Of Mice and Men: Those "Other" Cells

Of Mice and Men: Those "Other" Cells

03.26.13Evan Smith

For more than 100 years, neurons were all that mattered with regard to explaining how the brain worked

A fascinating new announcement from the brain scientists: We have – until very recently – IGNORED HALF OF THE BRAIN!

I'm personally taken aback by this fact. Here's the story: You may know that the brain is made up of two main types of cells: neurons (which "transmit memory and thought" via electrical impulse) and glial cells, long thought to provide only "scaffolding", insulation, and nutrition for neurons. Neurons got all of the attention because 100 years ago, scientists couldn't measure any electrical impulses coming from "glial cells"; they therefore assumed that glial cells had marginal value with regard to thought and memory, and made no contribution to these functions. Since we can't measure it (no electrical signal) – then glial cells must be unimportant, right?

For more than 100 years, neurons were all that mattered with regard to explaining how the brain worked. Extensive study was undertaken on neurons; scientists described them as "the telegraph lines of thought." A recent story from the health blogs at National Public Radio publicizing the original study now suggests that at least some types of glial cells coordinate the actions of neurons, via chemical signals. The data suggests that these glial cells may be managing large groups of neurons (rather than electrical impulses on single pathways) through a mechanism about which we are only recently becoming aware.


Interestingly, while neurons seem to be "evolutionarily stable", at least during the recent history of study, glial cells actually seem to be evolving. Recent experiments are now focusing on the role of glial cells in learning – and if very early tests on mice are any indication, then glial cells may play a very significant role in distinguishing capability to learn. (See the blog post for more.)

I'm struck by several aspects of this story – both what we're learning about the additional functions these previously-unconsidered cells perform in the brain, and about why it took us this long to see it. A number of questions on how we manage memory, thought, and action in our organizations spring to mind and I wonder what understanding we may be missing still in those places, too. Here are a few specific ones that come to mind:

  • Are we distracted by what is easy to measure? (I'm reminded of the "streetlight effect"). In our organizations, are we looking for real answers to challenges, and trying to address opportunities by looking only at what we can measure OR are we engaging in creative, vigorous inquiry about assumptions that may lie underneath problems and challenges, even if these are difficult, troubling, murky, complex? What do we make of the broader, more dimly-lit circumstances, structure, and conditions that might surround our current focus of problems, and our currently accessible data?
  • If the neurons are the "individual performers" carrying thought, ideas, and memory, then the glial-cell analogy may be about functions such as leadership, culture, facilitation, and coordination. In our organizations – as tempting and seductive as we find a focus on individual levels of tangible performance – what questions are we asking about how the "whole" is functioning? And how do we inquire about the contributions that indirect factors like leadership and culture may be making in service of achieving our overall results?
  • Did these early brain scientists focus on the "first discovery" as a way to explain the functioning of the brain (and the magic of our thought and action) in its entirety? Did this first discovery of the role that neurons play "crowd out" serious inquiry about the purpose of all of these other cells – and if so, WHY? In our organizations, what are we missing, when we try to generate results using only "half" of the structure, half of the words, half of the view, capacity, potential that is available?

Please let me know if you find this story and the questions it raises as interesting as I do – and please write to share others you might see.

(Please check out this Schaffer framework for more on a "whole picture" model of defining and carrying out effective change and transformation in organizations.)

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