High in the Andes

A story in Reuters cites a find at 14,000 feet in the Andes of a rock shelter used as a base camp around 12,000 years ago.  This is an extreme environment, quite chilly with low oxygen but people lived there using stone tools for hunting and cutting and pounding and making art on the walls such as animals in red ochre (the favorite pigment of our ancestors).  One wall was painted red for a bit of home decorating.  The researchers say this is the earliest evidence of humans living at such an altitude by more than a millennia and wonder how they could have done so with the low oxygen. Here is link:



These good folks are Himalayan and they have genes that appeared in their stock about 40,000 years ago that enable them to live at high elevations through subtle changes of their blood chemistry (see an earlier post on Ancient mutation 7/4/14).  Their friends and relatives look to have crossed from Eurasia to North America and lived in Beringia around 25,000 years ago before completing the migration south to the rest of the Americas around 15,000 years ago (see earlier post on Beringia 3/5/14).


So it looks like by 12,000 years ago the humans at their camp high in the Andes were already quite experienced and well adapted to live there, enjoying the beautiful scenery, brisk weather, and good hunting.  They were a small group, probably a few dozen at the most, maybe a couple of families or a small clan.  They had good hunting as evidenced from the bones around the site and they processed the carcasses with stone tools and cooked them.  The ceiling is blackened from soot.  I imagine they put some on rocks outside the fire’s warmth for a bit of cold storage.

As I have wondered before, what drives humans to challenge themselves through exploring and living in such seemingly inhospitable places?  We have a strong proclivity to seek.  We are smart enough to follow game in their seasonal migrations.  Maybe like Daniel Boone, they did not want their neighbors to be too close.  Maybe they were peaceful isolationists and a more ambitious and aggressive tribe had moved into the lowlands.  Maybe like John Muir they found spiritual nurturance and inspiration in the mountain heights.  Anyway, i have to admire their hardy souls.  Travel on.

Re-read W. James Varieties 3.0


One more post on my re-reading William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience from 1906 before I move on to other things.  As I mentioned in the previous post James called for science of religion, for the study of religion just as we study optics, and he gave a preliminary hypothesis to start off the effort.  Based upon his review of religious experiences (mostly Christian but some from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism) James saw the basic principles of religious thought as first, that we, or some of us do, believe that there is another reality other than the physical one we generally perceive, second, that humans somehow lack or are deficient in some way, and three, that connecting to the unseen reality is a way of remediating that lack.  He further (as discussed in my re-read post 1.0) described how religions and gods were different for different people and changed over time because human needs were changing.  The basic experience here is that of a mystic, one who directly apprehends the other reality.  James called this experience ‘noetic’ meaning it was one of learning and knowledge more than emotional arousal.  While the mystic ‘knows’ it is real, James says that puts no one else under obligation to accept its validity–it is, as so much of human experience, a purely subjective experience and unavailable to objective sharing.

Pretty low key stuff, here, but James was very articulate in his explication and used copious examples of religious peoples’ writings.  James was philosophically a pragmatist, following his colleague Charles Sanders Pierce, so that the truth of any matter lies in its effect, and James saw plenty of effect in his survey of religious experiences.  Following the psychological theory of his day which was developing what James called the sub-liminal mind or the subconscious, he hypothesized that this sub-liminal part of the mind mediated between the unseen reality and the conscious mind.  Okay.  Something has to and it might as well be that until we discover a mystic organ that senses the otherworld or how the other world lies at the inception of each life so we can apprehend it somehow in ourselves.  I like Langer in Mind, v. 3, when she says that humans changed mightily when we realized that each life was one act, complex but unitary, and that before each act begins and after it is over then became an object for further reflection.  But how do we gather the data?

James focused on individual experience and excluded considerations of religious institutions.  Looking at the effects of religious experience on individuals he writes that “treating [creeds and faith state] as purely subjective phenomena, without regard to the question of their “truth,” we are obliged on account of their extraordinary influence upon action and endurance, to class them amongst the most important biological functions of mankind.”  Just so.

But context, what about the context here?  James ignores religious institutions, the actions of which, following some like Christopher Hitchens, reflect a more destructive facet of humanity. When James considers religion “without regard to the question of their truth” he misses one of the main religious claims, that believers know the truth and all too often have “corrected” others to the point of their death.  So yes, religion is an important biological function and we must consider the object whole if we are to understand its roots.

And so we travel on . . . .

Hold the door open, please

I see a report of research led by Sam Parnia about end of life experiences.  EarthSky.org sent me an email but I never saw it on their website.   Here is their link:  http://www.southampton.ac.uk/mediacentre/news/2014/oct/14_181.shtml#.VEFyEyjxZja

So Dr. Parnia and his colleagues studied over 2000 patients in several hospitals in 3 countries who experienced near death experiences, such as when cardiac arrest occurs and the brain stops but then all starts again and some of these patients are able to recount their experience.  He says the themes are more diverse than the light in the tunnel meme and include out of body experiences, including one reflecting events known to have happened in the operating room after cardiac arrest occurred.  Most interestingly, perhaps, is that death appears to take place over minutes, not instantaneously, and this process sometimes reverses.  He calls for more research with an open mind.  Good stuff and difficult data to gather.  Not your usual with a control group or a double blind placebo (what would be a placebo for death?) or easy statistics or replicability (if you would die again, would you see the same thing?  How about if you lived again?)

His call for keeping an open mind is, I suspect, much needed.  Many reject these tales as imaginary or hallucinatory or exclusively religious etc. Patricia Churchland in her latest book calls them reflections of a broken neurological process and she is one of the astute pioneers of neurophilosophy.  Still I hope we do study these phenomena.  William James in Varieties of a Religious Experiences calls in the last chapters for a science of religion, admitting that we humans are bounded and cannot know what lies beyond life and this apparent physical reality, but he asserts that we can and should learn all we can about this side of the boundary.  James also admits that many disagree with him and that “I feel like a man who must set his back against an open door quickly if he does not wish to see it closed and locked”.    Dogma is not helpful and dismissal of an area of curiosity where little data of any sort has actually been gathered seems intellectually coercive.  Religious coercion is already quite strong in this area as James well knew.  He said, however, a remarkable thing as he introduced his own scientific hypothesis about religion:  “Who says ‘hypothesis’ renounces the ambition to be coercive in his arguments.”  That is simply brilliant.

So thank you, Dr. Parnia for holding that door open and suggesting we hypothesize about what is on our side of the boundary.

truth and grammar

I have had recent occasion to think more about these two popular and favorite topics, truth because despite my thinking it is a concept with definitive overtones, it seems as indeterminate today as it ever has, and grammar because, well, if you don’t know already, please continue reading.

Have you heard this phrase any time recently uttered, say by media pundits: You can have your own perspective but not your own facts. Well, facts too seem to be found in a variety of forms, some personal, some without verifiability, most eluding replication but still there nonetheless. The now old adage that we create own reality has a literal truth, and the power and at times loose subjective constraints of symbolization make civil society’s work at consensus (the result of a critical dialectic) all the more important. So facts bear some responsibility for consensual validation with the proviso that some people will agree with anything of the right emotional tone, e.g., righteousness, jingoism and other demagoguery are good examples (don’t say ‘baaa’). Since the late 18th Century (even before in way) empirical facts have born a standard of truth of logical verifiability, especially mathematical proof, determination of probability and when possible, replication of results. Indeed, the ancients knew the sun rises in the east and sets in the west even before any words labeled compass points, probably more than many moderns today. And now we have modern media pouring forth information at tremendous rates and often with a very low common denominator of factual truth, yet civil society depends upon a modicum, a necessary level of consensus in fact and perspective. Because we create our own reality, it would seem we could do so together quite readily, and we do in science and engineering but we don’t in religion and governance. An adaptive feature of humanity or a step towards our demise? Yes, if you believe in a dialectic.

Now grammar, at its inception, derives from feelings of fitness ranging from very awkward and frozen to quite comfortable and fluent. Consider your feelings of laterality, e.g., handedness. Cross your arms, right over left then left over right. One will feel more comfortable than the other. You can repeat this with folded hands (which thumb is on top?), crossed legs, kicking a ball, swinging a bat or pulling a rake, using one eye to view through a telescope, etc. A grammarian or linguist says a sentence and then intuitively tests its fitness in a similar fashion. These feelings vary across languages and within languages by dialect and social class. We can get creative violating grammar as in Yoda-speak. These feelings of grammaticality are how we apprehend the rules governing the linear construction of words and sentences as we formulate our thoughts for communication. My old English teachers taught grammar prescriptively, helping me fit into an educated class no doubt, but linguistics uses grammar more as a descriptive tool to trace relationships among languages, the nature of embedding and recursion, historical shift within a language, etc. We have been doing so for a long time. The earliest recorded grammars were by Sanskrit scholars in 6th-7th century BCE India. Here is a great stamp commemorating one, Panini. (I would not hold my breath for a stamp commemorating our greatest modern linguist, Noam Chomsky, though it is a good idea. He would probably refuse).


My point here is to use grammatical feelings of fitness as a general analogy for how we sense what is true, what fits together better, even best, and that this is as good, as knowledgeable about truth as we can be. Science uses mathematics to test our intuitions and confirm facts objectively (consensus or probabilistically) but even here, scientists operating under different paradigms have different intuitions of fitness. Thomas Kuhn illustrated this in his writings on scientific revolutions. For many years, the mathematical differences in accuracy between the Ptolemaic solar system and the Copernican one were negligible, but the latter felt more fit and upon further study proved to be truer. Last century physicist Paul Dirac is famous for a set of equations predicting previously unknown phenomena like the positron that were confirmed 20-30 years later, but he said at their initial formulation that they were “beautiful” and so he knew they were true. Even today some physicists challenge the standard model because some features do not feel right, and of course, our mathematical theorizing and ability to measure at increasingly smaller and larger scales has helped engender quantum physics, which leaves much of our intuition far behind. Extrapolating just a little from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, religions (and gods) have changed over the course of human history to meet the changing demands of humans and our society—the new ones have a better fit than the old, e.g., a spoken prayer over a blood sacrifice for example (you do prefer the former, don’t you?).

Let me be clear and distinguish facts and truth. Facts are a relatively modern conception, while truth in various forms has been around for a long time. We can find truth most anywhere including the myth of Sisyphus, the better poems, the best music, Newtonian mechanics and quantum theory.  Truth is a biological phenomenon with deep roots and is an important one for our species. We think our thoughts, and our thoughts come and go in trains. The trains follow various tracks and stop at or pass by various stations. Some are fitter than others. There is still a station at Truth, I have seen it out the window as I passed it by, but I do not think many trains stop there. Actually I think that some trains do stop there when we are about 3 ½ years old (see previous post long ago about that maturational milestone) and then for some of the great ones (Pythagorus, Mozart, Newton, Picasso, Einstein, Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, etc.). I have heard from supposedly reliable sources that a station at Big Truth exists, lying far off in the distance, past the last nerve track, so it still waits for a train’s arrival. Namaste.

News flash–prehistoric cave art in Indonesia

No pictures here but google ‘Indonesian cave art’ or go to the journal Nature for reports of cave art in an Indonesian cave from 40,000 years ago and very similar to what has been found in European caves of around that time.  To paraphrase one scientist, given the ubiquity of an artistic impulse in humans, the wonder is not that we have found these images but that it has taken so long to find them.  Silhouettes of hands and paintings of animals using similar pigments, e.g., red ocher (very popular with our ancestors), were found there just as in the caves of Spain and France.  Thank you, artists everywhere, them and us.

3 news stories

First, the Nobel committee awarded its prize for medicine to John O’Keefe, May-Britt and Edvard Moser (the latter two are married, an unusual occurrence in the awards) for their work on the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex showing that these structures map the animal’s environment and then maintain the memory to act as a GPS in the brain.  O’Keefe’s initial work was in the early 1970s; he and the Moser’s have extended it over the years.  Evidently O’Keefe has also demonstrated that this processing is temporally encoded relative to theta rhythms (see another post awhile back).  With this award the Nobel committee acknowledges the beginning of a marvelous path of research and knowledge  and recognizes that this basic science now contributes to the understanding of Alzheimer’s.  Well done everyone.

I have posted about the hippocampus several times before.  Here it is in the lower middle of the cerebral hemispheres, sidled up to the medial left temporal lobe.


In rats the hippocampus keeps track of the animal’s location and recognizes old places and presumably encodes new ones.  Then the hippocampus communicates back and forth with the entorhinal cortex of the temporal lobe which processes where the animal is, where it is going or even intends to go.  Lovely.  Here it is as the yellow areas, 28 and 34.


Now the glory of this comes in the temporal handling of information, maintaining data for the recognition of the old and familiar and for the recall of old to guide new activity.  While for rats this means spatial awareness (ah, maze running) and finding food and returning to the nest, for other animals the situation being processed comprises more complex elements until you get to humans and it supports our autobiographical experiencing among other things.  Way cool.

The second news item is that a study showed that people who had lost their sense of smell were significantly more likely to die within the next five years, a correlation and not causation, as we are wont to say, but I had a curious association here.  In my youth the orthodox view was that we were born with all the neurons we would ever have, and then later, they discovered that animals have new neurons develop all along the life span and the first place this was found was in the olfactory bulb (and yes, it does communicate both ways with the hippocampus) at the bottom of the brain.  Here it is.


Hard to believe it helps us detect over a million different scents and recognize some of them (ah, the hippocampal functioning again).  If someone has lost their sense of smell, the neurons here must have stopped regenerating; maybe that is a sign of a deeper lessening of the regeneration needed to sustain our life.  Just wondering.

The last news story is from a 60 Minutes piece this past Sunday.  I only caught the last few minutes.  It was interesting and I have some quibbles about the translation into popular lingo.  Researchers (especially Brian Hare at Duke) have found out that dogs do a lot more thinking than some give them credit for.  They know to go where the human points to find the goody, a task that apes are not good at.  Dr. Hare has developed intelligence tests for dogs that you can try at Dognition.  Most interesting is that he has done functional MRIs with dogs.  To do this they have to remain very still within the MRI machine and that in itself is some kind of good training.  The bit I saw showed that when a Q-tip with a human scent is  presented, the dog’s olfactory bulb lights up with activity.  If that scent is the owner’s, the caudate nucleus lights up as well, and Dr. Hare construes this as a reflection of the warm feeling the dog has for its owner because the caudate is one of the brain’s pleasure centers.  Lovely research really but here is the caudate and then my quibble.


I guess Hare refers to the caudate nucleus as a pleasure center because the dopaminergic system runs strongly there and dopamine is integral to rewards, but the caudate is part of the basal ganglia which plays a large role in voluntary movement with lesser known roles in cognitive and emotional activities, even, some say, the response to beauty and affection.  So yes, that is or can be pleasurable but to discuss pleasure as a simple unitary concept is over-simplifying, and yes, I know he needs to be brief for TV but really.  This clouds other issues and complexities.  Perhaps smelling the owner engenders an orienting response and the basal ganglia would be involved in that.  Perhaps, as another researcher pointed out, when dogs and owners interact, both produce oxytocin, an affection engendering hormone, and the basal ganglia could be involved in that.  One thing I found amazing is that the dogs were able to inhibit movement despite clear activation of the motor system.  Finally, part of Dr. Hare’s discussion with Anderson Cooper was  about the possibility that the dog’s display of affection was only instrumental to get food, that as Mr. Cooper put it, his dog was only conning him.  Now that is a whole other topic with another Dr. Hare, Robert Hare, author of the Psychopathy Checklist, and I see no reason to go there in our understanding of man’s best friend.

So there it is, 3 semi-related news reports from later Sunday, a good day really.

ReRead W. James 2.0

A Sunday morning post about reading more in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.  I am somewhat surprised and pleased to realize that what I first read in 1971 has influenced my thinking over the years and I believe I am closer in sentiment to it now than ever.  One theme for James is that religion is different for different people.  He considers many examples of conversion, the transition from disbelief to belief, and focuses on the difference between those who come to belief more easily in an expansive mood and those who first descend into suffering and contractive depression before their conversion and rise to a more blessed state.  He finds that these differences correspond to personality types and thus conjectures that religion serves different psychological needs for different people.  Further, as many examples of the second conversion show a rapid transition, James thinks such changes, unknown to the owner prior to the overt conversion experience, must have been preparing in the ‘subliminal’ or unconscious part of the mind.  Remember that in 1906 subconscious processes were just beginning to be understood.  Okay.  Some preachers back in his day (and in my youth for that matter) thought that the second type where the person hit bottom and then was redeemed signaled a more genuine or holier or deeper conversion than those who believed without the depressive phase.  James, while acknowledging he is no theologian, questioned whether there are in fact two levels of salvation and what would that mean about God, heaven and hell, etc.

Also in 1906 a movement James characterized as the religion of healthy mindedness was very prominent at least in America and some parts of Europe.  These proponents, such as Mary Baker Eddy of Christian Science, believed that as you thought so would it go.  To be healthy, then, demanded that you think healthy and positive thoughts and banished negative thoughts about ill health.  In considering this phenomena James finds two sorts of religious attitudes, this one focused on a happy place to the exclusion of the problems of the world and its converse that’s focused on the problems.  In his judgement, James believes that given the state of the world and reality, the second to be more comprehensive.  James discusses Walt Whitman and his poetry here, saying that Whitman “owes his importance to literature to the systematic expulsion from his writings of all contractile elements . . . many persons today regard [him] as the restorer of the eternal natural religion.”  The term ‘contractile’ refers to the sorrowful negative focus of some religious thinking (and ‘expansive’ refers to a joyous positive focus).

The ‘eternal natural religion’ goes back to James’ view that the inception of all religious feelings (and there is a variety) lies in the human sense of a reality behind the one apparent to our senses.  There is “an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in adjusting ourselves harmoniously thereto”.  Again, James is careful to frame his discussion in descriptive and scientific terms and separately from his own beliefs.  Why?  Because “No one organism can possibly yield to its owner the whole body of truth”.  Amen.


James himself struggled with ill health and depression.  He endured painful back problems and was chronically suicidal during part of his youth.  He initially prepared to be an artist but changed in his late teens to pursue medicine and psychology, such as it was in his day.  He attended Harvard, or its schools of science and medicine, which was not well respected back then.  Darwin had published Origin a few years earlier and many of the professors were not enamored of it nor of the developing scientific positivism.  James negotiated this circumstance by educating himself when he thought his instruction was lacking and so came to contribute mightily to philosophy and the science of psychology.  He also negotiated the influence of his father, a very intelligent man who was a disciple of Swedenborg, an arcane theologian who preached, based upon visionary revelations, that the kingdom of god was already at hand (sort of, my memory of this is weak).  Anyway, a very interesting guy (I am also reading a bio, Robert Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism).  Next post on truth and grammar.