Theta moments, completion of a composition, & cortical fasciculi

Following up from last post: Ah, theta moments, specifically hippocampal theta moments when the apprehension of something new instigates the mental response composing a new situation. I have written about this several times before. Theta waves manifest during key behaviors, simple ones like the chicken’s head bob (yes, almost everything is new because so little is old) or a rat’s step (yes, safety demands almost constant appraisal and memory for location to gain food or avoid danger) or more complex ones like a cat’s orienting response (of what interest is that and should I bother the cat must ask) or a chimpanzee’s expression of bewilderment when an expected treat does not materialize (now what does this mean and what should I do?). Theta is named for the slower waves which accompany these behaviors and signals that diverse areas are focused on the salient event. As the animal processes incoming information the theta disappears as faster, more irregular waves in diverse areas indicate specific information is being processed to help delineate the contextual situation.


The hippocampus is old, deeply embedded cortex. Cortical input flows into the thicker end and the output from the narrower part.

The important thing here is that the hippocampus receives highly processed perceptual information (forms, movement, id of conspecifics, predators, etc. are more automatically recognized) that it processes and then sends the results on upward to the frontal areas engaged in planning and implementing actions and downward as it contributes to the emotional processing carried on by the limbic system. As I have noted before, the hippocampus is way cool. Consider, then, that a theta moment is when the animal formulates a new situational gestalt, a governing form or proto-narrative structure developed from ambient information as discussed in my last post, and then other processes fill in the details, i.e., they finish the composition with perceptual analyses and emotional streams. Of course, these theta moments are actually completed when the animal initiates its next action, e.g., fight or flight, eating, exploration, retreat, or social behaviors.

We humans have a strong network of cortical fasciculi or fiber connections between and among perceptual areas and frontal action areas. These fibers connect the same areas which contribute to hippocampal input and receive its output to initiate the plans and structure of behaviors but they bypass the hippocampus and its situational construct of the immediate ambient and the pressure to act accordingly as well as with the emotional dynamics governing the animal’s responses. By doing so, bypassing this involvement through lower channels, these cortical fasciculi would seem to permit the processing of information apart or displaced from ambient and emotional conditions. What happens to our theta moments there?


Hippocampal theta, remember, first marks something as new or salient and then holds that as a gestalt for the brain to fill in needed information. In this some information, even as it is noticed as new, is held as invariant or as old, so that it can operate as an anchor for further processing of variant information. With the systems connected by the cortical fasciculi, old and new are not contingent upon perceptual notice but upon, at least for us, the gestalts and composition of symbolic information, e.g., the syntax for a linguistic utterance, the intuitive form for aesthetic pieces. So theta moments may be relegated to eurekas, epiphanies, ‘sudden’ insights, realizations, or coming to your senses, etc., the function of generating an invariant form as an anchor for further composition may now continue independently of hippocampal circuits.

I do not want to go into the sleepy land of complicated thinking here about propositional forms based upon the invariance of the verb case frames or how the arcuate fasciculus of the dorsal loop

arcuate fasciculus

helps to maintain the invariant relationship between phonemes and articulatory movements (see recent post on dual loop model) or the invariance of memes as cultural constructs or the invariant memories held in place by guilt or joy, etc. I do want to say that artistic inspiration, that theta moment, major or minor of ‘aha’ or ‘ummm’, when the artist intuits the commanding form and begins to add newly variant elements to compose his or her artistic piece, is one of the most important moments in terran biology and that when we evolved to do this, the universe, well, as it were, sort of, changed for the better. Life began to create new out of the old on its own intentionally without relying on the universal flux of the environment that is slowly, entropically degrading to ‘om’ and that creation was based upon our feelings of fitness, aesthetics, or our sense of beauty.

Now last post I said that Daniel Stern’s understanding of the ‘proto-narrative envelope’ [commanding form) and vitality affects [vital feelings abstracted from experience] from his studies of infants was important. Consider that state of an infant known as the quiet alert state that occurs after feeding. Then the child is most available for social interaction, most readily engaged in rhythmic social exchange and in playful affect modulation. Then the parent helps the child develop the capability for positive affect through engagement. And then it seems to me, the infant sees its whole life as a theta moment as he or she begins to accrue the schemas needed to interpret experience and live a human life. Artistic inspiration and effort has often been compared to these child-like energies and for good reasons. We can see this clearly in the quiet alert state now open for reflection, inspiration and beginning a composition. Artistic creation is clearly related to such youthful joy and we sense this in many artistically talented people (though perhaps cloudily in the tormented geniuses of historical stature). And this has biological roots. I will travel on now to work simply in the garden.

More about musical import

Remembering that Susanne Langer called the symbolic information conveyed by art “import” in the effort to differentiate it from linguistic “meaning,” I read with great curiosity a chapter in Origins of Music, which I am close to finishing. In his chapter, “The Question of Innate Competencies in Musical Communication,” Michel Imberty uses language and conceptualizations strikingly similar to Langer’s in Feeling and Form, though he appears not to be familiar with her work. Consider his statements that he defines the macrostructure of music as a “schema of time,” or that music and dance “are ways of feeling—of being with—before being emotions” or identifying the artistic impulse as “something that weaves itself and makes meaning in time.”

Now compare these to Langer’s conceptualizations that I have written about here over the past several weeks in my Re-Reading 4.0 series.

-the primary illusion of music is the sonorous image of passage

-musical duration is the image of what may be termed “lived” or “experienced” time

-the semblance of this vital experiential time is the primary illusion of music

-the most important and novel revelation of music—the fact that time is not a pure succession, but has more than one dimension  [my favorite]

-the commanding form is not essentially restrictive, but fecund

-the great moment of creation is the recognition of the matrix [commanding form].

I could go on and on with these but better for you to read Feeling and Form, especially chapter 7.

Imberty based some of his analysis on work by Michael Stern, a well known researcher of infant/child development, especially two concepts. One is the “vitality affect” which are feelings before they coalesce around recognizable and conventional emotions, feelings more concerned with dynamic properties such as tension, resolution, building, diminishing, etc. These are the very feelings upon which Langer built her philosophy of art. That Stern discerned these in infants is important—more later. The other one is the “proto-narrative envelope” that “constructs the narrative of time, clarifies the reality of human becoming.” It is the matrix that “makes something weave itself and assume meaning in time.” And this too is important for Stern to have discerned in infant development.


So we have here a view of musical composition that begins with an intuitive gestalt (commanding form or protonarrative envelope) formed or abstracted from one life’s experiential passage and then completed with elements (vitality affects or symbolically rendered elements of sound representing those affects) also therefrom.  Listening and appreciation of this artistry would involve recovering some of the form and elements, though not through some inverse process because lives are disparate and complex. Both the composition and recovery is the beauty of symbolic processing whereby minds share information about their experiences.

And the importance of infant development here? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, “Theta moments, the completion of compositions, and cortical fasciculi” coming soon to this blog.  You can’t get there if you don’t travel on.

a poetic interlude though

not the one I had thought:


My old friend Stuart died yesterday

Four days after receiving a life saving

Bone marrow transplant,

For which his body had been conditioned

By 8 months of chemotherapy,

So the doctors are understandably

Mystified. Like many of our generation

He had emulated Peter Pan

By jumping off stairs and low walls

And once he felt his arc pause,

Lift even, with the promise of flight,

But then no, he fell to earth just like Icarus.

Like many of us he too had run around the neighborhood

A towel pinned to his shoulders flying behind

As he performed superior acts.

He used a large impressive bath towel

Until his mother discovered that

And made him use a dish towel,

Quite unsuitable for the flying he must do.

He would give that up soon enough anyway

For he was bright and good with numbers

And followed a dream to university.

His family sent him off with the traditional blessing,

Don’t get too big for your britches

Or forget our Christian ways, and he did not get too big

Nor forget though he did change and grow

To become an engineer of modern times,

A Daedalus of water flows for all citizens to enjoy,

a kind and good man, thorough and by the book.

I don’t know why his first marriage failed;

Probably someone came to their senses as they usually do.

I do know at last he loved Fran and worked hard,

Maybe too hard, for their life together,

And he loved music, old school like Guy Clark,

And he practiced his own guitar and worked at songwriting

With all due diligence as was his way. Last spring

He retired, breathless, mysteriously low on energy,

But with rest knowing his songs would come out.

The next week they figured out his diagnosis:

MDS developing maybe over 2-3 years

Had finally blossomed into a flower of collapse.

He died yesterday, two days before family and doctors

Had planned to pull the plug on life support

To give time for good-byes,

A line of friends coming in the room sadly

To take their leave, but with age

A mystical form evolves bone deep

And I guess he figured out that flying up and away

Was not as complicated as he once had dreamed.


3 short news items

First, a story linked here about the social nature of music:

It is very interesting as it goes from a riff about people dancing together while listening to different music on their iPods.  Interesting huh?  The story says this shows technology does not create social isolation—hmmm, I am not so sure.  Another point is that when we feel alone, listening to music brings back feelings of connection, and that makes sense to me.  Finally, one quibble here.  the story says that mirror neurons help with the processing of music and I do not doubt sometimes they do, but the example given is when someone hears a guitar riff, their mirror neurons for guitar playing light up.  Oops, I am pretty sure a good many people do not have mirror neurons for such a thing.  They (we) may feel the rhythm and melody and dance along but that is a different phenomena.  Mirror neurons process relatively simple actions of an almost universal nature; mirror systems, which are not understood nearly as well, help with easy processing, e.g., recognition and memory, of music, or at least those passages which have achieved memic status, but this would involve not simple motor coordinations but symbolic processes.

Second story is all over the internet.  For some time we have understood that some modern humans have Neanderthal DNA as a consequence of mating 40-60,000 years ago, but now they have found some even older Neanderthal DNA that contains some modern human, i.e., Homo sapiens sapiens, DNA.  That indicates that mating between the two groups (and the Denisovans as well, whoever they were) happened much  earlier and for thousands of years.  One scientist said that such an idea was pretty inconceivable even a decade ago, so the field of paleontology is shifting here a bit.  One researcher in the first story about music suggested that we (Homo of whatever sort) probably made music before syntactic sentences, and language is thought to be at least 100,000 years old.  Maybe some sapiens and neanderthals danced to their own music and found the other attractive?

The third story is to recognize the passing of Hilary Putnam, generally accorded to be a very quick and intelligent philosopher who initiated several schools of thought but later changed his mind.  Now I like this.  I knew his name and his work only vaguely but I now read that he helped promulgate a school of thought called functionalism which posited the  equivalence between biological and machine thinking:  if it accomplishes the same function, it is the same in nature.  Later he refuted that idea, saying that biological entities are so much more very complex which we do not understand well enough yet.  Amen to that.  If you have followed this blog at all, you know my thoughts about brains and computers.

That’s it for now, 3 interesting stories, and I will travel on.  Next up will probably be another poetic interlude.




Culture change and holiday

Here is my traditional St Patrick’s Day post:

The Biological Roots of Humanity

In my readings of the past, especially of the Celtic peoples, a truism was that Christianity sought to preempt ancient holidays and places.  Notre Dame in Paris was built on the site of a Druidic holy place, All Saints Eve and Day took over Samhain, Easter on Beltane, Christmas on the winter solstice.  I think of such cultural change on St Patrick’s day even more since I asked a good Irishman why they drink to celebrate someone probably opposed to such revelry.  


He answered that St Patrick came and replaced a priestly class that worked along side the people, adding to the community resources, who supported centuries of agricultural practices, cultural transmission, respect for women, maintained connection to the natural world, etc. with a priestly class that took resources to…

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A very thin slice of musical

history (less than 10 calories).  My buddy Jack wanted to play a song for me but first apologized that it was a remake, something that he generally does not like.  I share this aversion but I have also just re-read Langer’s Feeling and Form chapters on music, so here is the slice.  Music is an occupant art, one that must be performed anew to be complete, as opposed to a plastic art, like painting or architecture, which remains for all to experience once completed.  Viewed in this way, music can only be appreciated through remakes.   Of course she was thinking more about classical music and live performances.  The composer finishes writing his or her piece but it is not complete until performed, whether by the composer or a performer matters little to its artistic integrity.  Our distaste for remakes must stem more from the modern phenomena of recordings, radio and now iPods.  We hear the same version repeatedly and our memory of the piece coalesces around that one performance (or the conglomerated performance of today’s sound engineering).


I recently had the great pleasure of hearing Joan Osborne live accompanied only by her husband-keyboardist.  Wow, simply presented, elegant, and powerful.  Never to be replicated in exactly the same way.  Buying her new album and listening to the songs I loved live, I found the engineered version with orchestration, etc. rather overdone. I still like it but I must concentrate on the song and her voice and leave the other stuff in the sonorous background.

Some may remember other ‘remakes’ and the criticism that they caused even when the composer made them.  Bob Dylan caught holy hell for going electric with his songs.  And I still remember my reaction when, after hearing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” on the acoustic first album, Wednesday Morning 3 AM (?), I heard the electric version on their next.  Oh, aren’t we persnickety listeners?

And now Jack plays another remake of “Sounds of Silence” by Disturbed, a heavy metal band, and oh my, it is good.  I continue to listen to it and note with delight the slight changes in timing, tone, and notes that characterize a new vital performance.  The ‘original’ was mostly somber and mournful with just a hint of feistiness.  This new version is almost martial in tone with just the slightest undercurrent of sobriety.  Try it–I hope you like it too.

By the way, if you were wondering about what might be a silly but important bit of knowledge, I submit this.  From the Origins of Music book and Walter Freeman’s piece in it entitled “A Neurobiological Role of Music in Social Bonding” I learned that the ancient Greeks categorized music in 3 ways:  Phrygian music was martial, Lydian music was solemn and plaintive, and Ionian music was joyful.  So I guess the song “Sounds of Silence” in its original take was Lydian and in this more recent one, Phrygian.  And I hope this post feels Ionian.  Just saying.

Better travel on here.

P.S. I can’t help but add that my wife listened to the new version and did not hate it, saying it was a bit melodramatic and that the singer, who growled and yelled more than sang, seemed slightly tone deaf, which I might not notice given my keen lack of auditory discrimination.  All of this may be (ok, a high probability) true but still . . .



Difference between a maverick and a crank?

This is one question Naomi Oreskes studies in the history of science (see the NYT story on 6/16/15). She started out as a geologist and moved on to wonder about how science progresses. One of her early studies was about Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist in the early 20th century (he died on his 4th trip to Greenland researching climate mechanisms) who early on advanced a theory of plate tectonics as he studied how the shape of the continents seemed to fit together like a puzzle, the match between geological formations on both sides of the Atlantic and the corresponding match between fossils. He was viewed as a crank by most geologists, especially in the USA. (By the way American science has repeatedly failed to assimilate European ideas, e.g., our behavioral psychology and Manfred Clynes, even Piaget early on). 30 years later further research proved Wegener’s hypothesis correct so he went from crank to maverick, though decades after his death. Still, an important piece in the history of science.


Alfred Wegener

Dr. Oreskes and a colleague, Erik Conway, more recently looked into the science of climate change. In reviewing the published studies over the past couple of decades, she found that most confirmed rapid climate change due to human activity and that the ones that didn’t were addressing methodological issues, i.e., how better to measure such change, but that none challenged the prevailing consensus. How, then, to understand the doubt so present in the American populace?

Ah, there’s the rub. They found a group of scientists who had extra time on their hands after the end of the Cold War and became the strategic purveyors of doubt and misinformation at the behest of key industries. They challenged the findings on the harmful effects of tobacco and second hand smoke, acid rain, and the ozone shield as well as climate change by publishing spurious news reports. Now I find this distressing, that the same group of ‘scientists’ is doing the non-scientific work of industries to protect their profiting by misdeeds and that by and large the public is ignorant of this state of affairs. I believe this is what I call ‘willful ignorance’ in that people choose to ignore data driven information due to political prejudices.

How to tell a maverick from a crank? Time and diligent research will eventually decide. How to tell a scientist from a corporate shill? Look at the available research and follow the money. After thanking Dr. Oreskes and Dr. Conway, travel on.


Naomi Oreskes

Rereading 4.3: Leaving Langer for Woolf to wonder about

The biological basis of genius.

I believe Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” While some of us may think that the truth value of this soundbite is limited, its memic power lasts because bringing an idea to fruition does require due diligence. In her discussion of art Langer presents the idea of the ‘commanding form’, the gestalt that comes into the artist’s mind that can then be expressed fully according to the artist’s talents. Picasso worked rapidly to paint out his ideas as he carried forth traditions, initiated new forms and then tried out different expressions of those new forms. From this we could think that genius requires both the visionary seeds and talented expression, including the assiduous effort to stay true to some intuitive commanding form, and I think we would be right. Actually this also applies to scientific endeavors; consider Einstein’s daydreams, Archimedes ‘eureka,’ Pythagoras vision of geometric relations and the musical scales, or Newton’s apple (oh sure, just another memic fantasy that one).

I recently re-read Virginia Woolf’s remarkable novel about artistic being, the complexity of human thought and relationships, and the passage of time, To the Lighthouse. Consider this passage thought out by Lily Briscoe, by all accounts, even her own, an amateur albeit thoughtful artist of small gifts.

“Where to begin?—that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea that seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still the risk must be run; the mark made.”

Much in this novel, as in most of Woolf’s mature writings, presents us with her understanding of the compositional process ongoing in the human mind and personality and how art is a parallel process with special purpose. Risk? Of course courage in pursuit of the full expression of the commanding form, be it artistic, scientific, or invention, is required if only for power it brings to one’s focused effort. And genius also seems to include the ability to live mentally in some self created virtual domain; indeed, I suspect much of the gratification and survival value of artistic effort is in just this moment of abstraction from life experience. One more passage from Woolf:

Before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness, when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt.

So it would seem that artistic genius at its base helps each one of us to experience such a moment when our unborn soul stands in solitude before becoming embodied and life’s reality resumes its prominent passage even as we are changed by the artistic experience. Ah, but travel on.


Virginia Woolf


Next up: Naomi Oreskes on seeing the difference between a charlatan and a visionary.