Return to the MEMBRAIN

I have not posted much about the MEMBRAIN since 2017 (see post 11/24/17, also 8/27/14 & 4/7/14), but I have been thinking about it and recent readings have fed that line of thought.  In brief, the MEMBRAIN comprises those parts of our brain and soma that establishes the mind within and the world without as it connects us socially and mentally (in this empathy is both basic and powerful) to our conspecifics (and other animals and other worldly features, more on that later).  It is a rather grand development along our evolutionary path.  Remember life on Earth appeared some 3.7 billion years ago when chemical metabolism established a membrane protecting the self-organizing and self-replicating processes within and controlling interaction with the environment, i.e., Varela’s autopoietic form (see post 8/22/18).  This resulted in the basic soma, i.e., the body each life form develops for its span.  Somas evolved to become more complex until brains appeared to promote the somatic vitality given the more complex needs and gain increasingly powerful ways of exploiting environmental opportunities.  Somas and their brains then evolved in various ways until sexual reproduction initiated new phases of genetic streaming and of conspecific relations, say around 1.2 billion years ago.

watersheds

Genetic watersheds of SWP (solving world problems) and CR (conspecific relations)

As luck would have it, conspecifics became so important a feature of the animal’s umvelt, that the brain, that heretofore had concerned itself with its own somatic vitality, began to deal with the vitality of its conspecifics, i.e., the vitality of other somas not its own.  This was a momentous development as brains evolved to carry out this challenge as exemplified most powerfully in mammals who appeared around 315 million years ago. (I have posted several times on the felicity of our mammalian heritage—see posts 11/12/16 & 11/8/19).  As the interaction with conspecifics mounted in importance, brains evolved to include MEMBRAINs (as I have called them) and this entailed a new development in the evolution of minds.  The increasing transactions with others pressured the evolution of social relations obviously, and in a bit of a paradox, the evolution of mental functions supporting subjective awareness.  This is where my notion of the MEMBRAIN of the mind comes into play.

The MEMBRAIN gates (or doesn’t) information or parcels of experience specifically drawn from the social/mental realms.  For example, our visual system has a large proportion of cells dedicated primarily to facial recognition, e.g., conspecific information gated in, and further, such processing is basic and preliminary to reading the other’s emotional states, i.e., their internal musings.  Another example, this time of gating an experiential parcel out, is our kinesic expression of our own emotional states through facial expression, tone of voice, posturing, etc.  Of course our language is a remarkable feature of MEMBRAIN functioning, passing info in and out (or not if the we do not know that language–the channel then does not exist).

membrane

The MEMBRAIN does what every membrane does, pass material in and out, and keep material in and out

As I read books, etc., that touch upon the MEMBRAIN, I find some who mention how the brain functions as a membrane controlling flow in and out; after all, those are basic to any organism, taking needed nutrients in and passing out wastes.  I have not seen much about keeping material in or keeping it out, but that too is a membrane function—it will only pass through items that fit through its channels and will decidedly reject , for example, toxins from without and certain parcels from within that can range from lower level processing, e.g., we would not want our protoplasm leaking out and we do not express or pass out gut functions or the initial phases of intuitive constructions which are not available to consciousness or say, socially embarrassing secrets.  A more esoteric example is information that conflicts with our beliefs or personality structure.  An example here is that some people hear information indicative of a leader’s corruption but it does not enter into their minds as such.  It is kept out through some MEMBRAIN function which only gates distorted parcels (kinda like a word from a foreign language that sounds like one of our own–we think we understand when we do not) that I do not well understand as of yet.

While many understand that our ubiquitous linguistic functions support the MEMBRAIN, both to communicate with our conspecifics and to organize our interior experience, fewer understand that art likewise supports the MEMBRAIN.  Clearly art fulfills a social function, but it also helps to organize our mental domains by structuring intuitive processes in the service of developing creative and communicable renderings of our vital experience.  Susanne Langer’s thoughts are important here.  First, art forms are a high form of nervous response, i.e., they are abstracted from experiential felt material.  These abstractions are created in virtual domains; their communication depends upon these same domains being present in both artist and audience.  The MEMBRAIN channels must function in quite a sophisticated manner in order to communicate such complex information about our vital experience.  Further, she details in Feeling and Form  the demands each art genre, e.g., music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, cinema, etc., places on our virtual capabilities.

Now I am reading Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life in which he discusses the basis of life forms and how mind is in fact a natural outcome of life’s evolution—a very good book so far with the promise to get even better.  He, like others such as Susan Oyama (see post 2/22/19), is critical of the gene-centric view generally received from the Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and cohort.  Thompson says that their usual metaphor of genes providing coded instructions for an organism has been shown to be inept; too much data shows that genes are only a part of developmental system and that they do not play any privileged role apart from the organism as a whole and its complete ambient, i.e., Oyama’s developmental system.  A better metaphor, says Thompson, “for development than ‘following coded instructions’ is ‘laying down a path in walking’.  This metaphor implies that there is no separation between plan and executed action.  It also evokes the similarity between organic self-organization and human creativity discussed by Kant.”

Remember how an artist composes through feeling the future, as I have put it (see posts 5/15/15 & this year’s series on art as spandrel).  This is especially apparent in music, where even the listener feels the flow into the future.  Art results from a series of steps creating contingencies that render a vital form.  Unlike discursive thought, such as any mathematical theory of science, which if lost could be re-discovered because that is inherent in its relation to the world, art if lost is lost—it cannot be recreated because of its contingent nature with the chaos of life and world.

Thompson following his work with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rausch in The Embodied Mind explicates the basis of life.  It is an autopoietic (a new and important word) system whose inherent purpose is two-fold, identity (self-production and this entails closure from the without) and sense-making for adaptivity and cognition.  “This twofold purposiveness turns an indifferent physicochemical world into an environment of biological significance.”  The implications of this formulation are extensive, and I will have more to say of them another time.

But back to the MEMBRAIN and what Kant discussed, the “similarity” between organic self-organization, aka autopoietic system, and human creativity.  Any organism is self-organizing which is sustained through metabolic activity with the inherent purposes of identity and sense-making.  It is self-contained, its parts are subsidiary to the whole, and it interacts with its environment in specific ways.  (Remember Acquinas’ 3 aspects of aesthetic beauty:  unitas, claritas, and luminas—see post 6/19/17.)  This is the essential idea of life, as we understand it.  So our MEMBRAINs take in art forms, gathering this import, and artists of any and all sorts construct art works that they can express through MEMBRAIN channels.  If art renders the import abstracted from vital experience, and autopoiesis is the basis of that vitality, then any conceptualization of aesthetics must include such in its account.  Whether we study art as a biological activity (see post 2/9/19!) or as a critical effort to assess its aesthetics, we need to understand how an artwork is a whole, how its parts come together (and these two are essentially an extension of gestalt studies), and how that form ‘shines’, as it were, or how it has rendered intuitively that spark of life such that others can feel the vitality therein.  As Susanne Langer taught us, art is a high intellectual activity whereby we deal in vital experience.  Empathy and symbolization are the two great channels of our MEMBRAINs—that is the easy part, but what lies within that powers such intuitive creative constructions? Travel on.

 

somabrainm1-e1495106259662.jpg

Where is the self that composes artworks?

Even earlier art discovered

I have seen 3 news stories about prehistoric cave paintings discovered in Indonesia that are over 43,000 years old.  That is older than any of the cave art found so far in Europe.  The paintings are dramatic, depicting a group of beings, human or human-like with a bird head or with a tail, some holding spears around a large animal.  They do not appear to have the beautiful curves of the Lascaux paintings but they are still colorful and clearly imagined.  The cave is located up on a cliff and requires some rock climbing and scrambling to reach. Once again we find paintings underground, in the earth, which Lewis-Williams and Pearce say in their book, Inside the Neolithic Mind, that our ancestors felt was a link to another world, one filled with spirits (see post 11/23/19).  Here is one link to the NYT rendition:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/11/science/cave-art-indonesia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.

As you can see, the NYT writer wonders if the beings represent mythic figures. Doubtful, that, but certainly they could have come from an early shamanic tradition before mythic narratives had really developed.  Here is link to the Scientific American version:  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-this-indonesian-cave-painting-the-earliest-portrayal-of-a-mythical-story/.

The scientists have several questions going on.  The large animal has been dated to at least 43,000 years ago but the humanoid figures have not been dated as of yet, and research into other cave paintings has revealed that figures are often added over many, many years.  Also, while the large animal is clearly just that, the humanoid figures are not as clear.  Some could be human, some shamanic figures with human and animal merged, and some could be just other quadrupeds.

The big question is who painted them?  Human fossils have not been found locally.  The scientists seem sure that some group of Homo sapiens painted them, but it could have been Neandertals, Denisovans, or others.  This is interesting not just because the paintings predate anything found so far in Europe, but also because humans had to migrate here (Indonesia) from there (meaning Africa or Europe) and it is very doubtful that they brought the painting tradition with them, so they must have discovered it anew. And that speaks to the profundity of our impulse to make art.  And so we travel on to learn more.

The affective revolution comes to dogs?

Dogs? You say.  Why, yes.  In talking with some friends and trying to explain my view of where we are in understanding mind, I bemoaned the travesty of behaviorism, appreciated the revolution (or return to sanity) of cognitive psychology, presented as seminal the developments in evolutionary psychology and expressed my hope that we are now entering the affective revolution where researchers are appreciating and furthering the pioneering work of Jaak Panksepp, Antonio Damasio, Francisco Verala, Evan Thompson and others (see last previous post).  Affect, or, better, feeling, is the grounding and motivation of cognitive operations, and that is to say the least.  Now Susanne Langer was one of the first to espouse that humans were both biological, sharing our evolution with other animals and distinct, even special, saying that our symbolic capabilities constituted a great shift from being like other animals to being especially human. Our symbolic capabilities, she says, transformed our minds into something quite different from those of any other animals.  How we feel is important here, Langer asserts, because our symbolic abilities are based upon our special feelings and have permeated our mind so that even our perceptions are influenced by symbolization.  Further, we are driven to make meanings, to find and/or create significance incidentally and unconsciously, i.e., we cannot really stop doing so because symbolization begins so early on in our mind’s processes.

So yes, humans have evolved from and along with other animals and yes, our evolution has led to symbolic capabilities  which have transformed our minds and enabled us to transform our world.  And while most focus on our cognitive abilities, Langer’s focus on feeling and her understanding that our intellect derives from highly evolved modes of feeling is one that helps us understand the embodied mind in a deeper way.  It presages the affective revolution that I perceive is happening as I discussed in my last post.

And now I see in a NYT science story that the affective revolution, so to speak, has also encompassed our study of dogs.  Brian Hare has done good work on dog cognition (see post 10/7/14), but another group of researchers is looking at how dogs feel, especially their talent for bonding with another species and not just us humans but many others, e.g., sheep, goats, penguins(!), etc.:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/science/dogs-love-evolution.html.

This article covers a fair amount of ground so I will highlight some of its information:

  • Compared to their ancestral wolves, dogs have succeeded evolutionarily bigtime, with 3000 dogs for every wolf in the world today.
  • Spending 90 minutes a day in contact with another species prior to 14 weeks of age leads to strong bonding.
  • Without human contact dogs grow up very wary of us. Recently friends returned from SE Asia where many dogs are wilder and not pets (and sometimes food).
  • Their interspecies bonds are maintained throughout their life span.
  • MRI studies show that dogs light up (meaning their neural pleasure centers do) upon hearing their owners’ voices, and they like praise as much as hot dogs and some even show a preference to owners over food. (These studies also show how dogs can be trained to lie still in the MRI donut while being tested, no small feat itself).
  • Genetic studies of people with Williams-Beuren syndrome reveal certain genes that contribute to hypersociality, i.e., indiscriminate friendliness with strangers, etc., and studies of dogs show they share these genes.

So dogs experience intense pleasure with their owners (and their other bondees, e.g. sheep?).  The researchers point out that another remarkable aspect of this is the ease of triggering such a response.  Dogs really are talented at liking their humans and bonding with other species.

Now I am not sure what ‘liking’ means in this context.  Pleasure at contact?  Protective responses to perceived danger?  Missing when absent (remember Greyfriar’s Bobby)?  Feelings of identification?  We (most of us anyways) like dogs back, and cats and fish and birds and trees and landscapes and the list goes on, in part because our symbolic capacity also serves to extend our ‘liking’ to almost anything.  Indeed, I have started a book, Faces in Clouds: A New Theory of Religon, in which Stewart Guthrie examines in detail how our human propensity or talent for anthropomorphizing leads us to see human agency in almost anything, even never seen creatures we create in our own minds, thereby attributing a spiritual element to worldly things, and then we ‘see’ those creatures all around, e.g., angels.  Feel a kinship with a crystal?  Welcome to the anthropomorphic club.  We humans seem driven to symbolize in this earthy way, and perhaps dogs are doing their own version of caninomorphism when they like us?  More later on this, I am sure, but for now I will travel on.

Langer on the rise

The big news about Langer is that a new book about her work has been published.  Written by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, The Philosophy of Susanne Langer:  Embodied Meaning in Logic, Art and Feeling explores the roots of her philosophizing, which were primarily European, Henry Sheffer, Ernst Cassirer, Ludwig Wittengestein, and Alfred North Whitehead, even as Langer expanded the American tradition of pragmatics from John Dewey and C. S. Peirce.  Langer was able to read some of these European sources before many others in the USA could because she was fluent in German; indeed she translated one book by Cassirer before most over here had read anything by him.  This new book is expensive so I must save some pennies before buying it, but I have read excerpts from the introduction.  Two things stand out.  First is Ms. Chaplin highlights the challenges facing Ms. Langer as a female in the male dominated world of philosophy.  She attended Ratcliffe College because Harvard did not admit females back in the day so Ratcliffe was a way for them to access Harvard’s resources; thus she was able to work with and learn from the likes of Alfred North Whitehead when he came to Harvard.

The second thing is how her emphasis on feeling was (is?) a challenge to some readers.  In a letter to a colleague in the art world she bemoaned his response saying she had hoped she had expressed herself better.  The confusion centered on the colleague’s reading of ‘feeling’ as emotion and that generally led to understanding art as emotional catharsis and that is quite counter to Langer’s ideas.   Langer clarified that ‘feeling’, not withstanding its use in general parlance, referred to the broader notion of responding to some sensation from without or some action from within.  “How does that feel?” then can refer to blinking in the sunlight having emerged from the cinema, being slapped in the face, realizing you are loved or betrayed, realizing you have understood a poem, thinking about a special childhood haunt, expressing some wise lesson learned, etc.  The point being is that ‘feeling’ is a broad concept, and Langer spent much of her career to clarify and specify how human feeling evolved to be a rarefied intellectual and high form of nervous response.  So I will buy this book ASAP.

In the mean time I have finished re-reading Innis’ fine book on Langer’s philosophy and so have much to ponder.  In re-reading Langer now, I am not as comfortable with how special and distinctive she sees humans.  I don’t exactly disagree with her, but I find some of her ideas marked by anthropodenial, to use de Waals’ term for refusing to see animal actions in their true light because humans do these same actions routinely.  Langer was an early and clear proponent of humans being in line with our mammalian ancestors; she also refused to engage in reductionism and instead pursued a conception of mind adequate to the reality, both human and non-human.  I now have the benefit and privilege of integrating the work of Panksepp, Damasio, de Waal, Tomasello, Varela, Lakoff, Johnson and all of those working to develop an understanding of the mind as embodied.  (And I suspect she would have appreciated these developments oh so very much).  And animals, all of us, are really special creatures. But Langer insisted that biographical memory was heavily dependent upon language, so that a non-verbal species would not have a robust ability to recall past experiences.  Frans de Waal refutes that with a lot of research and study.  Consider his example of the bonobo who accidentally bit off a handler’s finger and then clearly showed memory of and remorse for the act several years later when the handler returned for a visit after having moved away (see post 3/9/15).

One of Langer’s primary theses is that while humans have evolved from and along with other animals, our evolution has led to symbolic capabilities that transformed our minds and enabled us to transform our world.  Sort of undeniable, isn’t it? But while most focus on our cognitive abilities, Langer’s focus on feeling and her understanding that our intellect derives from highly evolved modes of feeling is one that helps us understand the embodied mind in a deeper way.  It presages the affective revolution that I perceive is happening through the efforts of Panksepp, Damasio and many others. Indeed, I have started a 1997 book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of Mind by Evan Thompson, who collaborated with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch to write The Embodied Mind.  I am amazed to read conceptualizations that Langer postulated 30-50 years ago though without any recognition of her work.  Thompson lists several of these as concepts basic to his thinking:

  • Organisms are autonomous agents, self-organizing and enact cognitive and overt behaviors (Langer in Mind devotes much energy to biological action enactment).
  • The nervous system does not compute and process information but rather creates meaning (Langer develops this in her early works, The Practice of Philosophy, Philosophy in a New Key, and Feeling and Form, all completed before 1953–and she was following up on Ernst Cassirer).
  • The concept of experience, as the phenomenologists have understood it and psychologists abandoned it, must be understood biologically if it is to be adequate to the task of furthering our notions of mind (again this integration across disciplines was a major focus of Langer’s life work).

Thompson, Varela, Rosch, and others have come around to Langer’s clearer understanding of what and how our minds are through their own traditions and studies.  That Langer was there, I think, from the beginning and throughout her long career shows her prescience even more fully (as Donald Dryden said in his article “The Philosopher as Prophet and Visionary” 2007 J. of Speculative Philosophy). That a new book about her has come out shows, I very much hope, that her influence is rising.