Oh me, oh my!

I knew this day would come but I am still grumpy about it.  Enough already with the brain as an electric information processor.  I heard a NPR story last week with one of the authors of the dog jealousy research just after I had posted about it.  The study sounded even better and she shared some anecdotes about dogs showing ‘jealousy’ like when she visited a family member with 3 dogs and she is petting two and the third wants in, the other two crowd it out (jealousy or dominance/pecking order?)  She also described the behavior in the study more, saying some dogs became aggressive with the toy dog.  All good, but then she framed the study as helping to decide if jealousy were ‘hard-wired’ or a social construct.  Excuse me?  Here is a simplified picture of a neuron:


The nerve impulse is transmitted through an electrochemical process involving sodium and then neurotransmitters are released to cross the synaptic cleft and initiate a signal in the next cell in the process.  Sure the myelin sheath acts something like insulation on a wire and sure electrons are involved, but so are countless other biological processes involving intra-celllular actions and then within the supportive glial cells.  There is no ‘hard wiring’ but even taking that as a metaphor (as poor and limiting as it is), no social constructs exist without that ‘hard wiring.’  The attempt to differentiate is false–if it happens in our mind, it is biological and must be an emergent property of our brain.  Ok, so the ‘hard wiring’ is a metaphorical synecdoche for an instinctual process.  Again, instinct involves no wires over countless generations of evolutionary development.  How we conceptualize the phenomena we study is important.

Next up on the grumpy list is actually a good movie, Transcendence, with a brilliant AI scientist played by Johnny Depp dying but having his mind transferred into a supercomputer through, you’ll never guess, wires and electrodes.  Now this is all done with complex binary code, of course, and it is science fiction, so I can enjoy the story up to a point.  And the movie does throw  a sop late to the chemical processes when the AI Depp notices his still human partner is getting emotional by monitoring her serotonin and oxytocin levels.  Oh yes, females get emotional and their neurotransmitters and hormones show unusual elevations–I get that stereotype.  But here is my complaint: our reasoning with the logic and mathematics and binary code is also dependent upon neurotransmitters and hormones.  Indeed, while we do not know how memories of various types are actually encoded, we do understand that much of our autobiography is conceptually embodied and that much of our conceptual understanding is also based upon embodied processes.  Oh, yeah, the movie has that as a subtext, now I remember, and so back to the fiction and the viewer’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief.”

Here is a graphic about some of the over 100 neurotransmitters in our nervous system that run throughout our body.

                            Structure of Neurotransmitters

.  Oh yeah.

Jealous dogs?

I am always on the lookout for analogues of human behaviors in other species.  Here is a report from PLOS Science through Reuters of a study in which dogs seem to show jealousy.  I like the simple design.  Pet owners showered affection on a plush animatronic dog (that barks and wags tail etc), held a toy jack-o-lantern, and read aloud while the researchers videotaped their dogs reactions.  The dogs made many attempts to gain their humans’ attention during the animatronic dog period, paid little attention during the toy period, and made some effort (much less than during the toy dog period) to gain humans attention when they were reading aloud.  This suggested to them the dogs were jealous in a primitive sort of way of the animatronic dog.

Maybe.  I wonder if people who own two dogs notice a similar phenomena.  I have had my dog try to join in when hugging my wife–jealous or just wanting to share the love?  My daughter’s dog (see picture below) is famous for always being available for petting and will position himself so two people can reach him, but I have not seen him with other dogs around focus on the human; he is more interested in the other dog.  So I wonder about ecological observations or even in the above design, using another live dog on the owner’s lap.  Would the subject dog attend to owner or the other dog?  This might clarify for me a suspicion that the owner’s dog in the above design is reacting to a dog with no smell, with no vitality, is maybe even communicating to the owner that something is wrong with that other dog, an incongruous perception of no smell leading to anxious behavior.  Oh well.  Maybe some of you can shed light on this.

Here is a dog much too dignified to show anything so petty as jealousy.


Or not.


Looking at the neurological side of this, Jaak Panksepp in his book, Affective Neuroscience, often cited here, says we are a long way from understanding such secondary emotions as jealousy, avarice, etc. He does cite anthropological research showing that societies which show a higher level of affection among parents and children and which permit (sanction?) premarital sex show lower levels of adult aggression.  He also cites studies  showing the relation of a neurochemical, arginine-vasopressin (AVP), to sexual arousal and heightened aggression to retain sexual partners from others.  He also looks at separation distress as a major component in our biological make-up and the role oxytocin plays in diminishing that distress and promoting security of attachment. And he sees AVP and oxytocin as coordinated or counter-balanced in several systems serving complex social behaviors.

So it is of course very complex, this jealousy in humans.  Aggression to maintain/control sexual partner in an exclusive relationship?  Separation distress at the apprehended loss of secure affection?  Like righteous indignation discussed in a post here some time back, a symbolically mediated response shaped by cultural memes and maybe sometimes not so reality oriented?  Ah, more questions.  I like it.

sunday morning ontology

There are only 3 categories to this world really, ontologically speaking. There’s the good, separate, pure in and of itself, and then there is the stupid and then the perverse.  Often these latter two combine over a long spectrum of ratios, the midpoint being 50/50 stupid/perverse, varying degrees one way or the other, until each sits at its endpoint, not pure in and of itself like the good but not mixed like the rest of the spectrum either.  Let me present some exemplars of each to illustrate my thinking here.

For the good I think of an old marriage long ruled by love, fidelity, and caring.  No regrets, practical matters jointly tended with alacrity, vitality still felt in each caress.  This is one of the more complex examples of the good.  Simpler ones include the first sip of a fine whisky while standing cooly at the entrance to a scene usually of some wonder or whimsy, awakening from a nap feeling quite refreshed, tired muscles mildly straining as the day’s work is completed, and of course, a dog.

For the stupid end of the spectrum I think of deep fried pickles and such like, much if not most of academia’s bureaucracy (except librarians, librarians are good), yelling at employees (construction foremen and chefs come to mind), misuse of the word ‘literally’, almost any TV commentary especially on Fox news, trite sayings purporting to convey wisdom, the terminator gene, and politicians who think they are all of a sudden intelligent about so many things because they were elected.

On the perverse bandwidth where do I begin and end?  Consider people who confuse knowledge and belief or dispute data driven thinking with ignorant opinionated rantings, bread pudding made with glazed donuts by a diabetic cleverly concealing her illness, serving a lamb shank without the bone or a heavily salted meal with precious few vegetables especially when expensive and highly touted, and every sort of violent (physical or financial) enforcement by thugs, religious or secular, legal or illegal, according to what they hold true.  I am thinking here of ISIS, certain big businesses, and the Ukrainian rebels, although these do suggest yet a fourth category, the truly ugly, but I will hold to 3 as I began.

So there you have it, the 3 categories of ontology this Sunday am wrapped up in a nutshell, maybe good, perhaps stupid, but not perverse by any stretch of the imagination.


ReReading 2.2


Another post about my re-reading Langer, this one not about what I did not remember but about what I misremembered. For a long time I have thought of empathy as beginning in mammals and setting the stage for symbolization. Empathy in this view is broadly conceived as the awareness of another’s interiority and then feeling what the other feels based upon their empathic communication and our own prosocial identification with them. The advent of symbolization transforms this ability, empowering it through imaginative means, but is also based upon it. Unless we are aware of another’s interiority and can identify with it, symbols are merely mental structures without communicative purpose.

I thought I had drawn this from Langer until a few days ago, when I re-read her idea that empathy is emotional contagion among non-human animals and that she terms the human capacity sympathy. Oops. The term emotional contagion is still used today by the more reductionistic among us. Think of trees filled with monkeys when one sees a tiger and calls out and then the whole tribe joins in. I don’t like the term ‘contagion’ because it connotes a diffuse process, happenstance vectors of excitement composing a cloud of social response. I term such calls ‘evocative’, i.e., they evoke rather isomorphically a particular response. Von Frisch’s bee dance is another example. Empathy is evocative and more, as can be seen, say, in dyadic interaction between primate parent and child, between mates, between tribe members of different standing in the social hierarchy. Here contagion is certainly not appropriate.


The interaction is too focused and nuanced according to the mental states and processes of the actors involved. Consider one more counter example to the concept of contagion. Watch dogs at play and you will see them feint, acting one way to elicit one response from the other before changing the action to one more intent and strategic in the effort to gain advantage. Empathy, not contagion.


How did I diverge from Ms. Langer so markedly when so much of my thinking grew from my readings of her work? Well, I figured that out so I hope you are comfortable because this train of thought is a local along old tracks. Back in the day when she published her 3 volumes of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, in the late 60s and 1970s, and I was a younger man learning about all of this through linguistics, speech and language pathology, and neuropsychology, we ‘knew’ several things that were true as far as they went but left much to be desired. And some did not go very far at that. We thought that no new neurons formed in the adult brain, that the right hemisphere was mainly silent or that the right brain operated on a holistic, gestalt basis (artistically, so to speak) while the left side operated verbally, logically, and that we only used 10% of our brain capacity. This last is my personal favorite for boneheaded mistakes, obviously wrong even then and still repeated today. Ouch.


Well, we learned much in the next 40 years. First we learned that some had right hemisphere learning disabilities due to developmental aberrations or trauma. We learned that damage to the right hemisphere resulted in unilateral neglect, i.e., the intact left hemisphere still monitored the right perceptual field but the left was unknowingly neglected while damage to the left had much less effect because the right hemisphere was monitoring both sides all the time anyway. We learned that the right side specialized in emotional communication. And we learned that a deficit in empathy was an important component in Asperger’s syndrome, psychopathy, and the psychological sequelae of family violence.

Oh my, how to keep this short. People with Asperger’s syndrome are often quite bright in particular ways, especially those involving pattern recognition and memory, but they are mystified by the emotional coin of human interaction. Psychopaths are often keen observers of other’s emotions but do not identify prosocially with the other; rather they use their empathic skill instrumentally to get what they want regardless of cost to the other. Even further, some are twisted enough to enjoy the cost to the other. Simon Baron Cohen’s book, The Science of Evil, provides an excellent statement of this science. Finally, witnessing family violence is a prime factor in the development of child and adolescent psychopathology, including the appearance of sexual aggression. While this often occurs in a context of child neglect and abuse, even the witnessing of marital violence can bruise the child’s developing empathic capability and lead to problems with emotional regulation and healthy relationships.

So as I learned about these phenomena I evidently departed from Langer’s conceptualization without realizing it. No problem as I still recognize in my thinkng her great insights into the human mind as she explored the nature of our aesthetics. And art does involve empathy, big time, through presentational symbols. Just another benefit of re-reading; make it so.


Stillness? Oh no!

A Science article through Reuters reports a group of studies by a psychologist at the University of Virginia.  He asked people to sit alone awake doing nothing for no more than 15 minutes both in the lab or at their homes.  In some trials he gave them the option of self administering a mild shock  (that is brilliant).  In general the subjects found this experience aversive; when at home many cheated and texted, went online, etc.  Males had a harder time than females, and many chose to self administer the shock rather than sit quietly.  Anything for a cheap thrill, eh?


This study seems to me simple, elegant and telling on a number of levels.  The easy interpretation is that we have reduced our tolerance of stillness with our electronic ambient.  Okay, but I have known many people, mostly farmers, who were generally never still.  If awake they were doing; if done, they might sit on the porch and visit or watch a sunset or just go on to sleep.  We also have our habitual activities which we like.  Our TV broke last week and we went a couple of evenings without it, sitting on the deck and reading more (lovely) but we were glad to see a sale on Saturday for its replacement.  And we are meditators so sitting quietly for 20-30 minutes focused on our interiority with no outer activity is routine.

Still we (especially the modern American culture) have shaped our preferences and males are more limited in these.  Before I retired as a clinical psychologist to work the farm I saw many boys and teens with low frustration tolerance, low engagement in family activities especially household maintenance, poor sleep, and poor school performance despite good intelligence.  My initial interview quickly focused on screen time, e.g., games, texting, TV, etc.  The ‘cure’ was to reduce screen time and replace it with real, meaning non-virtual activities and to develop increased capacity for stillness, meaning calm engagement with the virtual interiority of our consciousness.  These often proved difficult to implement.  Likewise many adult friends find movies boring unless they have some adrenalin surge aspects like explosions, horror, etc.  And of course many males invest in sports and watching the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat in games.

With the ambient so electronically constructed (have you seen the movie Her?) what new mutations will rise in the population and what old standbys will recede?  If the UVA psychologist did the same experiment in a less wired culture, say Nepal or rural China or any stable agricultural, less industrialized and electrified area, would the results differ significantly?  While we wait for these answers, please sit quietly and enjoy the view, outward and inward,  Namaste.



Ancient mutation

A story through Reuters and the Economist tells of a study showing that Tibetan people have a gene that helps them adapt to the high altitude.  It helps their blood carry enough oxygen without getting thicker with iron like our low lander blood does.  This gene as it turns out was found in the DNA recovered from 41,000 year old bones in the Denisovan cave in Siberia.  This ancient group appears to be distinct genetically from modern humans and Neanderthals, both of whom evidently also lived around there then, and while the Denisovans are no longer with us, some of their genetic material lives on in the Tibetans (and others).  I wonder about the human yen for living in extreme environments, what we are seeking or liking from the high, cold, or hot places given the challenges of survival there.  Many mutations have added up to yield an animal like us and here is one more that enables us to explore and live at the edge of our comfort zone.


ReRead 2.1 Aren’t we all mutants?

I recently saw the new X-Men movie and out came this question: Aren’t we all mutants? I checked Merriam-Webster for a formal definition and Wikipedia for more technical details. As mentioned in my last post words unlike numbers can change meaning with usage and context. So leaving behind the slang of popular culture, i.e., mutants have some different genes from the rest of us that result in super powers, leaving this behind in the sci-fi world in which I have been comfortable since the mid-1950s, let me discuss another relevant passage from Langer’s Mind v. III, p. 97 and following. In brief, she presents the idea that evolution (phylogeny) and development (ontogeny) proceed in many directions at once with different components advancing before others but within an equilibrium set by adaptive requirements. Evolution is powered by mutations in the genetic heritage. We assume these appear randomly and some data support this. Many mutations have little impact on development and functioning; the genes carried little significance or their context was the more determining factor. Some mutations impact ontogeny adversely and some suggest these are in the majority, and some mutations increase adaptation. And until it happens and lives are lived, no one knows whether a mutation is neutral, harmful, or helpful.



Langer says further that like the giraffe’s neck, the elephants trunk, or (my thought) dinosaur size, the human cerebrum with its symbolic capacity has outpaced other structures and functions and thus poses some risk for a maladaptive outcome despite its obvious advantages, some potential to destabilize a balanced ontogeny and phylogeny.  Now this is interesting. Reptiles dominated the landscape as they increased in size and power until conditions changed, and then insects and small mammals ascended to populate the landscape. Like a gene, adaptability is constrained by the animal’s context. Reptiles suffered with Gaia’s climate changes as meteors struck the earth and volcanoes facilitated the cooling of this planet’s crust. Human phylogeny looks pretty good but what about the changing developmental context?

Langer suggests that our cerebral activity outstrips other vital actions at times and this can pose its own risks. She presents the notion that our mental activity continues long after and independently of somatic necessities. We think and feel more than we need just in order to adapt, survive and procreate. Further that symbolization at its inception (even for nerds today) is exciting, that this ability to construct virtual realms and to communicate about topics displaced in time and space is intoxicating, and that in our excitement, we may neglect some important reality based principles. In a paradoxical way science uses mathematics to ensure that our symbolic capacity stays in balance, in sync with reality orientation.
The greater risk to balanced development lies in our carrying out symbolic activity disregarding reality testing, not in the admitted fantasy of science fiction or other art, but in spirituality. Primitive religion “bespeaks, I think, a darkly apprehended intuition that lurks in an excessive spiritualization of man, a tendency to develop a mental life in defiance of the biological mainstream and let the physical stock degenerate or even cease” (p. 127). She cites the rather uncontrolled numbers of human sacrifices in ancient Mesoamerica that contributed to the vulnerability of these civilizations. I will also cite the Inquisition, any attempt to denigrate the integrity of scientific thinking and work, and all attempts to rule others according to God’s law as some group or individual with weapons understands it.
Sometimes we presume our thoughts and feelings are not only realistic but validated by greater powers than our own and so others’ thoughts and feelings are at best irrelevant, at worst a “sin,” at least wrong. Perhaps as we engineer changes in Gaia’s richness and our own ambient, we enter a context where our adaptability will suffer.
Aren’t we all mutants? Yes, so be careful.