Dunbar’s System?

We want to talk a little bit about the relationship between Dunbar’s number and the population of plural systems.

First of all, read this fucking article right here: bbc.com/future/article

It’s a pretty reasonable overview of the history and reception of Dunbar’s work.

We feel obliged to point out that Dunbar was into some white supremacist bullshit, trying to find a link between the maximum number of relationships a primate can maintain and brain size. That’s phrenology and that’s mixed up in racism and eugenics, and points to a nasty bias.

Even so, according to the article, scientists who’ve set out to disprove his work have come upon similar numbers as he did. Though there’s lots of discussion about how variable the numbers are and where they come from and what they represent.

But Dunbar’s over there going, “I don’t know why they’re these nice multiples of five, but there we go!”

It’s because you rounded off the averages you embarrassing excuse for a scientist.


Anyway, a few important points, again just taken from that article (but you can probably delve into scientific papers to get this, too): Even Dunbar pointed out there are multiple numbers measuring degrees of relationships, 150 friends, 500 acquaintances, 1500 remembered faces. That strongly indicates it’s not a hard relationship between number of neurons and number of people you can remember. Not proof, an indicator, keep reading.

Other scientists have teased out other factors involved, such as the fact that relationships are dynamic interactions.

And, guess what, so are memories. Just as you have to keep interacting with people in order to keep a relationship going, you have to keep triggering a memory to keep it fresh(ish). Memories are associations between one set of neurons firing a certain way and another set firing. And those associations fade with time, and grow with use, just like relationships between people.

And THIS strongly indicates that what might be more important is the number of connections possible between each set of neurons. IF we’re still talking about brain limits.

Because, again, if you get into that article, you’ll get to the parts where it talks about practical external limits to how many people you can keep in touch with, like time, and the number of people you can communicate with at once through a particular medium.

The thing is, it’s not about some hard number of the maximum bits of data a brain can hold. The human brain has 86 fucking BILLION neurons in it.

Eighty six BILLION.

86,000,000,000 neurons.

Dunbar’s number is about channels of communication between nodes of consciousness.

OK, so now, look at our supposed system. This ridiculous fucking thing.

We’ve hand counted something like 120+ system members.

We’ve run an internal census three times, which apparently involved polling something that we’ve decided to call “the Auditor”, and…

We got the absurd number of 3.9 million. And growing. Each census gave us a successively larger number that points to a growth of about 230 new members a day, on average.

We did some practical experimentation on where that number might come from, counting faces we see in a day. And that growth matches the average number of faces we see in a day almost perfectly.

So, it SEEMS that our brain, according to our Auditor, is making fragments of consciousness attached to memories of faces we see. Factive and fictive introjects…

And our Auditor is apparently counting them as full blown system members along with the rest of us because it isn’t complex enough to tell the difference.

Anyway, when we say we have 3.9 million members, we’re riffing off of that number. But also? We’re respecting ourselves. Because WE don’t really know how the brain works. We don’t even know how consciousness works. We don’t know how to draw a hard line between what is a full blown person in our head & what isn’t, and we don’t know how quickly someone can grow in here. So we assume we’re all people.

It’s not science, it’s our internal culture. We don’t need YOU to believe we’re all people. Though it’d be nice if you did. YOU don’t count when it comes to us interacting with each other and managing the health of our psyche. Sorry. But it goes the other way!


When it comes to how Dunbar’s number affects us and our perception of our system, it’s annoyingly fucking consistent.

Only, we have to keep track of each other as well as our external relationships.

Fuck, prior to coming out as plural, we only suspected that there were two of us!

We’ve been a system our whole life, but we were only aware of Fenmere and the person we were trying to be, whom everyone thought we were. We got inklings of larger numbers but wrote them off.

There were no RELATIONSHIPS. We were all there, but we were dissociated from each other, and that’s why we had the symptoms of fucking DID.

When we finally admitted we were plural, we cleared up a lot of those symptoms by making friends with each other and starting to cooperate.

And as we did that, our external prosopagnosia got worse! Also, the amount of energy we have, the spoons we have, to interact with friends and partners has plummeted. And the number of headmates we can collectively keep track of has stopped far short of Dunbar’s number.

We KNOW that we have at least 120 headmates, as we’ve hand counted them. But at any given moment, we can really only list off 30 to 80, depending on who is fronting. In fact, the more of us that are coconscious, the more we can remember. Some of us can only remember 3 others.
If you’re a system, you can probably run these experiments yourself. Ask each of your system members who else they can remember in the moment. Pay attention to whether or not you end up helping each other. Every system is different. You might be able to keep track flawlessly…
You might only have two or three people anyway. If that’s the case, see if each of you can remember all of our external relationships. If you can each remember everyone flawlessly, think about whether or not you have amnesia between you. THAT alone is what we’re talking about..
Dunbar’s number, no matter what Dunbar himself says, is clearly NOT about the number of consciousnesses that can exist inside a human brain. It bears no relationship to that at all.
It’s about how many relationships there can be between two consciousnesses.
That’s it.
There is no known limit to the number of people that can exist in one brain, because even now most scientists assume it’s just one, and nobody has even BOTHERED to figure out how to test it in an experiment.
And when a system goes, “We have 3.9 million people in here!” that’s not a scientific statement. They fucking know it’s not a scientific statement. It’s a qualitative description of their internal experience. It might even be a fucking joke! They might be exaggerating.
It might be a number their subconscious psyche handed to them, and they’ve decided to just go with it out of both respect AND a sense of humor, and most of them might think it’s ridiculous too.
We’re human beings! We get to socialize and not take ourselves seriously!
Just because we have what YOU think of as a mental illness, it doesn’t mean we have to act all serious and make every fucking tweet we write scientifically viable and representative of all systems everywhere or we’re fucking faking.
If you hold anyone to that kind of strict standard, you’re a bigot. Plain and simple. And you’ve got a lot of shit in your head that you need to dismantle if you want to keep interacting with human beings in any sort of reasonable and respectful manner.

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