Intimacy and the MEMBRAIN

New Year’s Eve and a time for reflection. I have had occasion the last week or so to remember how much I used to think about intimacy. As a speech-language pathologist working in an early intervention/prevention preschool setting, I talked with parents about many things and one of the most important was intimacy: how the communication between parent and child increased their intimacy and how the child’s circle of intimacy enlarged from parents to grandparents and siblings to extended family and outwards to familiars until they are prepared to journey more independently into the wider and stranger populated world and there intimacy faded until they grew up and began a family of their own. The child’s developing linguistic skills were central to their success on these travels as well as a healthy attachment back home.

Mother-Child_face_to_faceFather childTwo-toddlers-small

Consider in this regard the MEMBRAIN now and its four functions of passing information into and out of the mind and keeping information out and in the mind.


We regulate our MEMBRAIN’s permeability in various ways. Some of the basic ones are our level of arousal (like sleep-wake-alert-cautious-safe) and attention (let this in but keep other out for now). A more sophisticated one is our language; my MEMBRAIN is rather impermeable to Chinese, etc., though the empathic signals of intent and emotion through facial expression and body language are more universal. Even here we modulate our own expression in accommodation to cultural norms (reserved vs. expressive) or in self-protection (poker game). So we regulate the permeability for specific moments and for particular relationships. When engaged in intimate interaction our MEMBRAIN is more open, we let more in and out, we keep less in and less out—that is one way of defining intimacy.  MEMBRAIN to MEMBRAIN communication thus varies according to the relationship, e.g., personal, professional, party (when we may increase permeability with a libation), at a store, etc. When we understand MEMBRAIN functioning better, we will understand how we shift our relationship gears and are able to navigate our circle of intimacy and beyond.

I have more to say about this from my reflections on recent news stories (a bit darker here) but I will keep that to myself for now. I will say that 23 years ago tonight I first met my wife at a small New Year’s Eve gathering where we teamed up in a game of scrabble and lost even though we cheated when our hosts stepped out for a moment to freshen our drinks. Happy New Year and may we all have such good fortune as I had then.

How about a study in contrasts?

I generally keep a couple, 3 books going, one fiction and one non-fiction, any others some variant like poetry. Sometimes these converge. This past week, as I do most years, I read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  So very well written, brilliant really, that I find something new most times. He makes only 2 references, I think, to the birth of Jesus, as he conveys the Christmas time message that caring for each other is a higher goal than selfish material aggrandizement, that want and ignorance are man’s great evils, and that a person can change themselves and their world for the better.


As I mentioned in previous posts I am also now reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. He acknowledges the criticism by others of his use of the word ‘selfish’ here as having some merit. It is very difficult to discuss evolution in solely positivist terms without the introjection of human values. Genes regulate the embryological genesis of the soma and its subsequent activity. If the organism reproduces and passes the genes on to a next generation, those genes remain in the pool; if not, they don’t. Evolution ‘advances’ (or ‘happens’) then when random variations occur in genetic replication that effect the organism’s fit into its ecological niche and these affect which genes fill the pool. Talk of ‘selfish genes’ clouds really the value neutral nature of the life process here. Even saying ‘successful’ reproduction is borderline, because maybe the organism would be more successful in the longer term if some of its genes faded away and others arose.


Here’s the point of convergence between Dickens and Dawkins. The latter writes, “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

Dickens, writing in 1843, saw a bit more positive in the early going of humans and that some abandoned generosity for selfishness due to their education by the world. It seems clear enough to me that our culture admits both and that our biological disposition, which has evolved through genetic variation, includes both aggressive actions to gain/protect life’s necessities and possibilities, and empathic actions to connect us as family and a social group. Again, attributing values, whether helpful or hindering, to our genes’ presence, whether expanding or contracting, in the pool puts a veneer onto an otherwise positivistic conception.

Consider next these famous lines from Tennyson in 1850. “Man . . . who trusted god was love indeed/ and love Creation’s final law/ Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw/ with ravine shrieked against his creed.” I know we cannot attribute the brutal struggle for survival to nature while at the same time attributing our compassion to god. Both are natural, as Darwin a few years later in 1859 would begin to espouse. In the reductionist mechanistic universe, life arises and is its own value, plain and simple, and then with further natural evolution some life creates meaning and so on we go from there.

I will finish with two points. One is that the “nature red in tooth and claw” was a favored meme in Victorian times and most novels of that day blindly ignored the full reality of man’s contribution to hardships as they considered man separate from nature. Consider modern versions of Victorian novels, like John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, wherein he adds many historical details like the astounding number of brothels in London because the main role of women then was to marry, and outside of that, they could expect little social support except the illicit kind from philandering males. Also consider Jo Walton’s novel, Tooth and Claw, wherein she strives to create a society based upon the Victorian world view (red in tooth and claw) peopled by dragons. A curious read, that.

The second point is to agree with Dawkins: let us teach generosity and empathy and fair play, let us shape our culture to the degree we can towards prosocial values. Many social-emotional curriculums based on empathy and social intelligence have been developed to do so, at least in this country where we seem to need it a bit more these days than in some of the other industrialized ones. More importantly, we know that such values are passed on in part through the actions of a caring family and in part through the memes (thank you, Dr. Dawkins, for that brilliant term) of our cultural heritage (or not, some cultures or groups pass on memes a bit more concerned with the savage defense of the in group and aggressive control of the out group and please, someone tell me why women are considered more the latter). It is here that artists have always played a large role, so thank you, Mr. Dickens, for contributing to our education in generosity so beautifully.

Scale units of life?

I am reading Richard Dawson’s The Selfish Gene, a very curious book on several counts. In this new edition he offers some more recent thoughts about the title that are appreciated. “Selfish” here is used to convey how totally dedicated a gene is to replication. Would a gene bother generating its soma if it could replicate without one? Sort of like a virus which is just a bit of DNA encased in a rather simple membrane. What I just called ‘soma’ Dawkins calls ‘machine’; that is, he calls plant and animal bodies “replicating machines.” In this he is quite reductionistic or positivistic, both virtues here though not the only ones. Chemistry is chemistry, organic or non: reactions are rule bound. I like ‘soma’ better because it leaves some room organically for the mind. I understand and appreciate his sense of the biological machine, but I don’t call a battery a machine, though I guess it is one from this perspective. We are already close to building an artificial organic machine for some specific purpose, unlike the rest of us organic machines dedicated to gene replication, whether old school (sex) or engineered.  Still, I find the reductionism here a bit impoverished.


Dr. Dawkins also presents the conundrum of what is the unit of life to be replicated and so provide a basis for evolution. As I understand his argument, genes are not precisely defined and what is replicated over and over and over again are units of varying size. A level above called cistrons could also be considered the unit of replication, and above that, chromosomes are often considered to play that role. Genes are themselves composed of protein molecules and operate through a great variety of proteins. Scale of organization is evidently an important consideration here, because some genes have been around for billions of years (like the song-speech genes discussed in the blog on 12/14/14) and chromosomes for only a lifetime. And some evolutionary biologists still focus on the individual’s survival as the key to evolution.

Dawkins also cites the importance of context, whether the gene on its chromosome or the microbiome of our soma, the little machines contributing to the big machines and vice versa. Indeed, taking his gist a little further, the context would also seem to include our ecology because all life seems inter-dependent. Any organism’s ecological niche these days must include the organisms cohabiting and surrounding. Dawkins posits that life began out of “primordial soup” and it seems to follow that we are now part of a evolved soup, more bits and pieces differentiated amongst the broth. The picture developing here is of the earth covered, its surface infiltrated, with genetic material, some of which has been here a long time and some not so long. The earth, meaning dirt, is full of fungi, algae, bacteria and insects all over the earth, meaning the planet. This brings up the notion of Gaia, the idea that the earth is a living organism, or less expansive in conceptualization, that the earth is itself the replicating machine (a battery providing the energy) and the somas a reflection of the wondrously varied ecological niches therein.

As long as we are discussing context and scale I will add the consideration of the amino acids and other organic molecules found throughout the known universe. And what about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s speculation in the Cosmos series that life could be seeding or re-seeding multiple times as each solar system rotates through space around its galactic hub and asteroids over these galactic time scales traveling about bringing everyone life’s necessities. The earth does not replicate itself but it does provides the gene pool a lovely place for its continuance.

Now about mind? Yes, yes, mind resulting from some particular evolutionary stream of soma and its genes must confer (at least in the short run of a few million years) survival advantages, but what does it mean about genes, somas, and ecologies that mind is such a powerful (again, seemingly for now) adaptation? I hope to find out more about this when I get to the chapters on mind and memes (and this is the book wherein Dawkins coined the latter term) in The Selfish Gene.

For those who contemplate this approach to understanding our lives and begin to feel like a pretty small chemical cog in the universe, I offer this poem by one of our best, William Carlos Williams.

“El Hombre”

It’s a strange courage

you give me, ancient star:

shine alone in the sunrise

toward which you lend no part!

Image converted using ifftoany

So long for now from Gaia, our home. Merry Solstice and a Happy New Year.

Bird song learning and human language genetics

Yesterday’s email from contained links to good summaries of a series of papers recently published about the genetic similarities underlying bird song learning and human language.  The science reported here is of an unprecedented scale as many researchers in many universities analyzed the genome of over 40 bird species thereby providing a comprehensive map of the evolution of various bird species and which genes contributed most to song learning.  Then these results were compared to analyses of the human genome’s contribution to speech.  These studies required new computational algorithms run on super-computers because of the size of the data set.  Wow!  And wouldn’t you know it, we share many of the same genes that control vocal performance.  Here are some links:

So I am thinking back to 2 earlier posts in June, 2014, on the biological roots of language that discussed how two evolutionary streams from birds for the melody and silver gibbons for the words may have contributed to the confluence resulting in human language.


As reported in the last link above from the National Science Foundation, modern birds appeared around 66 million years ago after a meteor strike eliminated dinosaurs and much other life.  Birds came through that holocaust and then underwent an evolutionary explosion into the many forms around today.  Mammals also came through that holocaust; their evolution has been less explosive perhaps but seems more extensive and progressive when thinking in terms of brain complexity. Primates have been around almost as long.  Less is known about the evolution of gibbons but they seem to have appeared in current form somewhere around or before 8 million years ago.  Homo sapiens or our ancestral species appeared only around 500,000 to 200,000 years ago.  So these genes we have in common with birds have been around, replicating themselves over and over and over again, a very long time.  What has changed, then, I guess, would be their context, the genes surrounding them, and these presumably led to increased empathic capabilities and to symbolization.



Some of the best song learners, vocal mimics, are parrots and they have been found now to have evolved with particularly powerful song learning ability.  They are monogamous and some mate for life.  Oddly (perhaps), gibbons share these features.  At the least this suggests that the evolved genetic context for vocalization genes supported more stable social relationships and with mammals this led to increased empathic capacities.  I think this suggests something else as well.  In his book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins floats the suggestion that some species, because of their particular genome, are more evolvable than others.  In learning about these recent studies I was struck by how birds have diversified over the past 66 million years into several thousand of species but they do not seem to have developed any great new abilities.  Mammals have also diversified (and let’s not bring insects into this) and they have developed the prerequisites for greatly increased cognitive and social organization.  Do mammals, especially the lines leading to cetacea and primates including hominids, have greater evolvability than birds?  Looks like it, and I cannot resist this speculation.  As I mentioned in the June, 2014, posts, birds and mammals have different embryological development.  All bird embryos start out as male and some are feminized through hormonal production.  All mammal embryos start out as female and some are masculinized through hormonal production.  Is starting female associated with more evolvability and starting male more limiting?  That might be a new twist in gender inequality, eh?

Wadjda–movie riff

Sometimes I see a movie that astounds me with its humanity. I know some are being made, the trick is to find them. We found a rare gem, Wadjda, about an 11 year old girl who wanted a bicycle. It was made in Saudi Arabia by Haifaa al-Mansour, who wrote the script and directed it, the latter mostly from inside a van with walkie-talkies because by law she is not allowed to mingle publicly with men not related to her by blood or marriage. While one of the Saudi princes helped produce the film, she also sought the backing of a German production company that would help with distribution because there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia. From this little information you can begin to understand the cultural frame wherein an 11 year old girl, Wadjda, wanting and working for a bicycle becomes a true-hearted tale of a rebellious and loving child traveling a rough path towards being a person with equal rights and standing, which in her culture is impossible. And yet she does it with a little help along the way.


Several themes in this blog come to relevance here, such as the dialectic between an individual’s creative license with cultural traditions and society’s conservative demands that individuals meet their responsibilities or the willing suspension of disbelief that enables our brains to see the truth in fiction or the empathy or lack thereof among the characters or even the symbol of that bicycle. Not to mention the power of art, when well done, to convey vital import and truth about life. From this you can begin to see I really liked this movie.

Wadjda is spunky; she is outspoken and questions the injustice of her world; she is entrepreneurial and independent; she is loving yet reserved and centered. The young actress here is brilliant as she portrays this character who does not easily fit into her culture. Truth be told, the culture would be the better if it accommodated her more readily. The writer-director is brilliant as she conveys the oppression of female persons in this culture and Wadjda’s struggle to assert her, dare I say ‘natural’, rights through a narrative of everyday life. This is no polemic; this is art and it is a powerful vision of humans as they struggle with life.

From my perspective I had no trouble getting into this movie; it was totally believable. What was unbelievable was how restrictive and life-reducing the constraints on females are. Really now, girls have to go inside from playing at school because workman on a nearby roof might look at them? Little moments, big import. There are males in the movie who appreciate Wadjda and quietly help her with her aspirations; there are females in the movie (well one actually and she is a hypocrite) who support Wadjda only as she comports herself according to the strict orthodoxy and push her down as soon as she asserts her curious aspirations. Most of the males are distant or disapproving and most of the females are nurturing. The movie ends with Wadjda contemplating the rest of her journey as a spunky girl in a barren landscape. I wish her well and hope for the best. My faith here is on the human spirit to transform society for the better and the power of art to make it so.

I know some Wadjda’s here. I am married delightfully to one who reminds me that she was also counseled to curb her activities as a girl to accommodate male misconduct, that her opportunities were restricted or made more difficult because of her gender, and that a woman recently walked for a few hours in New York City and recorded hundreds of catcalls. The struggle for gender equality is, for some historical reason, one for all of humanity. Is this biologically based? Well, our culture is a biological phenomenon but this inequality is not biologically necessary. Somewhere in the mists of time gender inequality became orthodox (and please tell me one more time so as I can understand why gender inequality should be religious orthodoxy?). Many such as John Stuart Mill in 1869 and Emmeline Pankhurst in the early 20th century have sought to clear the air and see a better day. Again, let us make it so.

Truth and Drama

Okay, so we can get caught up in a good book (I am thinking especially of a novel) or a good play or movie. Some may get caught up in a video game but that is slightly different from what I am discussing here. In doing so our brains mobilize many systems to engage in processing the information AS IF the characters, events, feelings, and the future waves breaking on the shore of the specious present were actual. Or not, we try the book, play or movie and it does not ring true to us at all and those neural systems do not light up. Aristotle said for drama to be successful, the three unities of time, place, and action were helpful in sustaining the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Our reality testing implicitly tells us this is a fiction, yet we still find truth in it.


Aristotle’s predecessor Plato counseled against permitting drama and poetry into the Republic, or at least, the wrong sort of drama and poetry, the kind, you know, that leads to a deterioration of character and morals and civilization. (All I want to say about that specifically is “Oops.”) This deterioration comes as we accept or model from the un-virtuous behaviors being dramatized and they thought this happened even though we willingly suspended our disbelief, and then, once finished, disbelieved once again. Oh, those ancients. Then I read studies that show that people, especially children, are more prone to low frustration tolerance and less empathy, even aggression, after gaming or watching too much violence. I do have friends who seem wonderfully normal but the only fiction they enjoy must yield an adrenalin surge. And recently a study showed that when parents watch more sex and violence, they are more inclined to let their children do so, thus explaining the ratings creep, where the old PG-13 has become a G and the old R has become PG-13 and the new R has become what? Did I mention that before I retired from clinical psychology I specialized in childhood trauma and maltreatment and child/adolescent sexually aggressive behaviors and that business was booming? No? Well, it was (and is, as I hear from old colleagues and see in the news).

This is a subtle manifestation of the interplay, dare I say the dialectic, between the processing of actual events and virtual ones. We are emerging from a long history wherein our social rituals, the recursive behaviors and memes, provided some constraints on our virtual inclinations by channeling them into the more socially circumspect ways and we have not yet developed adequate replacements (to my mind, and no, the compulsion to check your phone does not count as a ritual). Still, art is a constructive force in our lives; we learn from it, not the rote or the discursive, about the vitality of life, the vicissitudes of existence, including the sometimes shadowy boundary between our actual and virtual conceptions and the havoc raised when we mistake one for the other.

Let me refer you to Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher who discussed in an early book, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on philosophy and literature, the learning inherent in reading a novel, learning which she says we can hardly get in other ways about how to live. Novels are important she says, because they help escape “the ethical crudeness of moralities based exclusively on general rules, and to demand for ethics a much finer responsiveness to the concrete”. Life is vital and our efforts to understand this must be open to its richness. She also writes, “It is this idea that human deliberation is constantly an adventure of the personality, undertaken against terrific odds and among frightening mysteries, and that this is, in fact, the source of much of its beauty and richness, that texts written in a traditional philosophical style have the most insuperable difficulty conveying to us. If our mortal lives are ‘stories’ in which mystery and risk play a central and valuable role, then it may be seen that the ‘intelligent report’ of those lives requires the abilities and techniques of the teller of stories”.

This is a very different and a richer perspective from that of the deterioration of movie ratings and the dis-inhibition of aggressive and sexual behaviors by artistic-like adrenalin surge fictions. This is a fine true growth from our roots of empathy and symbolization. Travel on.

Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Pancho, I wish my beloved Dulcinea would stop this ruse that she does not know me.”


Glyph learning curve 2.0 +++

The fMRI study of reading from the last post pushed me down this path of inquiry. As we read a novel, we ‘enact’ in our minds the story virtually by using the same cells we use in real life. This is similar to the mirror cells, the ones we use, say, to lift a cup and drink coffee, that also light up when we see someone perform the same action or even mimic that action. Yet we know, i.e., our brains process the difference, when we act it out or we see or the action objectively and when we enact it virtually as we read. (I must point out that Susanne Langer was one of the first to elevate the theoretical importance of the concept ‘virtual’ as a part of her aesthetic theory way before we began to use computers to create worlds and avatars; see her 1953 book Feeling and Form). So as we read a novel (and following Langer when we engage with any art form) we construct the scene and narrative using the same capabilities we use in life (oh, that is Langer’s concept of art as vital forms of felt life). When characters appear, the system monitoring individuals lights up; when they talk, the systems, bilateral now, for conversation lights up; when they do things, the system detecting and monitoring biological actions (as opposed to rocks tumbling downhill) lights up; when characters feel and empathize, yes, those right hemisphere systems light up. We can get ‘caught up in a book” yet we still, for the most part, keep in mind the difference between the objective events of our life and the virtual forms of our art.

We must learn to read fully and some find this easier and more fulfilling than others. I have a friend who can’t be bothered, really, to read a novel when he can be fixing something or just taking it apart. After kids break the code of written language in early elementary school, they learn to visualize and keep narrative in mind and feel the experience of the characters. Think about our history here. Drama has been with us since even before writing. Poems or songs have been with us even longer, I suspect. Reflecting back to the post on the Glyph Learning Curve, we see that from coding business transactions to the hagiographies documenting the sacred authority of leaders to the very wonderful Odyssey and Iliad (remembering these are also histories), on to the Greek dramas and then religious myths (purported histories), we have learned how to use writing and reading to render cultural meaning. The modern novel is then a relatively recent development, think Don Quixote around 1605 or Tristram Shandy in the early 1700s. Both of these, I will point out, make full use of irony, another segment of the learning curve.

Through it all our neural systems maintain the distinction between the real life experience that impacts us and the virtual structures we build from our own impulses. This is a basic and non-trivial distinction. Consider OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder. People who experience this condition act on what they feel to be necessities inherent in the world as they think about it. In a sense they mistake their own anxious patterning with outside law. Indeed, one aspect of the cognitive therapy for this disorder is to externalize the ‘voice’ of the compulsion by giving it a name, say ‘bad boss,’ and telling it you are in charge and not it. Similarly with depressive thinking wherein someone thinks their life is totally awful, it will always be awful, and they have no power to change it. They mistake their negative thoughts for objective conditions and one facet of therapy is to counter this thinking. And of course consider hallucinations of all sorts.

So we are discovering and understanding how our brains construct reality and then use these capabilities to construct virtual domains (which we can then communicate symbolically). I hope we soon learn both how we keep them distinct and how we sometimes mistake one for the other. Seems important somehow. I know that Sancho Panza worried about it for his friend, Don Quixote.

Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Please, Don, just stay away from the windmills”.

WOW! A brilliant and difficult study

I saw over this holiday a few brief media reports of a study from Carnegie-Mellon that is quite different from what is usual. The research team placed subjects in an fMRI where they read on a screen one word at a time (every .5 seconds) from Chapter 9 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (where he learns to fly a broom and has an early confrontation with Malfoy. As they did so the researchers monitored brain activity. Now this took 45 minutes and produced an enormous amount of data so these good folks developed a sophisticated computer program for its analysis. This is one of the first, if not the first, attempt to study the brain’s functioning during reading as it occurs in real life, which, as we know, is a very complex action. Oh wait, there is more.



They were able to correlate brain activity to the segment read because of this design. The technical details here are really something and the computational aspect way over my head, but they had analyzed 195 features in the text, parsing out words, syntax, lexical features, presence of discourse, character identity, action, and emotion, word length, place in sentence string, and on and on, so that they would be able to see the brain’s response to these. The program learned to differentiate these features among the brain activity, so that afterwards, the program was able to differentiate which of two novel passages the subjects read with 75% accuracy by looking at their brain activity.


Now some results were expected. Word length was processed in an occipital region, a visual area so no surprise there. Character actions were processed by areas such as the posterior temporal lobe and angular gyrus (close to Wernicke’s area) previously associated with detection of biological motion. (I bet mirror neurons were involved). Characters’ perspectives comprised of their intentions and feelings were processed by right parietal areas and these are known to be important for the theory of mind (what I would call the empathic understanding of another’s interiority). Working memory areas in bilateral temporal lobes were used to build up comprehension of the text as it was read word by word. They also found signs of bilateral syntactic processing normally associated with just the left side. And much, much more.   I may post on this again after digesting it longer but the methodology is spectacular and I am so impressed at their ability to carry it out. It will be very helpful in extending functional brain scans to more natural, real-lie activities. Their method for parsing language and resolving the temporal parameters of linguistic processing with brain activity is truly brilliant and a lot of work, I am sure. Most importantly it shows, even as rudimentary as it might be at this time, how diverse areas of the brain, front and back, right and left, participate in processing symbolic information of some intellectual complexity. (Think plot, action, character, feelings, discourse, and the language used to communicate it all. Why, pretty soon, they might find signs of why some fiction is better art). Again, I say, WOW!

To read the study please go to: