Dogs, language and laterality

The linguistic lateralization of our dog buddies spotlights a theoretical mystery

Many news outfits have published stories about a recent study wherein dogs were trained to lie still enough in an fMRI while listening to humans talk to them. The results indicated that our evolutionary partners processed emotional tones on the right side of their brains and specific words on the left, just like humans. The more we study dogs, the more we find how smart they are and how much we have adapted to each other for interaction. Check out the research done by Brian Hare and colleagues.

I first read about the fMRI study in Science News from 10/1/16. It provides a good summary (as they usually do—what a good magazine) and then they ended the article with the idea that because dog-human relations have only developed over the last 30,000 years, too short a time for evolutionary progress to produce such linguistic abilities, “some older underlying neural mechanism for processing meaningful sounds is present in other animals”.

This highlights for me the theoretical mystery on the biological nature not just of language but of symbolization in general (so it includes art as well). As I have said before, understanding symbolization is the holy grail of understanding ourselves biologically, and so let me render a conceptual outline of this mystery. First consider the bond between dogs and humans and that emotional communication through voice (and sight) is processed by the right side of the brain in both of us. We have researched this broadly in humans as intonation or non-verbal vocal communication, and/or kinesics. All of this to my mind is empathic communication and its processing is right sided; we find a cortical area for its integration there at the tempo-parietal junction that I call Empathy Central but the academics call ToM (Theory of Mind). Do dogs have an Empathy Central area? Unknown for now but I am taking bets they do and planning on how to spend my winnings.

zackyawn

Looking left, currently bored

Next consider this basic feature of lateralization. The right side processes emotional expression and empathic communication just like it processes the current perceptual-motor domains, i.e., the right side processes the specious present. The left side then directs its energies towards information displaced in time and space, initially as a supplement to the specious present by recognizing and recalling information and then increasingly as a virtual domain for information to be composed independently from current objective events. Language, as a symbolic function, is so powerful because it allows us not only to control the input and retrieval of displaced information from memory, not only because it allows the composition of new information from imaginal processes, but also and especially because it allows us to communicate about what isn’t there in front of us but exists only in our minds, apprehensible only to oneself and in symbolic communication.

So when the article ends by asking what the underlying neural mechanism might be, my answer is not about language but about its precursor in the symbolic control of displaced information. Why should that be lateralized to the left? Ah, because timing is important. The right side matures at a faster pace than the left, due primarily to the differential effect of testosterone which slows the left’s maturation more than the right’s (and so males show more distinct patterns of lateralization and more language problems from sometimes too slow a pace on the left side). The right side develops the capabilities to process current information early on while the left side is coming online, so to speak, a bit later, and when it does come on line, it is not totally in sync with the right sided processes for the specious present. Its information is displaced (read out of sync) almost from the beginning of the incipient specious present. Symbolic processes enable finer, more powerful control of such displaced information. So the right side focuses more on the current coin of interaction, i.e., empathic communication, and the left side more on non-current, i.e., displaced, information. Verbally this relies on lexical knowledge, the processing nexus of which is in the left temporal-parietal junction. As we learn more about animals, especially mammals, we will find the precursors of these underlying neural mechanisms in virtually all of them. You can count on it.

A couple more quick notes. It would seem likely that dogs were domesticated and became our close buddies because the genetic streams feeding their evolution ran close to ours—our brains are sympatico in how they process social information.   Human genetic streams, however, also evolved a lower larynx and hyoid bone, greater breath control, and oral-facial musculature thereby enabling articulate speech and even more critically to our humanity, gave rise to longer cortical fasciculi. The arcuate fasciculus is a prime example here. Remember that it carries the surface structure of words on the left side between front and back so that we can repeat what we just heard said. On the right side it might could carry emotional expressions for mimicking. (See my most popular post from 4/24/14, Arcuate fascicles, mirror neurons, and memes). The important feature here, however, is that these long fasciculi facilitate the composition of invariant information forms, e.g., words, discrete emotional forms, and their expression. (And how about art and its special modes of symbolization? Ah, beautiful). The creation of these invariant forms is what enables the separation of deep and surface structures and the subsequent development of syntactic control of their compositional connection. The creation of these invariant forms, both long-standing (lexical items) and in passing (conversation), by the welter of connectome activity in the presence of ambient flux is the remarkable basis for humanity’s intelligence and it has grown from deep roots.

Finally, remember to mark your calendars for Mammalian Heritage Day on November 2 and celebrate those roots. Travel on.

bumblebees solve the problem

A quick note this Sunday morning about bumblebee intelligence that I saw on Earthsky.org based on a recent paper in PLOS Biology.  Scientists trained a bumblebee to pull a string in order to gain access to sugar water, then had other bumblebees watch to see if they learned the skill (most did), put those bumblebees in new hives to see if the skill would be transmitted and it was.  An insect version of cultural transmission.  Now the scientists have the delightful job of figuring out how the bumblebee with its simpler nervous system manages that achievement.

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In my simplified thinking, life has two main aspects that I have discussed before and that evolution continues to rhapsodize on.  The first and original aspect I call SWP for ‘Solving World Problems’ because all life must figure out how to gain sustenance from the world.  Evolutionary history concerns in large measure how different organisms solve this problem in their different niches.  Learning to pull a string is, then, like finding an unknown flower and figuring out how to harvest what is needed.  The second aspect I call CR for ‘Conspecific Relations’ because all life must produce the next generation and then with the advent of sexual reproduction some billions of years ago, must also figure out how to find the best mate and then raise the most vital family.  Cultural transmission is a great way to improve skills while waiting for genetic evolution to increase adaptive abilities.  So, bumblebees show they are good at both just like us and the rest of the animate world.

Coming soon:  Dogs and lateralization.  Travel on.

Origins of agriculture &

group dynamics:

More details on the beginnings of agriculture. Archeologists have uncovered several villages in the Middle East where their findings indicate very early agricultural practices and so the development of permanent settlements. One village, Ohalo II on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, had over 150,000 charred seeds and nuts of various sorts soon to be domesticated if they had not been already. These dated from 23,000 years ago and farming is generally dated back to 11,000 years ago, so this suggests that humans domesticated plants over a long period of time. Another one of these villages, Ain Ghazal in central Jordan, has yielded ample evidence from 10,000 years ago of agriculture using both domesticated plants and animals, clay figurines used ritually and burial practices. The scientists have also recovered from there and several other villages in the fertile crescent human DNA. Their analysis shows that these early farmers spread out west and east from India to Ireland but not all at once. And different farming populations within that area were very different genetically, as different as Europeans and Chinese are today, and that these differences were maintained for thousands of years.

So this archeological evidence uncovering the beginnings of agriculture also shows something of group dynamics as we went from tribes of hunter-gatherers with some trade to cities with much trade over a roughly 20,000 year period, say from 25,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago. We know that people had been trading for a long time before that and traveling long distances to do so, or to settle in a new place, and that this led to some interbreeding, say between modern humans and Neandertals or Denisovans, with enough genetic exchange that we can find its evidence in today’s population. With these studies it looks like the initial phase of agriculture was marked by some practices limiting marriage outside the local group. This went on from 11,000 (at the latest) to 8,000 years ago and then inter-breeding exploded and these populations engaged with each other and across southern Asia and into all of Europe. The groups of hunter-gatherers were slowly assimilated into the growing population of agriculturalists through breeding more than by their adopting the new technologies for producing food.

I really like this story as it shows the gradual accretion of scientific knowledge and its correction of hypotheses by additional findings. (Check out the link to NYT story: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/science/ancient-farmers-archaeology-dna.html). I do not claim to understand very well the ability of geneticists to detect these changes over time but it is at this point a respected methodology. The emerging picture of agriculture starting in several locations contemporaneously as people “played around” (read ‘experimented’) with different seeds and nuts stock and with domesticating animals such as goats is fascinating. Even more so is that these groups were insular for a good 3,000 years; they may have traded but they did not inter-marry. They may not have traveled afar as much when they began to construct more permanent villages and farmed. Traders may have then become a distinct profession and limited in numbers. This all implies a cultural belief involving in-group/out-group dynamics; we see forms of this in wolves, apes, hunter-gatherers recent and ancient, and modern humans. Given this dynamic in the middle Eastern origins in agriculture, it is no coincidence, then, that one of the primary groups to emerge in that area, the Jewish people, have maintained that dynamic control of inter-marriage even to this day to some extent.

And then we have the stories not of human stocks but of seed stocks investigated by Nikolai Vavilov as he brilliantly and presciently researched in the first half of the 20th century (before he starved to death in Stalin’s prison because he did not bow down to Lysenko’s pseudo-science) the geographical origins of various food crops, but enough for now. It is time to travel on.

 

An interesting study and my quibble

So researchers have demonstrated through an experiment that apes understand when another has a ‘false belief’, i.e., someone believes something that is not true. This seems to be applied to the concrete here and now more than to tax policy but more on that later. The researchers made a video and showed it to apes of a man holding a rock, then a man in a gorilla suit takes it from him and puts it under a box. The man leaves and the gorilla puts the rock under a second box and then takes it away altogether. When the first man returns, the apes watching are found to anticipate that he will go to the first and now empty box through eye tracking technology (they look at the man and first box repeatedly), thereby showing that they understand another’s perspective and that it can be wrong. One link is the Duke Chronicle: http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2016/10/duke-study-shows-apes-have-a-cognitive-ability-thought-to-be-unique-to-humans

chimpanzee-personality

So you can’t find your rock? Did you look under the other box? In your closet?

This is an interesting albeit limited finding. I like the effort to show a more sophisticated side to animal minds, but here’s my quibble. Why call this a ‘false belief’ rather than a ‘false assumption’? If linguists were studying humans in this regard, we would talk about contextual knowledge and pragmatic processes. That apes (and many other animals for that matter) understand another’s false assumption is no real surprise, so this study provides another confirming detail. Frans de Waal has documented many instances of apes using such perspective taking and knowledge to their advantage in his books, especially the latest one, Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Animals Are?  Consider his account when one chimp lower in the pecking order was allowed to see through a window where bananas were hidden and then when he and the whole group were released to find the food ran somewhere else and then later returned by himself to enjoy the bananas. If he had gone straight to them, an alpha male would have taken them. He promoted the assumption that he did not know where the bananas were. Did the other apes ‘believe’ he was as ignorant as they were? Mimicking false beliefs is strategically a ‘feint’ that dogs do all the time in play, going one way to trick the other in assuming one intent and then quickly changing course, as do humans playing a sport. Manipulation through hiding intent or understanding another’s false assumption/belief is, I think, common in the animal kingdom, including humans pushing a fraudulent sales deal. Our more powerful symbolic and cultural capabilities make this even more apparent and problematic.

Back to false beliefs and tax policy. I am aware of the false belief that reducing taxes on the wealthy produces more jobs; that this tax reduction does not increase jobs has been demonstrated repeatedly at the state and national level; the data are clear. This is no rock under the box situation though, so understanding another’s false belief is not so helpful because of the persistence of the false belief in the face of evidence. Surely the human or ape looking under the box to find nothing would abandon that assumption. For tax policy though, some continue to insist the rock is under the box even though it is clearly not there. This marks a difference between an assumption and a belief wherein the persistence is due to faulty reality testing by ignoring data so as to find an advantage in other ways.

I recently saw a study that showed climate change deniers were associated more with the Republican party than the Democratic one. Why? A friend’s family of origin teaches their younger children that evolution is wrong. Why? At least in part to be consistent with their religious beliefs, but they still use all the medical tools evolutionary science bestows upon us. I recognize these as false beliefs more than false assumptions because they persist in the bright light of empiricism. Yes, each of us has a powerful world view that shapes our interpretation and assembly of data, but empirical thinking, from cooking, early tools and agriculture through the scientific revolution in the 16th century to now, is our most powerful perspective. Remember a few years back when a group of young, disrespectful, stupidly self-involved American tourists climbed a sacred mountain in, I think, Indonesia, and stripped naked for their selfies? Then they were arrested for desecrating a sacred place (ok so far) and causing an earthquake (oops, slipped over the positivistic border there). I had a conversation with a friend who contradicted me when I said they did not cause the earthquake saying that maybe the indigenous people there were on to something, maybe the mountain god was angry and that we do not understand all that goes on in this world (now there’s a safe assumption I can endorse). Is there no such thing as superstition then? I knock on wood toward off bad events but I know that is a superstition. We do not understand everything but we do understand somethings very well. I am prepared to believe in magic and miracles and apprehension of unknown things by special talents but I can also reject false assumptions and beliefs. Let me not begin a discussion of religious beliefs, because we humans with our fecund symbolic capabilities not only make up the weirdest stuff (remember the Atargatis?) but we lose track of our creations and mistake them for objective truth. Many religious minded people ‘recognize’ the false beliefs of other religions. Really? Better travel on from there.

bonobo2

I just don’t know what to believe anymore. Maybe I should study the matter empirically.

November 2: Mammalian Heritage Day

Finally a fake holiday I can get behind. We humans in our evolution find ourselves benefitting fully from our mammalian heritage. Mammals appeared on the scene around 500 million years ago and have diversified into many different forms since. Consider their (our) primary characteristics. Being warm blooded confers a crucial independence from ambient conditions, an independence humans have taken to an ultimate degree. It is not just that mammals have adapted to many different environments around Gaia, including returning to the ocean, but we have further enhanced our independence by controlling and changing these ambient conditions, perhaps to own detriment but then no species continues forever.

Consider another characteristic: live births. This is especially important for three reasons. First, infants born viably but immaturely permit an incredible amount of post-partum growth. The benefits of this are astounding: increased brain growth and size and critical periods of maturation where experience affects brain development in deep ways. Second, parenting becomes a lot more than regurgitating food into infant mouths and then kicking them out of the nest. Oxytocin, a most important hormone for parenting energy and prosocial behaviors, has been around, according to some estimates, for over 530 million years. Over the course of evolution mammalian brains developed the capacity to respond more powerfully to this hormone—parenting and family life became more prominent in any adaptive success, and that leads us to the third reason: If you want to raise more intelligent children and pass on to them the benefits of prior generations’ experience, birth them live and immature, maintain a nurturing family structure, and extend their juvenile period so that they do not begin to reproduce until they are a decade or so old. The discovery of controlling fire was not really that big of a deal; the passing on of this technique, however, was; just ask Prometheus.

Our immediate (relatively speaking) ancestors who showed the culmination of these characteristics are the primates who appeared around 53 million years ago. That means mammals evolved for 450 million years before our large brained, visually oriented, socially engaged, and quick intelligence kinfolk appeared and then simians appeared a few million years after that. Our line split off from the great apes around 8 million years ago and our partners, the dogs, appeared around 3 million years ago. Fire was important because it furthered this trend. Cooking food releases more calories, making digestion more efficient, and more energy from food powers increased brain capacity. Fire warms us and draws the family group to the hearth. Civilization began at the hearth (and it looks like it will die in committee).

So this November 2 take a moment to reflect on our genetic heritage and thank a mammal, any mammal, all mammals for continuing this genetic stream and tend to your hearth.

bonobo1

We sing a song of mammals today . . .

BIOLOGICAL DIFFERENCES AND CULTURE–note from 2016

on the occasion of misconceptions expressed by some leaders during this election: the candidate thought check edition

A few years back I had a delightful after dinner conversation with a group of fellow travelers. At one turn in the topic I said what I thought was obvious and so, well known, that male and female brains were different. Two college students then contradicted me, saying the brains were the same, but I went on successfully to explain about differences in development, hormonal response, laterality and other such notions. When I recited Jaak Panksepp’s idea that there are actually 4 sexes (male body+male brain, male body+female brain, female body+female brain, female body+male brain), our group leader, an art historian and archeologist, wondered if in fact these categories were not as discrete as perhaps we might think, and that maybe, given the ‘messiness’ of biological systems, such notions of male/female are more on a continuum. I had to agree that was probably so. Our discussion went on to affirm that determining one’s indeterminate sexual mosaic of a body and brain was not as important to one’s social role and relations, love and marriage as mutual regard, common interests and a consensual relationship.  One’s sexual self should also be irrelevance for one’s intellectual and professional work.

Still, most peoples of the world operate with two categories, male and female, which they consider firm and true, biologically based or god given (actually both of these are firm, but only one true). And sociobiologists, anthropologists, and others who study humanity can give some reasons why the control of female sexuality and reproduction is important to males. The question “Who’s your daddy?” has been around for long time. In my thinking, though, going from biological differences and the importance of choosing a fit mate and on to the cultural mores of power and control is important enough to think patiently through what we know (and what we don’t).

I just read that the Bronte sisters, Emily (Wuthering Heights), Charlotte (Jane Eyre), and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) were not allowed to check books out of the public library because they were female. The brother Branwen stepped in and checked out books for them but still? The ladies originally published their novels and poems using male pseudonyms. Ah, 19th century England, and women had difficulty owning property (except Queen Victoria) because they were property. They were denied admission to universities; even the 20th century author Virginia Woolf, one of the most brilliant and innovative authors ever, from a highly educated and upper class family (mostly) could not attend university. Not as extreme perhaps as fundamentalists attacking Malala and other girls for going to any school but many notes, same melody.

As I consider the brilliant work of ethologists and biologists like Frans de Waal, I have learned that conspecific interactions are importantly defined by power relationsips and that power may come from many directions. Male chimpanzees and gorillas use brute strength in the old alpha male model. Female bonobos use coalitions and friendships to exert control. The important point for we humans in 2016 is that many sorts of power exist along with many ways of interacting and that, by and large, we have made what little progress we have made by restraining the use of power in over-ruling another’s consent and by making others’, e.g., females, consent and rights, e.g., property, education, voting, etc., valid. This is the true genius of democracy, the only valid authority the government has comes with the consent of the governed.

So the other side of power is consent. If you have been unawares of the amount of sexual coercion and assault in our culture and other cultures around the world, I hope you have been listening to the discussion engendered by Donald Trump’s comments about sexual behavior where consent was irrelevant to him (but surely not to those around him).   Of course, females, or those identified by society as such, suffer the brunt of such coercive behaviors but look up the statistics of how many males have been abused and try not to be surprised.

To pass over the non-consensual features of any coercive behaviors as ‘locker-room’ talk or ‘boys will be boys’ (even at age 69? Really?) shows a lack of integrity; it shows distorted thinking in 2 ways: it pretends to be biological when it is not and it relegates the great power and virtue of consensual behavior to irrelevancy. As a psychologist, I worked with sexually aggressive youth ages 4-18 and some adult offenders, and I heard these misconceptions from virtually every single one. We would used the phrase “stinky thinking” when we heard such statements, so now I hope a fresh breeze powerfully clears the air of such misconceptions and their rotten stench. Consensual relations based upon proper empathy is, after all, our real biological mandate.

Oh, and please vote.

Crown of creation?

In 1982 as she finished the third and last volume of Mind: An essay on human understanding, Susanne Langer noted that our symbolic capabilities were both powerful in rendering reality exploitable and destructive when our symbolizations exceed the capacity of our reality testing, i.e., we tend towards BS. She discussed several civilizations that declined in part because their symbolizations and cultural constructs became maladaptive. One example was the Maya, who sacrificed so many people, especially young ones, in their bloodlust belief that such a ritual brought great power that they used up all the slaves they could conquer and steal and their own youth. Ouch!

Consider in this regard psychiatric illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, that involve symbolization run amuck. In the former a self-sustaining feedback loop of negative thinking dissociated from reality based processes debilitates the energy needed for positive action, while in the latter the symbolization process itself runs unconstrained and generates internal experiences incommensurate with objective social reality, though these can contribute to social reality, e.g., Joan of Arc or Joseph Smith and many others. Not saying that religious beliefs are crazy, just that they exceed the usual constraints imposed by reality testing, sometimes adaptively and sometimes not (e.g., see previous posts about Atargatis).

So our symbolic capabilities allow us to formulate conceptions with great precision, such as when we send the Rosetta spacecraft many millions of miles to orbit and study a comet for two years before softly landing on it at a speed of 2 miles per hour. Our symbolic capabilities also allow us to leave positivist reality behind and render experience in aesthetic forms that can nurture the blossoming of our humanity. And, as Langer suggests, our symbolic capabilities, when used to impress, say through exaggeration, or manipulate, say through falsehood, begin the journey to fraud and demagoguery.

And that brings us to the fragile psychological and social processes underlying political discourse. Not that I am cynical this election season, oh no, but I remembered an old Jefferson Airplane song, “Crown of Creation,” and reflected on Frans de Waals’ wisdom in rejecting humans as the top rung in the ladder of life, and our persistent belief (and it is only a belief) that mankind is progressing towards better ends. Maybe our evolution has brought us to the place where further random mutations, as almost all mutations are, even those effected purposefully by us, will increase our adaptive powers even more. But I would not rush to judgment on that one, not when I consider our history and then look down the road ahead from where I sit and see what I see. Better travel on.