neural cartography

25Nov09

Mathieu Lehanneur designs natural ecosystems for in the house to purify the air and provide food. He was inspired by Wilder Penfield and his electrical explorations of the human brain. Penfield published his first cortical map in 1930!  and made around the ear 1950 a drawing of a ‘homunculus’.

neural cartographer wilder penfield

W. Penfield

Homunculus (=little man) is a visual depiction that shows the areas of the cortex devoted to each part of the body and their proportions relative to one another. This struck me for 3 reasons: (1) cognitive neuropsychology get’s a lot of attention today but was already practiced more than a century ago (also by P.Broca, 1880). (2) Humunculus is a perfect example of the power of visualizing information to convey a message and explain complex data. (3) Penfield’s struggle to comprehend the functions of the brain might relate to the struggle organizations face when coping with today’s relational society.

Functional mapping of the human cortex

brain map and the little man inside your headthe humunculus and brain map (1937)

The homunculus describes the distorted human figure drawn to reflect the relative space human body parts occupy in the brain. The lips, hands, feet and sex organs have more sensory neurons than other parts of the body, so the homunculus has correspondingly large lips, hands, feet, and genitals. This is also commonly called ‘the little man inside the brain.’

Plastic brain

Penfield observed functional reorganization of the cortex more than 70 years ago. He noticed that the brain reorganizes itself following injuries. He concluded that this reorganization occurs because the brain remains ‘plastic’ throughout life and can lead to considerable recovery of function. Until relatively recently it was still one of the central dogmas of brain research that the adult human brain is not plastic.

Functional mapping and plastic organizations

If organizations could draw humunculi maps of their touchpoints, they could gain more insight in their motoric and sensory movements and their ability to respond to the outside world.

If organizations could put aside the dogma of their structure and adapt a plastic notion of relating people, responsibilities and processes to organize their internal actions, they would be more flexible in coping with amputation of their trustworthiness.

In essence (for me) this comes down to the need for more Penfield-like managers, who are determined and competent enough to observe and create instruments to explore the neural cicuit of their organizational body and are open enough for findings that might go beyond the managerial dogma’s of our bygone economical society. The uprise of design thinking might be a sign of this new outlook on organizational structures, as is the growing potential of network-structures.  Is the residing class of chief officers prepared to let go of their dogma’s in time to survive, or will it take another 50 or so years for them to adapt observational research? Let’s hope that the signals and illustrative power of the networked-humunculis wakes them up.

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