2 roots or 2 lenses &

a heartwarming confluence of ideas

So keen readers of this blog will have realized that I think our humanity stems from 2 roots of our evolution, empathy developing deeply and robustly within our mammalian ancestry and symbolization developing more recently from somewhere within our ancestry, some current still mysterious despite the power of our science to understand such things. I think that is changing as I write. I read (think and write) with those two lenses to help me focus on empathy and symbolization in order to understand what I consider of paramount importance, our humanity, and I am glad I do, because the confluence of findings is, to say it simply, simply beautiful.

For the past 18 months or so I have been reading books about music and the brain (& periodically posting about it here—see posts on  6/17/14, 6/15/14, 11/12/14, 12/17/14, 5/19/15). Most recently I have started reading Origins of Music, a collection of articles presented as the initial text of evolutionary biomusicology. Wow, a third into the book and it is already worth every penny and second spent reading it.   Peter Marler, one of the preeminent early researchers into bird song if you did not know, writes that he believes the creativity evidenced in certain species’ songs may well represent an evolutionary stream contributing to the thoughtful varied expression of human music and language.   Thomas Geissmann, whom I do not know much about, writes that a primate relatively close to hominids, the gibbon, sings duets that may also represent an important contribution to our musical (and linguistic?) abilities.


Mozart the mockingbird, a great singer

Let us look at these through my two lenses, empathy and symbolization.  Marler provides a cogent analysis of the different bird songs such as the acoustic shape of the song, its context and presumed communicative function, e.g., territorial, mating, warning, spacing, etc. He finds that the birds with the most varied songs could perhaps be incipient to human music. The link is the creativity shown in vocal performance along with social communication. (One key difference is the regularity of the beat in human music). These birds, including the mocking bird and the brown thrasher, have, as it were, a creative sense of melody; does this reflect some significant difference in neural processing? Is this difference also manifest in relationships or is bird song, even at its most creative, so constrained by a brain quite limited to some immediate present, i.e., limited by the lack of power to displace information evident in mammalian evolution, heightened in primate and then, especially, hominid minds. These questions are based upon the idea that bird song became music, i.e., became a symbolic form as do all symbols, through the control of displacement from and abstraction of current information. To be plain about it, this is a primary root of symbolization.

Thomas Geissmann likewise provides a cogent analysis of gibbon song, and it turns out to be even more incredible than I previously suspected (see post 6/15/2014 on bird and gibbon songs. My next post will discuss some of these issues further). He focuses on the duets sung by male and female pairs. One most interesting finding is that the occurrence of duets correlates with the social interaction of bonding, e.g., grooming, sharing favored food source, behavioral synchronization, etc. Further, these gibbons are monogamous and they perform their duets, which are not that variable in form, with their partner. Geissmann reports that all primates that sing and not just call and hoot and such like have a monogamous social structure. Ah, song arising from intimacy. The male and female contributions are stereotyped in sequence and acoustical characteristics. Geissmann reports that a pair broken up and forced to bond with a new mate will each develop a new duet specific to that relationship. They do not, as my wife reacted when she heard this study, stop singing forever. I do not know the specifics of the experimental manipulation of forced bonding but I will say that my heart palpitates anxiously at what these scientific ethics entail.


A silver gibbon parent–they sing with their mates

So the main point here is that we have vocal communication serving the empathic relationship. Another feature of gibbon communication figures as an incipient homology to human music. When gibbons sing their duets and communicate vocally with the wider tribe, e.g., “Hey, look at the unfamiliar conspecific”, a stranger as it were, in our domain, they, or at least the females, always move not so much as for practical functions as for expressive engagement, termed more scientifically, a stereotypical locomotor display. Now compare this to what many who have studied the matter think, that music and dance evolved together. The gibbon songs are not so much creative statements of conceptual activity as social attunement. Ah, empathy.

So we have now looked through the dual lenses of empathy and symbolization at what these studies might mean. One of my contentions is that symbolization grew (grows) from the empathic awareness of another’s mind, their hidden subjective domain, in contrast with one’s own, and the subsequent call and challenge to communicate otherwise hidden contents. While birdsong creativity is important, generally only males sing. While primate song is generally stereotypical and not learned from parents, both sexes participate in vocal communication. An early confluence would seem to be between the creative novelty found in bird song and the empathic communication found in gibbons, but how could these different evolutionary streams merge? As I said at the beginning, our understanding of this question is changing as I write.


Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river?

Much more can and will be said about this. For now, Happy New Year, and travel on.

(Hippocampal) experience

A recent Science News (12/12/15) has an article about new research into the hippocampus of rats. Now the hippocampus has long been a favorite of mine and I have written about it several times here (see posts on 2/21/15, 11/4/15, 10/17/14, 9/8/14, or 2/14/14). To review just a bit, the hippocampus is so named because of its seahorse shape and is a very old structure of the neocortex.


Hippocampus: entorhinal cortex is at the lower, thicker end and information travels up and around to frontal areas

The perceptual areas of the cortex pass on their processed information, e.g., visual recognition of objects, faces, or auditory recognition of sounds, multi-modal maps of location, etc., to an area just before the hippocampus, the entorhinal cortex where the information is further processed, maybe collated and integrated, and then this is passed into the hippocampus for its distinctive processing of old and new in the service of memory which it then passes on to other areas such as frontal lobes for planning and acting, etc. A lot more could be said here about this important piece of the brain, but I want to focus on experience, or rather, how we animals experience.

A patient some years back known as H. M. had both hippocampi removed as a way to stop virtually constant seizure activity. Over the years Brenda Milner and others studied his neurological functioning in depth (See my post on ). Briefly, he could form no new memories. He could remember some things from before his surgery and he could talk and perform some cognitive tasks in a seemingly normal manner, but he would not remember meeting you if you left the room and came back in a minute. I do not believe he ever really recognized Dr. Milner who worked with him for many years. While he retained his ability to experience in a human manner, i.e., symbolically, he could not remember much, certainly not his autobiographical experience.

The hippocampus is not the only structure critical to consciously remembered experience; other structures also support our awareness and memory and they also communicate between the posterior perceptual areas and the anterior executive areas. One of the more prominent of these is the claustrum (see post on 8/17/14), that seems to play a role in organizing the blooming welter of experiential elements like, as Crick and Koch explained, a conductor leading a symphonic orchestra to produce a coherent piece of music (and a one, and a two, and . . .). When the claustrum has been rendered temporarily non-functional during surgical procedures, the patient loses consciousness and remembers nothing even as they stay awake. (Remember now that waking and consciousness are two different states).


claustrum running front and back deep inside the brain

All this brings us to the newly reported research showing that what are termed grid cells in the entorhinal cortex feeding into the hippocampus do not just keep track of the animal’s location (to be remembered then by the hippocampus) but also the animal’s distance and time traveled. The grid cells were discovered by studying how the rat brain functions as a GPS system (and Science News reminds me that this discovery was awarded the Nobel last year). This current study looked at grid cell functions as the rats ran on a treadmill; in other words their location did not change but the cells still kept up with the time and effort to travel. Now speaking like one of the rats that escaped cinematically a few years back, processing effort and time might be termed awareness of experience, or as we like to say, experience. Maybe not consciousness because of the hypothetical importance of symbolization to such as humans know, but to experience nonetheless both current and remembered, maybe even planned e.g., the rat returns to the nest or a source of food. Once again, I am amazed at the diligent ingenuity of scientists as they explore the intricacies here.

Finally one of the treatments I learned to use with children experiencing PTSD was a mindfulness technique in which the attention was focused on current percepts. Basically the kids learn to ground themselves in the moment by talking through a list of percepts. They start by saying “I see ___” for 5 different things, then “I hear ___” for 5 different things, and “I feel ____” for 5 different things, then repeating each for 4 different things, then 3, and so on. Try this; it is amazingly calming. And while it certainly involves verbal symbolizing, it does keep one’s focus on a sort of hippocampal immediacy (dare I say it, to a rat’s experiential awareness). The idea here is to disrupt the intrusive memories and reverberating echoes of trauma and emotional arousal bordering on fight/flight and anchor awareness into the boring and safe present place.

So happy holidays and for those of you with candles and evergreen scents and shiny lights and tasty food and the associated memories and memes of a special solstice time, keep the hippocampus and claustrum functioning full power. It is how experiences are made to remember.

hie you to the NCMA

Yes, hasten to the North Carolina Museum of Art to see two temporary exhibits on M. C. Escher and Leonardo Da Vinci.  The first is one of the most complete exhibitions of Escher’s art and he had a long career.  I knew the Escher impossible space ones, but those seemed mundane next to his earlier ones exploring long and deep perspectives.  He produced phenomenal art from late teens to his death in 1972 at age 73.  Escher was especially inspired by Da Vinci because of their shared passion for geometries and mathematical patternings.


M. C. Escher

Da Vinci’s work is represented by a wonderful exhibition of the Codex Leister (now owned by Bill Gates and thank you, Bill), his journals, written in mirror writing, that concerned his scientific and engineering efforts to understand and control water, how fossils come to be at the mountaintops, how water which always runs downhill can emerge in mountain springs, how to measure water pressure, and well, I hope you get the idea.  Many pages written in a fine delicate hand with very precise drawings mostly on the margins.


Leonardo da Vinci

In a couple of passages in the Codex Leister da Vinci presents a view that the earth is like a body, the ocean its heart, its rivers the blood vessels, the mountains its bones, the vegetation its flesh.  So he knew about Gaia early on in the development of positivistic science; indeed he was one of the creators of science and engineering, both imaginal and practical, even as he was an artist of enormous range and power.  Talk about a hero, who first walked the dialectical path between mysticism and positivism showing us the way.

On a wall in the Escher exhibit was a quote from da Vinci in which he discussed how looking at a rock face one can see shapes and objects emerge or listening to chimes one can hear words and melodies.  This is from his Art of Painting.  And it also fits with the paleolithic cave art in Europe, where the beautiful paintings of animals take advantage of the natural contours of the walls (and who knows, the shadows from the torch or candle).


Altamira bison

So hie yourself to the NCMA if you can; it is well worth it.  And look for this guy wandering the dialectic.


da Vinci’s man in proportion


Prehistoric village map?

Check out this report on PLOSONE about a rock dated from 13,800 years ago carved with a series of semi-circles arranged together:


Or shorter version here on the LAT: http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-human-campsite-paleolithic-20151202-story.html

Of course we don’t know what this really portrays but we do know that it is different from other carvings and paintings of that period, which are mostly lovely beasts and some humanoid figures. The paleoarcheologists who did the work to find the stone say their best hypothesis is that these marks represent huts, which we are pretty sure were common back in prehistoric days, gathered in a village about the size expected of a local population then. And maybe it is such a rendering of their social domain.

Or maybe the marks map out local peaks where ancestors were interred. On our recent trip to Ireland we climbed Knocknarea and stood beside Queen Maeve’s tomb thought to date from around 4 or 5000 years ago.


Queen Maeve’s tomb atop Knocknarea in County Sligo

A large passage tomb, it is shaped like the marks on the stone as well, but more interestingly, from the top of that mountain we could look out over the surrounding coastal plain to a series of low mountains and peaks, and the information signs pointed out that cairns, smaller than the Queen’s of course, stood atop most of those peaks.


Each of the peaks surrounding Knocknarea has a cairn on top.

Maybe someone wanted to document where the bodies were buried, so to speak, as a mnemonic for reciting the old stories around the village fire. Or maybe the marks are poorly rendered stars of the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, from where some say we all came, so they mark the way home.


We want to return to our home planet (or star cluster).

The scientists say that without more evidence and especially without better clues as to the artist’s intent, any hypothesis cannot be conclusive. Amen. It is a fine mystery.

In my readings over the past several months I have run by the word ‘intention’ several times. The concept is important, no doubt, but I fear that we are now using it to demarcate specifically human capacities, and that would be wrong. Birds sing, humans intentionally make music, as Peter Marler suggests in his essay, “Origins of Music and Speech: Insight from Animals” in The Origins of Music (a book I am excited to be reading). I know other animals also intend some actions. Maybe the mocking bird that claims our yard with his song does so intentionally especially when a rival dares to utter a peep. Maybe a politician claims the high ground of demagoguery intentionally, or maybe he is just an unconsciously self-righteous prig, er, well, let me not resort to name calling here, but I have my doubts about using some simple or undifferentiated concept of intentionality to characterize human-specific actions.

Let me regress again to my 10 year old self and wonder if I go to the bathroom intentionally, unlike infants who respond unconsciously (instinctively?) to pressure in their bladder and bowel. I watch the steers out my kitchen window grazing. They seem to empty one or both quite nonchalantly, even as they continue to graze, but I notice they never back up after doing so. A sign of intelligence, that, like a dog that refuses to soil its own space or a wolf pack on the hunt. Whatever the degree of their intention there, the operation of some value seems apparent.

Marler presents a clear, coherent and knowledgeable discussion of the possible relationships between human communication and that of other animals. He ends up focusing on the incredible creativity and the seeming pleasure of novelty as some bird species sing learned songs that are quite novel and individual and unconstrained by innate structure and function. Our mocking bird sings astoundingly some summer mornings when no other bird is to be heard.


We call him Mozart

I can certainly take it as a performance of pleasure, the same as when I used to dance about with no known pattern but the finding of new motion or as my wife paints to create a new space. So maybe that rock with the huts did initiate a new glyph learning curve that brought human structures into the imagination and memory of the people (or something else equally wonderful). Travel on.