Cultural change


Pete Seger died a day or so ago.  Funny how in his choosing to remember some old styles and tunes thereby ensuring the cultural transmission of some old ways, Mr. Seger participated in changing the cultural melody.  I heard part of a relatively recent interview with him on the radio yesterday.  The interviewer (Terri Gross) talked with him about his song, “If I had a hammer,” reporting that it had been recorded many, many times since coming out, when it had been regarded as a dangerous, subversive song.  When asked about what instigated the negative reaction Mr. Seger said he did not exactly know, then he said that the song does talk about justice and freedom, which some people take as an attack on their integrity and culture.  Here he mentioned how some of the white power structure in the country and especially the deep south worried about communism, race mixing, racial equality and those blacks and whites who supported it.  He then reflected that things really had changed some since then.  Thank you Mr. Seger


Cultural Transmission


We recently had the great pleasure of seeing the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.  Wow, their music was sheer elegant, passionate rapture.  Such energy and complexity of sound from a piano, bass fiddle, congas, timbale, congas, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, a saxophone/flute and 3 marvelous singers.  I did not understand the words as I do not speak Spanish but who cares when the music carries so much meaning regardless.  This is not my native culture which leans more towards Americana roots and Celtic tunes, a different energy and complexity, different rhythms, etc.  In today’s electronic world cross cultural pollination is becoming more common, of course, and so cultural transmission is becoming more complicated than it once was.  And with a shorter half life.  At one point in the concert the orchestra’s leader and founder, Oscar Hernandez, said they wanted to change the pace and play a tune in a style that has been mostly relegated to the past, a style he remembers well from his youth in the Bronx, a style he said he “chooses not to forget”.  After playing it, a lighter, less dense and lovely arrangement, he said, “Now you understand why we want to remember it”.  Indeed.

Allan Schore (see post below) describes how the basis for cultural transmission is laid down early in development as non-conscious biases in implicit learning begins with attachment.  From here we begin to acquire cultural patterns in language, emotional inflection, music, art, etc.  A remarkable biological mental platform supporting socialized thinking and feeling.  Though these cultural differences sometimes seem large, e.g., Bedouin, Celtic, Mediterranean, Inuit, etc., we are in fact able to comprehend much from other peoples.  Whence did such phenomena arise?

In 1976 Julian Jaynes published The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in which he posited the interesting hypothesis that humans did not achieve our highest level of consciousness, i.e., conscious of being conscious, until 2000-1000 BCE.  Before that human mentality was more automatized, less flexible, and operated implicitly.  When faced with problems mental voices from the right hemisphere ‘spoke’ to the left which then could act on these signs from the gods.  I have left much out here of the basis for his thinking; it is more complex than that.  But I bring it up because 1500 BCE seems very late for such developments.  Cultural transmission was certainly in full swing by the early periods of the Old Testament, Grecian and Egyptian civilization, not to mention the Chinese.  The Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge and other early achievements of civilization such as calendars and writing, all predate this period.  Agriculture, which I think, along with star watching, marks the beginning of true empirical efforts appears around 10,000 years ago.  Burial practices began before that in the stone age.

Finally consider the cave painting spread over Europe.  These paintings are found deep in caves in places very difficult to reach scattered over Western Europe.  The earliest is in Spain and comes from around 30,000 years ago.


Roughly 15,000 years later in France we find more horses deep in a cave.


And then back in Spain another 5,000 years later, we find this:


All of these reflect artistic skill and development.  All are deep in caves.  All concern animals presumed important to the tribes.  These speak to the prior arrival of cultural transmission, even heightened language development.  They speak to the choice “not to forget”. The appearance of greater technological capabilities lie another 5000 years in the future and after that, the ball really gets rolling.  For an engaging fictional account of such paintings read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman.

Believing that humans were not fully conscious until we developed the means to create artifactual symbols amenable to manipulation by many others, even believing that some apes and Cetaceans do not have some sense of being conscious of being conscious, seems a bit like believing the sun goes around the earth.  A bit unconscious about the limits of our perspective.

Attachment and Faces

The most curious thing about attachment, though, is the appearance in the baby’s mind of an awareness of the mother’s subjectivity, that there is an interior behind the face. As the baby studies the matter, plays around with it so to speak, he or she also develops their own interiority and awareness of it as well. To me this marks the true beginning of mind as a consciousness of sentience and it is a deep biological root of our humanity.


Our brains, like those of some other mammals especially primates, specialize in facial recognition and apprehending both the long standing individual self and the short term emotional changes inherent in social functioning. Actually we have some studies showing facial recognition in bumblebees and I have experienced just that on our deck. Allan Schore in his book Affective Disregulation summarizes the research showing how the infant’s facial recognition develops with its sense and memory of the mother’s smell beginning with its taste of breast milk. With maturation of key brain structures this recognition also comes visually. From here we find emotional mirroring, face to face attention, and then joint attention on the same object. This last shows the development of its consciousness of sentience in its focus based upon its awareness of the mother’s gaze and intent.


The early maturing brain structures in the lower limbic system, e.g, the amygdala, the cingulate or limbic cortex, insula, etc. function in one basic way to interpret the valence of experience, serious and negative or happy and positive. These same structures also form part of the biological substrate of a person’s self, an early developing self. These two photographs are both notable, I think, for how genuine we find them. Their faces express forthrightly how they feel, that the interior of their minds is knowingly apprehended and found a special place. I think they differ at those moments only in valence and only slightly, two sides of the same close balance.

Attachment and apoptosis


The cerebral cortex forms from the inside out; neurons are ‘born’ and then travel outward to where they are supposed to be, or close to it, before beginning to establish connections with other neurons to form different systems.  This means that during gestation that 10,000,000,000 neurons travel the highways to their destinations and as might be expected not all of them arrive at their proper place. Even the ones that do may not connect properly.  These isolated neurons die off and are removed in a process called apoptosis.  This continues during infancy and early childhood so that cells that are not integrated into active systems or that do not receive stimulation from other cells die off.  And so our brains are shaped into each individual’s pattern of strengths and weaknesses.  

Now consider the process of attachment whereby the mother or father interact with their baby, helping it to self soothe and call attention and pay attention and enjoy life.  Back in the 70s and 80s a pediatrician, T. Berry Brazelton, called attention to this rhythmic dance between mother and baby.  A researcher, Daniel Stern, extensively studied it with perhaps a bit more scientific rigor.  


Thus a child is led to experience the full range of basic emotions from joy to sorrow and their passage in communion with their parents during this same period when under-stimulated neurons die off.  So each individual’s brain is shaped in part by the stimulation inherent in the early attachment process.

Now consider when attachment does not go well, the child is reared in a deprived environment like a Romanian orphanage during Ceausescu’s regime or by a parent who is emotionally unavailable  due to illness such as cancer, depression or substance abuse.  These children are often later described as having flat affect, which means that they do not show a full range of emotion and indeed, many seem to experience feelings and to socialize quite differently from a securely attached child.  Some seem almost feral in how they seek to survive and relate.  Fortunately humans are resilient and capable of thriving across a broad range of experience.   Our attachment contributes early on to our risk and resilience in very basic ways.               



I have been thinking the last few days about attachment, the phenomena whereby the infant comes to attach to and trust its parent. Simply put, attachment is the infant’s reaction to maternal bonding. The concept was advanced by Bowlby and Ainsworth in the mid-20th century and has been developed across many disciplines since then. Other animals have analogous phenomena. Geese and other birds imprint on a parental figure shortly after hatching. Konrad Lorenz who won the Nobel prize for his early work in ethology is famous for having goslings follow him about as if he were their mother. Some birds must learn their specific songs from adult models; others seem to have the songs genetically encoded so that experimentally isolated birds who never hear another’s song or any sound for that matter develop a very robust species specific song, e.g., the females really like it. Some primates help their young learn the different calls indicating danger from the air or from the ground, hawk or leopard, and to use tools like straws or rocks to gain access to food such as termites or nuts. Humans also tune their perception and voice to our species specific communication in language. Studies show that infants at an early age are sensitive to linguistic distinctions of its native language and their early babbling then reflects these differences. Thus, the infant learns the melody before the words of its language.


Its babbling reflects the intonation patterns of its parental language. More subtly, the way the child perceives and articulates different phonemes quickly adapts. Consider, for example the sounds ‘p’ and ‘b’. Linguists categorize these as plosives, sounds made when the vocal tract is briefly closed, in this example by the lips, and then explodes open. The difference between the two comes from how the voice, the vowel sounds from the larynx, starts again with the closure at the time of opening. This is called VOT, voice onset time. A ‘p’ is distinguished by the voice starting right after the lips open, a VOT just a few milliseconds into the plosion. A ‘b’ is distinguished by a VOT a few milliseconds before the lips open. The accent difference between these consonants in French and English (and other languages for that matter) comes in these millisecond differences in VOT. Infants respond to these differences at a very young age, weeks not months, and their babbling reflects these differences a few months later.

So our brains tune into and learn subtle features of human behaviors early and implicitly.  Along with this comes the empathic connection, the establishment of intimate communication and the building of a trusting relationship.  More on this later.


I am reading Daniel Dennett’ book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, slowly and patiently because it is well written and full of information. I will bring some of this here.  Today I am struck by his discussion (p. 140) of a question posed by another philosopher, Nicholas Humphrey .  If you had to choose one, say between the some artistic masterpiece, like the Eiffel Tower


or some grand scientific understanding like Newton’s formulation of the laws of gravity or Einstein’s relativity, which would you choose?


Their answer was to choose the artistic piece, reasoning that scientific laws are important because they reflect nature in some way and if not discovered by one person would eventually be discovered by another.  Who formulates or applies them does not matter; that is rather their essence, they appear and apply the same to everyone.  The personal origins of an artistic piece on the other hand matter a great deal because the artist’s vision and piece is vitally unique and could not be replicable by others.  A wonderful emphasis on artistic truth.

This implies that one difference between artistic and scientific statements is that the former’s symbolic forms render an artifactual self gestalt of one’s complex feelings and the latter’s symbolic form is abstracted or linearized for a general perspective.  Susanne Langer refers to these two forms as presentational, i.e., a particular gestalt, and discursive, i.e.,  a general or categorical formulaic or syntactic unit.  Here is a clue to symbolization’s biological roots.  We know that the self  begins in the brainstem as an embodied self, moves up through the midbrain as an emotional self, and culminates in an autobiographical, symbolic self through cortical processes.  Our brains function essentially as social organs, so that art reflects self processes from embodiment on up.  When they function as intellectual organs, processing information displaced from any current personal events and even autobiographical memory, the self processes must be restricted, dissociated from the process of transforming abstract information into useful communication subject to consensual evaluation, formulation and practice.  Art is an expression of self truth and may be evaluated for its aesthetic qualities, e.g., its resonance with others, but it is not subject to consensual formulation and use.

Thus, surprised as I am, I have to agree with Daniel Dennett and  Nicholas Humphrey about choosing the artistic particular over the scientific generalization on the faith that we will continue to grow and understand nature scientifically and on realizing that once a masterpiece is gone, it is gone.  And I think we can begin to think about how the brain manifests artistic and scientific endeavors differently.

Under African Skies


To think even a little bit about the biological roots of humanity as we emerged from the Olduvai gorge in eastern Africa requires at this stage of exploration some significant simplification because we just do not understand enough to see the forest and the trees, to move among levels of detail with any assured guidance. Take music, for example. I recently had the pleasure of seeing on public TV a documentary, Under African Skies, about Paul Simon’s album, Graceland, and the political furor surrounding it. I remember Graceland coming out quite clearly and marveling at it but had no idea until this week how difficult it was to make. In short, Paul Simon broke the UN cultural boycott to go there and make this album. He seemed to have done so with good intentions but naively and he has been castigated on many counts for this. The documentary does a good and balanced job of showing the basis for the criticisms as well as the role of the artist in transcending in some manner political strife.

We do not have any good real understanding of the brain basis for art in general and music in particular. We have studied some aspects of how the brain processes the psychoacoustic information in musical notes, melody, and rhythm and the neurological differences between accomplished musicians and the rest of us. We know very little about how we produce music vocally and instrumentally that is aesthetically pleasing to listeners, how music carries such complexities of feelings, how it goes on to function socially and culturally, and how it, like all good art, is in some real sense transcendent.

For Graceland in particular we recognize implicitly the African rhythms and harmonies in the guitar licks played by Ray Phiri and in the magnificent vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Of course much of American music incorporates and is influenced by these African roots. And of course our paleoarcheology indicates that Homo sapiens originated in Africa. Two moments in the film, Under African Skies, stand out. One is when Paul Simon articulates how politicians, especially in this country, along with their shadowy masters in the rich and powerful, treat artists as their handmaidens, so that artists, true artists, must work hard to assert their independence as a powerful cultural force. Art is a means of truth seeking equal to government, religion, science, etc. The second moment is when Paul Simon and Dali Tambo, who was one of the leaders from the ANC who led the cultural boycott to force the end to apartheid, reconciled their viewpoints, one based on the necessary transcendence of art and the other on the necessary struggle to end an utterly inhumane system of government, through their expressions of mutual respect and understanding. That beautiful flower comes from very deep roots.



An mildly interesting study has gained some publicity.  Here is a link to its version:  Their post caught my eye by its pictures showing different emotions color coded on bodies because I thought someone had imaged bodily processes.  Alas, it was not to be.  The images are colored   more figuratively than concretely.  The study sampled some 700 subjects over the internet, asking them to respond to emotional scenes and suggestions by saying how they felt and where in their bodies they felt that; then the researchers compiled this information and used it to produce the colored images of embodied emotions. Part of the interest lies in how consistent the results were across some different cultures, including samples from Scandinavia and Taiwan.  Of course the subjects all partook of the internet culture.  These results are limited in their implication in many ways but for me, most importantly because the emotions are simulated and the bodily phenomena based upon self report.  I chose a picture of the chakras to lead into this story.  The research is based upon a recent scientific tradition and the chakras upon a long spiritual one.  Is one more valid empirically? If anything, the one with over a thousand years of practice and exploration would seem to have a stronger empirical basis stemming from self-report and observation of bodily responses.  The conceptualization of chakras may not integrate easily into our reductionistic science but, as President Kennedy said about going to the moon, we do it “not because it is easy but because it is hard”.  Understanding our biological roots requires many perspectives but most of all that we keep in mind the object whole.