Fierce Jacques Monod

I have finally after many years started re-reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity. The title is from a quote by Democritus that “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” (Of late I have been thinking that any animate intelligence only mitigates contingency and exploits chance; that is really about all life does). I surprise myself that I can remember at least these early chapters fairly well and how carefully one must read to follow his chemical examples and to follow his line of reasoning. I do have a deeper appreciation now of his discussion of humanity’s alternatives to the postulate of objectivity as the basis of science, i.e., the universe is objective and can never be known and so can only be understood approximately through empirical efforts. Monod lists two alternatives, animism and vitalism. The latter is that life is separately energized by some projective animating spirit with teleonomic direction; the former is that all of the universe is so energized. Religions vary according to Monod by this distinction: spirits exist in all living things or spirits or one spirit gives motion to everything in the universe. His argument is that the teleonomy of life is inherent in the objective chemical workings governed by chance and necessity and is not a projection from outside of nature by say, a god guiding evolution to some end. Monod emphasizes that his use of ‘animist’ and ‘vitalist’ is idiosyncratic to himself, but his reasoning is clear enough that life operates and progresses by blindly objective chemical processes.

I did not remember a particular statement he makes at the end of chapter 2; I guess I am old enough now to appreciate how fierce a statement it is: “We would like to think ourselves necessary, inevitable, ordained from all eternity. All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its own contingency”. Here he strikes down any notion that we are the center of the universe or the crown of creation and replaces it with a deeper understanding and appreciation of molecular biology. Remember that he, Lwoff and Jacob won the Nobel Prize for discovering how genes control protein synthesis, and that has led to the remarkable explosion of molecular biology in our time.


Jacques Monod, French scientist and philosopher.

I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘desperately.’ Monod is a careful writer and not given to hyperbole, so I take that word seriously enough I have to wonder: Why ‘desperately’? I understand that we tend to deny or ignore our mortality except at given times. Buddhist monks might consider it more; other religions think death only a transition to an eternal existence; skeptics and existentialists, like Monod’s good friend Camus (a quote from The Myth of Sisyphus also begins Chance and Necessity) hold that this life is all there is. I guess our desperation comes from the difficulty we experience apprehending our life span as a quick wink on a small planet in an ever growing universe, though I think today we have become more accustomed to that notion and so not as desperate to deny it.

In volume 3 of Mind Susanne Langer thought that we humans attained our current level of consciousness when we came to understand that from birth to death is one unitary act, that each life has these two boundaries beyond which it does not exist as an objective fact. I guess that having realized that and become fully conscious of being alive only for now, we then began to feel some need to go beyond that, i.e., to escape that contingency. And the ancients also believed, still in evidence today, in fate, another inescapable contingency. Skeptics, existentialists and some others understand that we create that need for ourselves out of our own imagination and so we can make up other pertinent needs and beliefs as well.

I will go back now and read some more Monod. I rarely see this book listed in bibliographies. I guess most consider it an historical work, but next to Darwin, and then Crick and Watson, Monod and colleagues led us to a greater understanding of ourselves. I hope I am clear that Chance and Necessity should be required reading for anyone hoping to understand how we came to understand the biological roots of our humanity.

Heads up: The Beautiful Brain

The New York Times has a great review of a new book of Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s drawings and photos of the brain’s microscopic structure from around 1900:  He along with Camilio Golgi won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1906 for their pioneering work discovering the cellular organization of the brain.  Here is Ramon y Cajal.


Santiago Ramon y Cajal

He and Golgi spent many hours peering through their microscopes at slides of brain tissue and then drew or photographed them to help them develop theirs and our understanding of neural architecture.  Golgi developed a stain for neurons to highlight their structures.

When I was a young graduate student in 1975, modern brain imaging was in its early days.  I studied the historical work and looked forward to the advances new imaging techniques would bring, and how they have brought them!  I remember pondering a book about the connections to and from the frontal lobe gleaned by studying slides over 10 years to trace the cells and axonal/dendritic structures.  This was painstaking but primitive work that is done now in seconds.

Both Ramon y Cajal and Golgi were fascinated by the cytoarchitecture of everyone’s favorite brain structure, the hippocampus.


Ramon y Cajal’s study of the hippocampus

Their early work highlighted the beauty of this little baby and started us on a journey to understand the mind.  Thanks, Santiago and Camilio, and thanks to the authors, Swanson and Newman, who have put this new book together, and thanks to the NYT for alerting me to its publication.

The purpose of sleep and the mnemonic forms of experience


So we have a science story in the NYT entitled ‘The purpose of sleep is to forget’:

Catchy but maybe not as summary a title as one would want. They cite some assiduous research showing that during sleep the brain decreases synapses in some areas, an action mediated by at least one particular protein that we know of. Some of this work was done by Guilio Tononi who collaborated with Gerald Edelman before his death. What a lot of good science is being done. The premise underlying the title is that loss of synapses equals forgetting. Not so fast there, my friends. Pruning improves and sharpens growth, helping forms to be articulated more coherently, as the story goes on to explain. Sure we may forget some details due to pruning, but we also forget without pruning, and the larger purpose is to remember (and imagine) more clearly. Let me explain myself better.

The NYT title refers simply to the ongoing debate about what is sleep is for. Why sleep? We know sentience and being awake helps exploit environmental resources, e.g., food. Some think sleep keeps us quiet at night when predators are about; others think sleep lets the brain clean up metabolites and such, much like I take the compost out after cooking. Tononi and colleagues posed the hypothesis a while back that sleep lets us clear our minds of the residua of the day and prepare for another and further research has slowly begun to support such a view. Presumably the synapses that shrunk, in some areas by as much as 18%, quite a significant proportion, had enlarged dealing with the exigencies of the days past. Here is my question: does the shrinkage constitute pruning, like apoptosis, or consolidation, like items in STM moving to LTM, if you get my gist here. Remember that TMs are not spaces but activity and that activity contributes to invariant and variant mental structures (you know, of information).

Our model for pruning comes from apoptosis, the death of neurons that are poorly connected or that connect poorly during early maturation of the year or so after birth, thereby contributing to the invariances of personality through attachment and affective regulation. This pruning promotes the development of other systems and structures, reducing noise in the processes, that are presumably more adaptive to the person’s niche. Our model for consolidation is not quite so clear. It can be looked at from several perspectives. There is the long standing cognitive research tradition studying short and long term memories, how the transition between them might happen and what happens when it doesn’t happen as in the case of H.M. who had his hippocampi ablated to control epilepsy but taught us so much about the loss of that transition between STM and LTM. Neuroscience, both clinical and experimental, has long studied the processes of symbolic competence and performance, i.e., the maturation and development of language and how it is compromised by disorder and trauma (aphasias, etc.). For example, consider word retrieval. Frequently used words in your vocabulary come to mind almost effortlessly while more unusual ones are more difficult to remember. Could it be that the higher frequency usage keeps the memory traces of neurons and synapses primed while pruning leaves less frequently used words less accessible?

Consider as well the connectome, that ongoing connective patterning of CNS communication amongst its systems, and the clinical example of a young scientist falling into icy water who died, whose body was recovered after some time underwater, and who was later resuscitated at a hospital, her identity intact and who with therapy came back close to her previous self and competence. Somehow her connectome was resilient and unpruned or at least, information not forgotten and lost.  Next consider the question of how dreaming plays into synaptic flux. Do synapses shrink or grow or just maintain with dreaming? And what about meditation? How does this pruning/consolidation change with developing expertise at meditation?

My list goes on, a sort of wish list for empirical clarification. When someone is depressed and their cognition is a maladaptive redundant feedback loop called rumination, what happens to their synaptic tidal rhythms? Does cognitive therapy bolster both the ebbing of ruminative circuits and their replacement with the flow of adaptive flexible and realistic cognition? Does this tidal flow while sleeping contribute to that? When someone cogitates over a problem like Monod’s colleague, Jakob Wolff, who subconsciously solved a problem leading to our understanding of rDNA, how does the brain keep the thought processes alive when asleep, as with Kekule’s dream of the benzene ring or Wolff’s insight flash during a movie with his wife? (She did indeed, I hope, understand why they had to leave the theatre and return to his desk). Did the cogitations over a theoretical problem keep certain thoughts bright and let others dim, thereby heightening and clarifying the gestalt answering the theoretical call?

This is already a longer post for me (and I have much else to do today), so let me not go into a lot more details of which there are many, and instead go back to my notion that sentience and consciousness are quite different. In my thinking sentience is a basic life function; the sensing of the environment is necessary to solve the world problem of finding nutrients and conspecifics and avoiding the bad stuff. The evolution of sentience, then, can be traced from early single celled organisms to multicellular ones and then through its evolutionary victory with vertebrates, especially mammals. When we think of an animal’s Umvelt, we usually think of its sentient abilities. Consciousness is the contribution of the organism’s own autogenic impulses to its Umvelt; consciousness is the suffusion of information from memory and imagination to sentience. I have talked about this many times in past posts, like when I say we can be +/-sentient and +/-conscious, creating a 4 celled matrix:

SENTIENCE/CONSCIOUS            + sentient                                  -sentient

+conscious                                       awake                                              dream (REM sleep)

-conscious                                       hypnosis/dissociative                    sleep (slow wave)

I have also discussed this in reference to Jaak Panksepp’s remarkable observation that the center for dreaming (REM) seems to have appeared in evolution before the centers for arousal/awake. Thus, looking at this in a poetic light, animals dreamed before they awoke. (Actually the earlier dream centers controlled arousal through the suffusion of conscious energy into sentient processes. With further evolution sentient processes gained their own arousal governance system, I presume because of the increasing scope and power of perceptual abilities, e.g., olfactory, auditory, and visual and the special systems for conspecific recognition and interaction and consciousness increased in its power to manage memory and imagination.)

Here’s my point now: The research into the tidal ebb and flow of synapses during sleep does not reveal that the purpose of sleep is forgetting, though that is part of it, but it does provide a glimpse into how sentience and consciousness interact in a balanced manner, of how they are balanced. This is a dialectical process by which the organism’s vital nerve centers incipient to its intentional stance exert control over and respond to the sentient processes that are necessary for adaptive functioning. Unconscious sentience is mechanical and inflexible. Insentient consciousness is fluid with a reality unbounded by necessities though fertile with possibilities. Conscious sentience, when balanced, allows creative intelligence to flourish, and some of that balancing occurs when unconscious insentience allows the chaff of the days to be separated from the seeds needed for the next mental crop.

So remember, please, as you travel on, where you read such thoughts first put together. I will pause and dream about variant and invariant forms in language and art, in memes and tropes, and how each aesthetic communication transmits an organized form of experience allowing it to be replicated in another mind and how this organization leads to mobilization. Right on.