Let’s get rid of the term “Hard Wired”

The phrase “hard wired for …” is increasingly popular. “Hard wired” is science fiction and should be abandoned. A quick google search of “hard wired for” results in a confusing list of “hard wired” behaviors:

 The list is disconcerting. How can both “love” and “hate” be hard wired? “empathy” and “greed”? “Optimism” and “negative news”? Something is fishy. More internet sleuthing, via ngram, shows that the term “hard wired for” is new and trendy.

ngram search for “hard wired”, 1960-2008. Ngram searches for phrases in published books. Most recent year is 2008.

My complaints is that the term “hard wired” has connotations that are misleading and inaccurate. “Hard wired for” is used to mean “has a biological predisposition for”. I have no gripe with the latter phrase. Perfectly OK to say something like, “humans have a biological predisposition for cooperation” or most of the entries on the list above. What this means to me is roughly,

The human genome is a set of potential developmental rules.

Given: 1. the normal environmental conditions for development, and
2. a set of learning experiences common to our society, the instruction set of DNA, along with the activity of the nervous system, will form a brain predisposed to a certain behavior.

where DNA/genome = biological constraints.

“hard-wired”, on the other hand, suggests a rigid set of construction rules to make something like this:

When someone writes something like “the brain is hardwired for love”, my thought is “show me the wires”. Impossible for two reasons. First, in none of the cases above is the information processing understood. Second, the writer is proposing a model of the brain that is false. While the nervous system is composed of neurons connected to other neurons, the hard-wired diagram is a canard, a false, simplistic model that leads to wrong-thinking. It’s an easy model, one in our electronics-filled world that is a ready metaphor. But, in borrowed words*, the model is so bad it’s not even wrong.


* Wolfgang Pauli

by John Kubie

This entry was posted in About Neuroscience, by John Kubie, Neuroeducation
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John Kubie

About John Kubie

I work at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, where my time is divided between research, teaching and avoiding committees. In grad school I studied olfaction in snakes and salamanders, but I’ve been studying the rat hippocampus and its relations to navigation and memory since the 1980s. Bob Muller, Jim Ranck and I were among the first to characterize hippocampal place cells recorded in behaving rats.

Outside of science (and perhaps inside) I’m a boring guy. Interests include people, movies, philosophy, travel, computers and family. I’ve been blogging for less than a year, but it has become a strong interest and hobby. The other blog is http://coronaradiata.net.

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