The Frontal Cortex

Los Angeles

Apologies for the radio silence – I’ve been moving across the country, my life in a big metal box. I’m leaving Boston (sadly) and just arrived in Los Angeles, my old hometown and new home.

Whenever I first arrive in LA, I’m always struck by the same two thoughts: 1) it really is a beautiful city, especially around dusk when you make a left turn and all of a sudden you’re heading into the chaparral of the Hollywood hills, glazed with pink light and softened by the haze of smog. I’m not one of those people who always talk about the “quality of light” but there is something about the light here. And 2) LA is a big urban metaphor for the brain. Sigmund Freud famously declared that civilization, or kultur, was simply a magnified version of the individual mind. He should have visited Southern California. For me, LA is simply the cortex set in concrete, lots and lots of concrete. Those freeways are big spindle and pyramidal cells – they connect the disparate areas – and the numerous downtowns (Century City, Santa Monica, the SF Valley, etc.) represent the many functional modules inside the mind. Everybody complains that LA has no center – there is no there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein – but isn’t that the point? The brain doesn’t have a center either, and it works beautifully.

And then there’s the lack of central planning. LA is a confederation of neighborhoods that aspire to the condition of suburbs. This means that the city lacks any sensible grid or unifying structure. (Compare this to the arithmetic perfection of Manhatten, which is all right angles and straight lines.) Highways cut across streets, hills disrupt the boulevards, and mass transit remains mostly a joke. The upside is that LA defines functionality on a very local level. Venice Beach is so different from Studio City which has nothing in common with Hancock Park. All of these little urban villages are designed to be separate. And yet, something interesting emerges when these seemingly isolated civic fragments are forced to share an area code (or three).

The brain works the same way. Our cortex is an accident, a conglomeration of used biological parts that we’ve borrowed from other creatures. It’s a jerry-rigged concoction of isolated neighborhoods (the amygdala, insula, ACC, etc.), each of which gives off its own special vibe. At first glance, it’s hard to see how something meaningful could emerge from such a mess. But that’s where we come from.


  1. #1 David Dobbs
    August 7, 2009

    Congrats on the move — I guess we’ll have to have that beer out there.

    LA as brain — makes my head hurt.

    I’m going out on a limb here and offering a correction without actually checking my facts. I believe Stein said “There’s no there there.” about Oakland, not L.A.

    Then again, if here statement is true of both places, I suppose that’s neither here nor there.

    Stay clear of the amygdala parts of town.



  2. #2 Onkel Bob
    August 7, 2009

    Could be worse, I’m leaving Silicon Valley for Manhattan. I am hoping for a stroke (physical or fortune) to prevent the relocation but alas, fortune has abandoned me and those years of exercise are exacting their toll.
    Stein was indeed speaking of Oakland, which btw, has probably the best views of any CA city.
    Enjoy LA, IMO it is far better than any metropolis east of the Mississippi, and I lived in many of them.

  3. #3 DC Elzinga
    August 7, 2009

    Welcome back to L.A.! As a writer and singer living in Los Angeles, I read your borrowing from Gertrude Stein and thought of another judgment about L.A.:

    People move to New York to be New Yorkers. People move to Los Angeles to be themselves.

    I wish I’d thought of that first.

    Ever since I moved here in my teens to start at Caltech, I’ve been aware of L.A.’s many shortcomings. But its virtues are just as numerous.

  4. #4 RDM
    August 7, 2009

    Just curious…what are you doing in LA?

  5. #5 Julie Simon Lakehomer
    August 7, 2009

    Nice comparison, L.A. and brain, no planning, just evolution.

  6. #6 OftenWrongTed
    August 7, 2009

    ” Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city.”

    Dorothy Parker

  7. #7 adina
    August 7, 2009

    California is the frontal cortex cities- full of flashes of plans and sparks of ideas.

    “Aint it a shame that all the world cant enjoy your mad traditions
    Aint it a shame all the world dont got keys to their own ignition.
    Life is the longest death in California.”

    Unfortunately, California is also stimulus overload, cognitive fragmentation, neurotransmitters run amok, a myelin sheath offering glial protection, but exploited for shear speed.

    You’re such a wonder that I think I’ll stay in bed
    So much to plunder that I think I’ll sleep instead.”

    Welcome (back) to our town!

  8. #8 royniles
    August 7, 2009

    The cortex borrowed parts to serve a functional purpose. LA just sort of growed like Topsy.
    In the California body, the rational brain relocated to the S.F. Bay Area.

  9. #9 Mariposa Blanca
    August 7, 2009

    Interesting analogy. I recently moved from L.A. to Portland Oregon. I lived there for over twenty years. Although I believe that it is good that I am experiencing a different place, I miss it. L.A. is a fascinating metropolis that is simultaneously contradicted by so many harsh realities.

    Let us know how your reintegration goes.

    I am currently reading the Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle. An interesting narrative about L.A. culture.

  10. #10 CanadaGoose
    August 7, 2009

    I didn’t think anyone could make me nostalgic for LA but you have.

    You’ll find the light to be different all the way up the coast to BC where I now live. I’ve also lived in Boston, New York, San Francisco and LA. Each has charms and woes and wherever you go, there you are.

  11. #11 Cate Gardner
    August 7, 2009

    I think it’s “nobody walks in LA.” I know because I used to live in Oakland but am from Los Angeles and when my native northern californian friends would tease me for getting in the car and driving three blocks to eat at Yoshi’s I’d say “yeah, but, nobody walks in LA.” Even though I walked to school for thirteen years when I was in LA.

  12. #12 Mia
    August 7, 2009

    Walking in LA is gaining traction (bad pun intended)…

    There’s just all sorts of magic in LA… any kind you might want to find, I suspect…

    …it’s a magical place! I’m partial to the northern part of this great state, but in the words of Don Henley’s “Thanksgiving”…

    “I don’t mind saying that I still love it all…”

    I love your brain analogy, too. I’m curious: *how did you decide* (or why, maybe?) to leave Boston and move to LA?

  13. #13 thermohaline
    August 7, 2009

    @RDM pursuing Hollywood, I think
    Just kidding! I can’t wait to move back to the west. You’re going to love returning home to California.

  14. #14 Dirk Strong
    August 8, 2009

    it’s a magical place!

    Sure is – look at the nuts they vote into political office

  15. #15 Zurftag Moss
    August 8, 2009

    Welcome back to L.A. I’ve lived in Hollywood and in several different parts of the Valley since childhood. I am a result of the socio economic push pull forces that have kept steady waves of Mexican immigrants coming into the U.S. for years. I used to think that Mexico was my home. While I love going back to Mexico and living and breathing the beauty of the country and it’s people, I have come to the realization that Los Angeles is my home. It’s really all I’ve ever known. specifically, Silverlake and East Hollywood. Every time I drive into those parts of L.A. I feel I’ve come home. I love all of the imperfections this beautiful city has to offer. I love the richness and diversity of Los Angeles.

  16. #16 OftenWrongTed
    August 8, 2009

    Great article at Mind Matters, with Professor Sue Barry on 2D to 3D vision: Both the article, as well as Los Angeles, reminded me of the book “Flatland” by Edwin Abbott.

  17. #17 Amanda
    August 8, 2009

    I just moved to TX from LA where I lived in different areas of the city for 3 years. LA serves as a boiling pot for so many. Although I enjoyed the different cultures, I ended up thinking that the city had everything that other places have times 100, but the one thing it lacked was soul. So much can happen so quickly in a city like LA, but little can actually be remembered.

  18. #18 jksB120
    August 13, 2009

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. The idea that LA is like a human mind is not only accurate, it is brilliant. Despite the chaos and confusion (similar to the brain itself), each little neighborhood and street and highway seem to work together and overlap to make something great. It is almost as though one can not exist without the other…just like the many parts of the brain work together to make up an individual’s mind. Whoever said, “life is simple” and “simplicity is the key”, clearly has never studied the human brain….or been to LA! Not only does LA’s geography relate to the human brain but it’s vibrancy and functions are similar as well.

  19. #19 David
    August 13, 2009

    Jonah’s interpretation of Los Angeles is very perceptive. I’m the Editor in Chief of the online lifestyle magazine, Travelin’ Local, and Walk my World, referenced by Mia, in comment 12.

    I find that exploring the various neighborhoods in Los Angeles, to always be exciting because I always manage to find something new and more often than not, see things that I never knew about or if I did, never bothered to check out.

    For example the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.

    Los Angeles, like the brain, is a giant maze and amalgam of disparate parts, that in the end, somehow come together and create a system that works.

    As I write about my experiences–the more I’m seeing it as a novel that has a past, present, and to be written future.

  20. #20 Dr. M. A. Greenstein
    August 15, 2009

    Jonah, Welcome to L.A. aka The Brain Trust! (and the city with the best food in the world!)

    To get a vivid picture of this city of lights, try the lookout from Griffith Park Observatory. Best induction into the vast neural network which topographically appears more gridlike than the brain.

    A read for understanding the vectored nature of this city of angels

    Mike Davis: City of Quartz

    and in light of your analogy to L. A. and neural networks: I’m sure you know the work of Steven Johnson author of Emergence, a terrif and user-friendly read on networks of software, cities, brains, ant colonies. (Not an L. A. read per se, but one that illuminates the idea of L. A. urban development

    Buen Dia!

    Dr. G.
    The George Greenstein Institute

  21. #21 Ann Hao
    August 16, 2009


    Thank you for such an interesting comparison. I had been dreading the move from New York City to Los Angeles, but I think I will grow quite a bit and learn more about myself in this rather jumbled sprawl of a city (which at least now I can brag to friends resembles the brain). I feel that this city would give me the space to truly decide what I need and what I want. In any case, I will just learn in general, because I am going to study Philosophy and Politics at USC. You are also quite right about the quality of light. My friend who has been all over the East Coast and developed, cosmopolitan cities in Western Europe can’t get over the gorgeously infiltrating and warming light that is so abundant in LA. It is truly uplifting and comforting.

    I very much enjoyed Proust was a Neuroscientist and recommended it to some friends at Princeton and Johns Hopkins majoring in neuroscience. I thought they might find your comparisons and explanations interesting and illuminating. I certainly did. Looking forward to picking up How We Decide.


  22. #22 juan555
    August 19, 2009

    Never thought of it that way. But it feels kind of nice to know i’m one more brain cell floating around making the brain work.

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