The brain as jello (with fruit)

In my effort to find non-machine metaphors for the brain, I remembered a presentation some years back by a neurologist who described the brain as jello with fruit in it. His purpose (and all metaphors have purpose—see Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson) was to illustrate how trauma damaged specific parts of the brain. It does have the consistency of jello and the fruit in it, say grapes, represents neural centers, concentrations of grey matter, i.e., nuclei of nerve cell bodies, such as the amygdala or substantia nigra. If you jerk and shake the bowl, you can see that the grapes jostle more, being denser and heavier, and thus, if they were neuronal nuclei, would be at risk of tearing apart from their axonal and dendritic connections. A notable example of this would be a boxer, say Muhammad Ali, who endured many punches to the head. The damage arose in just this manner, as different nuclei were repeatedly jarred and torn from their place in the connectome. The old phrase is “punch drunk” because of the slow, slurred motor patterns due to this trauma to lower motor centers in the brain.

So there you go, another metaphor. Now I want to go back to my metaphor of late June, the brain as river delta. I have always revered estuaries; they are places of great fertility, seemingly so messy as to be chaotic, a lovely ecology engendered by the meeting of fresh and salt waters. Deltas are estuaries that have evolved and grown over time due to the strength of the inland flow. Here is a false color image of the Mississippi.


This image conjures for me, among many other thoughts, the evolution of the brain. Different islands, i.e., cell nuclei, arise from the deposition of detritus carried down the river while the water, i.e., connectome flow, continues through various channels until it slows and merges with the ocean. The size and shape of deltas depend upon many factors but especially the river that meets the ocean. Here is an image of the Nile delta.


Deltas, like brains, develop embryologically and then accrue experience with changing structures. Deltas, like brains, evolve over geologic time, as land forms change and shift, creating and modifying watersheds. Consider just these brains, the shark and human brains with the rat and cat brains as intermediaries, to see this thought illustrated over the course of evolution.



cat brain

Unlike deltas, brains have evolved through the process of natural selection in the genetic domain. The hominid brain derives from a watershed of genetic flow through the life forms of our ancestors that has changed and enlarged, thereby improving our viability and contributing further to our particular current in the genetic pool. Our brains, unlike computer circuits (as useful as that metaphor is), are more delta-like in their disorderliness. The fertility of our minds is more estuarine than machine.  (I will address those whose brains are more jello like (& no fruit) later if and when I consider our cultural idiots, e.g., current flag ‘controversy’?).

Before traveling on, dive into the metaphor a little deeper.  Remember these lyrics from David Byrne and the Talking Heads?

Take me to the river

Throw me in the water

And how about these from Toni Childs?

Where’s the ocean?

Where’s the moments I once knew inside my heart?

Where’s the ocean for us, where’s the ocean for me?

.        .        .        .        .

The ocean’s here, the ocean’s here.

And now travel on, if you will, to meet with us, as Van the Man sings, into the mystic. And again I remind myself that my purpose is to understand the biological roots of our humanity, all of it, especially art and imagination.

2 perspectives on happiness

A friend loaned me an audiobook of Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Happiness, in which he travels to different cultures and talks with different people, especially some scientists, and explores how we define happiness.  I have a hard time listening for long so it is going slowly, but so far it is a good read, witty and of broad perspective, if you get my drift. I have one quibble so far and it is this:  he cites research early on showing that the prefrontal cortex lights up when subjects viewed happy pictures and then concludes that because the prefrontal cortex is a recent evolutionary development, our happiness is at the forefront of our evolution.  Ohhh, that is so bad, so miseducational.  Our pfc lights up all the time when we think and plan.  While not an ethical experiment, I will bet it lights up when someone plans a hateful murder.  That it lights up with happiness is due to its place in the emotional processing system that is actually focused on midbrain structures, i.e., amygdala.  Mr. Weiner’s enchantment with the pfc (prefrontal cortex) is what I call cortical chauvinism–we think that our cortex must be so important because of its disctinctiveness (and it is special) but it has evolved from lower centers and is dependent upon them for much of our mentality.  Okay.

Here is a link to a NYT article about the science behind the movie, Inside Out:

The moviemakers talked with a number of scientists before making the movie.  One of them was Paul Edman, one of my heroes and a champion of research into emotions.  The article is excellent and one thing struck me in particular.  They decided on an 11 year old girl for the movie because research shows that we experience less happiness after that age, that we transition from our youthful outlook to the drearier one of adolescence and then adulthood.  The reason given is the mourning at the loss of childhood but why is that happiness not replaced or sustained by the possibilities of adult life?  I suspect that the neurological changes worked hormonally during adolescence has something to do with the shift.  And of course, there are great individual differences.  More later, but you know, travel on.

science news

I have not had much energy for writing the past week; I will say that I have SAD-st, that is seasonal affective disorder-summertime type.  The DSM, the psychiatric diagnostic manual, has SAD-winter time for those who are affected by the lack of sunlight, but nothing for those of us affected by high heat, humidity, and long days.  Of course the old rock and rollers knew this as the ‘Summertime Blues.’  Anyway, I prefer cooler and shorter days.  That makes some sense as my ancestors retreated before the glaciers and then chased them back to the north.  Whenever someone refuses ice in their drinks by saying our ancestors did not have ice in theirs, I reply, “Mine did.”  I do not care whether you like ice in your drink or not, but i do care about your rationale and your generalizing it to me.

Enough of petulance (a prime symptom of SAD-st), I hope you subscribe to Science News, in which case you have no need to read more, but if you do not, I want to tell you that the July 11, 2015 edition speaks to our biological roots quite a bit.  First up, a genetic study of prehistoric remains shows that people in the bronze age, say 4000 years ago or 1000 years before Homer recorded the Iliad and Odyssey, migrated from the Balkans eastward to southern Russia and northwest to the rest of Europe.  They also were the first to use visual glyphs, i.e., writing. Most of these people raised cattle but did not have the capacity to digest lactose, so that appeared and spread quickly over the next 1500 years.  I find these genetic studies fascinating; we have had our genome analyzed through the National Geographic Society for our ancestry and it helps in understanding where my ancestors were back then.

Another story covers a topic I have written about before, the hardiness of musical memories in the face of Alzheimer’s.  This same issue covers some research that finds that the disease does not impact the areas  responsible for musical memories, i.e., the brain thins and accrues amyloid-beta in areas other than those for musical preferences.  So this is now documented quite well, that humans with dementia retain musical memory even  more than knowledge of their own identity.  My question is why?  What is special about these areas, about music, that preserves them from the ravages of dementia?  More to come here, I hope, soon.

Lastly, a story discusses research showing how chimps laugh, i.e., what muscles they use and when.  Darwin, what a keen observer he was, in 1872 used photographs to document the similarities in emotional expression between humans and other animals, and now some researchers have studied the musculature chimps use in laughing.  They laugh both silently, thereby showing again our proclivity for facial expression, and aloud.  Their laugh is different because our breath control is much more graduated and subtle.  They laugh in rough play and we laugh in a conversation, i.e., at a joke.  My questions there are what is the relationship between rough play and comedy and what promoted our breath control (And fine motor control in handedness for that matter)?  I hope much more later.  Travel on.

prehistoric footprints

We have a special place for footprints:   Grauman’s Chinese Theater has recent celebrities’, Astaire studios have various dance steps on their floor for instructional purposes, the footprint in stone of the ancient king at Dal Riada in Scotland (in which my wife’s foot fitted exactly), and so on.  We have uncovered fossilized Homo footprints from long ago, including some in Kenya dated at 1.5 million years ago and another recent find in the UK dated at 850,000 years ago.  And then we have the footprints discussed in  the 7/11/15 edition of Science News (a fabulous edition with more blogs to come) found in France’s Tuc d’Audobert Cave.  Paleontologists brought in modern trackers from a tribe in Africa where everyone learns to track animals and to identify footprints of family and friends.  Pretty smart, eh?  Both the tribesmen and the scientists who brought them in to use their skills.  The trackers identified footprints from some ancients carrying something heavy and then those same ancients walking back to the the place where clay was dug to make bison sculptures.  The dug out hole matched the amount of clay needed for the sculptures.  The trackers were able to speculate knowledgeably about who these individuals were, e.g., sex and age.  Some paleontologists not associated with this effort expressed caution, saying people were different back then, but we are talking about only roughly 15,000 years ago and about prints easily identified as Homo, so I do not understand their hesitancy to accept that these findings have some validity (except as some academic prissiness).  It is a good read if you can find it.

BUT what really caught my eye was this:  Some of the prehistoric prints come from heel walking, i.e., walking only on the heels which leaves less individually identifiable information than regular walking.  Paleontologists have hypothesized that these heel prints came from some ritual dancers, but the African trackers disagreed.  They said that for them, heel walking is a way of leaving no identifiable tracks, which would suggest that whoever left these tracks wanted to remain anonymous.

WOW!  One of my more imaginative speculations about why some prehistoric drawings were done so very deeply in caves is that the artists wanted to escape detection and censure from the authorities, i.e., art was frowned upon the chief or shaman (see post on ancient art of 6/17/15).  Maybe the sculptors here faced those very same issues.  Intriguing about our nature, I think.  Art is sometimes still a little edgy.  Travel on darkly.

true scholarship

From the New York Times, a report of true scholarship. On July 18 a marker will be placed on the previously unmarked grave of Thaddeus Marshall, an African-American man who lived and worked in Rutherford, NJ, in the early 20th Century. He made a living as a street vendor, a ‘huckster’ in the vocabulary of his day, selling porgy (a delicious and plentiful fish) and who knows what else, probably eggs as you will see. He plied his wares about town carrying them in a red wheelbarrow. Not just any red wheelbarrow, but this one: So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain-water beside the white chickens. William Carlos Williams wrote this poem around 1923; every English major knows it. Dr. Williams introduced a more colloquial language to American poetry but his day job was as a doctor in Rutherford. He was the doctor attending the birth of Mr. Marshall’s son and he signed the death certificate of his wife. He said in a couple of interviews that he liked Mr. Marshall and that emerged in his poem. William_Carlos_Williams_passport_photograph_1921 A professor of English, William Logan, did some wonderful scholarship, helped by Rod Leith (Rutherford’s historian) and uncovered the wheelbarrow owner’s identity. They even found an old map showing a chicken coop behind Mr. Marshall’s house and that white chickens came into vogue in the early 20th Century.  (more in the post here: leghorn (My wife reports that her grandparents also had white Leghorn chickens, an Italian breed, back then when most everybody else had Rhode Island Reds). Mr. Leith went further and tracked down Mr. Marshall’s granddaughter and they found his unmarked grave, which will now be marked. Wow. No need to travel on, just wow.

Quick now, think

Here is a quick post on an essay I saw on (not so many biological posts there these days) about the speed of thought.  Link:  Tim Welsh at the University of Toronto explicates some of the difficulties in measuring the speed of thought, including what one is exactly, how to tell the beginning and ending, etc.  He also presents some of the known factors affecting processing speed, e.g., neuronal size and myelination, and he presents the complexities of parallel processing and conscious awareness.  A quick, quality read.

William James understood the timing here as he coined the phrase, ‘the remembered present’ because what we are aware of consciously has taken some portion of time (say in milliseconds) for visual or auditory stimuli to be processed and reach consciousness.  Mr. Welsh reminds us that this also works at the output end, so that when we say we decided to act, i.e., move a muscle, our brain areas for activation actually already lit up some milliseconds before.  In short, we are reporting old news about our actions.

I also appreciated his addressing the issue of how we can or cannot parse the stream of consciousness.  We have come so far on the glyph learning curve with written language that some may not know or remember that the speech signal has no gaps between words and need not have any between sentences; likewise our thoughts have no punctuation marks.  We structure them through intellectual and/or meditative discipline.  Maybe more later and inthemeantimetravelon&on&on&on…neurons