The Frontal Cortex

F-16

An inspired metaphor for the inherent instability of the brain by Moshe Bar:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Flaky
    March 31, 2009

    Actually it’s the other way around: An unstable plane cannot be piloted without the help of a flight control computer, while a stable plane can be handled by a mere human.

  2. #2 Tedd
    March 31, 2009

    The F-16 doesn’t require a human, but does require a computer, a really fast, specialized mind(?). I’m not sure how this affects the analogy.

    The F-16 is inherently unstable, and actually requires a quad-redundant computer to fly. No human can respond quickly enough to control the aircraft. The computer is constantly adjusting the control surfaces to keep the plane flying. If all 4 computers were to fail, the aircraft would crash.

    In the F-16, the pilot isn’t directly adjusting the control surfaces, but the computer takes the pilot’s input and adjusts the control surfaces to get where the pilot wants to go without losing control. I believe this is what is meant by the saying “the F-16 flies you”.

    A human is not necessary to fly the F-16, an autopilot is certainly capable of controlling the aircraft. An F-16 recently(Dec. 08) performed an autoland, landing successfully without any pilot input.

    tedd

  3. #3 dreikin
    March 31, 2009

    You can fly a 747 on autopilot – the computers can handle a stable plane – but an F-16 requires a trained human at the helm

    Um, no. The most unstable planes (eg, B2, several other advanced aircraft) require computers to counter the instabilities – the pilots just aren’t fast enough for it, and the planes would be unflyable without the computers taking care of that.

  4. #4 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 31, 2009


    You can fly a 747 on autopilot – the computers can handle a stable plane – but an F-16 requires a trained human at the helm.

    The computers in an F-16, which saw its first flight in 1974 and was introduced into active service in 1978, may require a trained human at the helm. This does not imply that modern computers and software cannot in principle handle this task; indeed, some UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) exceed the flight characteristics of the F-16.

    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.

    Or perhaps it could if free will existed as anything other than an illusion. I know you really, really want to believe that it does.

  5. #5 Jonah
    March 31, 2009

    Testing the comments…

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    April 7, 2009

    I read a news that, 5hour f-16 flight spends about $250K, very high!

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    June 20, 2009

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