The fighter plane F-16 is the first aeroplane intentionally designed to have an aerodynamically unstable platform. This design was chosen to enhance the aircraft’s manoeuvrability. Most aeroplanes are designed to be stable such that they strive to return to their original attitude following an interruption. While such stability is a desired property for a passenger aeroplane, for example, it opposes a pilot’s effort to change headings rapidly and thus can degrade manoeuvring performance required for a fighter jet. This behaviour has led to a saying among pilots that ‘you do not fly an F-16, it flies you’. As is evident from the collection of articles presented in this issue, the brain might be similarly flexible and ‘restless’ by default. This restlessness does not reflect random activity that is there merely for the sake of remaining active, but, instead, it reflects the ongoing generation of predictions, which relies on memory and enhances our interaction with and adjustment to the demanding environment.
What I love about this analogy is that it takes the inherent messiness of life – the stochasticity of gene expression, the randomness of jumping genes, the unpredictable oscillations of neurons, etc. – and argues that this messiness has a profound purpose: It is what keeps us aware and wary, alert to our innate imperfections. In other words, it is the disorder of the mind – a property that often seems like a flaw – that gives us the elbow room to make decisions and, just maybe, exert a little free will.
Update: Thanks for all the corrections in the comments. (This is why I’m thrilled to have comments back!) I’ve modified the post and corrected my flawed extension of the F-16 metaphor.