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I wrote this short piece from the point of view of Meteor Mags while brainstorming ideas that eventually became The Hive (now published in the Singing Spell collection). I’m not convinced that everything Mags says about insect minds is correct, but she did become the queen of a hive of space wasps and telepathically bond with them in 2030. Maybe she knows what she’s talking about! I’m thinking of including this “guest column” in the second omnibus edition I hope to publish next year.

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Ego and the Insect

Sitting quietly, doing nothing. The seasons change. The wind blows by itself. [1] Your ego is just along for the ride. It likes to grab the wheel and try to take over. It likes to think it’s in charge. But it’s about as in charge as a waterfall or a dandelion. It’s more like the sound of a waterfall or color of a dandelion. It’s a facet of the organism. If you put enough connections in that electrified chunk of fat you have in your skull, then group it with similar organisms—Boom! You get ego as naturally as a flower blooms, or a star explodes.

The ego, the “I”, the “me, me, me” of this monologue everyone constantly carries on—it’s an effect of the organism. Fantasy is what the ego does in its spare time, though you could argue the entire ego is a fantasy, a story, an interpretation based on limited sensory input and demonstrably faulty thought processes.

The result is that the ego’s fantasies are indistinguishable from reality. They feel just as real. The emotional content is just as vivid. Fantasy can be irrational, but our understanding of reality is already anything but rational.

And when we dream, we have irrational fantasies which our minds have difficulty distinguishing as unreal when they happen. Dreams can exert powerful sway over an individual’s choices in life, from how their day goes all the way to major decisions that decide the fate of nations.

The brain is predisposed to nonrational structures and narratives. It makes its own as dreams, and it experiences them as a second reality. Some people become aware they are dreaming and even control the dream. That’s no different from a child knowing she is playing pretend but deciding how the narrative goes.

Ego arises naturally from the organism at a certain intersection of brain complexity and social complexity, and fantasy arises naturally as an aspect of ego.

Group organisms such as ants, bees, and wasps might have an ego, but it involves the social part of the equation more than ours, which we experience as individual brain function. The “I” of an ant colony arises from the same forces as ours but is experienced on a group level, by the whole group as one. We might never find a single ant who identifies itself as “I”, as a separate ego.

That doesn’t mean the colony’s ego is nonexistent. Just as we could never take out one of our brain cells and expect a single cell to identify as an ego, the ego of the ant colony is not obvious or tangible to us. But neither is the mind of another human. We have language to speak to the egos of other humans, but we don’t have the ant’s mechanism for communication, which is largely based on scent.

If you could receive and transmit ant scents, and your neural cortex processed them the same way ants do—in other words, the interpretation process and mental results were identical to theirs, not a translation by us—then you would have a good shot at truly communicating between your ego and the ant colony ego.

The challenge is understanding how the individual ant processes and interprets all that sensory data. By watching ants’ actions, we get a sense of the conclusions they draw about social status, threats, and food locations. But what is the subjective experience? Do they see an image in their mind? Do they smell things in some order that conveys meaning?

You would need to plug a receiver into your olfactory center and process the scent. But you would need an ant to teach you how to interpret.

How do ants learn their language of pheromones? How do bees learn the meanings of their dances?

The individual ant or bee does not receive teaching from another individual. It is born into the ego of the group. The bee doesn’t learn. The bee knows. The most important part of that knowing resides in the group’s ego, not inside the individual bee. The meaning of the language is stored in the group.


[1] Mags paraphrases a haiku by the Zen poet, Basho: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing. Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”