MEMBRAIN channels, music, and dementia


So remembering the channels referred to below, I want to spread some good news. First, consider the channels, specialized neurological structures and functions that readily open to admit certain information to pass through much like cell membranes that open and close to admit key elements for metabolism, e.g., calcium, potassium, oxygen, testosterone, oxytocin, serotonin and the like. The MEMBRAIN channels visual information through a series of processing steps from retinal stimulation through figure/ground, outlines, motion or still, distance, etc. until finally a face is seen as recognized and familiar or not. Eric Kandel in his most interesting book, The Age of Insight , provides a excellent account of this neural activity dedicated to facial recognition.



And then Dr. Kandel discusses how this train of processing sometimes ends up going down another, quite different track as when we view a painting or even more so, when the artist conceives and enacts a picture’s expression. This track originates not in the impact of the perceptual world but in the artist’s (and art appreciator’s) feeling for life. I think this involves the nucleus in our interiority (still neuropsychological) of the self as it interacts with the MEMBRAIN. This follows Langer’s idea that art is the abstracted expression of felt life, that art’s import, as opposed to linguistic meaning, is a vital form rendered from the self’s experience, conscious and unconscious, of his or her life. Kandel discusses Viennese painters contemporary with Freud as they pioneered a non-representational or symbolic style and what is known and unknown about how our brains accomplish such actions.


I have already mentioned some how the MEMBRAIN deals with information processing in decoding the phonetic stream of speech into the phonemes that convey semantic information (meaning). Consider this some more. Noam Chomsky revolutionized linguistics with his understanding of syntactic structures and transformational grammar. He also theorized about how phonemes are encoded as grouping of distinctive features of the acoustic signal. These basically are acoustic clues about how the sound was made, thereby providing cues to what it encodes. These features include aspects such as place (lips, tongue, teeth), and manner (vowel/consonant, continuant/stop, fricative, etc). For example ‘p’ differs from ‘b’ in onset of voicing relative to lip opening and ‘p’ differs from ‘th’ in the latter’s tongue-teeth utilization and in ‘p’ being a stop and a plosive while ‘th’ is a continuant. And ‘th’ differs from ‘t’ in the latter being a stop. And the list goes on. Different languages and language families use different sets of distinctive features that infants readily learn and then can process language with facility, i.e., the MEMBRAIN channels permit such information in and out automatically with little fanfare.  This processing is peripheral and does not involve the core self. The meaning carried may engage core self processing as in autobiographical reference or it may not and instead comprises some declarative knowledge, .e.g, the council of Nicea was in A.D 325. This knowledge is not really pertinent to my self even as I make use of it in my thinking and writing.  Art involves more of the self nucleus, whatever it is.


And then we have music and today’s good news that patients with dementia so severe as to not recognize family and friends, even perhaps not to know much of who they are or were, still recognize the old tunes. Those MEMBRAIN channels still work and admit a sense of wonder back to the mind. I saw a story about a group Music & Memory that uses music (and they need ipods) to help patients with cognitive impairments due to dementia or stroke recover some function. Looking a little more I see some research over the past decade or so showing brain response to familiar and unfamiliar music and to music associated with emotionally based autobiographical memories (there the medial prefrontal gyrus becomes involved perhaps generating a coherent memory around the music). Music therapists have known for a long time that a personalized playlist helps to calm, brighten and stimulate Alzheimer patients with plenty of anecdotal reports of recovered memories such as is involved in person recognition.

So it seems that these cultural memes that the MEMBRAIN channels through special functional routes operate even in the twilight of mental life, bringing a bit of light, as it were, to our dustier interiority. Now I understand anew why this old man likes his iPod so much.

Now hit ‘play.’

The Bumblebee’s Choice

So I finish the last post with a comment on the individual’s creative license with heritage in a dialectic with the society’s need for its members to carry on responsibly and then I read an article in the Economist (8/2/14) about bumblebee’s independent choices.  Well, maybe.


First of all though, for those interested in a deeper explication of this dialectic, see Susanne Langer’s Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, V. 3, around page 125 in the chapter on Ethnic Balance in the section on The Moral Structure.  Now, bumblebees.  Researchers in England wanted to study their choices in going to new sources of sustenance.  Unlike honeybees that dance to communicate the whereabouts of a new pollen source, bumblebees bring new scents back to the hive and then the next scouts go in search of those scents. I am not sure I understand completely their method from the article but it involved getting bees used to geranium flowers through scented fake flowers and sugar water and then manipulating the scents of the hive with lavender and tracking how efficiently the bees who returned home to the new scent picked up on this new scent and next went out for the lavender.  They expected the scouts to go out and search for the lavender based upon the social information provided by the hive but they stayed with the geraniums until they proved to be sugarless and then went on to the lavender.  Bees from a geranium scented hive took longer to switch over than bees from the lavender scented one, so there was some facilitation of the new choice but the researchers wondered why the bumbles had ignored the hive’s scent.  Maybe it was that new paths could be more dangerous, the article speculates, but this seems too complicated to me for our little buddies to process.  I would suspect some tendency to follow the old path as long as it was productive (reinforcing) or that the artificial scenting of the hive was done in a way that was not genuine for the bees.  Maybe too heavy handed as when a lady sits next to your table in a restaurant wearing a perfume you might like but so heavily you cannot enjoy your meal.  Scent is funny that way.

This issue reminded me of an old article, The MIsbehavior of Organisms by Marian and Keller Breland from 1961, that i read in graduate school around 1986.  The Brelands had studied with B.F. Skinner, became experts at operant conditioning, and then went on to become very successful animal trainers for TV and movies, etc.  Their paper documented that no matter how rigorous the operant conditioning, animals sometimes went their own way, perhaps due to what they called instinctive drift.  The example I remember best is their description of dogs playing baseball.  No matter how regular and consistent they performed their actions, once in awhile a dog supposed to run to first base took off to left field (literally and figuratively).  A reminder that an organism by definition is autonomous and follows the rules creatively sometimes.  That’s life, as Frank used to sing.


Finally here is a picture from our garden of a bumblebee deep within a squash blossom.  I watched it for several minutes and left before it came out probably full and laden with pollen.  And that brings up a haiku by Matsuo Basho, 17th century Japanese poet: 

      The bee emerging

      from deep within the peony

      departs reluctantly.


Make it so.

A few media views of humanity

I watched and listened this week to three stimulating media events.  First up, the movie Divergence is good enough and what caught my attention was the authority’s understanding of divergent behaviors as destructive of society and order.  These divergences are part of our genetic heritage and so of human nature, which must be controlled.  This depiction of an errant, even sinful people and the means needed to control them and promote social coherence was a bit heavy handed and I bet the novel is more nuanced.  The genetic component seemed added to the narrative to yield a scientific vision, yet this is the same old story religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism have played out since, oh I don’t know, say about the time of the first and second councils of Nicaea, or any time civil governance enforces behaviors based upon a singular religious creed and with religious zeal.  Once again, this reflects a categorical error at best, that human nature is dominated by anti-social impulses when all of mammalian evolution shows the opposite trend, and so human nature must include both.  It is like some friends of mine who used to say in justification of their reverence for Confederate heroes that it is “Heritage not hate.”  I am sorry but the heritage, like all of ours, includes hate even as it includes heroism.  So, just to be clear about the categorical thing.  Even Buddhists have wars.


Next up I listened to NPR on 8/14/14 and heard a remarkable interview and story about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, with the Rev. Willis Johnson, who had been videotaped holding a seething and angry young teen during a confrontation between protestors and police early on.  Go to: for the full story.  The Rev. Johnson framed this conflict in the most humane and compassionate manner as a human issue, not just a race issue, and further that he needed to hug and protect that young man as much as the young man needed his compassionate action.  Rev. Johnson also related it to his youth, his father and his son.  Finally he said that anyone who is hurting and angry needs to be affirmed, that the ‘authorities’ that day were denying the validity of the truth they knew, and that we all have been there. And so we have.

In a similar vein we went to see the movie Boyhood, filmed over 12 years as a boy actor grew up and the adult actors grew older.  Seems epic in scope but it was composed entirely of intimate moments.  Wow!  The filmmaker, Richard LInklater, clearly has a deep, patient and compassionate view of life and its corollary activity, filmmaking. To produce good, if not great, art such a view is a prerequisite.  Such a view shines through our great literature from Chaucer and Shakespeare on up through Joyce and Pynchon as well as other arts. In this film the human experience is conveyed in its glory, as in the moments when family and mentors nurtured this boy especially though nature, photography and music, and in its painful moments as when adults, often a drunk man, corrected the boy thoughtlessly and even brutally.  A life complete.  Easy to say, hard to do and wonderful to see.  At your theaters now if you are lucky.

Susanne Langer (and if you follow this blog, you knew this was coming) found a dialectic between an individual and society.  Any and all  individuals follow their heritage with creative license and every society needs individuals to follow its mores and fulfill its responsibilities.  To ‘advance’ requires the dialectic of individual creativity and social change through periods of stability and flux.  Let us work to promote the virtue in both.

Curious Claustrum?

A more than busy time here on the farm even as I see some interesting news about which to post.  I hope to catch up and have the time and energy to blog about some of these.  So today, I write about the curious claustrum which I have read little about before this past week when a report came up about its role in consciousness.  Some brain insights come from clinical work helping people cope with severe epilepsy such as Sperry et al’s split brain research or Brenda Milner’s work on memory with H.M. after his hippocampectomy.  These surgeries help to control the spread of the epileptic storm that originates and spreads from a particular locus, often in the temporal lobe.  As a part of surgery they stimulate parts of the patient’s brain as they try to excise the damaged part but preserve as much function as possible.  A recent effort in this regard placed an electrode next to the claustrum, a small band of neurons with at least many cortical connections to perceptual and motor areas.  It is situated between the midbrain’s basal ganglia and the temporal lobe’s cortex.

                                    claustrum2 claustrum1

We have known about the existence of this structure for at least a century.  The great Spanish neuroanatomist Ramon y Cajal documented it early in the 20th Century.  Anyway, when they turned the electrode on, thereby shutting down the claustrum, the patient remained awake but seemed unconscious.  The frontal lobe EEG became more synchronized which is a sign of non-specific processing, even resting.  When the electrode was turned off, the patient regained consciousness but had no memory of the episode.  They also had the patient begin repeating a word before stimulus onset and found that the patient would keep repeating the word for awhile but then his or her speech began to fade in loudness and articulation.  The scientist-practitioners here interpreted this as suggesting that the claustrum is involved in initiating/instigating consciousness.

And this has been hypothesized before based upon more general knowledge by Francis Crick (of DNA fame) and Christof Koch as they conceptualized the function of the claustrum as the conductor of an orchestra, helping the different parts to play together in the creation of consciousness.  So this clinical finding fits that hypothesis. Now,of course, the cautions are several.  First, this patient did not have a normal, healthy brain and had already had part of the hippocampus removed. More importantly modern anatomical studies across some presumably sentient and conscious species, including cetaceans, have found a quite variable structure inter-species and even within a species the claustrum appears to be not so much an integrated and integrative structure but a series of neuron clusters which may or may not process as a “conductor.”  An easy structure to see but hard to study and understand.

The clinical study reminded me of a dissociative phenomena called highway hypnosis.  That is when a driver drives down the highway in an automatic, unconscious fashion, clearly negotiating the task, only to ‘wake up’ from the trance down the road and realize he or she has no memory of the trip or the experience during that time.  This is thought of as a ‘normal’ dissociative event, awake but not conscious, like the patient in this study.  And this reinforced for me the difference between the two, awake and conscious, and their possible permutations.  We can be awake but unconscious as in highway hypnosis (or even regular hypnosis), not awake but conscious as in dreaming, not awake and not conscious as in deep sleep, and awake and conscious as I am now (and you too, I hope).

Finishing up, some debate the origin (embryologically) of the claustrum: is it midbrain and basal ganglia or cortical?  Its placement is right between the two.  Its known connections are cortical, however, and its subcortical connections uncertain at best.  It has not been found consistently in some species that are presumed, rather clearly I think, to be conscious, so if it is the conductor in humans, how do these other animals manage?  My bias is that any key to consciousness lies in some synergy among areas and not so localized and that the integration between cortical and lower structures is essential.

So more curious questions again, and I like it.

Fetal learning

Here is a picture of a younger me listening to my mother read a passage from a Yeats’ poem:

       While still I may, I write for you

       the love I lived, the dreams I knew.


I saw a report last week of just such a study.  The mother read a bit of verse and after a few weeks  a different woman read the verse while the fetus was monitored.  I checked around the web and saw that this methodology was being developed and used in a variety of ways.  The measured response of the fetus is its heart beat; does it stay the same or accelerate, which is presumed associated with stimulus ‘rejection’ (no further process is forthcoming) or does the heart beat decelerate, presumed to indicate stimulus ‘admission’ for further processing (perhaps like a few months later after birth and the infant manifests a quiet alert state, my favorite).  Indeed, late term fetuses showed a ‘learning effect’ for the verse when spoken by the non-mother as indicated by a decelerated heart beat, once evaluated for statistical significance.  I don’t know if they had the other female read a passage from Proust as a baseline in order to test if the reaction was just in response to a feminine voice.

This reminds me of the HAS methodology used back in the day.  HAS is High Amplitude Suck, wherein young infants who were ostensibly calm and sucking in their a nice relaxing manner while listening to pu-pu-pu-pu-pu etc, when instead of pu the tape says bu, as in pu-pu-pu-bu-pu-pu etc.  That the infant sucked harder when he or she heard bu in the series suggested their perceptual system was sensitive to voice onset timing with the lips opening of a few hundreths of a second.  I thought that was really significant when I first read about it.  And still do though a professor in grad school knew some details of the research.  The infants involved were very hard to test and gain consistent results; many trials were thrown out and many subjects were excluded from statistical analysis because of their anomalous results.  I learned something important about science that day.

Back on 4/7/14 (and every now and then since) I posted about the MEMBRAIN.  Once you understand that the brain is a MEMBRAIN that surrounds the mind, many things fall into place.  The MEMBRAIN like any membrane performs 4 functions, keeping things in and out, admitting things in and out, for our interiority.  The heartbeat methodology in this way shows the MEMBRAIN functioning to keep some information out and admit some in as when it is recognized (what is perceived as new is recognized as old and thus processed further).  Humans like other organisms have specialized channels for this.

In case you did not recognize the verse above, here is some more of the passage:

From our birthday until we die

is but the blinking of an eye,

and we, our singing and our love,

what measurer time has lit above,

and all benighted things that go

about my table to and fro,

are passing on to where may be,

in truth’s consuming ecstasy,

no place for love and dreams at all.

for god goes by with white foot fall.

Now do you remember?

A book riff on ‘Cooked’

I finished Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, last week.  He is a wonderful writer whose perspective on all things food and food chain is enlightening (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Botany of Desire).  Cooked is a marvelous rendering of cooking, the science of it, and its place in our anthropological evolution.  I did not consider it a quick read, too much to savor and digest but very flavorful and nutritious.


He divides his book into four parts corresponding to the four elements of the ancients, fire, water, air, and earth, and examines the four main ways of rendering food more edible, i.e., over fire, with water, making airy bread with micro-organisms and using other micro-organisms to ferment food.  Along the way he talks with a variety of experts, finding a nicely informed and philosophical bunch with whom to engage.  Try it, you’ll like it.

And here is my riff.  Mr. Pollan discusses three topics dear to my heart.  The first is Richard Wrangham’s hypothesis that the hominid adoption of cooking their food, which heightens the nutritious value, played a large role in our evolution, specifically by providing the fuel needed for our brains to enlarge and run so energetically.  As Pollan points out, our brains use a lot more energy proportionally to the rest of the body.  Next, he spends some time talking about umami, the flavor of cooked food discovered by a Japanese scientist in the recent past.  When I was young, they taught us about the four tastes, sweet, salty, sour, bitter but now there is a fifth, umami.  Further, more recent research suggests that our noses can detect maybe a million different scents.  Keep on going–we will learn some more.

Finally, Mr. Pollan won my heart when he cites William James from his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, as he talked about the rather major role of alcohol (fermentation) played in the development of spiritual and religious experience.  James was a remarkable intellect and helped us to see the importance not of debating the existence of god but studying what religion actually is, a lesson mostly forgotten these days I think.  Good job, Michael Pollan.

I read James’ Varieties in college and guess what is next on my re-reading list.  Bon appetit.