Most excellent science

Two inputs coming together perturb my system to a new understanding.  First up is a brief report I saw in the Duke Chronicle about research at Duke University:  Scientists studying motor learning found results that confounded their theoretical expectations, a small thing really, but oh so important, I think.  Good empiricism seeks just such a finding, one that challenges assumptions, and I think the assumption challenged here is central to the orthodox view of life processes.

The Duke researchers studied motor learning as facilitated by the cerebellum (using rats but they assert that the cerebellum is fairly ‘conserved’ in evolution across species, meaning that cerebellums are similar between paleo- and modern mammals, e.g., us).  They expected to find a process whereby learning comes through feedback, i.e., error detection and correction, but instead they found what I will characterize as a feedforward process, i.e., no preset standard whereby new signals are compared to old in the effort to achieve a match, but rather new signals become the old in a cascading process.  Imagine two waves at the beach, one sensing the development of its shape and adjusting to achieve a desired wave form, i.e., feedback, and one building based upon current conditions of wind, bottom terrain, depth and shoreline, i.e., feedforward.  (Of course the latter is what we naturally see which is why we love to watch them—they are like a musical melody giving us a sense of the immanent future: see post 3/26/16 More about musical import).

So these key cerebellar cells fired more when the movement was correct, no feedback needed.  The rat knew how to move successfully without feedback, kind like when we enjoy freeform dancing, no set pattern and who cares who is watching (or what our cerebellar cells are telling the scientists) but feel the simple joy of movement without prejudice, guided only by the flow of one movement to the next according to endogenous dynamics.  Know what I mean?

I can already hear some of my more intelligent readers ask why wouldn’t we expect such a process for learning?  And that has to do with the cultural development in our doxa of how we conceptualize life processes, at least what I think has been the more orthodox view.  If you thought to ask the question above, I think you might be a little heterodox yourself, but let’s consider this proposition.

I base my analysis here on Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of the doxa.  The doxa is the whole field of discourse; it is what we are able to conceptualize for discursive discussion.  Orthodoxy is, of course, the current dominant paradigm for rendering our concepts for discussion, while heterodoxy comprises some alternative ideas that challenge the orthodox view.  Usually the orthodox is major and the heterodox minor (I am an old guy without much technical savvy; I tried to do a Venn diagram of the doxa etc. but cannot get it to post here), but we work at modifying the orthodox and sometimes supplanting its ideas in a paradigmatic shift.  This is both a cultural phenomenon and a lovely feature of good science.  In the above research the orthodox would stipulate that sensorimotor learning involves negative feedback, but they did not find that to be the case, so now that suggests a heterodoxical view—some other process, e.g., feedforward, facilitates this learning.

Okay, as to my second input I am reading a remarkable book from 1985 by Susan Oyama, The Ontogeny of Information.  I am sure I will write more about it later but here is my understanding so far that is relevant today.  Oyama presents a heterodox idea to supplant the orthodox ones of genes as controlling life’s flow and the long time distinction of nature-nurture.  This intellectual effort is broad and deep and, what I appreciate a great deal, very well written ( & so understandable by someone outside the field like myself with some effort).  Her polemic covers a lot of ground as she points out how many deride the nature-nuture distinction and so few, very few it would seem, actually come close to conceptualizing without it.  At its core her argument focuses on our predilection to think genes are quite powerful and even autonomous in controlling our phylogeny and ontogeny, when they are actually the seeds initiating the chemical reactions which are multiply determined by features of their context of both external ambient and internal current states.  All of life is ontogenical, as it were, to coin a word, as these chemical processes flow and cascade through time, any one moment or phase the result of its history and current states.  Our ‘nature’, she says, is a product of our ‘nurture’ and all that contributes to our ontogeny, i.e., genome, somatic ecology, environmental ecology, history, developmental status, evolutionary status, etc., composes the overall process of ‘nurture’ more or less equitably.  Long story short, control of biological processes is multiply determined moment by moment, a cascade of operations which we analyze on a number of levels or from several perspectives, but experience much difficulty is seeing the gift of life whole.  So, Wow! In her words, “Nature and nurture are not alternative causes but product and process.  Nature is not an a priori mold in which reality is cast.  What exists is nature, and living nature exists by virtue of its nurture, both constant and variable, both internal and external.”

Now this is a view of life I really go with and I will finish reading this book and then read it again.  It appears right now that for me this book will rank up there with Monod’s Chance and Necessity(which Oyama says ascribes too much control and power to the genome), Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience, and Langer’s Feeling and Formand other of her works.  Enough rhapsodizing now; back to the book’s input that is relevant to the motor learning research and neural processes.

The enormous intellectual power of information theory has circled a good portion of the doxa into orthodoxy, e.g., we analyze neural processes and functions accordingly.  As I have long held, and I am in good company here, information machines and living organisms have some similarities and some deep differences.  The latter have often been relegated to the heterodox circle of the Venn diagram above.  What I learned from Langer so many years ago is that the creative vitality and autonomy of life is its own nature.  We can study it, create lively artifacts, use simulation to understand it, render it through positivism and scientific analysis, convey it aesthetically and discursively, etc., but all while we live it.  (Back to rhapsody:  Oyama keeps her exposition grounded, I think, in just this perspective.  That makes for great understanding and writing.  Thank you, Dr. Oyama).

That the Duke researchers were surprised by their finding that learning was also based upon feedforward, which we understand much less because it is less amenable to mechanical operations and very difficult to simulate in life processes adequately, and not always on feedback reflects this boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.  How we view and understand life, as Dr. Oyama says, determines what and how we study it, what is real data, and how it can be interpreted.

To begin wrapping this post up, consider this passage from her book:

“Somerhoff particularly warns against making facile assumptions that the brain, for instance, must contain comparators and be controlled by explicit error signals and command signals, just because certain servo-mechanisms work in this way. He points out that uncritical adoption of machine concepts and reification of input-output relations may encourage fruitless searches for nonexistent brain mechanisms.”  (For those unfamiliar with servo-mechanisms simple examples include a thermostat and speed control, both of which keep a relatively constant temp or speed based upon deviation from a set point; also toilet tank water level if you think about it).

The point here is that life rather continually creates its own set points, a myriad of them actually, as it multiple processes flow together forward through time.  It is not only its own set point, e.g., homeostasis, but also exerts some significant control of the world it moves through.  Another quote:  “What is important here is the ability of such causal configurations to influence their own conditions and to do so repeatedly and consistently.”

Finally Oyama’s proposal sees life as a developmental system moving forward through time (how else you ask?  Me too). Any next moment of an organism’s life is not predermined; our nature is nurtured and nurtures itself anew moment by moment.  This true in the short term, ontogeny (traditionally understood) and long term, phylogeny.  Again her prose:  “The only way out of the problem of predetermined potential . . . is thus to see potential itself, in the sense of possibilities for future alterations in a given structure, as having a developmental history.  It is multiply, progressively determined, with new varieties of causes and consequences emerging at different hierarchical levels and with time.”

Yes, feedback processes are needed for control but these, again, must be seen in context (oh, how I love this).  The autonomy of life is remarkable and the essence of feedback does not contradict this.  Oyama goes back to Norbert Weiner’s early work Cybenetics(first published in 1948):

“Whether one is speaking of machines, organisms, or human affairs, control without feedback tends to become derailed and therefore useless or destructive. . . .  Feedback has been described as control on the basis of actual, not expected performance[my bold] (Weiner, 1967). Its very definition is the ability to control by being controlled.  It is, incidentally, the influence of results on the processes that produce them that I take to be central to feedback.  The implication of an explicit setpoint, the mechanical counterpart of an expectation, while useful for understanding servomechanisms and, perhaps, for certain simulations, can be misleading in treatments of biological processes.”

So kudos to Duke’s most excellent scientists finding that their orthodox expectations were not met and I am sure they now seek new answers in the heterodox circle of the doxa.  And I hope that they learn of and see the beauty of Oyama’s view of life as a developmental system.  I hope everyone feels the deep aesthetic as life moves forward, its sails filled by its very own winds.  Oh, is there another metaphor here?  One that we can apprehend in our own experience?  Ponder your own life’s journey, its cascade of complexity downfield into the future, and maybe a musical melody might animate your next wanderings.

Well, enough of this rhapsodizing, with a most excellent science book to finish I will now gladly travel on.

All synchronized, are we?

Consider some of the meanings for synchrony.  Most modern is to sync the calendar, contacts, etc. among one’s personal devices. One of the oldest is of a moment, an event with no passage of time and the antonym of diachronic.  Then I remember old war movies where everyone synchronizes their watches at “3-2-1 check” so that they all start the attack at the same moment.  (Let me not forget a great album by the Police, Synchronicity).  Today I am most interested in the biological roots of synchrony and how this temporal aspect contributes to our being, as Michael Tomasello calls us, the most cooperative of primates.

One feature of our culture is to synchronize our relations with the world, which most organisms do each in their own way, e.g., diurnal patterns, etc. Humans do it the human way. ‘Happy new year’ is really an arbitrary marker by which we all achieve the same calendar.  That action is an old one: consider the astronomical calendars of the ancients.  Stonehenge enabled peoples to meet on the longest and shortest days of the ‘year’. Each group had its own calendar that suited its purposes and was accurate according to their astronomical knowledge.  The Mayans had an especially accurate calendar.  As humans progressed in becoming a global community, especially for trade and travel, the calendar became standardized.  The West went from the Gregorian to the Julian, which is what most of the world today uses.  I have heard of a Welsh community that within themselves uses the old Gregorian, and of course the Chinese celebrate their new year on February 5, this year being of the pig, of the year 4716; all of their computations here are based on the lunar cycle.

And along with synchronizing our joint actions with the heavens, most spiritual traditions add a few extra markers along the way to coordinate further.  My Celtic ancestors used the solstices and equinoxes and points inbetween; their new year day was actually Samhain (now Halloween).  The Celtic and Roman churches had a small disagreement over how to date Easter—the Celts wanted stay with a purely astronomical definition while the Pope et. al. wanted Easter to fall on a Sunday.  No big deal, you say?  Hmmm. Just don’t say that where Columchille, aka holy St. Columba, can hear you; he also fought Rome to retain the Druidic tonsure (front of skull shaved) over the Roman (bald spot on top—think Friar Tuck) as well as defending the rights of bards to sing the old songs. Cultural differences are generally all of a piece, but I digress.

So we synchronize in order to cooperate better, so that trains and planes arrive without crashing into each other, so that we meet at the appointed place and time, etc.  This is a cultural bias, not a hard and fast rule.  Occasionally I interact with people (or hear about them) who say they will be there in an hour and it is 4hours later or even the next day.  Read a book like A Year in Provenceand you wonder if workmen there have calendars or clocks.  Generally, though, we synchronize a lot intentionally, and we synchronize sometimes incidentally, e.g., women in the same household tend to menstruate on similar schedules.

I posted last April (“A particularly interesting study”) about research showing that graduate students at the end of their program showed significant synchronicity in brain wave patterns according to how much they had worked together. Further, the closer their friendship, the higher the correlation between brain patterns, enough so that the researchers could predict friendships based upon those correlations.  I have to wonder in this regard about our domesticated animals, especially our very good dogs.  A brief glance around the web shows several studies documenting how humans and dogs come to follow each other in many aspects.  I know from watching the cattle on our farm that they watch me when I emerge from the house and will follow me when I hike down to the creek, etc. Of course they run to the corral whenever hay is brought in or even when a vehicle of similar sort runs close by. No EEG studies on dogs yet that I can find and I doubt (and hope) that anyone would bother with the bovines.

The thought behind this blog came when I read a recent study on PLOS (  The article, “Parental neural responsivity to infants’ visual attention: How mature brains influence immature brains during social interaction”, shows again how important parent-child interactions are and how good parents help their infants synchronize their actions and so their brain waves.  The researchers recorded EEGs from both parent and child during the child’s solo play and joint play.  They found that certain patterns during solo play predicted what the infant would pay attention to and that during joint play the infant EEG was less predictive and seemingly affected by their interaction.  The more the parent, as demonstrated by EEG patterns, attended to the infant and its activity, the infant attended longer to the objects and presumably its EEG reflected those changes.  There is more to this study to ponder, such as, for example, the adults’ theta wave (marker of attention) grew as the infant engaged in joint attention.

Father child

Joint gaze and joint action! Hook’em up to an EEG and watch synchronicity begin.

I have posted before about our mirroring system and Brazelton’s research showed how even very young infants would mirror back parents’ simple actions like sticking your tongue out.  From this beginning we embark on a journey synchronizing our actions with others. Children (and later as adults) whose attachment is disrupted can experience much difficulty integrating their actions with others.  Likewise people whose mirroring is hampered, such as those on the autistic spectrum, who can mirror intentionally but do not do so incidentally in the course of social interaction, find emotional resonance difficult to attain.

Much of what we call culture, whatever that is, involves some aspect of synchronizing.  Some of us, raised in military families (or proper English or German households) grow anxious if not on time and irritated that others, e.g., trains, etc., are tardy. Falling into and abiding by certain intellectual habits is key to integrating fully into professions, which is why apprenticeships are so important.  Of course, neglecting such conventions may allow new and creative solutions.  Picasso trained like many others but then pursued different habits.  Einstein was a famously poor student because of his disdain for normal procedures.  Guilds and caste systems survive to the degree people follow these stipulations. Women are unlikeable if they are powerfully assertive.  Other races may act exactly like white folk but meet different and often negative reactions.  Synchronicity is not just a matter of timing; following cultural forms, e.g., traditions, expectations, etc. also contributes to our synchronizing with others.  Thus, Pierre Bourdieu apprehended our habitus and the doxa demarcated into the orthodox and heterodox (see posts 10/13/17& 9/6/17).

The parent-child along with the graduate students EEG research is interesting because it shows how subtle and deep is our synchronizing.  Back when I posted about AESTHEMOS (see post 10/31/17) I wondered about using this instrument, which assesses a person’s aesthetic response in some detail, to explore the possibility of neural patterns amongst those appreciating art to see if experiencing art (I mean good art now) leads to some entrainment, i.e., synchronicity.  Now I also wonder if the patterns of art aficionados would be more similar to each other while the patterns of novices would be more scattered. Actually I have a hard time imagining otherwise.  Art, from drumming and music to visual and tactile to architectural to cinematic, would seem to depend upon the degree to which the beholders engage in synchrony.

If you ever go to a concert or art museum or a cathedral service, and they ask you to wear an EEG cap, please do so. Also let me know so I can go there too.  Travel on, all together now.