Extreme altruism and the amygdala

Here’s some fun.  The Economist reported research on the brains of those who manifest extreme altruism, in this case by donating a kidney to a stranger.  Differences were found both in the structure and function of the amygdala as these people had larger amydalas on the right side and these were more active when viewing pictures of emotion laden faces.  Remember that the amygdala is central to processing emotions and the subsequent valence (positive or negative) of experience.


The article posited that these results suggested that those of extreme altruism were on the opposite end of the spectrum from psychopaths, whose amygdalas are smaller and less reactive to the emotions of others.  Maybe.  We humans are fond of patterns and continuums and suchlike.  I myself like dialectics.  In his book, the Science of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen contrasts psychopathy with autism spectrum.  So, without specifying a continuum, we have altruists, who feel and act for others even to their own detriment or risk, autists, who find the emotional coin of relationships mystifying, and psychopaths, who exploit others for their own gain regardless of the harm they inflict.  An extreme altruist was discussed in the post previous to this in Walt Whitman, who helped voluntarily the wounded and dying to the point of damaging his own health.  Autists can be brilliant people but lack the theory of mind needed to empathize with another’s emotions and the subsequent ability to relate skillfully.  They are not abusive or exploitative and indeed are quite rule bound and can show caring behaviors as they learn how.  Psychopaths, many of them at least, are quite skilled interpersonally; they can walk into a crowded room and within seconds discern who might be vulnerable to their manipulations and what might be obtained.  They know how to act to gain trust but they do not value trust except as an instrument of control.  Oh, and they care little for rules or social mores and they are less reactive emotionally to their own states and those of others.  The research here confirms that their amygdalas function at a lower level (continuum) or differently (non-continuum).

The Economist article asserts that we do not know why the amygdala on the right side should be larger and more reactive to others’ emotions.  Oops.  We do know that neurological lateralization extends down into the mid-brain and beyond and that the right side in humans and presumably other primates and even other mammals is specialized for monitoring the current situation, including especially emotional communication.  While we know that the left side is specialized for language, my thought is that at base it is specialized for a non-current situation or for information displaced in time and space.  Indeed, while psychopaths are very attuned to immediate social interaction, it might be that their processing is restricted to the more abstracted, displaced modality used for instrumental but not social behavior.  Analogously, autists show right sided learning disabilities, e.g., impaired common sense activities of daily living/management and difficulty processing the empathic flow in relationships, but their abilities to process abstracted, displaced information, especially patterns, can be gifted.

And then we have the altruists, whose awareness and valuing of others’ emotions and needs leads them to prosocial actions sometimes requiring personal sacrifice.  Actually I think we do this in small ways all the time–it is one of the great albeit rarely noticed features of our kind and of other kinds (think parenting up and down the evolutionary scale).  Fun, huh?

Whitman and the membrain

I have just finished reading Justin Martin’s interesting book, Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians.  Mr. Martin details how European Bohemian society (from Paris naturally) was imported by one Henry Clapp Jr. from Paris to Manhattan where it took root in a bar named Pfoff’s.  Clapp gathered around himself there a group of interesting and non-standard characters, including Walt Whitman and also a great comic of the era, Artemus Ward who influenced Samuel Clemens, a risque actress,Adah Mencken, and several writers of independent caste of mind, including Ada Clare who wrote on topics with a feminist viewpoint way ahead of her time. This was pre-Civil War and society, especially in New England where Clapp was from, was conservative, even puritanical.  Clapp escaped to Europe and its wider perspective and brought back Bohemianism (think beatniks or hippies for more recent pejorative/compliment terms), a cultural frame constructed of rebellious memes with a different approach to humor, philosophy, art, social mores and life.  I liked it.


Here is Whitman around 1854.  I knew he had struggled financially and to have his work published.  Most editions of Leaves of Grass were self-published as he could save up some money from his meager salary as a clerk/copyist/journalist and were generally not received positively.  In Europe (oh those Bohemians again) his work was respected and the American taste which denigrated his poems questioned.  I also knew he had spent much time tending the wounded and dying in DC hospitals during the Civil War.  I did not know that he did this in his spare time, volunteering in almost all of his spare time off from a small clerkship with the federal government copying documents (thus his middle name Xerox).  Indeed, Whitman spent so much time and energy tending the fallen that his health failed and he became quite ill.  The doctors ordered him away for recuperation so he returned to his family in Manhattan for awhile and then returned again to nurse the patients.  He also then met his most significant love (a younger male trolley driver) at the end of the war but then he had a stroke (Martin wonders how large a role the stress of his volunteerism played in this).  When he had to move back to family, this time in Philadelphia, he gradually lost contact with his mate.  He wrote very little after that even as he became more accepted as a great poet.  Here is a picture from the 1870s.


If you know Whitman’s poetry, you know that it is expansive and inclusive, that he feels deeply for all things, and that he embraces all of reality as perfect, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  It makes sense that he was overwhelmed by his work in the hospitals (read some of those poems–wow) and here is where the MEMBRAIN comes in.  Remember the 4 functions of the MEMBRAIN, to pass information in and out, to keep information in and out.  Keeping information out is sometimes protective, even very necessary.  ER personnel must develop this capacity to let some information in and act on it medically but not let other information in which would affect their self in an unhealthy manner.  Therapists must learn the same dance to a different tune, identifying but not incorporating, treating some information professionally, caring while still protecting the self and its vulnerabilities.  Not easy, especially in war time.  And Walt Whitman engaged the world with little compromise and social reserve.

So here is an early, pre-Civil War poem that I like both for itself and for its prescient understanding.


Who includes diversity and is Nature,

Who is the amplitude of the earth, and the

coarseness and sexuality of

the earth, and the great charity of the earth, and

the equilibrium also,

Who has not look’d forth from the windows the

eyes for nothing,

or whose brain held audience with messengers

for nothing,

Who contains believers and disbelievers, who is

the most majestic lover,

Who holds duly his or her triune proportion of


spiritualism, and of the aesthetic or intellectual,

Who having consider’d the body finds all its

organs and parts good,

Who, out of the theory of the earth and of his or

her body

understands by subtle analogies all other


the theory of a city, a poem, and of the large

politics of these States;

Who believes not only in our globe with its sun

and moon, but in

other globes with their suns and moons,

Who, constructing the house of himself

or herself, not for a day

but for all time, sees races, eras, dates,


the past, future, dwelling there, like space,

inseparable together.

Chimpanzee battles

A number of outlets have reported a recently completed study of chimpanzee aggression and killing.  Evidently some have hypothesized that chimps killing each other was an unintended consequence of their contact with humans, including loss of habitat.  This was despite Jane Goodall’s early reports of chimp violence when human contact was very limited.  So analyzing a number of studies of chimpanzee and bonobo violence, the scientists found no correlation between chimp violence and human contact.  They also found next to no bonobo violence.  Why?


Now this chimp looks pretty reflective but I have no idea of the context.  Chimps are known to be pretty aggressive both within their clan reflecting their social hierarchy and between clans over resources.  A pretty good Disney movie a couple of years ago, Chimpanzee, showed the good and the bad here.  An orphaned youngster was adopted by the alpha male and thus survived, a presumably unusual event and the documentarians thanked their lucky stars that they saw it.  This group also had to fight another group repeatedly over a prime food source and these battles were seemingly well organized both on the offense and the defense.  Really amazing.

Now bonobos are smaller than chimps and known to be less aggressive.  They are entirely promiscuous and solve conflict through physical expression of affection, if I can use that word here, and they are known to be very caring parents.  I believe I have read studies showing a higher level of oxytocin, which promotes parental positive feelings, in bonobos than chimps.  Some geographic isolation by large rivers has contributed to the separation of these two primate lines, but why the difference in violence is a very interesting question being studied today.

Perhaps the chimp above is pondering his next play like a poker player wondering if the other’s cards are good. Here is a picture of the bonobo, a lover not a fighter.


Re-read William James 1.0

So as I indicated below I am re-reading William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. This was based on a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-1902. He was arguing mainly for a scientific approach to theology: rather than argue if god exists, study what religion is, because it is an important facet of human experience. Seems like a good idea to me still today. James is another hero like Langer, a seminal thinker maybe less in vogue today but more’s the pity. James gave us the idea of consciousness as ‘the remembered present’ and the notion of ‘the stream of consciousness” among other good ideas in his long and varied career. I read Varieties waaay back in college and am reading it again after being reminded of its astuteness by Michel Pollan in Cooked.


So I remembered the antique prose style, the patient framing and explication of the issues, and the surplus of examples. In his introductory lecture he discussed ‘medical materialism’, a curious term that I did not remember but I like his thinking here. James asserted that many of the most important religious thinkers reported experiences that would be considered pathological by the scientific medical community of his day, including his own profession of psychology. He cites the example of George Fox who in the 17th century founded the Religious Societies of Friends (Quakers) in part out of disenchantment (at best) with the mainstream religions and certain corrupt practices. Fox also evidently had visions of sorts, e.g., blood flowing like a river through a village where, it turns out, a massacre had occurred some centuries earlier.

James refutes the criticism leveled at Fox and other religious persons (like Saul and his ‘epileptic’ fit on the road to Damascus) that denigrated their religious doctrines and schools because of their medical conditions in two ways. First, that how a tradition starts has little to say about the nature of the tradition once developed. Second, and this I find quite lovely, rejecting religious thought because it is based upon and affected by wayward organic processes is illogical because the very rejection of religion is also based upon and affected by the same organic processes. It is all of a piece, and that piece is the biological, psychological status of a mind regardless of its religiosity or scientific bent. Lovely, and please notice this does not address the issue of god’s existence, just the need to be clear about human thinking.   Thanks, William.

More later as I find interesting bits but a comment on his literary style. William James’ brother, Henry, is a novelist of some esteem and I find both have very complex, involved styles that reflect their thinking. (Their sister, Alice, was also an excellent writer). Henry James’ novels often revolve around very subtle and nearly translucent social and emotional interactions and his ability to render these artistically is really quite remarkable (and yes, I have been re-reading some of these, e.g., The Golden Bowl, and reading ones I missed earlier, e.g., The Ambassadors over the past few years). What a family.  Here’s Henry.


Dogs and their humans

A quick post this morning because I like this story even it turns out not to be replicable.  A report of research from Japan wherein the scientists gave subjects pictures of dogs and of humans and asked them to match each to their owner.  Turns out they could do so at a better than chance rate.  Then they did it again and covered different parts of the face, e.g., mouths, eyes, nose, etc. and found that when the eyes were covered, performance dropped to chance levels, thereby suggesting the truth lay in the eyes.  We have all seen pictures of dogs who look like their owners in some way but this seems different, more like research I read looong ago showing that the periods of menstruating females in the same household tended to synchronize to the same time of the month.  We have research showing that dogs look at our eyes for cues and even focus on the left eye (?) because it is the more expressive just as we do from a very young age.  Still I hope researchers in other countries are racing to replicate this study.  So, as you go through your day, look for this dog’s human.


What about this polarizing thing?

A longer, denser (perhaps too much so?) post.  

In the third volume of Mind, Langer discusses the question, How do we think about the seeming “truths” of the ancients and recent primitive peoples in light of the development of scientific thinking supported by mathematics? How do we understand such outrageous and patently false statements about ghosts, monsters, impossible events, etc.? She posits that their truth, being less reckoned with objective considerations, was of a different sort, that someone who talked about the unverifiable domain of mythic events in an exaggerated or more powerful way could have more impact on his fellows and their cultural memes. This derived early on, she hypothesized, from the first emergence of symbolization and the exuberant creativity thereby endowed on the mind.   While truth as a modern objective matter in the ancient, pre-scientific world may have been limited to the more practical matters of life, death, agricultural, husbandry, and raw material processing (metallurgy, fermentation, healing herbs), how people conceptualized and understood all matters, the myths of origin and nature’s regularities were subject to the dialectic between subjects’ individual imaginations and social response. And individuals who were creative and could provide an exhilarating story could be powerful figures even as their stories violated any reality constraints; their lack of verifiability was essentially irrelevant.


         While reality constrained this dialectic, inevitably this development went awry, which brings us closer to our modern times. Langer cites among others the Aztec blood thirst in their pursuit of magical power that led them to kill and blood more humans than they could reproduce (and that is a basic evolutionary no-no). They sought to compensate with military conquests but that does not exactly help your culture’s reputation, which does matter in a meme sort of way, and survival. Such extremes or polarization of conceptualizations, memes, and ideologies are not generally adaptive even if they do succeed over the short haul. Another truism from biology is that evolutionary ‘progress’ derives from past developments and even though the new supercedes the old, the old still operates albeit with new limits. This brings us to the modern world.

         I have been thinking about the logic of our current geopolitical situation. What is wrong with polarization? Ah, the golden mean. There is something to this quantification thing. Differences not in kind but in degree. Cultural movements such as dogmatic religious movements (think Aztec, the Inquisition, Nazis, KKK, Jim Jones, ISIS, etc.) violate the general progress of human evolution. We trust that the dialectical constraints will curb such extremes (the civilized nations will act to negate uncivilized behaviors by groups such as ISIS, etc.), but no guarantees exist that balance will be maintained. Be careful.

I appreciate science as it operates with a self-correcting process; mistakes are communal learning opportunities. I appreciate art because there are no mistaken beliefs; an artist’s work can inspire community or be relegated to the dusty aesthetic box up in the attic. Neither have had, I don’t think, a violent war between competing paradigms. Look out. Finally consider the sort of political statements all too common today by some leaders and some editorial letters and stances (I am looking at you Fox news) wherein verifiability is irrelevant—it is all about the extreme thrill of some sort of delusional righteousness. To survive and progress we must adhere to the dialectic, not the absolute.

Pigeon hippocampus

A brief post today while I attend to other duties and work on a longer piece.  Science News reports on a study in which researchers studied pigeons’ homing ability and their hippocampus.  This is only half interesting; the other half raises ethical concerns.  When the humans took the pigeons 19-30 kilometers from home to an unfamiliar locality, the pigeons roamed around for awhile and took side excursions as they made their way home.  When  they got closer to home, they flew more directly there.  Then they removed the birds’ hippocampi, which I have discussed several times before about a variety of species.  When they took these birds to the unfamiliar place (presumably after adequate convalescence) they initially flew directly towards home and when closer, they had trouble finding their loft.


I am not sure what this trauma to the pigeons gained us in knowledge.  We have known since the late 1970s that the hippocampus provides species with a spatial map, novelty detection and processing, and memory input.  Plus, the hippocampus receives multi-modal input and projects to other areas of the forebrain, so that its removal would disrupt many systems.  Sure they saw a difference, an impairment, after surgery, but this does not seem to illuminate anything much new and they did brain surgery.  The cost-benefit ratio here seems quite esoteric to me.  Coo-coo.