a reality beyond understanding

Many of you may have seen a story about a woman in Mexico who had always fed stray dogs and cats.  When she died many stray dogs showed up at the funeral home, coming inside to lay beside her coffin and then following it to the crematorium.  Okay so far, but now I see that the funeral home was hundreds of miles from her home and these were dogs she had never seen (nor had the funeral workers).  Also her daughter reports that while sitting up with the body, a bird flew in an open window at 3 AM, flew over the casket, and then flew out singing.  There are pictures and video on the web and I am glad to see such legendary news these days.  Margarita Suarez lived a truly good life; dogs know these things about us.

Let us celebrate her life by playing.

Let us celebrate her life by playing.

a longer post on sleep

Awhile back I read two things that jostled something loose in my brain and I am working to get a handle on what and where it is. The first item was a PLOS article asking if infant sleep were a precursor to adult sleep, linked here.


This is an odd question to me, because all things infant (except those neurons marked for apoptosis or cell death) are the precursors of most adult things. Ask William Wordsworth and he will tell you:

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

Anyway the researchers found infant sleep to have similar components to adult sleep, so we also have it scientifically. The specifics here are interesting. The researchers identified cells in the pons (of mice) that turn off the body’s motor output, resulting in atonia, the limp, relaxed body state of sleep. Other cells turned on the twitching movements characteristic of dream states. Both of these are critical components of REM sleep, so that infant sleep is indeed a precursor to adult sleep, i.e., there is continuity of function through development. Of course we knew that but just hadn’t found it right here.

Reading further these researchers are following up on some work by Howard Roffwarg, a preeminent sleep researcher since the 1960s. He presented the notion in 1966 that dreaming, aka REM sleep, plays a role in our neurological development. In this he focused on the fact that for all mammals, REM sleep is more frequent during infancy than during adulthood, and that for adults, sleep and dream deprivation has serious negative results. This is great work.  Here is his picture and a good bio:  http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/psjournal/archive/archives/jour_v19no2/profile.html

Dr. Roffwarg

Dr. Roffwarg

Now while reading about this research, I also read in Joseph’s Neuroscience text that infants, who we know spend much time asleep and much of that time in REM sleep, also show REM during wakefulness. Dr. Roffwarg, it turns out, was probably one source for this information. He found that infants engage in more REM sleep, go directly from awake to REM unlike adults who have to have some period of deep sleep before REMing, and that the eye flutters and gurgles of satisfaction after nursing are really the manifestation of REM, the pons instigating the movements and relaxation.

I like this. If you have followed this train in my posts, you may remember that 1) I think consciousness is the autogenic (following Langer) control of sentience and 2) that sentience and consciousness, being two different things, can be on and off at different times. Sentience is a basic life function: find the nutrients out there and move on to more. Consciousness evolves as the CNS cephalizes and autogenic impulses, the vital energy the animal produces autonomously not in response to any impact from outside, take control of  sentient functions. From a past post, then, I thought that adults can be both sentient and conscious (as I assume you are now), not sentient but conscious (as in REM dream sleep), unconscious but sentient (as in highway hypnosis), and unconscious and insentient (as in deep sleep). Infants in their sleep patterns develop some control over these 4 states, thereby creating more discrete and adaptive functioning modes.

Now Dr. Roffwarg has studied the complexities involved in REM sleep as it prepares the developing mind for learning and then helps to maintain the mature mind’s capacity. From my perspective, early REM helps the developing self and MEMBRAIN exert control over sentient functions, the ones dedicated to perceiving the external environment and moving on to life sustaining activities. With this control comes the ability to be conscious, i.e., mindful, of non-sentient information such as memory and symbols. Thus, ‘priming’ for learning means the integration of perceptual information with intentional formation (and its displaced information), and ‘maintenance’ means the rhythmic resurgence of autogenic impulses over sentience while the sentient flow is much reduced. This would be another essential part of sleep: quieting the soma and its need for sentient processing of the welter out there, so that the information rising into the more mindful layers is self-generated. Which brings up the subject of meditation, but enough for now.

so is this kid dreaming or what?

so is this kid dreaming or what?

a hard knot of ignorance

The central features of a self are its sense of agency and its autobiographical memory, and I generally think of these as inherent in and specific to one organism.  Last Friday I saw a news story on TV that pushed the bounds of positivism hard.  Here is the link:  http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/boy-says-he-remembers-past-life-hollywood-agent-n327506.

A 10 year old boy (since the age of 6?) reports having a past life.  He gives many details about career changes, interests, house, address, and age of death.  His mother, who is evidently a Baptist, listens and skeptically wonders.  One day they are looking at a book about old Hollywood movies and the kid points to a man in a picture and says that was me.  The man is not identified in the book; he is just an extra in a movie.  Now comes in Dr. Jim Tucker, a psychiatrist at UVA who has documented many such cases, this one in his book, Return to Life.  Dr. Tucker talks to the kid and proceeds to check out the story by identifying the man in the picture and tracing his life.  He reports that the kid missed a few details but was mainly right.  Even further, the kid said he died at age 61 while the official death certificate for the man says 59, but somehow Dr. Tucker found out that this was an error–the man did die at age 61.

I love it.  The kid had his own sense of agency and autobiographical memory and the memory of someone else.  Other empirically minded researchers remain skeptical, saying these are only anecdotes but to my mind empiricism is not limited to controlled experiments as some moderns hold.  Empiricism, and science specifically, is based upon the idea that we cannot know what reality is, so that we must test and formulate and test and seek. Humans did not embark on agriculture or metallurgy or fermentation of good wine and beer without empirical efforts and as poorly controlled as they were, we had some good results.  So these are anecdotes? Then we have a place to start.  We don’t have a way of knowing what comes after death or before birth of any individual life (yet?), so then we have a mystery (or, as I like to say, a hard knot of ignorance to untangle).  That this boy’s story is not fabricated is patently true, so then we must search for an explanation through other scientific means.  This was the behest of William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience and I take it quite seriously.

Just keep on looking for understanding.

Just keep on searching for understanding.

Huntingtin protein and cephalization: a dialectic

The 3/7/15  Economist has an interesting article entitled ‘A Faustian bargain’ about some research into Huntington’s disease and a protein implicated in its pathogenesis, huntingtin.  A fair amount of hard science has been done here to find that the gene that produces huntingtin includes a string where an amino acid, glutamate, is repeated several times.  The number of repetitions in humans varies widely.  If glutamate repeats 35 times or less, the person will not suffer from Huntington’s, is at risk with repetitions from 36 to 40, and greater than 40, they will develop this disease.  Some other findings are interesting.  First, the protein huntingtin has been found to increase the number of neurons in the embryological development of the brain; children tend to have more repeats than their parents (remembering that if it goes too far, they will suffer the disease).

More huntingtin protein than its parents and so more neurons, but too much and the child is at risk for Huntington's disease.

More huntingtin protein than its parents and so more neurons, but too much and the child is at risk for Huntington’s disease.

Cross species research has shown that the larger the CNS is, the more repeats.  Sea urchins with a vary simple nervous system have 2 repeats, zebrafish 4, mice 7, dogs 10, and rhesus monkeys around 15.  These results have led some researchers to speculate about a ‘Faustian bargain’.  The more repeats up to a point, the bigger the brain, but go too far and Huntington’s disease comes on to damage your ability to control your movements, mind and continue your life.  Another example where balance is quite important.

The protein huntingtin would also seem to be implicated in cephalization, the process whereby the central nervous system expands into a brain in the head with the further implication that more that can be organized into ‘higher’ functions.  This can be seen in our embryological development as the brain adds the hindbrain and midbrain and then the forebrain.  Huntington’s disease starts in midbrain structures.

The layering of growth in the embryonic brain

The layering of growth in the embryonic brain. 

An important protein, this huntingtin, for many reasons. Now in previous posts I have talked Susanne Langer’s notion of one dialectic governing the advance of our mental faculties, the balance between the soma and our symbolic capacity. If imbalanced towards the soma, our intellect suffers, and if imbalanced towards our symbolic capacity, out intellect loses its grounding in somatic reality with predictable results. The huntingtin gene would seem something of a pivot point. A low amount and the brain is smaller in structure and organization, thus function, and a higher amount leads to greater capacity but at the risk of debilitating the soma. Evolution has progressed by limiting the survival of those who brains ‘grew’ larger too fast to maintain the somatic-mental balance yet still pushing forward to larger brains. That, I think, illustrates beautifully what Dr. Langer had in mind when she articulated this dialectic.

Who’s in charge of what now?

I have been following (from a safe distance) news stories about ISIS destroying ancient statuary and other art stemming from religious traditions other than theirs, yet another iteration of fundamentalism run amok, like the taliban destroying Buddhist statues carved in 500 C.E. or monks with Cortez burning Mayan libraries or so the list goes on.  Trying to eliminate the devil’s influence by destroying art somehow seems counter-productive to humanity; likewise destroying art in the effort to control what others think and believe is far down the road to insanity.  Consider Laszlo Toth, who in 1972 took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta shouting that he was Jesus resurrected.


Then contrast this with statements from some humanists, such as firebrand atheists like Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who have said that eliminating religion would not be good if it meant losing the works of art it has inspired, such as the Sistine Chapel and the Pieta.

I have written before of Susanne Langer’s thought that two dialectics govern humanity, one between the soma and intellectual flight through symbols and the other between a society and its creative individuals.  She said, as have others in other ways, that balance was key and further, that there is no guarantee that balance will be maintained.  Ignorant fundamentalists who think they know some ultimate truth are unerringly destructive of humanity’s  balanced achievement, and individuals who become too ensconced in their own hallucinations (and I am not talking just of insanity here) are similarly destructive.

And then I read a recent story in the NY Times about the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.  Whoa, how to catalogue this bit of intellectual hooliganism?  Probably in the comedy section under tragedy.  Here’s the link:


The Dalai Lama, long exiled from his homeland, has wondered if he were going to be reincarnated and so continue as the head of Tibetan Buddhism.  The Chinese government upon hearing this criticized his frivolous irresponsibility, to wit, “Decision-making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and over the end or survival of this lineage, resides in the central government of China,” said Mr. Zhu, formerly a deputy head of the United Front Department of the Communist Party, which oversees dealings with religious and other nonparty groups.”  As the Times points out, here is an atheistic government insisting on a religious continuance.  Of course, they had captured the child who had been designated as the monk reincarnated to find the next Dalai Lama and killed his family and have since been indoctrinating him to find the person they want in order to further subjugate the Tibetan people.  Talk about no sense of irony–this is a serious failing.

The Romans were partly successful in building their empire because they adopted/co-opted the gods of people they conquered.  They said in effect you can believe anything you want and we will join you, if only you render unto Caesar what is his (taxes).  This did not work with the Jewish people because their religion forbid mingling with the other group and so Rome had a real struggle on their hand there. (An interesting read on this is Selina O’Grady’s And Man Created God: A History of the World at the Time of Jesus ).

So different organizations have taken charge of different things and been quite mistaken.  Consider the Catholic church and the solar system, Copernicus and Galileo.  Best to recognize your limits and stick to what is really under your purview. And, most importantly, keep a sense of irony about your limits.  This man surely does.


memory and regret

I have read another book by Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist (previous one, The Age of Empathy, was discussed here on 1/28/15 and more so on 2/25/14). I really admire his work and feel much kinship to his way of thinking. I plan on a couple of comments, today on autobiographical memory and later on altruism. Dr. de Waal is an amazing and pioneering primatologist and his books show his research and his anecdotes show his experience. He challenges anyone who thinks an ape, e.g., chimpanzee, is not conscious or does not have an identity to spend time with a chimp relating face to face and still maintain that prejudice.

So you say I'm not conscious or reflective?  Probably a projection on your part.

So you say I’m not conscious or reflective? Probably a projection on your part.

One of my favorite stories is about an alpha male bonobo who took care of an elder female who was blind and deaf, leading her outside by day to a favorite sunny spot and inside at night. When she had a seizure, he stayed with her until she recovered. Then one time a veterinarian was handing out vitamins when this male bonobo bit down too hard on her finger, breaking the bone and indeed taking off the end.  The bonobo immediately looked like ‘uh-oh’ and released the finger. A few days later the veterinarian visited again and held up her bandaged hand. The bonobo ran to a far corner, hiding his face. The vet a few months later took another job and did not return to the first facility until 15 years later. The old bonobo recognized her in the crowd outside the exhibit right away, ran to the glass greeting her in a positive bonobo manner, and then tried persistently to view her left hand hidden by the exhibit wall that he had bitten years before. Clearly this anecdote provides signs of both agency and autobiographical memory, which I take to be hallmarks of an evolving self.

Now here is a question. The bonobo recognized her and remembered his action, so we are able to infer some contents of his mind. Did he, like we humans so often do, remember her over the years (through recall, not just recognition), appreciating her relationship yet regretting his mistake? Without a richer capacity for symbolic thought and communication, we do not know how he processed and reflected on his experience, but I’ll bet he did. Bonobos are big on reconciliation after a conflict as are most primates, so I am sure we share at least part of this biological root of humanity with him (and them).

Even though it was accidental, I'll regret biting her finger off until my dying day.

Even though it was accidental, I’ll regret biting her finger off until my dying day.

2 Reviews

It has been busy here at the old farm and surrounds. I have seen much about which to blog but I have not had the time or energy. I am hopeful that my life is about to calm down (and I know it will once the spring growing season commences). Here are two reviews of a movie and a book to catch up with myself.

Last week we saw “Lucy” a nifty little movie with Scarlett Johansson by Luc Besson. Once I got past my displeasure about the film’s premise, that we only use 10% of our brain and would be super creatures if we used more (and this is a serious defect in the film), I paid attention to Besson’s usual logical play-out of a plot. He is a great filmmaker and I recommend without reservations and with all urgency that you see Atlantis about undersea life (gorgeous) and Himalaya (you will never see its like again). But here is my quibble (and I hope not to give the plot away). As Lucy becomes more prescient, she displays less emotion; she is not happy. My thinking here is that knowledge and understanding even of human faults, of which there are many, is joyous, because as Angelique Kidjo says, “Possibility is joy.” And knowledge engenders joy. So, a good movie, not great, and I hope someone is making a movie about humans becoming super creatures and being happy about it.

I also just finished reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Again, I do not want to give away the plot, which concerns a woman with a strong intellectual and scientific bent in the early to mid-1800s, a young contemporary of Darwin. Some passages are really quite fine, beautiful, even gorgeous, as Ms. Gilbert renders a quiet and incredible life. The ending of the book revolves around our understanding of altruism (oh, I will be writing more on this) and again, this is art at its best. (Read Martha Nussbaum’s Love’s Knowledge about a novel’s importance in rendering lessons about life). The book gives great credit to Darwin and to Alfred Russell Wallace and shows a wonderfully different picture of the times leading up to humanity’s realization that we too evolved. My favorite. Travel on.