3 news stories

Here’s 3 unrelated reports of interest.  First, 2 hours after I posted the last piece on the hippocampus, I read the obituary of Suzanne Corkin.  I did not know her name but she was the principal scientist, after Brenda Milner, studying the famous patient and research subject H.M. after his bilateral hippocampectomy.  She spent years investigating his memory loss and what he retained.  As mentioned in the previous post she spent hours many days with Henry Molaison (H.M.) who never recognized her but thought maybe he had been to high school with her.  She was respected for the thoroughness and rigor of her work.  In her book about him, Permanent Present Tense (I might have to check it out sooner than later), she wrote, reports the NYT, of coming to see Henry as a person and not solely a research subject but a collaborator in the research.  She also said he retained some strong memories from the distant past in an austere manner which she labeled ‘gist’ memories’, saying his memory had lost the capacity for narrative richness.  Thank you, Dr. Corkin, and thank you, Henry Molaison

corkin-suzanne-louis-bachrach-use-this-one

Neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin worked with Henry Gustave Molaison, who had severe amnesia, for 50 years — from the 1953 surgery that caused permanent damage to his brain until his death in 2008.

Next up a brief report from Earthsky.org on the Rosetta spacecraft orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko since August, 2014.  It has detected glycine and phosphorus on the comet.  Glycine is a simple amino acid and phosphorus is essential to building  DNA, so comet 67P orbiting our galaxy and who knows where else carries some of the building blocks of life.  Gaia seeded from Mars?  Maybe, but life from Andromeda maybe as well.  Don’t you love it when we get some empirical confirmation towards some of the wilder ideas out there?

Finally, another NYT story reports that researchers have found a Neanderthal construction from 175,000 years ago (remember that the earliest cave art is only about 50,000 years ago).  This pushes back the hominid timeline a great deal.  Evidently Neanderthals deep in a cave in France broke off stalagmites and stalagmites and arranged them in a circle way back then.  The ability to navigate that deep underground is impressive and then they were able to break off these mineral formations and then for some reason arranged them into a pretty decent circle.  Meditate on those findings for awhile and see what you come up with thinking about what our minds were like back then.  Thank you Neanderthals and thank you researchers.

That’s it for now, so after you do the above meditation, please travel on.

 

 

 

 

Beyond hippocampus redux

Another article in Science News (4/30/16) shows our further understanding of this remarkable structure and lets me speculate even more. This new report is about research that shows that the hippocampus maps social objects, i.e., conspecifics or people if you are Homo sapiens as in the experimental study, or maybe rats if you are a rat, a mammal in which the hippocampus evolved early to serve memory especially for spaces and sounds in their case. This brings up two issues: one is how we conceptualize and talk about such phenomena and our research into them and the second is the difference between experimental laboratory studies and in vivo ecological studies, i.e., real life not the lab, and my speculation on what we will find we can do more of the latter.

To review a bit for the newer readers of my blog, the hippocampus (actually hippocampi, right and left) is a cortical structure which receives input of highly processed information from the posterior perceptual areas for processing as old or new, remembered or to be remembered, and feeds its results into frontal areas to support intentional guidance. It is one of my favorite areas for discussion so I have several blog posts on it over the years. It is an area between midbrain and cortex, so that is either at the peak of midbrain evolution and operates as the cortex for the limbic system, the emotional core of the brain or at the beginning of the neocortex and the evolution of the cerebral hemispheres and higher cognition.

Gray739-emphasizing-hippocampus

Hippocampus on the left side under the cut away cortex and on top of the limbic system

The Science News article focuses on studies with rats when mapping tonal sequences or time’s passage is important and a study with humans undergoing a computer simulation of hunting for a new home or job. The subjects interacted virtually with different characters and formed judgments about their power and approval of the subject. The interaction with the virtual characters correlated with activity in the hippocampus and upon further analysis, the judgments formed correlated with some behavioral traits associated with social anxiety. So imagine in the real world, going to a party with mostly familiars or with mostly strangers, we would imagine that our hippocampi would keep up with, i.e., map, the people we meet in different ways for strangers and familiars, that people with different social approaches, e.g., low or high social anxiety, introversion or extroversion, would map the interactions quite differently and subsequently remember the events quite differently.   So later on, say that night while sleeping, the hippocampi would consolidate particular memories of the party; they would extract the more salient experiences for memory input based upon their emotional stance.

The articles I read in Plosbiology are quite technical and I can only partially digest them. Still what I can glean there is interesting. They all used the electrical activity (EEGs of various sorts) to correlate with behavioral/mental activity. One looked at how the hippocampus grows quieter during REM (dream) sleep, where by quieter I mean more synchronized, i.e., less analysis going on, and with lower energies. This would seem to indicate that its role as memory organizer for input has momentarily paused while the selected memories are consolidated for later recall. Another article reports research showing that, contrary to current thinking and models, memory input-recall is done unconsciously as well as consciously. Many currently think conscious processing is needed for input and recall, though why I do not know. There is a lot of literature now showing that subconscious processes do much of the work—see Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink for one perspective on this.

The third article is the most interesting to me because it shows differences between right and left hemispheres in detecting new information. Specifically the left hippocampus works more at detecting violations of expectations while the right hippocampal circuit monitors novelty and changes more generally. Are we using our left sided linguistic abilities to set and codify expectations for monitoring? Sure, look at the science about inner speech. Is the right side more concerned with the ongoing present, our consciousness being the remembered present (to use William James’ term)? Sure, look through my blog.

Now all these studies looked at the brain’s and the hippocampus’ response to events impacting our perceptual systems as set up by experimental designs. Leaving the strictly positivistic behind while still remaining empirically oriented I want to ask about functioning in the natural world (in vivo and ecological), about how we talk about hippocampal processing, and most especially, about the brain’s own creative processes that underlie artistic activity.

Consider how the hippocampus and its functions presumably develop early in life. Mostly immature at birth it quickly matures during the sensitive early years to acquire the ability to map space and time, things, and animate objects, not just people–remember toddlers’ affinities to other animals, especially dogs. These social maps, in conjunction with other areas such as the higher visual cortex for facial recognition and the lower limbic areas for attachment and emotional regulation, come to demarcate family and intimates from others, familiars from strangers and safety from danger. Imagine the impact on these incipient maps when intimates turn out to be dangerous as happens in instances of childhood maltreatment. Treasure the impact of healthy families on these same maps.

Consider what is actually being mapped here. Yes, experimental science, in order to progress in a sure-footed manner, must study aspects with careful controls. So studies have shown that the hippocampus maps space, time, things, and others. In a more holistic sense the hippocampus maps our experiences. Remember the patient H.M. (see post on ) who had a bilateral hippocampectomy, i.e., surgical removal of both hippocampi, in the effort to control severe epilepsy. He lost the ability to make new memories even though he could remember educational material and some events from his long past. He failed to recognize his doctors and other medical personal and the scientists studying his neuropsychological deficits even though he saw some of them almost every day, even though he had seen them an hour beforehand. He could converse and express himself on many topics and retained some procedural memories of how to do things. One conversation I find remarkable is reported in Joseph’s Neuroscience text. H.M. asked someone what he had done in the past little while because he was worried he may have done something wrong. He knew he had done something but he did not know what and so worried about that. His consciousness lacked the experience of the remembered present. (To my mind his worries mark him as a true gentleman as opposed to some politicians and sociopaths who worry about this not at all).

Consider what we do not know about hippocampal functioning during artistic endeavors such as dance, novels or music. I am quite sure that dancing, at least well with others, involves hippocampal maps for guidance. Ritualized and choreographed motions would necessarily involve maps for space, time, and others as well as procedural memories for the actual movements. Ritualized motion would summon emotional involvement in a consistent acculturated manner; modern choreographed motions would summon emotional involvement in a dramatic manner. What about novels with their virtual space, time, characters and experiences, all from different perspectives? Here I do not think we know much about how the hippocampus might function in support of the virtual domains involved and I do not think the hippocampus as a part of the perceptual-motor system dealing with objective events is sufficient for virtual operations. For these I think that dorsal and ventral loops involving longitudinal fasciculi in the cortex must contribute (see post Important stuff 2/11/16). So I wonder how Faulkner knew Yoknapatawpha County so well and how Gandalf and Aragorn knew all the paths of Middle Earth.

Finally consider music that I have focused on here so recently. Memory for tones, rhythms, melodies, beats seem basic and probably involve procedural memories as well. Memories for the biographical frames of favored songs are among the last to be lost with dementia, sometimes lasting even after one’s own identity is forgotten. This highlights again an important feature of hippocampal functioning, the setting of a standard or the stabilizing memory of the song’s emotional tone and echoes in a fashion analogous to its noticing things are out of place or out of order as reported in the previously cited studies and in H.M.’s worries. We experience only as we are able to fit moments together and this requires that we organize our mental functions coherently in an integrated fashion as moments in our life. Somehow our brains know what melodies work for a particular culture–no atonal tunes for me please–and some brains know innovative genius upon hearing; think of the responses to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  So good job, hippocampus, and thanks for the memories.

poetic interlude the third

We interrupt our regular blogging for this poetic interlude:

JOHN HENRY WAKES IN THE NIGHT

Awakened with the silence

Under the roof, the night’s cold rain

And thunder sounding patternless noise

Above, his eyes open to find where

Darkness fails in the hearth’s faint glow,

John Henry lies still to find himself.

 

Gusts rise suddenly to stir

The storm’s chaotic fury and wind

Its net about the cabin, its flood

Running down to meet the waters

Rising in the spring overflowing the fen

Incipient to the stream.

The dream returns.

 

John Henry stands darkly hammer in hand

One step beyond the clearing with the trees,

The cold rain washing the warmth from his skin.

There around his cabin, prancing with torchlight

The ghosts clothed in white, dunce caps

For some reason worn with honor,

Call their invitation for him to taste

The waters of Acquinas’ spring.

Frustrated by his silence they break

A window with a burning faggot,

Cheering the flames rising in the night

Never understanding how he watches from the dark.

 

The memory returns, the bonfire burns

In the village circle, his people dance

And sing with the griot’s

Lead and drumbeat. John Henry

Lays two more logs on the fire

That collapses, condenses under their weight.

The griot pauses and watches the sparks

Flaring and flashing and rising

To die in the night above.

His clan stills in wonder of what

He has seen when he turns to John Henry

And says, “When you meet with death,

Keep your hammer in your hand.”

 

John Henry sits and smoors his fire,

Keeping the coals until morning

And wanting the darkness until then.

He picks up his hammer from

Beside the door to place by his bed

And returns to sleep, sparks

Waiting to be struck by the steel’s strike,

The rain drumming on his roof.

That concludes this poetic interlude.  We will return soon to our regular blogging with another piece on the hippocampus.

Review: Homo Aestheticus

I finished Ellen Dissanayake’s Homo Aestheticus: Where art comes from and why (1992) about two weeks ago and have been pondering over what to write. It seems an important book and I wondered why I did not find it sooner. I first became aware of her and her writings in a more recent book, The Origins of Music, which I have mentioned here before (see posts 1/11/16, 3/12/16, 3/26/16). I appreciate several of her ideas but am puzzled (at least) by one aspect of her thought, and she is dismissive about Susanne Langer for some reason so of course I have a quibble there. Onward.

Her central hypothesis is that art is best conceived as ‘making special’ and that art is an important evolutionary factor in our successful adaptation. She brings forth many examples from her own and others’ ethological studies to show that art is a phenomenon of everyday life, or has been until recently (very recently in our evolutionary past) when we began to segregate art into some category of fine art produced by few and enjoyed by a few more of the privileged. Not just making special, I guess, but making extra special (or all too precious, isn’t it?). Western culture, especially I think in the more mercantile, industrial and commercial aspects, e.g. USA, has minimized the importance of the arts, looking down on artistic activity as a lower form of intelligent activity or as simply a financial transaction. Of course, this is nonsense and Ms. Dissanayake does a wonderful job of correcting it.

She also resurrects what she says is an antiquated notion of ‘aesthetic empathy.’ Art, i.e., making special, involves not the pleasure of perceived forms but the pleasure of the feelings evoked or carried by those forms and more especially, making those forms. Regular readers here will understand when I say I did not know the concept was antiquated. I am not up on art theory or criticism but evidently, like so much of our cognitively oriented theorizing, the idea that feelings or emotions are important is also downplayed there, even shunned. As I have done here in the past she poses the parallel between the surface and deep structure of language (sound and meaning) and the surface and deep structure of art, e.g., music or painting or dance and their import.

What puzzles me is that Ms. Dissanayake rather insists that art need not be symbolic. In its inception ‘making special’ is akin, to use one of her examples, to a male bower bird’s nest making in which he ornaments his bower with stones, shells, and other found objects; the ‘prettier’ the bower, the more success he has in mating and passing on his (and her) genes. And much of our art is ornamentation, whether it be shaping a tool to a pleasing state or decorating skin etc. Likewise singing can be an enlivening accompaniment to activity with little seeming import though it seems to me still to express feelings.

I have written before about bower birds (see post 11/12/14). Consider this: when does a bowerbird know the nest is finished? For that matter, when do any birds know when their nest is finished? I have never heard this being discussed before but I suspect that the birds fuss about until the eggs are laid, or at least the mate selected, because after that the effort would have little payoff. Human ‘making special’ covers many creative activities in a variety of modalities the boundaries of which, i.e., the beginning and finishing of the action, come from within the mind of the artist. Does the ornamentation indicate social status or tribal membership or its workman or does it result from whiling away a moment? At some point early on in the development of this way of acting, i.e., making special, form (and necessarily the more or less complete rendition from a mental gestalt) became important, and that form expresses some complex of feelings and thinking. This is not the empathic or kinesic communication of current emotional states or even the signal of reproductive vitality, but the symbolic rendering or representation of something more complex, a conveyance of subjective experience. I am sure that even ornamentation does this for humans; I am not so sure that some proto-symbolic process does not operate for bowerbirds—that is the message of Frans de Waals most recent book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are.

bird bower

A few more shells placed just so and I can put this nest on the market.

It seems to me that two different definitions of symbol are at play here. One is that idea of an art symbol, e.g., a cross symbolizes the crucifixion, Jung’s archetypes, Godot whoever he is, Eliot’s wasteland the human condition, Picasso’s screaming horse in Guernica, etc. These are really like tropes (verbal or otherwise) where elements are used artistically to represent or signify particular ideas or feelings. The other definition of the symbol comes from semiotics, say from C. S. Pierce on to Ernst Cassirer and modern linguistics. These are symbols that result from neuropsychological processes to represent ‘things’ and thereby allows us to control abstract information mentally and to communicate specifics either linguistically or artistically. I think maybe Ms. Dissanayake talks more about the first type when the second is the more relevant.

This issue brings up what I think Ms. Dissanayake misunderstands about Langer when she says that, for Langer, “aesthetic experience is a response to ‘presentational symbolism’.” (page 237) No, for Langer, aesthetic experience is rendered and communicated through presentational symbols. The symbol’s import is an aesthetic experience, i.e., the symbolic elements composing the symbol are the felt significances of the colors or sounds or words in the composition. These are not ‘responses’ but symbolic forms a person has composed from his or her subjective, vital and particular experience so that others may comprehend this work of their subjective space, i.e., their mind. Sounds without meaning are not words and tones or colors or forms or body movement without import are nothing special. And yes, this is clearly an evolutionarily important biological trait of our species, at the least.

Ms. Dissanayake writes that “Langer does not consider art as a selectively valuable behavior in human evolution”. (page 242) This misstates Langer’s position a good deal; following Feeling and Form in 1953, she spent decades writing a 3 volume work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, arguing that art is one of the highest forms of biological activity. Her effort was premature historically, i.e., she was ahead of her time and developments since then have changed our paradigms a great deal. Just before she died she half finished volume 3 in 1982, a few years after Jacques Monod made the case in Chance and Necessity for molecular biology as the exclusive basis of life and several years before E.O. Wilson and others laid the basis for sociobiology. Furthermore, she was also too early to incorporate the profound developments Chomskyian linguistics and information science and technology engendered in our understanding of psychology and neuroscience. (This makes all the more remarkable Langer’s elevation of virtual information back in the 1950s). So, yes, Langer did not understand modern evolutionary theory but she certainly did understand that the human mind was a biological product of evolution. Likewise she did not understand that the human mind, while distinctive (or species-centric in Dissanayake’s term), is not that different from the minds of other animals. As I heard Frans de Waal say on the radio last week, it is not that human intelligence needs to be lowered but that we need to elevate the place of other animals’ intelligences.

Finally, the last chapter in Homo Aestheticus presents a refutation of sorts to post modern art theory and criticism. I was mystified by some of the concerns here; it is not within my ken, but I think I understood from her account that post-modernism is rather sterile, elitist, and counter to any view of art as vital, organic and evolutionary. If that is so, I certainly hope her refutation is taken seriously, and I hope I can keep better company than those who espouse such poppycock.

Anyway, read Home Aestheticus. Ms. Dissanayake aptly discusses that the variety of ways humans make art, think of art, and consider the world is truly spectacular, that art is clearly an important biological result from evolution, and that art is, after all, following Langer, one of the highest organic responses. Travel on.