Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cognition Is a Rhizome

Comments on my last post spoke against applying the rhizome to higher education. I've thought about the objections, but making the rhizome practical still makes sense to me, and really, this blog is all about me trying to make sense of things. Still, the comments gave me pause enough to wonder if others have tried to tease out the practical implications of the rhizome for their own disciplines, so I did a bit of research and found lots of attempts, including this fine article called RHIZOMATIC SYSTEMS & THE EMERGENCE OF INTELLIGENCE (On Slime Mold, Robots and Deleuze & Guattari) (03 May 2005) by Garnet Hertz, who attempts to apply the rhizome to the fields of artificial intelligence, artificial life, information/computer science, and robotics. I think Mr. Hertz provides some interesting ways to proceed, so I will.

Hertz notes that the rhizome has influenced numerous fields of study, but in this article he is interested in the efforts "to construct intelligence apart from a biological substrate" (2), a broad scientific effort which to date has relied mostly on arborescent modes of thought, those tree systems that D&G use in A Thousand Plateaus to contrast with rhizomes. Hertz describes this mode of thought as:
a system that is hierarchical, centered around a core belief, reductivistic, increasingly specialized, non-cyclical, linear, and ripe with segmentation and striation. Similar to a tree-like description of biological evolution or genealogy, arborescent systems start from a central origin and continue to evolve by branching into successively specialized generations. Vertical in nature, the arbolic is ordered, structured and “scientific”: it has a distinct train of thought, a clear inheritance, an order. (1)
This kind of thought and approach has not proven so effective in helping scientists create artificial intelligence. They still cannot create a device, for instance, that can amble across a crowded room without creating chaos, something a cockroach with vastly less computing power than IBM's Deep Blue can accomplish. Why? Because Deep Blue is mostly tracing known pathways, while the cockroach is mapping reality in its infinite variations. And as Hertz notes: "The real world is such a complicated [I prefer the term complex here] system that it is almost impossible to not leave something out while creating an abstraction of it" (8). Yes, Deep Blue can beat anyone at chess, but only because it has enough computing power to cycle through all available possible scenarios and moves, all tracings, very quickly. Deep Blue still couldn't get across an elementary school classroom. Children and cockroaches can—usually.

It may take all the computing power in the universe to enable an arborescent system to walk across a room. Rhizome to the rescue. According to Hertz, rhizomatic systems are:
non-linear, horizontal, nomadic, deterritorialized and heterogeneous. The rhizome cuts across and between the order of vertical space, connecting multiple points simultaneously in a network of nodes. Connected to each other at arbitrary points, the rhizomatic system is more concerned with the multiplicitous interlinking of concept, action and being. Although it lacks a central dogma of a trunk/brain, it is a horizontal, bottom-up system that produces an emergent system of metabehavior that is strong, robust, and intelligent... in the non-standard sense of the word. Within nature, rhizomatic systems like ants or grassy weeds eventually win … If intelligence could exist without a central brain, the rhizome would be it. (1, 2)
You don't need enormous computing power to walk across the room—you just need rhizomatic thought. You need a few simple strategies that map quickly and well as reality emerges around you. Being able to trace all known paths, even very quickly, is almost no help at all; rather, you must be able to map new paths as they emerge. Think birds in a flock, or players on the futbol pitch. Linear, arborescent thought is almost useless here. Fortunately, our brains are rhizomes. As D&G point out: "Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree" (15, ATP).

Hertz insists that "Individual organisms collect together into a swarm of particles that, despite having absolutely no centralized brain, is capable of complex tasks" (4), and offers as proof Toshiyuki Nakagaki's successful efforts in 2000 to teach slime mold to find the shortest path through a maze. "Without any standard cognitive powers, the swarm of slime emerged into a clever mass capable [of] solving the navigational puzzle without a leader, brain, command center, map or plan" (4). It seems likely that our own brains could likewise be described as "a swarm of particles" [neurons] … "without a leader, … command center, map or plan". Hertz could have offered as proof our own brains. There is no homunculus in our brains orchestrating all our mental activity; rather, the brain is a self-organizing swarm, ceasely mapping reality and its own internal resonances, mostly in unconscious ways out of which our conscious knowledge emerges. As I've quoted in this blog before, Olaf Sporns demonstrates that "cognition is a network phenomenon". Cognition is a rhizome.

And rhizomatic cognition trumps arborescent cognition when it comes to mapping and coping with the emergent real. A recent article "Reservoir Computing Properties of Neural Dynamics in Prefrontal Cortex” by Pierre Enel, Emmanuel Procyk, René Quilodran, and Peter Ford Dominey in PLOS Computational Biology (June 10 2016) demonstrates that primates, including humans, can learn and cope with novel situations that cannot be anticipated (programmed) by nature. A review of the technical article in Neuroscience says:
This study shows that this seemingly miraculous pre-adaptation comes from connections between neurons that form recurrent loops where inputs can rebound and mix in the network, like waves in a pond, thus called “reservoir” computing. This mix of the inputs allows a potentially universal representation of combinations of the inputs that can then be used to learn the right behaviour for a new situation.
If you have ever watched waves in a pond, then you have watched the rhizome. Arborescent thought cannot map waves in a pond. Or rather, arborescent thought maps waves in a pond the same way a stick figure maps a person. You get the idea, but you would never confuse a stick figure for a person. At least, I hope not. However, you do confuse the map in your mind for the person. We do that all the time. That rhizomatic map seems so full-bodied and multi-dimensional. Of course, the map still isn't the person, but let's save that issue for another post.

So what does this mean for education? First, it does not mean that we should abandon arborescent thought, which has formed the basis of much of Western education and society for at least the last few centuries. Arborescent thought has driven our philosophy, industry, education, and politics, and it has yielded great benefits. Most of us of will never know starvation or homelessness because of arborescent thought. Society has benefitted much from the ability to create and harness machines and processes that trace programmed paths with great precision, speed, and reliability. For instance, I like the linear, arborescent process that makes it possible for me to push a key on my keyboard and the letter z pops up on the screen. Thanks be to the tree.

Arborescent thought can work very well and to great benefit in the simple and complicated domains where explicit, known paths can be traced to given goals. Much of education—to make a point, let's call it training—can be structured this way. Do A and then B, and always get C. Every student should do A and then B, and every student should get C. Those who arrive at C in the allotted amount of time and through their own efforts pass. Those who don't fail and must repeat. This is very much like the industrial form of education that Sir Ken Robinson has so famously attacked, but while arborescent, industrial education has many faults that are becoming increasingly obvious, it does have a kind of efficiency and efficacy. Modern societies are nearly universally literate, if literacy is measured at a fairly low level. This is real, measurable progress when compared to 300 years ago. If we want more, however, then arborescent education is not enough. If we want creative, engaged, resourceful students, and not just barely literate students, then we have to climb down out of the tree of knowledge and step onto the open, grassy plains of the savannah. We can keep the tree for a landmark, for a resting place, but we have to move beyond the arborescent and into the rhizomatic.

We do not have to settle for either one or the other. We can have both: arborescent and rhizomatic. The main point for me, and what I get from reading D&G, is that we should not rely solely on arborescent knowledge, learning, and thought. We must also, even mostly, rely on the rhizome. The ancient Jewish writers told us this centuries ago: pursued alone or above all else, the Tree of Knowledge leads away from the Garden, away from Eden. The dualism of the arborescent separates us from the rhizome. It replaces the right brain with the left, the master with the emissary, to use Iain McGilchrist's terms. From our perch at the top of the Tree of Knowledge, we can see the vast, open plains of grass, and we can be deceived into thinking that we can remain apart from it and master it. The grassy rhizome knows better.


  1. I really like that you've taken apart the rhizome/arborescent binary here Keith. I too am thankful for the arborescent knowledge that I have gained. I've been considering a blog post entitled "A Love Letter to Objective Reality" for some time but have yet to find the inspiration to pull it off. I do so love situations where easy answers can simply be plotted - if this is the kind of situation that we are dealing with I can't see how applying rhizomatic thought could be of help. Ah simple efficiencies - I have a special place in my heart for them.

    Alas, not all situations fall in this domain. Many are changing to quickly for these kind of solutions to do us much good. My struggle has been with powers that want to remain in these simple domains regardless of the situation. Say we have a fast changing complex situation - instead of approaching the situation rhizomatically these power structures instead try to imagine the problem as a simple one and take a stab at creating structures that would address the imaginary construct.

    Now don't get me wrong - the greatest sin in Autummism is a "lack of imagination" so I don't want to attack the problem from this direction. I suppose there is always a chance that there are simple factors at play in our complex situation and imagining different ways to approach it seems prudent at the very least. But what I often see is a kind of shunning of the methods and practices that even hint at leading away from the tracing that you describe. And I always struggle with addressing that and speaking that truth to the powers that be.

    Any advice?

  2. Thanks for the great comment, Autumm. Distinguishing the simple domain from the complex is key, for as you note, applying complex strategies to simple issues is as ineffective and frustrating as applying simple strategies to complex issues, but we have been mostly trained to frame all issues as simple, or to break them down into chunks until they become simple, solve each simple chunk separately, and then reassemble. I think simple factors are at play in complex situations, but breaking down the situation into simple parts usually destroys the emergent properties that we are most interested in. Consider dissecting the frog to get at and to understand its simple parts. That works in a reductionist kind of way, but when you try to reassemble the parts, you find you've lost something: the frog.

    This arborescent approach has had great success over the past 300 years of Western ascendency, and people have assumed that it is the only way to true knowledge, but in our age of complex problems (think global warming, terror, etc.), the limitations of arborescent thinking are becoming obvious. The problems are just too big to break down into simple parts.

    What I've learned from reading D&G is that arborescent thought in the simple domain is the exception—the rhizome is the rule. The rhizome enfolds and contains the arborescent, and it always undermines it. We can create our little, simple sock drawers and garden plots, with our collection of things in matched rows, but only for a while—the rhizome is always moving on in lines of flight, deterritorializations and reterritorializations, and asignifying ruptures. The simple really is the exception, and we try to make it the rule. That's a problem.

    I think we should implement rhizomatic thought and processes where possible and trumpet our successes. However, those looking only for simple may not recognize a rhizomatic success. Lots of people, for instance, cannot see #rhizo14/15/16 as a success.

    1. Are you suggesting that those who question aspects of rhizo14/15/16 are looking only for simple? I have heard some rhizo participants suggesting that but didn't realise that you were one of them. Here's a quote from an anonymous participant who had reservations about rhizo14 but was well able to deal with complexity "… it seemed to me that theoretical explorations and advocacy for the sake of discussion were being unconsciously conflated with underlying belief systems about how people ‘should’ react/behave/respond to the rhizomatic theory"

  3. Ahh … thanks, Frances, for the question and comments. The short answer is no, I am not "suggesting that those who question aspects of rhizo 14/15/16 are looking only for simple". If my post or comment read that way for you, then I apologize. That was unintentional.

    Rhizo 14/15/16 should be questioned—indeed, must be questioned if it is to have any lasting importance. For instance, you, Jenny, and Mariana have written 3 fine studies that reveal some limitations to and fault lines within the community that Rhizo14 tried to create while at the same time demonstrate that a community (let me use that term very broadly here) did emerge. We need a follow-up study that explores why and how the community has remained vital and important to a small group of scholars after 3 years. I think you have demonstrated that the emergence of a community in an open, online space is hardly ever simple, but quite complex and that we have much to learn about how to cultivate and to navigate such communities.

    As for the quote you provide, I have no doubt that "underlying belief systems" affected how individuals reacted, behaved, and responded to the rhizomatic theory and to Rhizo14. I think underlying belief systems always do that, so I don't see this as a particularly damning criticism. The best I can do is to render my underlying belief systems explicit to myself and others. That's hard work, but I'm still trying.

    Thanks for being here.

  4. Thanks Keith - I am glad that's not what you meant, and I appreciate your compliment to our work.

    I am not sure what 'the community' means in the context of a small group of scholars within a much larger set of participants. I agree that course participant association in quasi open spaces (with plenty of backchannelling) is complex. Revealing the hidden (whether that's what people don't feel able to say in the open or the operation of algorithms in 'open' spaces) seems to me to be a good first step in dealing with that complexity. I have been bemused by the resistance that several of that small group of scholars have shown to the idea that some participants might have had a different response to their own, and that rhizomatic learning can be questioned.
    Good luck with your follow up study. I am taking what I have learned from our studies in a different direction:)
    It's interesting that you use the term 'damning criticism' in relation to the quote that I shared. I thought the respondent was talking about how it might be better if discussion could accommodate surfacing of assumptions, as you aspire to for yourself.

  5. Frances, I have a very fractal view of community in mind here: communities within communities, with any one community a member of countless other communities, across many scales, different times, and speeds, some identified from without, some from within, many both. I am a community. Very rhizomatic, don't you think?

    And as for my characterization of the quote … well, I had only a snippet. I suspect your interpretation is more accurate.