some variant views of empathy and one of self-relevance

The NY Times today is interesting.  Nicholas Kristof has an op-ed entitled “How do we increase empathy?” in which he looks at various studies regarding empathy.   In reading this I again realized how divergent my view of empathy is.  I wrote about this early on in the development of this blog but not so much recently.  In short, I see empathy as a basic biological function in which animals sense their own and others’ interiority and then communicate social information about identity, intents, feelings , etc. Others view it either more restrictively, constrained by a particular discipline’s perspective or research protocol, or more expansively as empathy helps us imagine or identify far afield from our person and current situation.  I have no general argument with these views, just that empathy is at its inception how one MEMBRAIN communicates with another MEMBRAIN about the interiority that cannot be perceived objectively but that both know is there and filled with important information, and further that this culminates, i.e., reaches its highest expression, in intimacy, a necessary precursor for intellectual development.  Now the details, because of course the devil lies in the details (or is it god? I forget which).

Kristoff cites research showing a rat will help another escape a trap before eating as proof that it is hard-wired.  The sin here is not that rats show empathy because they do, but that he uses the phrase hard wired.  As I have said before, the machine metaphor of hard wiring is very limited in capturing biological phenomena.  Yes, certain neurological substrates serve empathic functioning but neurological substrates have no wires (it is a metaphor, I know) but neurons awash in a flow of chemicals, neurotransmitters and hormones.  For example, oxytocin is important in increasing empathy and animals have varying amounts across species and varying levels in any one individual.  So one answer to the title question about how to increase empathy is to promote oxytocin levels (or reduce its antagonists like adrenalin–I’m looking at you gamers and other adrenalin junkies).  This is complicated.  As Kristoff correctly states, meditation promotes empathy in part, I say now, presumably, through reduction of stress hormones like adrenalin, but also in part through its value and promotion of peaceful living and the quest for harmony.

Kristoff discusses some research showing the effects of wealth on empathy, mainly as an inhibitor.  Here we begin to leave my view behind in a cloud of dust because of the great complexity of such culturally biased research.  I am not in the mood to address the particulars here, and instead I encourage you to look through the comments about this op-ed until you come to one by a person raised in India who now resides in the USA.  He points out in a non-judgmental fashion a difference in the two cultures, and I think an important consideration in looking at how empathy operates in a broader social-symbolic context.  He says here in the USA our emphasis on individualism (achievements, success, wealth, bootstraps, etc.) elevates self-importance as a virtue, as a sign of how good we are.  In India (and many eastern cultures) the emphasis is on interdependence and that elevates self-relevance as a virtue as a sign of how our actions effect others.  This is, in a word, brilliant, and in a few more words, profoundly true.

Kristoff also mentions research showing that reading the classics, e.g., Dickens, enhances empathy, though lesser reads do not.  This is another important point because art of all sorts promotes empathy and intellect; some art is better than other (I’m just saying pay attention to what you value and take in as art).  I will remember this conceptualization of self-relevance; I think it would be a powerful meme if we would adopt it as such and would counter-balance our culture’s esteem of self-importance.  Take care of your self-relevance and your self-esteem, your self-concept, will already be positive, grounded and not inflated by material grandiosity.

Interspecies friends

Consider the issues raised in the recent NY Times article linked here about interspecies relationships:

This relates some of the discussion amongst scientists about how to understand the demonstrated relationships between dogs and cheetahs in a zoo or between a dog and a donkey on a scientist’s Wyoming ranch and so forth. Is this ‘friendship’ or just conditioned learning enforced by humans? How can scientists keep in a positivist tradition and give an adequate account of such phenomena?

One scientist is quoted as saying that these relationships (surely we can use that word without spurious quibbles) were not interesting because they were only found in a human engineered environment (tell that to the ants and aphids). I am sure that this scientist did not mean to imply that our ability to engender a domesticated environment does not merit scientific investigation or that our relationships with dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, etc. were uninteresting because of human involvement. I hope he meant that understanding these relationships must include understanding our role in them. That would be soundly positivistic; otherwise his statements could be seen as based upon some prejudice, and we know that can only lead to ignorance. It would certainly not be good science.

Other scientists are asking the questions here. How can we define friendship or companionship in observable terms? If the benefits are such that the two can be seen as symbiotic, does that preclude friendship?   How long does it have to last to even say it is a relationship? The dog and donkey mentioned above learned to play together after the dog persisted and so overcame the donkey’s ‘natural’ apprehension of the dog as potential enemy. Now they anticipate each other’s company each day. Will one show signs of missing the other once one has died? Sure humans are involved and have in a sense engineered the circumstance wherein the two species are more isolated with each other. The zoo has used dogs as companions to cheetahs and this has modified the cheetahs behaviors enough so that they are more ‘handable’, e.g., they can be taken out on trips as zoo ambassadors. All these animals are mammals, though the article does mention a tortoise, and many are quite social, dogs in packs (including their humans if you go to the dog park), donkeys in herds, etc.

This is really interesting to me. I have written earlier about Frans de Waals report of an elephant in the wild, after inadvertently injuring a human observer, stood over that observer and protected him from the area’s predators until rescuers came and even then the elephant had to be convinced somehow that they would not hurt their fellow person. And what about the story (from a video) of a dolphin whose swimming ability was severely compromised by a tangle of fishing hooks and lines and who swam up to a human diver who used his tools to free the dolphin? Or the whale tangled in netting freed by several divers who then went and tapped each one on the mask before swimming off? These events do not meet the proposed criteria for friendship because they are one time events but these animals certainly seem friendly enough. Yes, humans did engineer these events by observing in the wild or by polluting the ocean with our fishing lines and nets but really now, uninteresting because humans are involved? Inter-species is inter-species no matter what animals are involved.

The scientist about whom I am ragging on (poor fellow—I hope he is really a good researcher) used the analogy of a human garden and the beauty of the natural landscape to indicate how one merits his interest and the other does not. Now I live and work on a farm in a mountain valley in southwest Virginia so I happen to have both of those out my door and I must say I find both quite interesting. But then I find both a light bulb and a star interesting as well. And empathy, how about the attachments and empathic connections between individuals of different species?  Funny me.

I'm bored.  Is my friend coming over or should I get in trouble all by myself?

I’m bored. Is my friend coming over or should I get in trouble all by myself?

So you hallucinate 2?

One of the things I learned as a psychologist is that many people, healthy and otherwise,  report unusual experiences such as seeing and hearing things that are not there. On some well standardized tests asking many yes/no questions many adults and even more adolescents answered such questions ‘yes’, they had seen things others could not see. These were not patients but the normative sample of presumably healthy people. I find this interesting on several counts. As I have stated before, Susanne Langer posited two types of biological action, impactive that results when energies and objects from outside the organism impinge on it, and autogenic that results from the organism’s own autonomous vital processes. Hallucinations would seem to derive from the latter; they are of our own making. (Then again, even though our perceptual world is impactive in origin, we do construct it as well).

One of the glaring errors behaviorism made (Oh, was there more than one? Oh yes), was to ignore, even deny, autogenic activity in their assertion that, if mind did exist (doubtful to many of these lost souls), it was due to conditioning as we interacted with the environment, as sort of extreme tabula rasa ala John Locke. Our brains show a lot of spontaneous activity. A neuron, even a sensory or perceptual one, is firing even as it ‘waits’ for an outside stimulus to arrive. Neurons in other parts are even more active as they maintain muscle tone, process memories, formulate intents, dream, imagine beauty, etc. and hallucinate. Neuronal responses to stimulation are overlays on their ongoing activity.   The connectome is complicated, self-generated and self-maintaining, as it manifests our mental experience.

Sure, dreams and hallucinations often reflect our experiences but some definitely do not.   And anyway we combine the elements according to our own impulses,  More importantly, our finding beauty and constructing beautiful things must come from within us, i.e., we generate it autogenically; beauty is not really out there but in here. In my current reading in Joseph’s Neuroscience text I am finding out that most dreams and hallucinations, at least the more complex ones, depend upon temporal lobe functioning. Indeed, Joseph says that much of what we call conscious experience and our memories thereof depend upon temporal lobe functions (of course in conjunction with other lobes and remember the claustrum from an earlier post). So many things happen in the temporal lobe that are important to our humanity, even perhaps, as Julian Jaynes postulated, the voices of our gods.

temporal lobe is green

temporal lobe is green

In looking at Joseph’s citations I noticed an article by John Lilly, a name often in the news long ago but not so much now. He was famous back in the day for consorting with dolphins & beat poets and for doing research with the sensory deprivation tank, a tank with warm salt water in a diffusely lighted and mostly soundless room in which you could sit or float with a minimum of sensory stimulation. He first experimented on himself, believing that was the ethical thing to do, and then had other subjects. The relevant point here is that with such extremely reduced stimulation, people hallucinate. Our minds have to do something even if there is nothing sensorily to do.


Expert meditation practitioners can block perception, sort of a sensory deprivation controlled from the inside (by the MEMBRAIN) rather than from control of the outside. To do this they focus on an image or on their breathing and let the mind’s flow go unimpeded or through other methods. Daniel Goleman in his book, Destructive Emotions, reports early research by Richard Davidson into meditation and EEGs. He (Davidson) found that good meditators quickly show typical EEGs which are slower and without the bumps and jumps instigated by ongoing objective experience. At the highest level of meditation practice, the person in deep meditation did not respond to a simulated gunshot from just behind him or her. Most people’s EEGs spiked with the startle reflex but the experts’ hardly bumped up at all. When asked they said that the gunshot was like a bird flying across their field of vision.


In a way, then, meditation is the analogue opposite to hallucinations, both autogenic actions withdrawn from impactive stimulation but one is relaxed and open in its interiority and the other void filling activity. More later and until then, maintain your own meditation and dream of beauty.

fractured MEMBRAINs

I mentioned awhile back I am reading R. Joseph’s Neuroscience text to review and expand some old learnings. One thing I have not thought about for a long time are some particular lacunae in our consciousness such as phantom limbs, denial of disability, split brain and other disconnection effects, etc. Joseph highlights these in several places to illustrate the sequelae of neurological damage. In these cases the MEMBRAIN may retain its over all integrity surrounding our interiority while fractures hamper its functions of passing information in and out and keeping information in and out.


I talked about split brain phenomena earlier in discussing Jaynes’ book on the “Origin of Consciousness”, i.e., when the corpus callosum is surgically severed in the effort to control seizure activity by confining it to one hemisphere. Joseph relates further anecdotes from this research, such as a patient who was smoking with his left hand while the right kept trying to snatch the cigarette and throw it down and saying, “Stop that.” Here the right hemisphere wants to smoke but the left does not. Because the two are disconnected, they do not present with an integrated intent and instead present as if two minds were extant in one brain, fractured now into two MEMBRAINs containing two interiorities.


Consider the phenomena of a ‘phantom limb’ and its converse of sorts, a ‘neglected limb.’ When someone loses a limb that part of the brain’s connectome which served it retains the memory of that limb for a long time. Even though the person can see it is missing and certainly cannot use it, they feel it, they have impulses to use it, etc. Here the MEMBRAIN keeps in what has passed through and the new information now coming only slowly displaces the old. Even more remarkable in a way, Joseph cites many examples of neglect, which occurs when a perceptual area of the brain is damaged or its connections severed. We see this when a right handed person is asked to draw a clock and they crowd all the numbers into the right portion of the field because their right hemisphere is compromised, so the left portion is virtually (literally) unknown or unperceived. (Everybody remembers that right brain serves left side and vice versa, correct?) When the damage impairs the sensorimotor fields serving a limb, the rest of the brain does not receive innervation from it and so does not ‘know’ it exists. Sometimes the brain confabulates, i.e., makes up information, to fill in the void. A person whose arm has been neurologically disconnected in such a way, when asked about the arm, say to move it or if they can feel touch, will tell the doctor that that arm is not his. When asked whose it is, they will say, ‘It must be yours, doctor,’ and when the doctor holds up his or her two arms, then another story is concocted assigning the arm to someone else. We can more easily detect the neglect here because it involves the perceptual-motor system but other disconnections occur. A person may not show any emotions that they do feel because of the disconnect with areas serving empathic expression or they may not recognize familiar faces, even their own, because of damage to that area, a condition known as prosopagnosia. Some are virtually blind due to stroke damage and still maintain they can see even as they fumble and fall and bump into things.

My interest here arises from how these phenomena demonstrate so concretely the fact that our conscious reality is constructed at a very basic level. This only begins to approach the facts evinced when the construction somehow includes hallucinatory information of all types, e.g., psychiatric, normal, religious, dream states, inspirational, etc. The MEMBRAIN can be fractured in many ways and the interiority then loses some of its integrity as its tie to the sentient world is broken and then fills with information from other realms. Most times but not always a bad thing, that. Dream on.

nice try, Homo erectus

Science News among others reported a find of a shell with clearly scratched lines, a sort of N combined with a W or vice versa, by Homo erectus over 400,000 years ago. Our man is No. 3 here (and we are No. 6).

By Волков В.П. (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Волков В.П. (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

That’s almost 300,000 years before Homo sapiens began to swim in the gene pool, much less began to glyph around. One archeologist commented that what we understand to be modern human behavior needs some revision. I believe that truth has been blowing in the wind for some time now, with big gusts since Darwin but a strong breeze continues even from Copernicus and Galileo.

I thought more about the idea mentioned last post, i.e., our minds beginning with intimacy and ending with intellectual endeavors, perhaps as two endpoints of that specific segment or arc on the continuum of evolution and now our development. Now I wonder if this shell comes from an early try to make a glyph in the effort to communicate mental musings with others. If so, it didn’t help them survive because that specific lineage died out long ago, though we do not understand this well due to so little data. We moderns assuredly share many of our genes with them because we do with every body else. But here we maybe have a simple and early example of the intimate-intellectual continuum, a very short arc as it were back then:

So, on an island in the south Pacific, one individual uses a shark’s tooth to scratch lines on a shell and another wonders what the other one is cogitating about. This occurs presumably long before human culture had coalesced and begun to fill our minds and the gap between them with memes, maybe even before language had evolved to the point where reporting on the virtual reality of our interiority was done with facility. I don’t see this as a meme (maybe an ur-meme) because of the lack of a coherent meaning conveyed in its expression. This does illustrate to my mind how our keen sense of empathy, working up to a theory of mind that can guide our understanding of another’s interiority and onward then through linguistic (and shell) communication to share our practical and intellectual thought, how this led to an intimate moment of sharing otherwise private mentations, or as we lovers say, a penny for your thoughts?

death and the connectome

Quick post about a well done story in the NY Times on Sebastian Seung’s and other’s efforts at mapping the connectome, the connections between neurons or the white matter, not the grey.  Here is the link:;  and here is a picture:

wikimedia commons

wikimedia commons

Going back to my cauliflower model (and no, buying it did not exhaust my budget for the year as some have wondered), imagine if all the florets were missing and just the interconnections were present, different colors for different neurotransmitters.  Consider that the brain has 10,000,000,000 neurons and each of those can have a thousand or more connections–that is the connectome.  Gonna need some kind of computer power there. A good read.

And here is a story that contributes to Seung’s inspiration.  A young woman in Norway had a skiing accident in which she tumbled a good ways down and then crashed through the ice covering a stream.  It was an hour or so before her friends could retrieve her body.  She was dead; her body temp was in the 50s F, but they airlifted her to a hospital where they slowly warmed her body up and then her heart started beating again.  She had to undergo much rehab but she more or less fully recovered, her personality and memories and her ability to work as a doctor all intact. So despite all loss of metabolism and activity, her brain, its neurons and their connectome, preserved her identity and knowledge.  No word of her memory or perception of the death or near death experience.  How this could occur is currently a mystery Dr. Seung and the rest of us can enjoy.

Intimacy and MEMBRAIN 2.0: ripening and bruising

I have been thinking more about the MEMBRAIN with its intimate functioning and its risk of disruption (think recent news reports of sexual assaults on campus). Imagine a head of cauliflower, how it develops up from the stem, expands through the addition of increasingly differentiated flowerets, and then ripens as a model of the brain. The growth follows two gradients, first from the inside out and of course, bottom to top.


Looking at the ‘brain’ from the bottom we can see how its growth spreads and expands through differentiated tissues. Our brains start with a neural tube from which all the nerve and glial cells emerge and then travel to their assigned place; the tube ends up being the ventricles wherein cerebral-spinal fluid is made to bathe the cells in nutrients. At the head of the tube the midbrain and cerebrum form with all their lobes and wrinkles.


Imagine further that different vertical structures operate with different neurotransmitters, so that some of the ‘florets’ are one color and some another, some fire up quickly in passing and some slow and sustained, and then further that ‘floret’ tops communicate with each other through long fibers front and back (green bands), left and right (commissures). Get the picture? (Yes, we see).


As stated in the last post, intimacy involves very open MEMBRAIN functions, much is let in and out, not much is kept in or out. This permeability is managed through the arousal (and then the attentional) system that initiates from a central structure and goes up into the cerebrum. That is the red circle at top. Indeed, when you watch an fMRI you can see the intensity of arousal rising up through the middle and then spreading out as the lateral systems begin to process front and back, left and right.


We start our intimate journey at the outset with our parents when our brains are beginning to ripen, i.e., mature. When we attach and bond with them we are using and developing lower and central structures and because the right side matures earlier than the left, we are also using our right hemisphere more. The mother-child communication is done with the right side of the brain.


These experiences are important for oh so many reasons, particularly because this helps us develop our control of emotional arousal and thus MEMBRAIN permeability. Wow! And later, as the left hemisphere comes into its own, the child learns to attend to fine motor tasks while ensconced in a safe, nurturant and guiding relationship.

Father child

Now some early events can bruise the ripening fruit and affect its subsequent development, subtly affecting its capacity for intimacy. Should the mother become unavailable through emotional difficulties, illness, substance abuse, physical absence (think military deployment), or death, this loss can affect how the brain ripens. Likewise, trauma, especially family violence and sexual abuse, bruises the brain and this bruise can be seen in the deficient development of emotional control and the subsequent compromise of intimacy. And this is important because we start by developing our intimacy capacity as we travel on to develop our intellectual abilities.

Consider two features of children with attachment disorders and/or an early history of family based trauma. The first is that they want constantly and this want is rarely satisfied. The parent (figure) can give and give but the child does not take it in really; their MEMBRAIN is impervious to affection and its manifestations. You give them a hug and they want more or something else or you hugged another child so . . . or you give them shrimp and they want steak or . . .you get the idea. This emotional coldness extends to their own lack of empathic consideration for others. The second is that they do not operate with sequential reasoning very well and this includes responsibility for their own actions. Parents can watch the child’s misbehavior directly and then grow exasperated when the child denies its actions. When working with them therapists (and parents) have to back up a step and teach them to think in story board form like a comic strip, e.g., this follows from this and that follows from that. Their intellectual grasp of these matters was compromised when the MEMBRAIN was bruised early on.

The violation of intimacy by males sexually assaulting females is related to this and I will say more later about that, but I am also getting an itch to talk about other topics. So long for now.