3 stories from The Prehistoric and Ancient Times

Some 90,000 years ago in what is now south central Russia an isolated group of hominids evolved to become Denisovans, closely related genetically to us modern humans but still distinctly different. Scientists have found hints in past DNA searches that Denisovans and Neandertals interbred and now they have found a first generation hybrid, a female whose mother was Neandertal and father was a Denisovan:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/science/neanderthals-denisovans-hybrid.html. The mother’s people would seem to have originated thousands of miles east in central Europe and traveled widely, eventually coming to Denisova, as the area is termed.  Evidently enough commonality in genes, culture, and psychology permitted mating to go forward.  The landscape back then was sparsely inhabited by prehistoric humans and given a virtually universal prohibition operating even back then against incestuous mating, a tribe or clan meeting a group of friendly strangers would be open to inter-marriage (whatever marriage at that time might have been).  Of course today our racist feelings might create a Romeo and Juliet kind of situation.  I also have to say that genetic science yield results that are both interesting and challenging to our every day notion of race.

Skip forward 80,000 years and south to Africa. Archeologists have discovered a burial site where hundreds of people were ritually buried (with artifacts useful and ornamental) over several hundred years in one large grave beside Lake Turkana in Kenya:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/20/science/lake-turkana-burials-pillars.html.   And then they stopped.  Who knows why?  The climate was changing drastically or perhaps they were driven away by another aggressive group.  They covered the grave over with stones and moved large heavy basalt columns from a kilometer away to mark or decorate the site.  I wonder if their village was next to or close by this ‘cemetery’ and how the bodies were prepared for burial, e.g., flesh left to rot or feed the vultures.

Finally skip forward a few more thousand years and return to merry olde England during roughly the Stonehenge period (say around 5000 years ago):  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/opinion/britain-drought-cropmarks-summer.html.   Severe drought has caused much of the farm land to dry up and shrink to reveal ancient sites built of wood and earth construction. These are easily seen by air and ground studies have shown that these constructions, e.g., houses, villages, barrows, henges, etc., were done repeatedly over time, i.e., an area would be built up, then presumably fall into ruin, and be built over again with different structures.  Man builds, time erases, and man builds again.  Might be a theme emerging here, eh?  Might ask Ozymandias about that.  Travel on.

self or no self–that is a question

I learned a new word this week: autonoetic.  It means something like the ability to place one’s self in the scene or narrative or situation as part of episodic memory, i.e., memory for one’s own life experiences.  Research shows that we can remember our autobiography through two perspectives, 1stperson (we see the experience through our own eyes) or 3rd  (we see the ourselves in the experience like a movie).  Seems important.

One of the pleasures of reading widely is coming to understand different approaches to the same phenomena, and learning this word has brought some of these issues to the front of my mind.  In my thinking here and in my book (forthcoming someday) I consider that what we call the self arises from two basic mental functions.  The first is a sense of agency—we do and we know that it is us doing; the second is our sense of autobiographical experience, what Endel Tulving called episodic memory (as distinct from semantic and procedural memories).  So I guess that one’s self is some integrated, amalgamated hodgepodge of those, and a human hodgepodge is one that grows out of social connection into an identity, i.e., a self that operates through its social roles.

I read a book a good while ago now by the great Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind, in which he self-corrects his own previous thinking; to wit, he had thought that the neuropsychological construct of a self was not needed or justified but as he studied the brain some more, he came to understand that we did have a self.  It is a good book and he knows brain science as few in the world do.  Now more recently I read what is described as a landmark book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experienceby Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, wherein they endeavor to bring together the twin strands of cognitive psychology and Buddhism.  Their basis for doing so is the challenge that what we call the self is quite illusionary.  They state this claim explicitly:  “all of the reflective traditions in human history—philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, religion, meditation—have challenged the naïve sense of self.  No tradition has ever claimed to discover an independent, fixed, or unitary self”

They go on to quote David Hume:  “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure.  I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never observe anything but the perception.”  Varela, Thompson and Rosch maintain that this “insight directly contradicts our ongoing sense of self,” and that this comports with the long and thoughtful tradition in Buddhism that the self is an illusion.  This is also consistent with some Hindu traditions, e.g., the Yoga Sutra attributed to Patanjali from around the second century BCE.  The realization through meditation and other practices that one’s self is an illusion would seem a step towards enlightenment.

Alas, I am going to walk on another path for a moment, postponing my meditative quest for enlightenment a short while.   I learned my new word, ‘autonoetic,’ reading a 2011 article by Robyn Fivush, “The Development of Autobiographical Memory.”  In an excellent, well thought out paper, Dr. Fivush lays out the conceptual prerequisites for autobiographical memory and its importance to our human sort of mind.  The first prerequisite is autonoesis, the subjective sense of self who experiences events and the second is the personal narrative of action that includes the thoughts and feelings while experiencing these events.  Now you can shift perspective and call this self an illusion, but I think that even such an illusion is still a biological function.  Fivush thinks autobiographical memory is “uniquely human” and that I doubt. Remember, if you will, my post from 4/8/16, “de Waal Admits Tickling Chimpanzees”, on Frans Van der Waal’s observation of a bonobo who inadvertently bit off the finger of a favorite handler and who quite clearly expressed his dismay for doing so, even some years later when the handler returned from another job to visit, that same bonobo tried to see the injured hand and seemed to re-experience the distress over its actions. Fivush also says autobiographical memory depends upon one’s social-cultural group and cites research showing the influence of maternal reminiscing style on how we create a “story of how one’s self became who one is”.

So autobiographical memory as developing from autonoesis and narrative coherence seems a pretty solid notion.  Let me wander a bit further here and consider some of its implications in dreaming, Dissociative Identity Disorder, dementia and novelists.  Of course I will end with a reference to Susanne Langer and return to the question of self or no self.

So, we form our episodic memories incidentally for the most part and that means when we recall them later, we reconstruct the episode according to current circumstances and purpose.  We often dream some of these memories elicited from episodic memory, the information transformed into dream material.  I think many dreams include a sense of self, an autonoetic perspective.  Of course some dreams derive from the self’s current state, like when I dream of water sloshing over the road or the gunwales of my boat and wake up to a very full bladder. My point here is that while maybe in dreams your self is not imaged from a 3rdperson perspective (though I believe some few dream this way a good deal), your autonoesis is still operating.

My dissertation research was with a person with what is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder.  At that time the diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder was gaining validity. For example, research showed different somatic, e.g., autonomic, responses for different personalities.  Alters (alternate identity or personality) manifest in various ways, e.g., some know about others, some don’t, some know about the soma’s entire life, some remember only fractured episodes, etc.  So each alter has some autonoesis operating in a selective manner.  A person with dissociative identity disorder actually does seem able to look inside and find a self (actually more than one, the contrast perhaps making the apprehension possible) contrary to Hume’s assertion. My dissertation showed that one person’s child alter did indeed use childlike language and that as she grew up as a part of therapy to help the different alters integrate back into one, her language advanced along developmental lines.

I have written in the past about people with dementia and how resilient their musical memories are (see post 8/27/14).  Therapy using ipods with playlists of songs from their youth helps them remember more clearly.  They remember the music and often they can remember other episodes, other people and even sometimes, who they themselves are.  Think about autonoesis here.  The remembered music is a kind of abstracted episode or retained through an important emotional connection; they may not remember who they are but they remember the tune, often tinged with personal experience.  They remember other stories and people, e.g., even their children sometimes, as a direct function of autonoesis.  And they may remember their own identity, the “I” in autonoesis.  If unfamiliar, check out an incredible documentary about Glen Campbell who suffered from severe dementia in his last years but continued to perform even though he could remember little of his life, had difficulty remembering his children, hardly knew his own name, but he could still play the guitar (procedural memory) and sing the songs (semantic memory, I guess) with emotion.

Consider as well how novelists seem to be able to use autonoesis to create characters. Good writers say that characters, once formed, can take on a life of their own and even contribute to the creation of the story.  This is maybe not autonoesis involving episodic autobiographical memory but rather is drawing upon semantic memory and imaginative construction in an autonoetic manner.  Still, reading Catcher in the Ryeor David Copperfieldor Notes from the Underground, which all start with first person narratives, you know that one large part of the novelist’s skill is using autonoesis to create character and story.

Regular readers here know that Susanne Langer posited that art, i.e., presentational symbols, is created from the artist’s experience.  The art symbol conveys import abstracted from the person’s life that is too complex to be rendered in the linear discursive symbolic expression of language.  Art, even novels that use words, conveys this import through some complex, abstracted form of myriad elements, whether these are visual, auditory, movement, verbal, constructive, etc.  Given that, I think any artist must use their autonoetic sense to wander the landscape of their life and map out that essential terrain that will represent the inspired apprehension of some features of vital experience.  The artist’s self would seem, then, an essential tool of their craft.

Maybe, as Varela, Thompson and Rosch assert along with David Hume and deep Buddhist traditions, the self is an illusion.  I am sure that at one level the self is a construct that facilitates awareness and analysis of one’s being in context.  I am curious, though, about a mystic sense wherein we find the discrimination between subjective and objective lacking, e.g., we are one with the world, and find that the self is an illusion of our engagement in samsara.  After reading The Embodied MindI have delved into some Eastern texts, e.g., The Yoga Sutra among others, and begun listening to a Great Courses lecture series by Dr. Grant Hardy, “The Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition”.  (A great series, by the bye—his knowledge and enthusiasm are delightful).  Our Western intellectual tradition is a good one. One of humanity’s virtues is that we have more than one good intellectual tradition and I am finding, like many other Westerners before me, that the Eastern tradition is both very different and very valuable in what it offers both in knowledge and wisdom.  So, let us travel on to new roads and learn more about our humanity.

Cultural light, social engagement

I want to mark the passing of Aretha Franklin here. After experiencing a difficult youth by anyone’s standards, she followed her muse to rise above.  Artists have great and subtle impact on culture; great artists are cultural landmarks that show us the way.  She was that, and through her artistry she changed our culture and through her activism our society.  I have heard some on TV say she is irreplaceable, and I get the sentiment, but I quibble over those words.  We can only ‘replace’ people in roles or positions, e.g., a director or president (please!) can be replaced, but each of us irreplaceable.  Even if we had a clone, that would not be a replacement because a person is not their genome but rather the result of their genome operating in the world to create an experiencing being. Yes, we cannot replace her, neither can we replace Mount Everest when it falls into the sea.

Consider Ms. Franklin’s genome and the musical talent with which it imbued her. Consider also her resilience and spiritual luminance.  Now reflect on her experience, early, middle, and late, and think about what she did with herself and her music.  She not only influenced our culture, providing a playlist for our times, she contributed to a social movement, e.g., civil rights but also feminism and fair pay for musicians.  She influenced our culture by her music; she helped change society by her engagement and activism.  I have come to think that this is one very good measure of how great an artist one is.

Think about Ms. Franklin and her work for civil rights and justice.  Think about Dolly Parton whose foundation has given away 100 million books to help youth rise and who speaks out for LGBTQ dignity, among other issues.  Though not an artist (well, maybe with his fists and his poetry and well, his entire life), Muhammed Ali was another icon who influenced culture and changed society. I thought of him in relation to Elvis Presley, a great artist who struggled to live his life out fully.  At one point Muhammed Ali advised Elvis Presley to stop insulating himself from his public, saying yes, he would be mobbed like he (Ali) was but the benefits were worth it–getting out among the people would help him as well as them.  For all his artistry and influence, as his fame and self-imposed isolation mounted, Elvis had less impact on our world.  I remember when he went into the Army and what a statement that made about the social responsibility incumbent on even the greatest among us. I remember when he addressed social injustice with his song, “In the Ghetto”, but I cannot remember any engagement on those issues beyond his art, i.e., did he support any movements or foundations that addressed these issues.  I don’t think he did.  I do not bring this up to denigrate his art.  Some sing, some are born to sing, and some are, like Elvis, Dolly, Aretha, Johnny Cash, etc., sent here to sing.  I wanted to emphasize the importance of what an artist does with their art and their cultural presence to engage on issues not just to their society but to themselves.  Engaging through their cultural presence with the social issues surrounding the well-being of others yields a better life for all concerned, even especially the artist.

By that standard Aretha Franklin was brightly luminous and her light will shine into the future in so very many ways through so very many people.  Thank you, Ms. Franklin, and godspeed into the light.


Remembering what I will not forget

In my former life as a speech-language pathologist working in an early intervention/prevention project focused on the mental health of preschoolers, I enjoyed giving parent/teacher talks on language development, communication difficulties, how to recognize when help is needed and how to promote healthy development.  Lovely work, eh?  In many of these talks I presented a brief glimpse into the complexity of development that started something like this:  After fertilization, the egg begins to divide and multiply. When there are roughly 50-100 cells, one cell appears that becomes the mother of all neurons.  Slowly this cell line multiplies to form a neural tube and from within that tube more cells would be born that would then travel to the outer edges and form the brain. 10,000,000,000 cells would arise and find their place in this way in just a few months, so a few traffic jams and mis-directions might be expected along with some individual variability.  Wow!  I would also talk about some of the maturational/developmental differences between boys and girls and then get into the specifics of language development.

Now I am finishing up Georg Striedter’s text, Principles of Brain Evolution, and understand that my earlier rendition of complexity was more a 2 page Reader’s Digest version of the Encyclopedia Britannica (anyone else remember those?)  The task neuroanatomists take on is enormously complex and even knowing a little bit for sure requires diligent, rigorous, and assiduous study.  Understanding how brains increase in size and connectivity and then how brain functions change and increase in power is a humbling endeavor, one that I am glad those with such talents work on and one that I find spiritual in Monod’s sense of spirit (see post on 3/25/17).  So let me add some to my story above.

Those 1010 cells find their way along a variety of chemical trails and gradients and then when they arrive they send out dendrites and axons to connect with other cells and this connectivity is also developed through a variety of biochemical trails, and then synapses are formed and coordinated so that integrated intercellular communication can begin.  Striedter cites estimates that each mammalian neuron connects with around 500 other neurons through 8000 synapses.  Let’s see:  1010 x 500 x 8000 = a lot.  Also, remember that neurogenesis, that early embryonic stage when virtually all of our neurons appear, produces many cells that disappear in the first years after birth through apoptosis, i.e., cells die because they are not in the right place or connected in viable networks.  Streidter says that brain areas vary in how many cells are lost and cites evidence that different systems have 20% to 80% fewer neurons at maturity than at birth.  Finally, remember that neurons communicate with over 50 neurotransmitters that form the substrates of different systems processing information in their various ways, e.g., inhibitory, excitatory, etc.


Our connectome: If you get dizzy reflecting on the complexity of embryogenesis and subsequent functional development given the numbers cited here, please sit down and breathe slowly.

The individual brains of any one species are remarkably similar in terms of neuronal systems, etc.  The genetic controls and epigenetic forces are quite rigorous in their replication of each organism.  I especially like the story of C. elegans, a roundworm whose nervous system comprises 302 neurons that connect in very consistent ways.  Thank you, diligent researchers for finding that out through marvelously detailed work.

So I learn again and remember what I will not forget, that understanding enough to know what we do not know is the prime intellectual task, and good scholars and mystics look at our ignorance with excitement.  Travel on.