Whenever you see a bee buzzing around outside, do you ever think, “Hey pal, we aren’t so different after all?” The term “hive mind” has been in use for decades to describe the behavior of bees, however, we see it commonly used to describe our habits on the Internet as well. With the advent of things like the viral post, it’s easy to see common threads between humans and our insect companions.
Where did the term come from though…and what does it mean? What are the modern implications for humans as our technology evolves?
Humans have studied and interacted with bees for thousands of years. We’ve observed the intricacies of their behavior from hive construction to bee-to-bee communication to pollen preferences.
The term “hive mind” didn’t come into use in popular culture until the 1950’s when science fiction writer James H. Schmitz coined it in his short story, “Second Night of Summer.” The term in any greater context refers to the act of many directed by a single intelligence.
Technically, hive mind as a concept did have earlier origins. In 1944, HJ Wadey referenced the hive mind of bees in an article in the magazine Bee World. He initially theorized bees operated in unison via a thought beam, not unlike RADAR (Radio Detection and Ranging.) He ultimately revised his theory, but this was the first instance of its theoretical mention.
In our post-modern times, the term doesn’t always have a positive connotation, often referring to the inertia of groupthink that leads to widely spread misinformation and unreasonable persecution of innocent people. In order to understand the implications for us, we have to talk about how hive mind operates in, well, the hive.
There are thousands of species of bees and while the honeybee tends to be a great example of hive mind in action, not all bee species behave this way; the Megachile pyrenaica lives a solitary life, building mud cells to store honey, for example.
Honeybees, on the other hand, engage in hive mind behaviors regularly. One of the more notable examples of this is the waggle dance.
When the bees need to seek a location for a new hive in springtime, select worker bees travel away from the hive to scout ideal spots for relocation. Once they find an ideal spot, the scout bees go back to the hive and do a waggle dance to communicate pertinent information – direction and distance to the location – to their cohorts.
In this context, the waggle dance is a recruitment tool to garner other bees to the cause.
Dr. Thomas Seeley, a professor of neurobiology at Cornell University, conducted a study on this specific bee behavior in 2012.
Prior to this study, scientists believed the waggle dance was meant to acquire “votes” for a new hive location. However, Seeley’s study results showed the waggle dance is actually mutually inhibitive leading to a consensus among all involved parties.
During the study, certain bees were marked with yellow paint and others with pink. These two groups of bee scouts visited different sites. When they returned to the hive to perform the waggle dance, Seeley noticed members of the pink group performing small head-butting motions to the head and thorax of members of the yellow group and vice versa. This appeared to be a signal to stop the waggle dance, inhibiting the message.
Essentially, if this action did not exist, there would be no clear winner when it comes to the question of where to move the hive. Thus, the bees engage in a series of movements, actions, and counteractions to get to a place where the hive mind makes a decision.
It seems different from how we operate on the surface, but our brain’s neural system operates a lot like a hive mind.
The system of neurons in our brain is not vastly different from the collaborative behavior of bees in terms of function. Each neuron fires sending a message – we make decisions when divergent options are silenced, leaving one clear winner.
As Jason Castro notes in his article “You Have a Hive Mind,” our brains operate on consensus. Castro (2012) notes, “Our brains seem to work not by generating only “correct” actions and executing them in serial, but rather by representing many possibilities in parallel, and suppressing all but one.”
Our mental processing happens simultaneously, much like the buzzing behavior of bees, all working in unison for a shared goal. In this case, the shared goal is the survival of the hive and the proliferation of the brood. This for our brains, the goal is also survival, though it may be surviving an exam at school, a tough interview for a desired job, or a move across the country.
It’s a different context, but a similar process. This process is the subject of scientific research and development, leading to some fascinating technologies on the horizon.
What if you could communicate with somebody without saying a word? This form of communication, telepathy really, would streamline our ability to share thoughts, feelings, and dreams. Telepathy sounds like the stuff of fantasy books and movies, but the technology is actually relatively close to being available for our use, ethical issues aside.
Some schools of thought believe our hive mind already exists without invasive technological intervention. The Global Consciousness Project, for example, as well as some spiritual and religious groups, believe in a sense of connectedness we are all party to whether we desire it or not, a collective consciousness that drives our motivations and actions.
Technologies, such as Braingate’s wireless brain implant, currently allows people with severe disabilities to control assistive devices with their thoughts. Ultimately, this kind of technology could be adapted for person-to-person use.
One of the biggest hurdles to this innovation is current technologies don’t have the bandwidth to accommodate the complexities of the human brain. We have billions of neurons, the actions of which don’t always translate easily with current technologies like EEG machines. Plus, the information garnered from brain implant technology would need to be translated effectively.
Additionally, how the device would be implanted and/or worn on the body is a question that requires an answer.
The other question that requires an answer is if each one of us would want to participate in such a massive change in how we function and communicate as a species.
Some might feel it’s best to leave it to the bees.
Remember Dr. Seeley from earlier? He wrote a book called Honeybee Democracy. In his book, he discusses some of the insights he’s gained from his study of honeybees, but he also provides a framework for group decision-making we can live by when working in our own “hives.”
Follow these lessons to be more effective when working in a team:
We aren’t so different from bees after all, and not just that, we can learn lessons about collaboration from our fuzzy, yellow and black garden visitors.