Literal and Figurative Language

So I have started reading a new neuroscience text to refresh and extend my knowledge of our biological roots, this one by R. Joseph entitled Neuroscience, Neuropsychology, Neuropsychiatry, Brain and Mind, 4th edition. It is a large compendium of clinical and research findings about the functioning of brain structures. Hard to understand how one person could have read and remember/organize all this, but Dr. Joseph has been at this for a long time.

Anyway, early on in the chapters on the left and right hemispheres, Dr. Joseph writes, “As a consequence of the loss of comprehension these patients may display euphoria”. Of course, he is talking soberly and literally about the aphasic effects of brain damage, e.g., from a stroke, in the posterior left hemisphere, Wernicke’s area, that results in a severe deficit in linguistic comprehension of which the patient is unawares. These patients can talk, often fluently, even volubly, but speak a jibberish of disconnected and irrelevant words and while they cannot comprehend what is said to them, they think or act as if they do. “They fail to comprehend that they fail to comprehend.” And of course, given my perverse penchant for injecting irony into a discussion, I read this figuratively. Yes, one could be happier if one did not understand what was going on in the world, like the adage, “Ignorance is bliss,” or the bumper sticker, “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention”.

Dr. Joseph articulates a clear picture of how the left hemisphere (and please always remember that upper structures depend upon lower ones, so that hemispheric functions involve limbic and brainstem systems) functions to process the syntactic structures of linguistic communication, i.e., the linear semantic word strings, and of how the right hemisphere functions to process the emotional and contextual information in which the syntactic structures are constructed and take their meaning, i.e., the prosody and pragmatics of verbal but also empathic communication. Here we have the great confluence between our symbolic and empathic capabilities. Now somewhere in their interplay lies the beginning of sarcasm, irony and some other types of figurative language.


Consider sarcastic teasing when someone tells a friend who has just mucked it up, “good job,” and so means the opposite of what the words say. Consider satire, such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” or William Thackery’s novel, Vanity Fair, when he says of a very unlikeable character that he died without a friend in the world and that like when someone beloved dies, both will be forgotten, though the unlikeable man will be forgotten “a few weeks sooner.” The meaning of a left sided syntactic structure depends upon its right sided context and modality. We can empathically tell if someone is ‘serious’ or not by their tone of voice (easier if we are their familiar). Someone who speaks with very flat speech, monotonous and without expressiveness or humor, uses their left side without the important connection to right sided functions. Conversely, someone who cannot understand the left sided structures, say of a foreign language, can still understand empathically the emotional tones of that speech, whether angry, sad, or amused and happy. The linguisitic meaning of a satire is thus quite dependent upon the emotional import of the empathic gestalt.

So here are some questions. Presuming that early Homo sapiens’ language usage was literal, how long before such figurative uses came about? Did irony as we moderns know it come about actually as a literary device, an arc on the glyph learning curve discussed in an earlier post? The ancient Greeks certainly used irony; it is also present in the Tao Te Ching.  Much of our humor depends upon the ironic incongruity between our words and the situation. What did Paleolithic humans laugh about? What is the difference in hemispheric integration between literal and figurative language? And though I have not talked about the sort of  figurative language manifested in metaphors and imaginative flights, the questions about lateral differences and integration remain the same.

Finally, consider the word ‘ignorance.’ Certainly ignorance is not really bliss. Knowledge can be an occasion for sadness, e.g., when we learn of a tragic event, but knowledge also is power. Understanding the roots of figurative language in our empathic and symbolic abilities would be delightful indeed. Ignorance is not really loss of comprehension, as I played around above, but something more which prevents understanding.  It is much with us these days as I read the news. This week the holidays are upon us and I will soon read again Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and my heart will stop again when the ghost of Christmas Present reveals mankind’s children clinging for protection under his robe. The ghost says they are “the girl Want and the boy Ignorance. Beware them both but beware the _____ more”. Remember which one goes in the blank? This is one time I maybe take figurative language quite literally. A complicated word, that ‘ignorance’.

I started this blog a year ago and I have learned a great deal in its writing. I thank all of you who read it, follow it, even comment upon it. Travel on.

BioRootsofHumanity: Noumena edition

A friend told me some months ago about a Youtube video with Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris discussing religion, atheism, etc. and I finally had an opportunity with enough bandwidth and capacity to watch the two hours of these four proselytizing atheists preaching to the choir for my everlasting edification. How bright and learned can any four people be? Watch it and see at:

Actually to call these four men “atheists” does them injustice. What they believe in is empiricism, a very pragmatic positivism and a humanism deeply rooted in their knowledge and love of science, philosophy, history and literature. They covered a lot of territory but one place in particular I found salient, even luminous.

Hey, let's go down this road.

Hey, let’s go down this road.

In response to Sam Harris asking the others about peak experiences, moments of inspiration or wondrous awe, that are usually discussed in religious terms, all agreed that these are important and substantial and then Mr. Hitchens said that if he had one wish or could make one difference for a better world, it would be to separate the noumenal from the super-natural. I gotta love that guy and the independent intellectual integrity with which he approached the world.

This is important, so please stay close, folks. We are going to attempt a deeply wooded, rugged terrain and I hope not to get lost, but if we do, let’s do it together. As I understand it, the ancient Greeks, i.e., Plato and Aristotle, posited two forms of knowledge, phenomena based upon sentient experience and noumena based upon something else found in the mind, say inherently, but not sentient experience. Noumena may be the “essence” of a thing, or an ideal category or concept, or the object casting the shadow in Plato’s parable of the cave, or some supernatural experience, say information from god. I would guess that Hitchen’s point is that there is no supernatural, only natural, so that noumena must be a category in nature (our biological selves, eh?).

So, let’s reject those things almost necessarily supernatural, such as any divine text about god and heaven etc., the soul (but not the spark of life in the genome and seed/egg), god, angels (but keep Lincoln’s “the better angels of ourselves”), predestination, history and fate guided or determined from without life’s flow, and prophecies, especially the vague sort so in vogue today based upon hindsight (yes, that preacher man did foresee the floods and earthquakes because we endorse gay marriage, but . . .). What noumena does that leave us that can then be approached naturally?

Somethings wonderful, actually. My favorites would be the mystic sense, inspiration beyond the ordinary, a peak experience of life (the experience is phenomenal but the peak is noumenal), luck, coincidence, ethical authority, epiphany (think Aristotle and James Joyce here, not Augustine), pre-cognition, Jung’s archetypes, meditative calm, dreams, and maybe some visions, including even ghosts, but only the natural ones. Oh, and fairies, I cannot leave out fairy noumena.

Whence does noumenal knowledge come? What knowledge rises from within, inherent in the flow and flux of genomic replication over generations, the implicit structure and function of the MEMBRAIN, the spontaneous autogenic activity stemming from the self, the intuitive derivation of new information from old, the symbolic processes of artistic composition and discursive thought?

These four men are only defined by what they disbelieve because of the inquisitorial arguments and methods the religious authorities have exercised in the past (and yes, continue through the present). Watch Richard Dawkins light up, however, as he talks about the joys to be found in the natural world and all their appreciation of clear cogent rational thought. They should really be characterized by their humanism and empirical wonder. When Hitch first made the noumena comment, no one picked up on it. He made it once more towards the end of their conversation. I hope his insight is prescient. My work here to understand the biological roots of humanity, I hope (& pray?) contributes to the effort.

MEMBRAIN clarity

As often discussed here, the mind’s MEMBRAIN keeps information in and out of the mind and passes information in and out of the mind. These four functions must work together to keep information in the mind clear as to its origin from the body, from the environment, or from within the mind itself. Not as easy as you might think.

The New York Times Science Page ran a story about a research effort with weak electric fish. These fish passively sense electric currents around them as a way of foraging. They also send out an electric pulse in the electronic version of sonar.   The challenge here is to discern what they sent out from what is actually out there and they evidently solve that with what the scientists call unipolar brush cells. These receive a neural copy of the electric pulse a moment after it was sent out and then use that information to cancel out perceived information that matches it. In the article’s words, the fish’s brain uses a negative image that cancels out the parts of the received positive image from the environment that correspond to its pulse.  Here is our friend.

(Wikipedia reports that this fish has the highest brain to body weight ratio of any vertebrate. Really?) Truly impressive science, I think, and an important view of what will turn out to be a very complex and important function of the MEMBRAIN, keeping information from within segregated from information from without even as we take it in and pass it out.

Mammals, especially those more advanced neo-mammals like us, empathize with one another, perhaps facilitated by mirror neurons that replicate the emotion perceived in the other’s expression. The challenge here, then, is to keep one’s own emotions separate from the other’s.   Assuredly this is done at a basic level by the neurovegetative expression of emotions, so that we sense our own feelings in our own guts, but our empathic capacity is so robust and our ability to deal with displaced (in time and space) and then symbolic information is so powerful that we can throw ourselves into another’s shoes, so to speak, or better, our MEMBRAIN allows the emotional situation behind their empathic information in and then the self takes it personally.

Consider this observation: A mother playing with her infant or young toddler receives a phone call with bad news and begins to cry. Shortly thereafter her child begins to cry with no other stimulus than the mother’s expressed sadness.  Or consider the common example of psychological projection, in which a person mistakes another’s feelings by projecting their own onto them. This can become pathological when the person is unawares of their own feelings in the matter, i.e., has repressed them, and instead sees them in another. Some psychiatric disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, are marked by such confusion between their emotions and those of another. How their MEMBRAINs came to malfunction in this manner often involves disrupted attachment and early emotional trauma.

The MEMBRAIN’s four functions must be integrated in order to maintain the integrity of the mind and the means for meeting this necessity have evolved as we mammals have evolved into the highly social and intellectual animals that we are and the roots of this can be seen in the weak electric fish’s brain. It will be a long, arduous and delightful journey to understand this better.

asteroid song

A brief post to alert you to this ‘song’ heard by the Rosetta spacecraft 500 million kilometers from earth as its Philae lander detached to land on the asteroid.  (And yes, this is another of the greatest fruits from our biological roots).  Some instrument picked up fluctuations in the electromagnetic field surrounding the asteroid.  Listen to it at:

Way cool!

Aesthetic analogue?

Consider the bower bird.  They are known to be great mimics and the males build bowers, structures of twigs and found objects, by which they attract a mate.  More involved than singing where some males sing very potent songs and attract females.  This has been well studied by playing the songs and counting the number of copulatory postures in a female’s response.  Bowerbird males, however, must construct their bowers and the ‘better’ ones attract females who then build a nest for the mating and egg laying, so the bowers are actually just a pretty place.  Here is one:

And here is the handsome bird that builds such a thing:

The males build their bowers from twigs and each genus makes a different size and style.  They also gather objects such as shells and colorful stones, sometimes stealing them from another’s bower, to place at the entrance.   Now here are my questions.  How does the male know when he is done?  Certainly if a female comes over and confirms that he is the one for her, but before that blessed event, how does he decide to keep on going, rearranging sticks and the foyer objects?  Instinctual guidance for sure based upon reproductive success, but the question of immediate decision still remains.  And by what criteria does the female judge the bowers and select her mate?  Presumably some features of construction relate to reproductive success.

Human art is symbolic so the degrees of freedom in the artistic choices are much, much greater, and the judgements of both when the artistic production is complete and how to appreciate the work are much more complicated, but a similar instinctual process, albeit through an intuitive and symbolically mediated choice, lies at its inception.  I think both artist and bird must go by some feeling for what they want the object to become.  In any event, well done, bower bird.

Atargatis? OMG!

I am reading an interesting book, And Man Made God: A History of the World at the Time of Jesus by Selina O’Grady, about the early religions in the Middle East around the time of Jesus. So far she has discussed how the Romans coopted local religions and gods as a way of inculcating allegiance to Rome among its conquered territories and peoples. And there were a lot of gods, lots. Most were readily assimilable by each other, but some, especially Yahweh and Judaism, were not. The Jews were especially problematic because their religious beliefs explicitly prohibited assimilation and mandated the integrity and purity of their in-group. Yahweh was also one of the first gods to be ‘jealous’, i.e., no other gods could be admitted, while most other gods were fine with their neighbors. The Romans certainly were so long as taxes were paid, the army supported, and allegiance was maintained in a peaceful manner.

Now we come to Atargatis, a goddess of fertility (the irony is coming soon) with a fish tail whose worship was centered around Palmyra located where I think northern Syria is today.  They even put her on a coin.

from Wkipedia

from Wikipedia

Oh my, these people were extreme. A regular religious ritual included the priests running through the streets (ok, an urban phenomena), working themselves up into a frenzy, and cutting themselves so that they would be covered by their own blood. People would then give them alms, e.g., food, because of their holiness. But wait, there’s more. To become one of these priests involved some secret teachings and rituals of course but a final step was for the initiates to run naked through the streets, working themselves into a frenzy, and castrating themselves. Then they would run some more, carrying the family jewels by hand as it were, until they felt the call to throw them in the front door of a house, whose occupants would then be called upon to give them female clothing. I have no doubt they picked houses of the stylishly dressed. This religion actually spread from Palmyra across the Roman Empire for a time, thus the coin and the irony of fertility.

The point here seems to be their utter rejection of this world and its social-sexual mores, thereby making themselves more worthy of the other world, you know, the alternate reality which is better and holier than this one. The best news here is that their genome contributed relatively little to subsequent ones. This would seem an example of how both the dialectics between society and individuals and between an individual’s vital grounding and his symbolic fecundity could together run amok. I do like this story, however, because it gives perspective to today’s craziness. Yes, religious fanatics still seek to control the non-believers and our political system is now corrupted and controlled by monied interests but at least …. Well, you get the picture and can see that some things have changed just a little for the better and in only 2000 years.

Glyph learning curves

So looking back a little bit beyond where history starts we see the beginnings of agriculture 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, after which permanent settlements began with sturdier buildings and greater concentrations of people. Eventually this led to cities, the organization of resources for their supply, civic governance to keep order where more opportunities for conflict arose, wider trade, greater interactions with strangers, etc. Then humans began to learn about glyphs and history was born.

In earlier posts I wrote about the power of spoken language to communicate rapidly, our MEMBRAINs’ power to produce and comprehend this auditory stream with such facility, and the power of conversation to develop our empathic connections and thereby increase both our intimacy and our cooperative pragmatic strength. I have also written about prehistoric paintings and other symbols, including even those involved in dancing and arithmetic, and music. During some period around 6000 years ago, humans began to use the visual markings for more than presenting some felt aspect of vital life as art or presentational (yes, following Langer again) forms and glyphs appeared, visual symbols used to communicate what had been said, i.e., discursive symbolic forms, that had previously been available solely in passing, ephemerally.

These seem to have been used to communicate factual matters such as trade, laws, drought, harvests and the life events of the powerful (oh, there’s some factual material). The learning curve here goes through hieroglyphs to cuneiform to alphabetic renderings. Here are an early and a later hieroglyphic tablet; you can see that the forms became more abstract.

512px-Hieroglyphs        409px-Papyrus_Ani_curs_hiero

Certain forms of Chinese and Japanese writings still rely on idiographic symbols, i.e., a distinct symbol for each word, and that requires the rather keen memorization of thousands of symbols for the scholarly. Alphabetic scripts are the easy way forward.

But here is another glyphic learning curve, going from capturing facts to more vital truths. These latter were relegated to the oral traditions of the bards and priests, e.g., Homer and the druids, again making severe demands on verbal memory. Then we began to learn how to use writing to express such truths, establish a record, a tradition, and then to build upon that. Here the Greeks excelled early on from 3500 to 2000 years ago. The period around 3000 years ago (1000 BCE) is the period Julian Jaynes discussed (see previous posts). Yes, during this time civilization changed and religion changed to meet its needs. The writings Jaynes analyzed do not reflect the origin of human consciousness so much as the learning curve of how to conceptualize and render these ephemeral truths in an optical and stable form, a curve which continues today in various ways.

We westerners do not think much about the prehistoric and ancient Chinese (or simply Asians back then). A few weeks ago I discussed the early grammarians around 700 BCE; they dealt for the first time with communications as facts and analyzed the structure of these facts. And then we have the Book of the Tao around 500 BCE originally written in seal script, a simplified form of Chinese. Here it is on the right with the more complex on the left.

"Seal Eg" by Original uploader was Gsklee at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Darwinius using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

The Tao Te Ching is one of the first and greatest statements of mysticism. I am not sure our learning curve ever exceeds this but I enjoy the asymptotic approach. Here is verse 19 from the version by Ursula K. LeGuin and a beautiful version it is.

Stop being holy, forget being prudent,

It’ll be a hundred times better for everyone.

Stop being altruistic, forget being righteous,

People will remember what family feeling is.

Stop planning, forget making a profit,

There won’t be any thieves and robbers.

But even these three rules

Needn’t be followed; what works reliably

Is to know the raw silk,

Hold the uncut wood.

Need little,

Want less.

Forget the rules.

Be untroubled.

Clearly Lao Tzu was highly conscious and had learned well how to render a vital moment of an encounter with truth. And the rest, as they say, is history.

My remedial learning curve

I obtained my PhD in clinical psychology in my late 30s.  We read Freud and Skinner and their progeny, even Wilhelm Reich famous for among other things his theory of orgone energy ( just a wee bit twinkie there as a friend would say), but no William James.  For that matter I had read James in my undergraduate days in English class, not psychology.  I have wondered about how his work has been relegated to literature and away from the ‘practical’.  Still do.  Many of his students went on to be successful but on their own, not as one of his disciples.  He was quite mainstream in his day and recognized in the US and Europe as a major thinker.  Maybe some of his heritage was lost in the great loss of life and social change in World War I.  In any event while some scholars have appreciated James and his ideas, his work has been partially eclipsed by Freud and later on in this country, Skinner.


Now I have never been a fan of Mr. Skinner, coming of age as I did under the auspices of Noam Chomsky and the great early neuroscientists who taught me that behaviorism could in no way account for language or mind.  I have since come to appreciate how Skinner’s systematic focus on behavior made possible much rigorous research on us animals but still I think of it more as a technology than a theory.

Similarly with Freud I questioned his focus on sexuality in psychological development, his denial of rampant incest and his addictions.  I did learn in working with preschoolers that the behaviors he labeled as Oedipal were quite real and prevalent (and open to other interpretations).  In graduate school I learned that his explication of the unconscious mind was truly a brilliant and needed step.  And in the past few years, reading Alan Shore and his biological work exploring attachment and object relations and Eric Kandel’s book on the early expressionist painters in Vienna and then following up with some of Freud’s writings, I have realized that part of Freud’s impact was his very excellent writing, i.e., his place in literature.


So both Freud and James (who came along a bit earlier) were psychologists medically trained who wrote well.  I learned in Robert Richardson’s book, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, that they met in 1909 when Freud visited Clark University and James went to his lectures.  James thought Freud was a bit too taken with his singular and at that time at least narrow ideas.  Freud criticized the current mental hygiene/positive psychology therapies as being non-scientific (whoa, more irony there than I want to discuss here now).  James did get on with Carl Jung, who accompanied Freud on this trip, and they had two long talks.  Richardson suggests that Jung, even then, was breaking from the Freudian brand of dogma.  Here is the young Jung:


So here is a last question for today.  If mental health therapies had continued with the tradition to which James was an important contributor and not focused on the ‘talking cure’ of psychoanalysis and then not reacted against that by going non-mental with behaviorism, where might we be today?  Three different paradigms based upon very different views of humans as animals.  I think we would have arrived sooner at a more powerful positive psychology such as espoused by Martin Seligman and others because James in the zeitgeist of his day was already on the trail.