This precise history aligns bitcoiners in agreement with one another about something very important to them — which bitcoins they own. Bitcoiners are thus themselves part of a greater whole where each part of that whole contains something identical and seeks to protect and reproduce that identical thing. That is the analogue we draw with the DNA of living organisms, as organisms contain a full copy of the creature’s DNA in every single cell.
To be clear: the technological elements of Bitcoin correspond to the following analogues:
- a node is like a nucleus, and
- the copy of the blockchain along with the consensus rules that govern what can be added to the blockchain are like the DNA.
(While DNA in cells may be imperfectly copied from one cell to the next — an event known as a mutation — Bitcoin nodes contain precisely perfect replicas of the blockchain and any mutation, no matter how small, will be entirely rejected by the network. At this base layer, Bitcoin is a decentralized system of precise replication and unbreakable laws — the first to ever exist. DNA can mutate, the blockchain is immutable.)
Part II: Bitcoin’s Neurons and Their Interconnections: The Bitcoiners and Social Media.
No two bitcoiners themselves are exactly alike. Each is a unique human being. Since each neuron is unique as well, it is thus upon bitcoiners themselves that we apply our analogy to neurons.
- Through their dendrites, neurons receive messages from others neurons. Through the lists of people they follow on social media, bitcoiners receive messages from other bitcoiners.
- Through their axon terminals, neurons transmit messages to other neurons. Across the lists of people who follow them on social media, bitcoiners transmit messages to other bitcoiners.
- Neurons form complex connection graphs allowing for massive interconnectivity and message-sending among them. Bitcoiners’ social graphs create massive interconnectivity and message-sending among them.
Part III: How Bitcoiners Communicate Like Neurons
Bitcoiners connect with each other principally over social networks. (Yes, there are many other ways too, but this type of connection alone is sufficient to support the paper’s hypothesis.)
At an early point in Bitcoin’s history, the dominant network was the forum called bitcointalk.org. Later it became reddit.com/r/bitcoin. Today, it is mostly via Twitter. Each of these networks became progressively more sophisticated, which is what drew bitcoiners away from the previous network and towards the new one.
Twitter in particular creates unique, individual graphs of connections between bitcoiners where any bitcoiner can follow any other or be followed by any other. This allows for the type of connection graphs we described between neurons in the previous section.
- Each (i) tweet a bitcoiner sends on (ii) Twitter, is queued up to their (iii) follower list and will (iv) attempt to be transmitted to the (v) their follower when they next use twitter. This is comparable to an (i) action potential being sent along (ii) an axon to the (iii) axon terminals to try to (iv) cross the synapse and reach the (v) dendrite of their actual follower.
- When a bitcoiner’s followers use Twitter, if they observe the tweet, this is an event comparable to the action potential successfully crossing the synapse and being received by the dendrite of another neuron.
We further draw the following observations, which are analogous to neural processes we did not discuss in the brain section of this paper, but which nevertheless exist.
- If a follower likes a tweet enough to retweet it, they can be said to have relayed the tweet.
- If a follower quote tweets a tweet with an added message it could be said they relayed and transformed it.
- If a bitcoiner is inspired by a tweet (and potentially others tweets to) to create an original tweet, it can be likened using the above analogies to saying that the action potential(s) acting upon their dendrite contributed to them firing an action potential.
We have focussed on Twitter here. There are, of course, many other mediums through which Bitcoiners communicate. The main reason for our focus on Twitter is because of how clearly we can see these mappings of what happens on Twitter and what we know about what happens inside of our brains.
Thus, we contend these equivalencies form a brain-like system we call the “cybernetic-meta-brain” from here on in.
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5. Cashing In — Let’s Think About This
From what has been described above, if one imagines making the substitutions in the above list of equivalencies, it should not be hard to visualize the similarities between what happens within and between bitcoiners on Twitter and what happens between neurons in a brain.
Part I: Examples to Test the Hypothesis
Let’s run through a few quick examples:
Example 1: A meditation — Consider the similarities
Take a moment or two to play with this model in your own brain. In other words, use your actual neurons to send and receive messages to one another through their connections about the various aspects of this comparison. Think about it. Thoughts in your head about new ideas require processing by your many neurons. Ideas in Bitcoin require processing by many bitcoiners. Ideas in your head do not reside in any one particular neuron, just as ideas in Bitcoin do not reside in any one particular bitcoiner.
Example 2: If you’re a bitcoiner, does your awareness of this very paper correspond to this paper’s hypothesis?
Take a moment to ask yourself how you actually found out about this paper? Was it perhaps from a tweet from someone you follow, or from a podcast you follow, or in a Telegram group you follow? Was it at least through another bitcoiner on the Internet whose messages you follow, with that person having taken some action to potentially pass this message on to you and other followers of theirs? This is the transmission method we are comparing to action potentials being transmitted between neurons. We are comparing you with a neuron and the person who transmitted this paper to you with a neuron as well. And we are comparing the message that made you aware of its existence to an action potential.
Example 3: Might you share this?
Next, consider what tweeting about your conclusions, questions, and thoughts about this paper would mean. Should you actually tweet about it your followers will have the potential to see your tweet. That would be similar to a neuron sending an action potential to its axon terminals. It might lead to more and more tweets about this hypothesis, some supporting it, some refuting it, some offering additional information and perspective based on knowledge possessed by those other bitcoiners. It will be a buzzing network of signals propagating across a network, which is what happens in a brain too.
Example 4: Consider the parallels of decentralized contemplation and transmission of ideas between neurons and bitcoiners
An entire discussion across Twitter and the internet compares to a brain “thinking” about an idea. For example, the idea embodied in this paper may be considered to be rejected if nobody passes it on after a time. It may be considered accepted if it is in fact passed on for enough bitcoiners to consider and accept it. It can be considered to be “being thought about” as it is shared with criticisms, additional facts, modifications and anything else anyone can add to the conversation that other people will accept and potentially re-transmit.
A Quick Aside: Welcome to an Additional Perspective of Yourself.
If you’re a bitcoiner and the above analogy is plausible to you, then please allow us to take a moment to warmly welcome you to the idea that you may represent something neuron-like in the brain-like structure that has emerged through the evolving interactions between human beings, social media and Bitcoin.
Part II: A Skeptical Moment - Wait Just a Minute.
Is There Actually Anything Different Going On Here Than What Goes On Everywhere All the Time?
How is what was just described any different from anything else that goes on in social media? It’s perfectly common to see some idea shared and if it catches on to see it propagate and eventually either become accepted, rejected or modified throughout some community of people. How is this any different when it comes to Bitcoin?
The reply to this objection rests on two facts.
1: Identical Replication and Agreement on Something Bitcoiners All Value (and that no-coiners do not).
We have already discussed the first of these facts. This is the fact that every Bitcoiner is in absolute, perfect agreement of a record of history and the rules by which that history is added to.
Unlike the loose affiliation in other communities, Bitcoiners each accept and enforce this very strict system and are incentivized to protect, preserve, build on, and propagate it. There is no other organization, group or entity in the world that has this level of agreement — of consensus.
No company stores its “DNA” with each employee or customer. No government or nation state does. No not-for profit does. No other subculture does. And certainly none of Bitcoin’s imitators have any substantial community of people who keep a copy of its blockchain and enforce its rules. (For example, the second highest valued crypto-currency has extremely onerous requirements on maintaining a copy of its complete history, leading to only a very few such nodes existing, and the rules themselves are mutated frequently by a small group of individuals through a process known as “hard-forking” . This itself is a good lead-in to the next point).
2: Decentralization. Complete Decentralization and Nothing Else:
The second fact is the complete equality, or lack of any hierarchy, in Bitcoin. This is often referred to as Bitcoin’s decentralization.
Compare the structure of Bitcoin to any other kind of organization that exists in the world.
Every other organization in the world has leaders (and almost in each case an actual single “leader”) who have authority over some aspect of its operation. This is not the case in Bitcoin.
Just as no neuron in a brain is in control of others, the same is true of bitcoiners with respect to Bitcoin. Just as no neuron has any claim to being the point where a brain’s “consciousness” exists at any point in time or to control the rest of the neurons in that brain, so too, no single bitcoiner is in control of any others, nor can they credibly claim to be the source of the community’s ideas and beliefs. And yet, all bitcoiners agree on the state of the blockchain and the rules by which it can be modified.
And while this is true about Bitcoin’s structure, it is not true for any other entity.
When it comes to ideas about a company, a government or a not-for-profit there is always a hierarchy with specific roles assigned to specific people and someone determining who gets to perform which roles. That could be a CEO, a prime-minister, a director, an HR person or any of these people’s delegates. Every participant is not equal in these other organizations. Some authority dictates which roles specific people can and cannot perform. Some authority dictates how the rules can be changed.
In Bitcoin none of the facts of the preceding paragraph hold. There is no “official” or master voice. There is no CEO or leader. Anybody can attempt to perform any task without seeking anybody else’s permission. Nobody can dictate how the rules can be changed. How does an idea get adopted in Bitcoin? Certainly not because the CEO declares by his authority that that idea is now to be pursued.
In Bitcoin an idea only finds support through a process of being propagated, and modified as necessary, across enough bitcoiners to actually be adopted by all of them without causing any loss of consensus about the rules or state of Bitcoin.
In Bitcoin’s early days it was arguable that Satoshi Nakamoto was its leader. But then he vanished. And when he did, there were no more rulers or masters in Bitcoin.
As we look at bitcoiners today, no single one of them has any authority over any other bitcoiner. They have the potential to influence those who listen to them, but that is all. They cannot command one another to do anything. This too resembles the way in which no single neuron controls the consciousness of a whole brain. Neurons may potentially act on one another, but are not guaranteed to succeed in their efforts.
Bitcoin is Unique:
There’s nothing else in the world that combines Bitcoin’s strict replication of obedience to and agreement with its rules and which also has no authorities.
Part III: Neuroplasticity — Becoming a Bitcoiner and Managing your connections
In section 4 part II we discussed the two phenomena of (i) neurogenesis — the birth of new neurons, and (ii) neuroplasticity — the formation of new connections and severing of old ones between neurons.
We now quickly bring these into our analogy.
The equivalency to neurogenesis is simply that every time a person becomes a bitcoiner, runs a node and connects to other bitcoiners on social media this is equivalent to the process of neurogenesis. Today, the meta-brain contains tens of thousands of ‘neurons,’ but as Bitcoin grows in the coming decades, this may potentially become almost all people on earth! (It was after all not long ago the vision of a computer on every desktop was a radical idea and the notion of one in everyone’s pocket was so radical as to not be considered even in science fiction.)
The equivalency to neuroplasticity is simply bitcoiners following and unfollowing one another on social media.
The ability to reconfigure connections to form more direct and more reliable connections to more relevant sources, and to even block off messages from disliked sources, provides the meta-brain with tremendous neuroplasticity. (For example, if you like this paper you can follow its author on Twitter, and if you hate it, you can unfollow or even block him! He’s at twitter.com/tomerstrolight)
Part IV: Can We Actually Say There is Some Kind of Meta-Consciousness?
We do not know what goes on inside brains that leads to the arisal of consciousness, awareness, thought, ideation and other conscious processes. However, we do know these are emergent phenomena of the architecture and operation of physical brains which we have drawn analogies to in the hybrid digital-analog realm where we view bitcoiners and their social graphs as neurons and their Bitcoin nodes as nuclei of these neurons.
Thoughts As Flowing Fields of Neural Activity
In taking the liberty to speculate about consciousness, let us consider this conjecture: a thought exists not as some stored data in a neuron, but rather, a thought exists as the undulating, flowing field of activity generated by multiple neurons inside a brain. If this is correct, it would explain why our thoughts “flow” and why our consciousness is always an in-flow process that cannot be snapshotted or frozen in a single state. What we are aware of is the constantly flowing field whose intensity and shape is itself constantly changing with the electrical activity of our many neurons. If you’ve tried meditating you will have of course become aware of how unstoppable your mind is, with new ideas and thoughts constantly arising from different parts of it.
Flowing Fields of Messaging Activity Between Bitcoiners
Let us apply this idea to our equivalencies between brains and Bitcoin. Just as there is a flowing field of messages between neurons, we observe that there is a similar field of flowing information that is transmitted and transformed between bitcoiners across their social media connections . This is equivalent to what we just speculated was the process of thought — That at any point in time there is a flow of information across social media which is processing the flow of that information itself — a process of grasping and transforming the state of that information through complex feedback and feed-forward loops — all aligned with the pursuit of preserving and propagating the blockchain/DNA.
Could that be akin to consciousness? To thought? To intelligence?
Part V: A case study of MetaBrain Thought — Bitcoin and Energy Use
Let us consider the following example of how Bitcoin’s community is addressing an active concern within the context of this paper’s hypothesis:
A controversial aspect of Bitcoin’s design is its use of energy.
There is a widely held view in the world that energy generated through the burning of fossil fuels is leading to harmful consequences. Since Bitcoin’s design makes Bitcoin more secure with more energy consumption this presents Bitcoin with a potential existential challenge.
What has happened in the face of this challenge?
We have seen various thoughts and ideas arise to evaluate, address and solve this problem. There is not an “official” Bitcoin position on how it responds to this charge. (Again, note the difference with how a corporation or government will take such an official position). Instead, there is an ongoing flow of ideas being suggested, transmitted, modified and built upon continuously. Some bitcoiners publish original research and interpretations and transmit it into the network. Others re-transmit it, sometimes with commentary to refine the message. Some transform those messages into charts, podcasts, memes or other forms, and then transmit those. Others propose solutions from the changing sea of facts emerging.
In fact, at the time of this paper’s writing, the ideas that Bitcoin has thought up have evolved from the starting point of it being a high carbon-emitting entity with uncontrolled growth to Bitcoin becoming an incentivizer of the creation of additional clean, renewable energy sources allowing both Bitcoin and humanity to thrive while reducing negative environmental consequences of the entire energy production industry. While it has done this it has also at the same time seen many bitcoiners direct their efforts at rebutting and clarifying the previously held ideas. This process was not a solo effort by any means (although some bitcoiners have done more heavy lifting than others).
In the context of this section of the paper, we ask the reader to consider the framing if this as follows:
- Bitcoin recognized a threat (i.e. was conscious of it).
- It thought of a variety of solutions (i.e. it used bitcoiners as neurons transmitting signals to one another) that would turn that threat into an opportunity where it would thoughtfully become an ally of humanity and all life on earth rather than a potential parasite or predator.
- Bitcoin accomplished this without ever hiring any companies or consultants to conduct a study. It did not lobby politicians. It did not pay anybody to do anything because it has no money and no employees.
- Instead, Bitcoin used its cybernetic meta-brain to solve this problem. That is, it utilized a sea of interconnected bitcoiners to gather, synthesize and transmit signals about the problem, not through any single central point, or under direction from any authority, but across the organically established connections between them. Hmmm.
7. Conclusion and Summary
To summarize, what we have described in this paper is that there is a way to look at how the bitcoiner community is structured and operates that in many ways is analogous to the way a brain works. We have also described how that leads to some emergent phenomena that are like consciousness, including the very process of thought itself.
Like neurons in a brain, there is no one bitcoiner in charge, nor even a small number. Instead, like the many interconnected neurons in a brain, a sea of bitcoiners unleashes waves of communications to and fro, amplifying some signals and modifying them, while also turning down others.
Just as every neuron in a brain carries the same DNA in its nucleus, so too does every bitcoiner carry the same blockchain in their node and the integrity of it is preserved and made available for new bitcoiners to make copies of.
Make of this what you will. You may reject the analogy outright. You may accept portions of it. You may improve upon it. You may share it with other people by offering your opinion and seeking theirs. You may make a meme out of it. This paper is after all, by its own terms, merely a rather large ‘action potential’ that somehow has crossed a synaptic barrier to reach one of your ‘dendrites’.