Beautiful complexity

Remember the connectome, those synaptic connections and systems of neurons that scientists like Dr. Seung believe maintain the experiences defining our individuality (see post “death and the connectome” of 1/10/15). Here is a simplified picture.

wikimedia commons

wikimedia commons

Now imagine this: each line and each color represents the reception and production of many impulses and neurotransmitter discharge and re-uptake between and among neurons and neuronal systems. With each impulse received and produced, the lines and their colors change, indicating some change in their participation of the brain’s information processing; the systems retain some integrity of function but perform widely different processes moment by moment, a true phantasmagoria from which our personality and mind emerge. Somehow the connectome functions with coherence, integrity and usefulness. Now consider an essay by Eve Marder in PLoSBiology on 5/12/15, “Understanding Brains: Details, Intuition and Big Data”. Dr. Marder discusses the current state of our neuroscience with its tsunami of data and sophisticated data analyses and the continued, perhaps increased, importance of intuition as researchers ponder their data and theorists seek coherence, integrity, and usefulness. This work is complex and technical; I read with ignorant wonder about brain oscillations and neural integrators, etc. I read with keen interest her presentation of issues, probably of long standing, with data collection and interpreting it meaningfully over and above its reliability and validity. She says we can avoid wandering around a self-created wilderness for 40 years by staying closer to the data, that is increasingly more difficult with technological advances across many fields, biological and physical, and by maintaining some intellectual rigor in our intuitive efforts to further our understanding, especially in our modeling. This is a fine essay by a thoughtful, diligent and creative scientist of some precision. Here is the link: And here is Dr. Marder. evemarder She and her colleagues have led us to understand even more completely how complex the connectome actually is by studying lobster nervous systems. This is important for many reasons. They have shown that one input through the same system goes through myriad redundant and dynamic processes so that the output at any one time is very difficult to specify. Even in a lobster the organism determines what to make of things. The traditional method of administering a stimulus and then watching the result in order to learn the specifics of the system does not go very far in learning about the connectome; the reflex arc, the simple S-R of the good old days, is way too simple a model to be useful because the organism’s brain is too dynamic and runs its processes of its own accord. Phantasmagoria squared, ain’t it?

gender, culture and biology

Ah, Ireland has voted for marriage between people in love as the only qualification–quite a departure from the Catholic canon.  (maybe now they can drink less on St. Patrick’s Day–see my post on that day).  I am reading E. O. Wilson’s seminal book, On Human Nature, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1979 as he extended Darwinian thinking to human culture and thereby set the stage for the integration of biological conceptualizations into the humanities and social sciences (to which I contribute a small part).  A good read.  I just finished the chapter on sex and I have to admire his clarity on the subject.  He states that the religious perspective on sex is wrong, i.e., that sex is not about reproduction and that there are plenty of other and easier ways for organisms to reproduce.  Sex on one level introduces variation into the genome, each mating or fertilization yields a unique individual (or twins), but socially, sex is about bonding.  It is a coin of relationship.  That said, the cultural institution of marriage formalizes an exclusive (sort of) bond and homosexuality is not un-natural because sex is not about reproduction.  Of course, he brings forth many bits of knowledge to support this eminently commonsensical view.

He did not have some more recent findings that bolster this perspective (not that he needed them).  We had not studied our close relatives the bonobos, smaller and more peaceful than the chimpanzee.  Sexual interaction is ubiquitous in their relationships; they engage sexually to make friends, to make up after a conflict, to relax and feel good sitting around the old banyan tree.  We had not specifically identified brain differences among genders; Jaak Panksepp in his wonderful text, Affective Neuroscience (that I used to mention a lot), wrote that he asked his students how many sexes/genders there are and then taught them that there are four, male body+male brain, male body+female brain, female body+female brain, and female body+male brain.  He taught this because science has led us to this understanding.  Finally, we have the benefit of our culture admitting that people vary gender-wise a good deal.  This is analogous to handedness; we used to think that people were either right or left handed (and forced some lefties to perform as righties) and then  we found that such preferences were more complicated, such as a baseball player throws right and bats left, and now we are discovering that lateralization of different functions is even more varied.  So the simple categories lose some validity.

My daughter does some work with HRC, the Human Rights Committee, on LGBT issues.  From her I have learned that people report many different genders, including some who self-identify as no gender.  Dr. Wilson discusses the biologically based gender differences between males and females using some twin studies and especially John Money’s pioneering work on hermaphrodites, and then presents how all cultures, from the hunter-gatherers on, have exaggerated those  differences into different cultural forms.  He, for one, believes we can determine our cultural course if we attend to what we really know.  I do not know if we ‘determine’ our course so much as ‘cultivate’ it, but that difference matters little.

Sometimes our progress comes from categorizing and understanding the differences and sometimes our progress comes from understanding that the facts of the matter are very complex, and always our progress comes from empirical efforts and with love (otherwise it ain’t progress).  Cultivating this view is a great challenge when we consider the cultural perspectives against LGBT equality prevalent in much of Africa, Asia, and eastern Europe. So like all of life, we feel our way forward.

Music Miscellany 2.0, 2.1, & 2.2

A follow up from the music study discussed 5/10/15. First, when I described this study to friends at the beach, the musician among us immediately focused on the catergory F-L+, unknown but liked music, knowing that was the gateway to familiarity and also that he goes there when composing. Another friend told how her mother would calm in the last days of Alzheimer’s when they sang some of the old tunes. Clearly music is powerful.

2.1 Then comes this article in the NYT reporting some research focused on bird songs and who listens, their conspecifics, other birds and some mammals. Sound is a special medium and we process it specifically for its special characteristics as we communicate with sound empathically, musically or linguistically. NYT Link here:

2.2 Finally a word on the neurofunctional findings of that excellent study. I have already mentioned that familiar music lights up limbic structures. Liking music seems to light up small regions in the cingulate cortex and frontal lobe, including motor areas including Broca’s (speech).


The cingulate cortex, area 24 wrapping atop the corpus callosum here, is also called the limbic cortex; it would seem to be involved in integrating between the limbic output, especially from the hippocampus, and frontal lobe structures involved in movement and feedback. That Broca’s area lights up listening and without singing or speaking suggests how important singing along is to liking music, sort of mirror function probably through the arcuate fasciculus.  There is more to digest here as liking seems to involve a curious interaction between right and left sides.  Oh boy.

arcuate fasciculus

Even further, music scholars such as Angelique Kidjo, Aniruddh D. Patel, and Daniel Levitin state that music at its roots is participatory. We listen to move (and sing). With language we also listen to speak and must learn how to listen without speaking. Watch a good preschool teacher at group time helping the kids, especially the boys, to hold their responses and listen to someone else or the entire story. It is an important skill, and of course some do and some do not learn well how to yield the floor and listen to the other. Now, a 1 and a 2 and a 3 . . .

Life’s other property

All life is local—one of my favorite sayings, almost a tautology of sorts but life’s locality comes on many levels. Consider our chemistry: oxidation happens the same everywhere; metabolic oxidation happens only somewhere. Rather than our energies disperse and spread out to become information-less as entropy demands, they sustain a fragile structure in a negentropic manner within the boundary of a semi-closed system. Of course entropy is the law so each structure will cease to be maintained sooner or later and hopefully after reproduction.   While our genes replicate individuals, more or less, the experiential details compose the life history. Life is inherent in genes; it is manifest in the soma.


All right, so what is life’s other property? The clues are in our semi-closed system and genetic replication, and the answer is displacement. Reproduction displaces the currents devolving in one life into the flow of the next. The soma within its boundary, such as cell membranes or skin, moves on its own displacing space over time.   The soma ingests and excretes (displaces) in the service of sustaining metabolism, thus we are a semi-closed system. Most curiously the soma’s brain transforms ambient energies, chemical scents, visual lights, auditory vibrations, skin temperature and pressure, thereby displacing the stimuli of the moment to a another nervous time and space, and then our brain develops a very local, interior virtual domain with its MEMBRAIN in control. The evolution of empathy and symbols allows sharing among interiorities, between different localities.

Out of this comes a common, important, sometimes overlooked in the course of business fact: All life is local and not alone; all life is local and together. Travel on.

Thoughtful research on music

I have come across a study that I really like and think is important in extending our understanding of art, i.e., Langer’s presentational symbolic forms. Entitled “Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters” is on PLOS at Wow, they used fMRI to study the responses to familiar and unfamiliar music and to liked and disliked music. The methodology is complicated as the subjects surveyed musical passages first to find which ones an individual recognized and/or liked, then a few weeks later listened to a selected list individualized for each subject with 4 groups, +L+F =liked and familiar, +L-F=liked and unfamiliar, -L+F=disliked and familiar, and –L-F=disliked and unfamiliar. While these passages played, the researchers recorded fMFI activity to look for neural correlates in the processing of the four groups. The technical expertise to do this is beyond my ken, but I am glad to work at understanding their results.

fMRI machine

fMRI machine

Two things about this study stand out for me. One is that they explicitly set out to explore our aesthetic sense. Most researchers never mention art, much less aesthetics. Now they do this by ranking how much or little we like a song and they relate this to the strength of emotional processing ensuing after perception, i.e., how much does the limbic system fire up its engagement as a reward circuit in response to the auditory segment. This brings up the second thing that caught my eye. The reward system is heavily biased towards the immediate situation, and an aesthetic appreciation of symbols, presentational ones in the form of music, paintings, sculpture, dance, architecture, etc. is abstracted and displaced. In Langer’s terms, the symbolic form’s artistic import is composed by the artist who is engaged in an intellectual rendering of vital life. So the immediate motivational rewards of a stimulus does not really capture this aspect.

And it turns out that the biggest factor associated with greater processing energy is not +/- liked but +/- familiar. More familiar tunes, especially those subjects liked, promoted greater limbic engagement; this makes good sense because these circuits process the stimulus’ valence (is it positive or negative) and autobiographical memory. I would think these are the raw materials for any artistic work, but the raw materials only. Songs that were –L-F were the least engaging. But what about +L-F, the songs that were liked but had not been heard before? What guides that sense of liking before the brain develops the contexts of reward and experience very much? Ah, here is a glimmer of an aesthetic sense, the feeling forward into time. Here is where complex feelings not amenable to the simplicities of verbal expression are rendered musically. Is the song exciting, coherent, true? Are its forms based upon congruent cultural mores? Is it vital?


Of course teasing all this out is currently impossible but these researchers found a way to go further forward. I am still studying their neurological findings and if I can make some sense of them I will do an additional post on this study. I want to end with a quote from Chapter 5 of my book entitled, Meaning and Culture, and it begins:

William James’ notion of the ‘remembered present’ is literally apt when we consider the small but significant amount of time for visual and auditory stimuli to be sensed, perceived and integrated. Aptly enough our ‘remembered present’ can also be considered the conscious process of ‘feeling the future,”   . . . .  To do this we make meaning [and artistic import] using symbolic forms to control the process.

So by feeling the future we can often complete another’s utterance or project what notes come next even in an unknown melody. And as can be seen (sort of) in this study and my discussion of our preferences for “liking” art, our aesthetic sense, that, when meeting a new work of art, operates as a guiding standard for engaging or embracing what new forms may come. This illustrates one way how we feel the future. (And then when we like something, we can create the familiar, and that is important as we age. Remember the post of 8/27/14 about lasting memories of music evident even through dementia). And the band plays on.

life elsewhere?

I am working on a longer post about music but I could not resist (did not want to really) passing on a quote from the 5/2/15 Science News.  So generally some say life is such a difficult and extraordinarily complex process that it is unique in the universe while others, like me, say if it happened once, given the unbounded number of possibilities extant, it happens more than once.  But data, what about data?  Karin Oberg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says that “One of the existential questions is how unique our solar system is”.    Now we know that planets are common, “the next step ‘is to figure out how unique our chemistry is”.  To that end she and her colleagues have found cyanides, precursors for organic chemistry and life, in similar abundance to our solar system around another star.  Other recent stories have focused on research as to how cyanides helped to jump start the RNA-DNA replication essential to life, such as here:

My hat is off to Dr. Oberg who has the data to show our solar system is not so unique and that other places have a chemistry conducive to life.

Many stars, many galaxies, a good chance that life abounds

Many stars, many galaxies, a good chance that life abounds

All life is local.  I will add that in my view, once life appears, some sort of intelligence follows.  Travel on.

another date on the timeline

I have posted several times recently updating the timeline of humanity’s development. This primarily documents indirectly the rise of symbolic thought, which in my scheme presupposes a highly developed sense of empathy: why code and communicate symbolically what is in your MEMBRAIN’s interiority if you do not sense empathically that within the other’s MEMBRAIN their interiority ‘understands’ your meaning or import? Here’s another report pushing the timeline back and including Neanderthals.

Science News (4/18/15) reports that a paleontologist looked again at eagle claws recovered a hundred years ago from a cave dated to 130,000 years ago inhabited by Neanderthals (modern humans would not arrive in the area, as far as we now know, for another 60,000 years). He found evidence that these claws had been worked and probably strung together to form a necklace or some other adornment. Of course some say they did not necessarily symbolize something (and of course we do not know what) but this seems ludicrous. Maybe they put on jewelry mindlessly like Zsa Zsa Gabor but the rest of us humans don’t. This article has some other good details in it so check it out.

I looked back at some of my other posts to construct a proper timeline, remembering that some clerics (and many were of the intelligentsia of their day) tried to refute Darwin by pointing out that his theory on the origin of species would require many thousands of years, and they knew from studying the Bible that the earth itself was less than 10,000 years old (oops!). Darwin’s time was also the birth of modern geology so most intelligent people knew the earth was much older and now we know it is billions of years old with life developing in fits and starts over the majority of it. So a timeline is actually an important result of good science.

Before listing a summary from my more recent posts, here are some skulls of Homo genus (and they all were empathic and used some symbolization) with Mr/Ms Neanderthal upper right.


Check out these dates listed as years ago:

3 million—gene appears promoting brain enlargement

2 to 2.8 million—tools that were worked and shaped

1.8 million—fire and cooking (homo erectus)

500,000–phonological study’s estimate of origins of modern language

40,000 to 100,000—burials

45,000—paintings, good painting they are too

43,000—bone flutes

40,000—dogs domesticated

40,000—modern humans arrive in Europe


9,000—dog burials (just found that one)

6,000—glyphs and a new learning curve

And so we travel on.