time scale

One of my fascinations with us is our discovery of scales, spatial and temporal (wait, aren’t those the same thing really?), such as cosmic, geologic, microscopic, biological, atomic, quantum, daily, life span, generations, etc.  A recent issue of Science News had several articles about time that perturbed my thinking here.  One page summarized our efforts at clock building in order to standardize time keeping.  Meeting someone at the rising of the moon suffices for many purposes for many times but what about moonless nights?  So their timeline begins about 1500 BCE with Egyptian sundials, then water clocks and presumably hour glasses with sand, then devices to mark astronomical movement more precisely beginning about 600 BCE, and the first mechanical clocks around 1300 AD.  We have continued to improve their accuracy (wait, does anyone really know what time it is?) until we now have an atomic clock accurate to within a second over 15 billion years.  By the time that clock loses or gains its errant second, Polaris will have shifted from its position as our north star and another will have taken its place (will it be Vega?) and probably another after that, but who’s counting on that being a significant change in our orientation?  Many of the improvements in time technology have come for navigation purposes, e.g., knowing the longitude of a location or the micro-second timing for the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft to drop its probe accurately on one of Saturn’s moons after traveling millions of miles over several years.


Timing is important, coordinating group effort (let’s synchronize our watches, check) or flights at the airport or sharing processing resources on computers.  I am not sure the monitoring of workers to the second as they manufacture or deliver goods is a great improvement but that is modern life, as Charlie Chaplin depicted even before modern life became quite so time obsessed.


One of the more prominent differences between urban and rural life is how we keep time, or rather, how we monitor our efforts, one by the minute and one by the task at hand.  Cultures vary a good deal here as well.  I was chastised by a waiter in the Caribbean to abandon my young man’s American sense of promptness and relax into island time.  Easier said than done.  England’s trains proudly run on schedule or face a disgruntled public; some other countries’ trains, well, look for them when you see them.  I am also fascinated by individual psychological variation, from someone who is always early to someone habitually late to those who insist clocks be kept tuned to some accuracy or those who set their watches 5  minutes late to give themselves some leeway.  Oh, well.

It's actually 10:05.

It’s actually 10:05.

One of the articles in the Science News focused on biologists’ efforts to understand biological clocks, like the metabolic rhythms of organisms seemingly in adaptation to diurnal variation in sunlight, etc.  It turns out that this understanding is not coming easily or clearly.  Why protein synthesis varies regularly (loosely termed) is not explained by our preconceptions.  That makes an interesting read.  I really liked one concluding comment as to why organisms keep their own time.  Microbiologist Susan Golden says maybe our circadian rhythms evolved so that we are “not being jerked around by the environment.”  In short, our rhythm is a hallmark of our autonomy, of our life’s inherent integrity separating us from the rest of universe.  Island time begins to look very good from here.  I think I will rest a moment before traveling on.

Let’s get esoteric here, just for a moment

I have written some about ‘memes’, the smallest units of cultural replication as named by Richard Dawkins. I don’t think I have mentioned ‘trope’ before now, but I am reading The Daemon Knows by Harold Bloom, and he has used the term seriously and playfully. The book presents his view of the genius, the daemon lifting some of the great American writers to write sublimely. He is both knowledgeable and passionate, so his perspective from up high given his study over the past many years is illuminating. He is a great reader and passes some of that in this book. He is over 80 and is keenly aware of mortality, so this also feels like a true culmination of his intellectual life.

Anyway, as I was reading about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, I wondered how ‘trope’, i.e., an artistic image resonant with intuitive, symbolic meaning, and ‘meme’ might be related. Looking at the dictionary, a trope is a figure of speech used artistically (but I think there are visual tropes in painting as well) and can be a fresh creation or a cliché, so tropes vary in freshness or vitality. Memes are passed on or replicate throughout a cultural group and pass in and out of the meme pool over various periods of time. Reading Shakespeare requires understanding the different memes of his time and tropes of his language. One meme would involve the divine status of royalty, e.g., king=divine=sun=god=do what he says. One trope would be Romeo’s “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”

So how are these related, or more relevantly, how does a biological creature like us produce both? At first I wondered if a trope were a specific kind of meme, a sub-category of memes specific to artistic expression while other sub-categories of memes operate within other domains, e.g., governance, religion, science, etc. And while that may be the case, I focused on how the MEMBRAIN might process them differently. Sure both operate between minds. A meme can be used as a trope and a trope can become a meme. Both would seem to involve some imitative process, as Dawkins and other mimeticists think, or better termed, I think, they would be an elaboration of the mirror functioning I have discussed before. Briefly said, mirror neurons, which, in response to seeing another perform an action fire up preparatory to performing that same action, are one manifestation of our powerful empathic, mirroring engagement. We feel, and can think, the same in response to another’s affect, etc.; this is basically how we come to understand one another.

From this perspective, this view into one facet of our being, memes and tropes would both be expressions used in our communication, empathic, symbolic, and cultural, and would still be different from each other. So how to understand this? I am going back to my Soma, Brain, and MEMBRAIN diagram as a broad reference.


A trope is an element of aesthetic construction; in its most powerful expression a trope helps induce our feelings of beauty, what Dr. Bloom terms the sublime, and further he understands that an artist’s demon, that individual ‘spirit’ that rises from within and is different from the usual cultural maxims, is at the source of good and great art. The art object, Langer’s presentational symbolic form, conveys through mirror functioning, these feelings which arise from soma into brain until the MEMBRAIN composes the figure. Art, e.g., a trope, involves the self’s expression, the self as biologically, vitally embodied.

A meme functions between bodies on a cultural level; selves are involved in mirror processing the manifestations of memes in a socially regulated process. A meme is a social construction that promotes, hopefully, group cohesion, identity, and activity; it is not basically an aesthetically embodied product. It is a more prescriptive form of symbolic information, and as such, we deal mostly through mimetic communication. A trope is produced as an individual differentiates his or her stance towards life experience from the socially engendered or cultural mimetic forms. We operate with the MEMBRAIN most prominently during the day, as it were, and then we operate as an embodied self during the night, meaning our moments of private reflection and intuition.

So the difference between meme and trope lies somewhere here: a trope serves the organization of the individual’s symbolic capacity and a meme serves the organization in the society’s need for cohesion. Both are part of the biological mirror functions that help us be together. I will leave another view of this difference until a later time (that tropes serve as the coin of the individual subjective dialectic between somatic necessity and symbolic creativity and that memes are the coin of the social dialectic between an individual’s creative needs and society’s need for regulated participation. Both of these dialectics come from Langer in Mind, v.3, and I have discussed them in little bits over the past year or so).

And now, remembering the importance of art promotion, education, and sharing, it’s time to travel on.

How quick and subtle we are

When I worked as a speech-language therapist many years ago, I led parent workshops to help them understand and promote healthy language development. One facet of this was to present how complicated articulation was and how normal development of articulation varied a great deal. For example, many children say “tow” for “cow” early on in their speech development and self –correct (grow out of it) after some months. I always emphasized how complicated and how skilled a linguistic performance was. A common issue was how chronic ear infections affected development; speech is not easy to understand with the distortions resulting from middle ear congestion and from 6 months to 18 months, the brain is learning to process the auditory stream in a very specific manner in order to understand speech with facility. Likewise, speaking is a highly skilled behavior. A simple sentence, such as, “I want to go outside,” takes less than a second to utter and involves the articulation of around 14 phonemes, each requiring its own positioning of the vocal tract, i.e., lips, tongue, pharynx and larynx. Precise movements made in milliseconds with finely modulated breath control. Even our laughing is different from chimps’ laughing because of our breath control. I found it amazing that some 2 year olds, mostly girls, spoke with great clarity and was not amazed that some 4 year olds, mostly boys, still spoke with an errant phonemic pattern. speechsignal So speech is quick and subtle—I haven’t even broached topics of individual voice and interpersonal effectiveness and persuasion. (Remember Walter Cronkite saying, “And that’s the way it is” and we knew it was). And while we are discussing quick and subtle, let’s consider musical performance. I started reading Music, Language and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel, a comprehensive review of research on the topic. I can understand the linguistics and brain well enough but I struggle with some of the musical concepts. Dr. Patel discusses some research made possible by computer technology over the past decade or so into the timing of piano playing. Wow! Looking at one classical piano sonata, a researcher measured the length of all the eighth notes. Theoretically these are all of the same length and when computer reads a score, all the notes are the same, thus the flat, machinelike quality of some computer music. When a good pianist plays the score, however, the notes vary in length, with the average eighth note lasting 652 milliseconds with some lasting only 400 msecs and others going over 800 msecs. This variation is intentional as it results from the human player’s interpretation of the piece—these tiny variations convey the pianist’s musicality and expressiveness.  It is his  or her art. music-notes Other researchers manipulated musical pieces to approximate various degrees between very standardized computer plays to natural human performance. People were able to detect very subtle differences and always preferred the one closer to the natural performance. Yes, computers are fast and helpful; human art is quick and delightful. John Henry wins this one. Travel on.