Memes, mirroring & tropes

Since Richard Dawkins coined the word ‘meme’ in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, we have had some difficulty defining the word more specifically. Despite the intuitive sense that the word does capture something meaningful, the smallest unit of cultural replication, a science of mimetics has not gained widespread traction. Of course, knowing what culture actually is would be a big help. Other primates show cultural differences between groups. Chimpanzees and bonobos are different species, though very much like genetically, and their ‘cultures’ are quite different. We can even see such differences between different groups of chimpanzees. By we I mean those who study and are very knowledgeable about these animals. Other scientists have documented that some species of birds have different songs characteristic of geographically isolated groups. Do these animals operate with memes? Human culture also varies according to geographical isolation as well as by temporal change. Five and six hundred years ago Western culture comprised some memes supporting the divine right of kings, i.e., royalty=sun=god=supreme power=do what they say or else. Some cultures continue to transmit such memes about their leadership, while we now scoff at the notion (and hopefully argue against those who challenge the separation of church and state).

Of course we know roughly what human culture is, even though we have difficulty breaking it down into the measurable, empirical units that are memes. And of course, our culture is different from those of other animals’ because ours in composed through our superb empathic capacity and especially through our distinctive symbolic ability. Part of the difficulty defining memes comes from just that: our protean symbolic abilities that foment society wide memes to form our culture. While we electronically enhanced humans quickly think of emojis and emoticons as memes, these are actually just icons, simple signs standing for one thing, e.g., happy face=happy, LOL=humor maybe ironic, etc. Our culture is a much richer phenomena; it is more an ecology of memes that regulates social relationships than cartoonish marks that serve as shorthand for social niceties or the thoughts punctuating communicative transitions. Like the ones of royalty’s divine right, memes are the coin of exchange between individuals and their society and they change and shift with cultural evolution. Individuals take in societal expectations for cohesion and contribution and then social developments slowly modify what those are. Take, for example, the meme of ‘women’s liberation’ from the 1950s on. This change of role expectations resulted from a complex of factors, i.e., contraceptive medicine, employment patterns, educational advances, voting, etc. The meme operated across society in this change of cultural roles.

So memes mutate and culture evolves through a complex dialectic of symbolic interaction. No wonder they are difficult to define very precisely, and this is only one side of the problem. We also need to understand how our brains receive, produce, and process memes psychologically. Memes are only as effective as they structure or regulate our mental processes; they provide guidance for each individual in that social group. Someone who rejects the memes (“the King is a man same as any of us” sort of thing) is a rebel or at worse, unsocialized, or at best, a leader of cultural change. How do we understand this process of meme transmission and meme mutation? In answering this question we look to psychology, sociology and neuroscience hoping to find a bridge between biological science and cultural exchange. We are explorers here; no map shows the terrain between evolutionary biology and the social sciences. The liberal arts must be close by, but where, oh, where?

In place of ‘replication’ Dawkins and others generally use the term ‘imitation’, an old stand-by from the dawn of psychological science. Memes are transmitted through imitation and change through imperfect imitation, much like the old whispering game. While this helps some to clarify, it also limits our view. We may have no map connecting evolutionary biology and the social sciences but neither do we need obfuscation, especially when we have a better alternative. In the 1980s Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues discovered neurons in monkey brains (a finding since extended to other species) that lit up when the animal performed a particular action, e.g., cracking a nut, and also when the animal observed another performing that same action. Instead of naming these ‘imitation neurons’, they felicitously called them ‘mirror neurons’. Imitation is ‘monkey see, monkey do’; mirroring is ‘monkey see, monkey do but only in the mind’. That is an important difference, the difference, as it were, between Skinner and Freud.

Mirroring comprises imitation and even the distorted imitation like the fun house mirrors at the fair, but the truly important feature here is the silver backing that represents or brings forth the endogenous, autonomous and autogenic impulses of a vital mind. We humans, and indeed other animals, bring as much to the image as our sensory organs do, even more in our case. This is a mirror more akin to the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter that shows viewers an image of their own desires. This is a mirror wherein reflections may come from without, may be held and changed, and even more may come from within.

Our quicksilver brains carry out mirroring in many ways through different systems and for different purposes. Consider the initial discovery. We, along with other primates and some other animals, monitor others’ actions more or less automatically and sometimes quite closely and consciously. We see someone pick up a cup and drink tea, our tea drinking motor cells light up. We see someone put their hand down as if they were going to drink tea and our drinking mirror system lights up. We see someone glance at the teapot and fix them some tea. Psychologically such a system makes cooperating easy to do and it helps us to learn by imitation, e.g., how to knap a stone for a sharp edge. It also lets us modify the motoric protocols for a better performance. Some animals can use this system in a playfully false manner, like one dog feinting one way and then going another in order to trick the other dog or sort of like a football or basketball player with the ball faking out the defensive player. Sometimes we mirror too closely and lose points in the game.

Mirroring systems are more ubiquitous than we might suppose. We mirror each others’ faces, thereby taking in information about another’s mood, manifest intention, etc. Our good dogs do this with us as well. Family members and intimates communicate without communicating, by communing empathically, cooperating (or not) in a variety of tasks without explicitly planning it. Being familiar together brings with it a wealth of engagement in countless small ways and often unappreciated until later. I am thinking of watching a grandfather with his young grandson, who is rather unconsciously though perhaps admiringly striking the same pose as his elder or those living with a loved one over a long time whose shared context and current empathic communication almost creates a unity of mind making it easier to finish the other’s thought or to remember what the other forgot. Our phenotypic personality develops as our brain’s mirroring systems mature and we internalize features of our important persons even as we bring our own native abilities to our relationships.

Our mirror systems operate across sensory modalities and with both concrete and symbolic information. The arcuate fasciculus (AF) is a long fiber system that connects Wernicke’s area (auditory understanding) and Broca’s area (expressive speech); it helps us to mirror what we heard the other say. When the AF is severed, the person cannot repeat what they just heard. The AF carries the auditory signal to the speech articulation system in a way that facilitates the motoric mirroring of speech. In conduction aphasia due to brain injury when the AF is disrupted, the person may understand and even answer but cannot repeat what they heard. Then we have the opposite when some children with autistic spectrum disorder are echolalic and can repeat anything clearly but understand very little. Mirroring starts the process of deeper social connection and understanding. What is true of the left arcuate fasciculus for language is also true of the right AF for affective communication. Even more basically some might posit that our sensory organs ‘mirror’ what is out there, reflecting the sensory information in the virtual figures of neural processing.

Memes are the figures of cultural mirroring. They are the means whereby important social/cultural information is brought forward easily into the members’ minds. They are like echoes sounding through the group that enable us to dance together. Memes are socially constructed and shared, and to be effective, they must channel individual efforts to contribute to group responsibilities. Here we come to the difference between memes and tropes. Memes replicate and function well only when they spread accurately, i.e., the cultural contagion of these information viruses spreads as our mirrors reflect with little distortion, etc.  Tropes are an artistic element; they function well in the individual’s composition of the artwork and then with any other individual culturally similar enough to understand the trope’s figure. To comprehend Elizabethan literature, we must understand the meme of royalty=divine=sun=better do as they say. To appreciate Shakespeare, we must mirror and feel fully the tropes he wrought, e.g. “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”. Tropes are not standardized or culturally mirrored, or if they are, they function as clichés. Ho-hum. Tropes are vital, intuitive renderings from the depths of the mirror; they are not reflective but generative, and they express some important feeling about our particular, individual experience. Tropes, indeed all art, provide the silver backing of our mirroring; without them we would just be imitators with an astonishingly impoverished culture by current standards. And that is really why I like the term ‘mirroring’ more than ‘imitation,’ and that is why the study of art is so important to biology and neuroscience. We may never understand the quicksilver creativity of intuition; we certainly won’t in the positivistic sense of understanding, which is bent upon exerting control, but I hope we come to appreciate more this manifestation of life’s vitality, as uncontrollable as it may be! Our science is not limited to empiricism, as necessary and important as hypothesis testing and data are, but also includes the paradigms we creative Humans bring to our endeavors.  Here is a place of rest before I travel on, but coming in the near future a post about the dual loop model of language, its wider context and the temporal parameters of mental information.

my curiosity ? ? ? ? ?

Over the past 3-4 weeks many people from many countries have viewed my April 24, 2014 post on memes, the arcuate fascicles, and mirror neurons.  I do not know why so many of you have looked at it but if anyone feels like leaving a comment as to what is in particular interesting or how the word is spreading, I would appreciate it.  I have continued to explore these topics, reading more about music, long fiber connections among various cortical areas, and more recently the dual-loop model for language processing.  I am working on a post here so feedback would be especially helpful.  In the meantime I will post a longer, more formal essay on the more general topic in a few minutes.  Travel on.

Einstein’s glia

So here is the maestro himself:einstein1

His brain was harvested within several hours of his death with or without clear legal permission–I could not find clarity online about that–so it has been studied in several ways.  More later.  Now here is a visual rendering of the connectome.

Connectome picture

This represents the connections and flow of information through neuronal processes, their axons and dendrites.  Here is one of those:axon

Each neuron sends out one axon that can end in hundreds of synapses on several other cells, and each neuron receives hundreds on inputs through the synapses on its dendrites.  The connectome activity is through these connections for 10,000,000,000 neurons forming all of our learnings, thoughts, feelings and self.  And then we come to glial cells; they are not in the connectome picture because they are the chemical partners of the neurons, many glial cells for each neuron.  So far this is old news, sort of.

Then we have the Science News article, 8/22/15 entitled “Maestros of Learning and Memory” about how glial cells do not just provide metabolic support to neurons, as I was taught back in the day, but contribute to learning, forming and maintaining memories and increase and decrease in size and number as their neurons need.  Oligodendrocytes provide the myelin sheath to improve transmission (the Schwann cells above), the astrocytes infiltrate synapses influencing their function in learning and memory, and microglia tending to the health of neurons.  This is a really cool read.  Returning to my metaphor of the brain as river delta (see post 7/25/15), the water and its channels would be the neuronal connectome while the various islands, mud flats, and marshy colloids would be the glial cells.  Collections of glial cells would then be fertile estuaries accruing from connectome activity.

Keeping on with my exploration of our humanity, especially our art, I am reading Robert Jourdain’s interesting book, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy.  So far I find his rendition of the musical side very informative and the brain side very elementary and at times wrong.  He writes that the only unusual feature of Einstein’s brain was an increase of glial cells in the left inferior parietal lobe which would serve  spatial imagination and he was famous for thinking with visual images.  I remembered it differently and checked my recall.  Indeed, Einstein’s brain differed in other ways, a larger corpus callousum,

corpus callosum connecting the cerebral hemispheres

corpus callosum connecting the cerebral hemispheres

larger motor areas presumably supporting violin playing, and others suggestive of the ability to make creative connections.  The glial cells finding is a more recent finding, but the take home finding is the same, that the connectome river and the glial delta form a neural ecology and some of these support extraordinary fertility, whether this is seen in Einstein or Mozart or Picasso.  The times, they are a’changing.  Travel

Evolution technicalities

I finished A. Patel’s fine book, Music, Language and the Brain, a week or two ago. I took my time reading it mostly because he covers a lot of ground in detail and also because I enjoyed pondering what was left unsaid. Back in the day I cannot remember anyone discussing how music and language were similar; their differences were so noticeable as to preclude such speculation. Dr. Patel does a remarkable job documenting how some commonalities in brain processing exist between the two and exploring just a little how the two may have common roots.


He looks at the evidence for music being a specific product of human evolution, as language certainly is, and concludes that right now it does not look that way. I am not sure I understand him here, not disagreeing as I do sometimes when I quibble with an author but not agreeing because the points being made seem to rely on technicalities to which I am not privy. Certainly music is not evolutionary like a recent discovery in the Inuit genome that lets them eat a diet of fat without an increase in cardiovascular disease despite their diet. The Inuit actually have fewer heart attacks than the rest of us. The same genes that help them with their diet (that appeared in the last 40,000 years or so) also lead them to be an inch shorter and 10 lbs lighter. This is natural selection helping us to adapt to current exigencies, but music?

While leaving the door open for more data on music’s evolutionary status, Dr. Patel instead calls it a “transformative technology” like the control of fire or the invention of writing or the internet, a discovery of a tool so important that its use spreads throughout the human domain. (Never mind that the druids refused to use writing for their teachings, relying instead on memorization. They were old school to an extreme, a bit like the Shakers or Amish. Would they have survived longer or better if they had written their esoterica down? What form would this survival have taken?)

Dr. Patel does list one musical feature as possibly naturally selected, i.e., constituting a specific domain, innateness apparent in our development, and particular to humans, and that is a regular beat. Not just rhythmic but metered. Drumming as its exemplar provides a social domain, its perceptual-motor development comes early enough and with minimal stimulation to be innate, and other species do not manifest it (though see my post on bonobos dancing 2/16/2014).

Take me to the river, throw me in the water.

Take me to the river, throw me in the water.

Still I conceive of music as an art form and have difficulty thinking of it as just a transformative technology rather than an evolutionary product growing from the deep biological roots of empathy and symbolization. Langer identifies dancing and drumming as a biological substrate for the development of numbers and fractions. Even further, is mathematics a ‘transformative technology’ or evolutionary product? And going even one more step, what about spiritual awareness, the one commonality in religious experience William James identified as the “mystic sense”? Did we evolve to apprehend this mystery or did we discover a way to conceptualize and use our ignorance of life and death in cultural development.

Do you hear what I hear?

Do you hear what I hear?

I am not exactly satisfied with this rendition of the issues but think I will travel on now to search for a better way. Perhaps that will come with reading a new book, The Origins of Music, touted on its back cover “as representing the birth of biomusicology.” Oh what a wonderful modern world. Travel on.

What a difference a frame makes

I have a new book on my future reading list, Steven Silberman’s Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. I have now read 3 reviews with the NY Times one being very informative. The bit that caught my attention was Silberman’s rendition of our early medical understanding of what is now referred to Autism Spectrum Disorder, specifically the different approaches by Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in the USA. Asperger saw autism as a life long condition showing the variability of the human mind. Yes, those with this condition were different, and many needed extra help and accommodation (don’t we all some time?), but they also brought forth special talents. He clearly appreciated the range of human personality; he did not pathologize the condition in part because the Nazis were looking to purify the race but also I think because his perspective of the clinical data was deep. So now we come to Leo Kanner, an American psychiatrist who saw autism as a childhood condition and possible precursor to adult schizophrenia. Dr. Kanner also thought that a cold mother contributed to the disease, and indeed, some early research into the mothers of autists showed them to be depressed, but then how could you not be when your child was so different emotionally and you were blamed for it? This was also the period when American medicine recommended bottle feeding over breast feeding, another misogynist belief from a rabid patriarchy.

When I was first in graduate school in the mid-1970s, Project TEACCH at UNC-Chapel Hill was pushing back against Kanner with excellent research and improving treatments. I still appreciate my training there very much. Later I went to a neuropsychology conference and heard Martha Denkla MD re-discover Asperger’s work and took that lesson back to my job with an early intervention/prevention mental health service for pre-schoolers. Here the difference in the ‘theoretical frame’ was proved to be more than academic.

I was asked to observe a child in a playgroup who workers thought was quite different, and he was, less engaged with playing with peers and fascinated by the record player turning around. He seemed bright otherwise, gross motor about on target, fine motor very good and language only a little delayed. His mother was nervous and concerned. The family was well placed socially and we suspected she was under their microscope as to her parenting and the development of her child. Indeed, media stories about the “cold mother hypothesis” were common then. One day we came to work to find out that in her shame and grief, she had killed her son (inadvertently?) and then herself. My heart still cries out in anguish over this tragedy.

I went to observe another child in his preschool for similar concerns. We made sure to counter any parental blame from the outset (and this family seemed less concerned with their image and more supportive of difficulties). This boy knew what car I had driven because he knew every car in the lot otherwise; he called his grandfathers either “white” or “black” because of the color of his hair. He did not socialize fully and also liked mechanical motion. He had to be coached as to how to hug and kiss. He was one of the first to benefit from an evolving theoretical frame more adequate to the task. The challenge today is more how to support these people across their life span.

So the frame does make a difference, eh? Travel on (and maybe check out Silberman’s book).

Sensing another’s self

Here is a report (NYT 8/21/15: “Your Brain, Your Disease, Your Self”) of some half-way interesting research recently published in Psychological Science. I say half-way because this is the type of study the validity of which I question because it relies on questionnaires, though these researchers used them in a well constructed context with plenty of ancillary data. I also say half-way because of a recent study out of the University of Virginia in which they tried to replicate 100 psychological studies and could only do so for about a third of them, which to me suggests the original methodology was inadequate to the task, the topic poorly understood, or the supposed phenomena was too trivial to matter.

Anyway, this study looked at how family members perceived personality changes in patients with 3 different neurological diseases. One was ALS (amyotropic lateral sclerosis) which affects lower motor centers and not higher centers, one was Alzheimer’s with diffuse effects throughout the cortex and midbrain, and the third one was fronto-temporal dementia where specific cells are effected so as to disrupt systems in both frontal and temporal lobes. They used a variety of data to show overall neuropsychological status, e.g., memory, IQ subtests, etc. and then they asked family members to rate in a variety of ways if and when they thought their sick member had changed in personality, i.e., was not their old self. Little change was noted in the ALS patients, which makes sense because this disease affects motor control until the end stage. More effects (memory loss, slowed mental faculties, etc.) were noted in Alzheimer’s patients but family members did not report a change in the self (personality) even as memory failed and the patients themselves failed to recognize or recall who they were. The most change in others’ perceptions of self came with fronto-temporal dementia when this disease affected the patients’ treatment of others, i.e., their ethical or moral behaviors, e.g., stealing, lying, tricking others, etc. Family members reported that these patients had lost or changed their selves. A curious finding that gratifies my humanist longings.

Yet somehow this seems to me misconstrued. Of course we do not want to think that someone we love has become capable of immoral actions, so we must attribute some basic change in their self, as opposed to their inability to move or remember or think, which we attribute to the disease debilitating key functions but leaves the self intact. But in fact, one postulate of psychology since Freud, Jung, even Nietzsche is that we all have within ourselves darker impulses that most of us control or repress in the service of healthier, prosocial activity. We do generally ignore this aspect and vary our attributions according to the disability, e.g., memory, motoric, impulse control, inter-personal relationships, in-group/out-group, etc.

Sensing another’s self is basic; we empathically follow another’s intents, moods, etc. Sensing a change in self is not basic because such a change violates expectations. Our selves are embodied and we maintain expectations of identity based upon that body. Sort of, anyway. A few months ago I went with my wife to her 50th high school reunion. She recognized some of her classmates and not others. Some recognized her but not others. Many people came up to me, peering in my face and trying to place who I was. I took up the joke of saying, “You don’t remember me, do you? And after all that time we spent together in English class.” Later I disclosed I was actually a spouse and not a classmate. Some laughed at the joke and some did not. Could we have predicted from their high school selves who would enjoy the joke and who not? Maybe. I think sense of humor is a stable trait. And the people we liked or didn’t like back then are about the same as now.

Of course, this study above focused on a marked change in neuropsychological status due to disease. I think we experience some difficulty in understanding and dealing with people with neurological/psychiatric disease. There are many sorts of rapid changes seen ecologically, including patients with bipolar illness, borderline personality disorder, traumatized patients, dissociative identity disorder, etc. I have worked with the last a few times and the personalities assumed at any one moment were difficult to tell apart unless one was adult and the other child or male-female or unless you knew the physical cues marking the transition.   A different self? In some sense. Some adolescents change their moral stances through large swings before settling in an enduring adult pattern.

We make different attributions for different selves. I have worked with teachers who called a problem child, e.g., severe ADHD, a devil, some literally and some close enough. The mentally ill person who commits mass murders are generally not recognized as being the same youthful self by their family members. One example of this was Charles Whitman, who shot and killed 16 (?) people from a tower at a college in Texas. He had sought help several times in the period before the incident, complaining that his mind was changing and going out of control.   The response of the mental health system was clearly inadequate in part because his symptoms were unusual.   Later his autopsy revealed a large tumor had grown in a lower temporal lobe and impinged on the amygdala, a cancer consistent with his reported symptoms.

A famous college basketball coach when dying of cancer famously said that the cancer could not touch his mind or take away his soul. Ouch! Cancer certainly touched Charles Whitman’s mind (and he is only one dramatic example out of many). I won’t say anything about souls, though I think murdering others comes close enough to merit the question.