cooking and civilization

I have long said that civilization began at the hearth.  Watching Anthony Bourdain’s recent episode of Parts Unknown about Lyon, France, I remembered some other thoughts.  Over the past 10 years some evolutionary thinkers have proposed that human brain size is related to the discovery of fire and cooking.  Our brains relative to our body size are significantly larger than our relatives and they consume 20% of our energy.  (Remember that, dieters, think more and you will burn more calories).  A primatologist, Richard Wrangham, proposed that our brains grew in association with our ability to extract calories from food, and that is done by cooking it.  The site reported studies on diet, energy extraction, and energy needs to our evolving brains that concluded that cooking and eating meat were critical to that growth.  So while salads are beautiful, delicious, and light, they were not a major force in our evolution.


These studies suggested that cooking and eating meat were important over the past million years of so of our evolution.  No doubt that the control of fire was integral to our development and there is some paleoarcheological support for its beginning long ago.  My old anthropology professor told of a South American tribe, the Bororo, that threw meat on sunny rocks for a few days because “putrefaction is nature’s way of cooking,” so that once the bacteria have finished their job, the meat protein is more readily available.  Cooking certainly seems preferable and our taste organs, tongue and nose, have evolved a preference for umami, a savory flavor from cooking distinct from salty, sweet, bitter, and sour.


So from the humble beginnings around the communal fire, culture and civilization developed to include not just nutritious family meals but cuisine, food prepared with an aesthetic feel for special flavors and presentation.  Bourdain’s show about the cuisine from Lyon shows a marvelous appreciation for this cuisine, its culture, and its creators such as chef Paul Bocuse.  A very special show.

Civilization began at the hearth.  I also have said it will die in committee, and looking at the debilitated state of American political discourse, I see no reason to change that,  But I also have to add that processed food would also seem to be a sign not of technological progress but of devolution.  Bon appetite.

Arcuate fasciculus, mirror neurons, and memes

I have wanted to get to this post all week but the farm has taken all my time and energy.  I hope tomorrow’s rainy forecast verifies for many reasons.  Onward.

The arcuate fasciculus (AF) is a horizontal bundle of nerve fibers running between the posterior Wernicke’s area in the auditory cortex and the motor cortex associated with Broca’s area in the front.  Mirror neurons are motor neurons which fire/respond when an animal sees another animal perform some action; these neurons would be involved in performing the observed action but in their mirror functioning, they just respond to perceptual input and are not part of a behavioral enaction.  Memes, as conceived by Richard Dawkins, are units or forms of cultural meaning transmitted through social communication.  Going from my post on 4/7/14 about the MEMBRAIN, i.e., our brain functions as a membrain around our mind and some communication is privileged so its reception and expression is facilitated by specialized channels through the MEMBRAIN.


We have known about the AF for a long time because damage to it results in conduction aphasia, i.e., the person cannot repeat the words they just heard though they may be able to comprehend and respond conversationally.  Evidently the AF enables a person to repeat verbatim.  Long years ago I worked with a young autistic boy who understood almost no language and uttered no meaningful speech but who could and did repeat (echolalia) what was said quite accurately in a sort of inverse of conduction aphasia.  So this part of the MEMBRAIN filters phonological information and passes it straight through to areas concerned with motoric output.  Maybe it helps us repeat things we do not initially understand as an aid to comprehension or to repeat things we do understand for better memorization.  The AF also seems to help with the phonological analysis needed for fluent reading (another specialized channel).  I finally got around to reading an article about this by Yeatman et. all. in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23:11 about the AF and phonological abilities.  Their findings were interesting but what really caught my attention was the basic work they did imaging the AF  in both the right and left hemispheres. While some neuroanatomists have thought the AF was strictly a left sided structure, being involved with language as it is, it turns out that careful imaging also reveals an AF structure in the right hemisphere.  Is it concerned with language?  Or does it participate in the usual right hemisphere functions of emotional communication, prosody, and pragmatics?  Does it carry information about emotional expression, so that we can mimic the expression of another?  The AF is variable on both sides and in both sexes; could gifted mimics like Rich Little or Jim Carrey, have a more prominent right AF? Does someone who is exceptionally empathic or tuned into the expression of microemotions have a more developed right AF?

Thinking about the AF I considered how similar its function is to mirror neurons, which were only discovered maybe 20 years ago.  When a monkey sees another monkey pick up a nut, the neurons involved in picking up a nut fire in response to the percept.  Different neurons fire if the other monkey picks up the nut to give away or to crack.   The AF is a special exemplar of long fiber bundles connecting front and back areas but other larger tracts such as the superior longitudinal fasciculus connect many such areas.  Again, specialized channels in the MEMBRAIN.

Now consider memes, cultural bits which pass into and out of our minds with noticeable facility.  We hear a snippet of music and play a longer passage back in our minds sometimes all day long.  Or we talk about time being up, going faster, crawling, etc and understand easily the conventional metaphor of our culture.  Memes are probably supported by more dynamic functional organizations involving non-specialized neurons, unlike the AF or mirror neurons but they still provide flexible specialized channels into the mind.  There’s a lot more to consider here but dinner calls.

anger and hate

My parents and the other nice people who helped me grow up warned about anger, discouraging its expression or giving in to it with little acknowledgement of its usefulness when properly resolved, but they condemned hatred as just plain wrong.  Our local paper, The Roanoke Times, on 4/15/14 had two stories illustrating the difference.  The first one on page 2 reported a study investigating the link between blood sugar and marital anger.  This seems to me a silly study about something interesting; I have known and lived with people who would become quite irritable when their blood sugar dropped and we know some of the neuropsychology there.  This study measured the blood sugar of marital partners each evening for several weeks and then asked each to give a ‘report’ of anger at their mate by sticking pins in a doll representing that person.  Their results were that people with low blood sugar put more pins in their dolls.  They did not report any of the partners doubling over with a stabbing pain in some part of their body.  Okay, the potential confounds there are deep and wide and I do not feel like crossing over.  The devil is in the details.

The second article is on page 3 and it describes the history of the man accused of shooting 3 people outside a Jewish center in Kansas City.  Wow, talk about a life of hate.  Do we think his blood sugar was low?  At times, sure, but his history illustrates how hate can be sustained over years if the person works at it hard enough.  Emotions such as anger are appropriately fleeting responses to experiences.  The feeling rises and falls and the person moves on to the next experience.  Humans with our symbolic capacity have another option–we can construct mental situations, remembered or imagined, that then generate particular emotions.  I think it is actually more complicated than that.  We have our personal proclivities for certain emotions and at times our mind constructs situations corresponding to the right frame for that emotion to be expressed and then felt.

Sentient animals, like especially mammals, must be reality oriented in order to adapt and survive.  We humans ignore this basic premise at our, and others’, peril.  The Kansas City shooter reportedly self-identified with Nazis and worked at constructing and maintaining a reality commensurate with sustaining that particular brand of hate.  Simon Baron-Cohen gives a detailed picture of what we know biologically about this phenomena in his book, The Science of Evil (more on that later perhaps).  Hate is maladaptive in two very basic ways.  As already implied, it is a feeling without end and that cannot be reality oriented.  Further, such disregard for reality leads to stupidity and failure.  The shooter killed people who were not the objects chosen for his hatred.  The problem with stereotypical thinking is that it is wrong way more frequently than it is right.  Not reality based. The second maladaptation is that hate overrides the basic function of empathy (and this is a biological action) which should lead us to understand the other person fully, to see the object whole as it were, and then on to compassion.

Baron-Cohen talks about a science of ignorant, even malicious non-empathic, non-realistic functioning not to negate criminal culpability but to encourage further understanding of how such phenomena come about and then to work to mitigate it.  We have more than 150 years since Darwin and Wallace helped us find this path to understanding our biological selves.  In the first decades of the twentieth century James Papez proposed the Circuit of Papez as the neurological substrate for emotions.


He focused on the hippocampus and the associated structures we now know as the limbic system.  We also know that this circuit has more to do with memory and novelty than emotion but it was a natural mistake for Dr. Papez to make, given the research technology of his time, because the structure central to emotional valence, the amygdala, is next to the hippocampus.


And the amygdala is closely tied to the neuroendocrine system for stress response, including fight/flight, and this is certainly sensitive to blood sugar.  Adaptive, well functioning animals have brains that are stable in energy, reality oriented, and empathic towards the other.  Dr. Papez’s misconception helped us (well, Paul MacLean really) find a better understanding; that is how science operates.  Unlike hatred, which runs itself and its animal into the dust.  Our capacity to construct a different reality is a two edged sword, one edge which cuts destructively and rather indiscriminately and one which self corrects and follows into the future to find understanding.

Quibbles, clouds and stars

I have realized that my quibbles are not so much critical of what I have read or seen (like the Cosmos post 3/23/14) as an excuse to talk about broader issues.  So, take Daniel Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, a good and interesting read.  My first quibble is that you read 3/4 of the book before music is referred to as art, and then it is by quoting someone else.  Prior to that he talked about musical gestalts and communicating emotion in a manner reminiscent of a monkey’s cry about a hawk or tiger evoking the appropriate defensive action.  Art is the epitome of presentational symbolic forms as articulated by Susanne Langer and it is not limited to an emotionally evocative event.  Yes, I understand and appreciate that for science to move forward empirically, some reductionism is required, but Ms. Langer has provided us with a  generous basis for understanding art as a biological act.  I wish more people were acquainted with her opus.  My suggestion: Robert Innes’s excellent book, Susanne Langer in Focus.  To understand our humanity we seek greater or deeper understanding and perspective, like knowing where we are in the galaxy.


My second quibble is also related to the reductionistic bias.  In the orthodox view, for music to be deemed a successful evolutionary development, it must enhance our reproductive success.  Music attracts mates or music provides social cohesion.  However many mutations have contributed to our musical abilities, none were presciently successful or adaptive.  Even now perhaps one of those mutations will contribute to our extinction.  Yes, musical ability, at least virtuoso performing, matures early on and contributes to mating (or so every young guitar or drum player claims, but talk with the accordionists sometime) but much music goes on after mating and child rearing.  We are not salmon expiring having spawned.  Is our extended old age an unintended consequence of some mutations (well, yes actually, all such consequences are unintended), a cultural manipulation for sentimental or historical purposes, a serious adaptation that ensures our species’ survival?  Sure, the gold standard of the biological sciences is evolutionary success but as powerful as that measuring stick is, it does not adequately capture the full range of biological phenomena nor our thinking about it.  Consider the question, “By what do you measure?”  If you want to understand the motions of the stars, watching the clouds flow in the wind, as beautiful as they are, is not that helpful.  We sell our biological understanding too short.


Conversation, music and novelty

In my 2/14/14 post I talked about the hippocampus, an evolutionarily older area of cortex.  Information from posterior perceptual areas flows through the hippocampus, which processes it for context and novelty, then sends the results forward.  A good example can be seen when a cat hears a noise, freezes and orients to check it out, and then moves forward figuring what the new situation is.


Novelty is more complicated than might be supposed.  Perceptually it is detected when something changes or when something expected to change doesn’t change as expected.  The change may be about something static, e.g., an object, or dynamic, e.g., a stream of sound or passing scent.  Something uninteresting may change because of changes within the animal.  Figure may become ground or vice versa.  Perceptually we respond to ambient energies but that response is a very creative task.

Now we return to the 3/30/14 post about conversation.  The left side processes the semantic, syntactic, and phonemic information of a sentence while the right processes the intonation or the prosody of the utterance.  What comprises novelty here is made even more complicated because we are creating the information as we make meaning, because the grammatical and pragmatic information pose different challenges but must be integrated, and because of the rapid and ephemeral exchange composing the communication.


Maybe the hippocampi, right and left, are involved in this, but more likely higher cortical areas come into play as we understand a comment on a topic and then make our own new comment and then carry on, maybe even changing topics again while monitoring the interpersonal prosody for such things as changes in tone for sarcasm, excitement, joy, sorrow, etc.

An interesting feature of this processing comes when considering H. P. Grice’s 4 conversational maxims of quantity, quality, relevance, and manner.  Briefly, when conversing we expect people to say not too much or too little, to be clear, to be on topic and to be genuine.  These are probably not so much maxims as dimensions shaped by assumptions, so that when we detect a violation, that constitutes novelty.  When we hear a crash from the next room and ask our child what happened and he answers, “Nothing,” that is too little.  When someone goes off topic or becomes tangential or speaks unclearly or sarcastically or (we suspect) disingenuously we may interrupt and intervene to further successful communication.  Novelty of a different and rarefied sort.  Now on to music.


Daniel Levitin in his book, This is Your Brain on Music, explains how new and old patterns or gestalts are important for music on several levels.  Different cultures have different musical keys which set up our expectations.  The progression of notes and tempo set up expectations which a skilled composer can exploit in order to express different feelings or concepts.  Our memory is important in catching on to the variations of themes.  A performer’s musicality depends in part upon their ability to vary timing and emphasis, etc., a fresh counter to the staid black and white score.  So novelty comes in various forms and guises, each important to the communication of symbolic import through the specialized channels of the MEMBRAIN.   Now this is getting interesting.  Next up?  Either my quibbles with Levitin or an introduction here to the arcuate fasciculus.

Conversation, music, culture and the membrain

No, I spelled it the way I need to spell it, MEMBRAIN.  I may not have been as clear or explicit as I would have liked below (and you may not feel the need to scroll down through all of this) so let me be so now. If it is in the mind, it got there through the brain.  What we are conscious of or our subjective domain or what some  call our interiority is created and maintained by the MEMBRAIN.


The MEMBRAIN, like all membranes so important to life, keeps the inside in and the outside out and then selectively passes energy and material in and out.  Like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, the MEMBRAIN’S interior is larger than its exterior, a lovely feature perhaps in order to mirror the universe in which we live and learn and imagine.  Counter to what most consider goes into the mind, even though our consciousness seems dominated by perceptual stimuli from outside our body and its brain, our interior is also filled with energy (read information) from within our body and brain.  But again, if it is in our mind, it came through the MEMBRAIN, and if it comes out of our mind through behavior, including especially symbolic expression, it came out through the MEMBRAIN.  Specialized channels for language and art forms, e.g. music, have evolved for the human MEMBRAIN, and when such symbols come to be shared in a socialized reality, we have culture.

That said, let’s look at how conversation and music have changed culturally.  One of the conversational maxims articulated by H. P. Grice back in the 1960s was that conversation must be informative.


Seems like a basic feature, but some people and some cultures consider the information they hold within as private and personal property, not to be shared lightly, analogous to some people in some cultures disliking having their photograph taken.  It steals their image and is not proper.  So in some cultures or in diplomatic circles or poker games, conversations are not as informative or straightforward as they could be.  One virtue of science, then, is the effort to convey information with transparency so that others may  judge the full truth of the matter.  The point here is that we  control the permeability of the MEMBRAIN.


I have recently finished reading This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, an interesting and informative book (more later on some interesting points and also my quibbles with it).  He points out, as others like Angelique Kidjo have done, that music originally was, and in many cultures and moments still is, participatory.  The performer-audience gig did not arise until a few hundred years ago after many millennia of music making.  (Levitin points out that bone flutes are some of the earliest artifacts of Homo). This frames early music as a sort of simultaneous conversation, everyone listening and playing at once or in a call-response/verse-chorus form.  Just listening without participating was a rather prominent cultural change and the MEMBRAIN functions differently, letting energy in and keeping energy in rather than expressing it outwardly.

As an final aside here, when I began working with preschoolers as a speech-language pathologist, I observed many story time circles (or singing circles etc.).  Children have learned language through conversation (you listen and respond in ongoing and rapid fashion) and have then to learn how to listen audience fashion as the teacher reads a book, a basic attention span skill for our systems of education.  More recently I saw a video of a Buddhist school in which the students all shouted and talked at once as they debated fine points of their teachings, quite a different model for educational discourse.  All acquiring MEMBRAIN skills for sustaining our interiority.