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.

Return to invariance for the holidays

I had another thought about invariance/variance yesterday as I reflected on some recent experiences. One aspect of life I find entrancing is the rich chaotic activity it seems to be, like an estuary, yet in the constant flux, amid the “buzzing, blooming confusion” we find channels of activity both variant and invariant. Consider again the rendering of the connectome,


Connectome picture

remembering that neural structures are only the substrate of much dynamic activity, including electric action potentials, neurochemical messengers and actors, and a plethora of protein action. Recently I have written here about the structures and functions of language, invariant (words, stock phrases, syntactic structuring) and variant (sentences and conversational flow), but there are different and larger invariant structures we all have that shape our personalities.

So consider the tapes that play in our head, the consistent (invariant) worries rational and irrational that occupy our thoughts. Some are fairly adaptive such as goals and motivations (these change adaptively with circumstances) and some less so, inflexible neurotic anxieties that compose our responses to similar situations even though they are out of date and no longer relevant really to what is going on now. And then consider that neurosychiatric disorders might be seen as monolithic stone in an otherwise vibrant landscape, e.g., the depressive thoughts and feelings that stay the same as life goes on and even gets better, or as liquidities of a dissolving mind rendering reality testing rather impractical, e.g., the hallucinatory escapades of a thought disorder. The ancients knew that a healthy life depended upon balance; here I am saying the balance holds functioning from swinging to far towards petrification or diarrhea of mental life. Our patterns of balance and imbalance are multitudinous and vary from culture to culture and from family to family. So this holiday, when one of your family members re-enacts the same old schtick or becomes drunkenly mercurial (even without imbibing), be thankful you have flexible enough balance between variant and invariant processes to see the difference. Travel on.

dialectical path 2.1: alpha & omega: error recognition and response

My dialectical path wanders between mysticism and positivism in a noumenal sort of way and between religion and science in a phenomenal one. The latter pair both are systems with different levels, e.g., social in their churches and labs & epistemological in their seeking true knowledge. Errors are important in both. Consider this comparison of error recognition and response between the two systems: within science errors are inadequacies in experimental design and control or if the data has been gathered with utmost rigor, errors lie in our theoretical understanding. Scientific response, then, comprises reworking the experiment for greater reliability and validity or challenging and changing the abiding theoretical understanding of the ultimate state of nature. Science, like Hegel’s history, is a paragon of dialectic. Within religion errors are deviations from some god’s law or the laws of a karmic universe. The socially approved responses include individual repentance or congregants’ compassionate prayer for that individual should he or she persist in their un-repentance, or should an individual assiduously rail against the orthodox, the authorities, acting again at the behest of their god, categorize them as in the outgroup, the consequences of which range from mildly predicting their eternity in hell to their torture/murder as apostates. No dialectic exists here within their system, because errors are not ever considered as signals that the standards, e.g., god’s laws, need revision, i.e., that something is amiss with the law itself. Where is the alpha and omega here? Science is always an alpha approaching asymptotically at best the omega of understanding nature. Religion is always an omega as the alpha was already set in stone, so to speak; it may be an omega waiting to happen with the end of days, or an omega of transcendence whereby one leaves off the attachment to this dreary world, but there is no dialectic of religious thought, only evolution of church functioning.

Or consider another frame. I have recently had consideration of the phrase, “coming to my senses,” brought up again. When does someone say this? When realizing that continued effort in the same way would be futile, i.e., senseless, like when someone realizes that a relationship will never be good or healthy or that a plan of action being implemented is untenable or that some belief or assumption is rather unquestionably wrong. “Coming to my senses,” then, is when an omega moment occurs and transforms to an alpha, e.g., Archimedes’ ‘Eureka!’ or (dare I say this) Saul’s epiphany on the road to Tarsus. I use these examples to emphasize that coming to our senses is no sure road to epistemological truth; our senses are famously quite constructive and rather vulnerable to perturbation and error. Still, “coming to my senses” usually connotes a positive and adaptive change of mind. I don’t know if I have ever heard the inverse phrase, “leaving my senses;” I think we tend to say instead, “I am losing my mind.” Curious metaphor that, where the disregard of data engenders mindlessness. And that brings us up to an ever growing facet modern American culture, our fundamentalist religion and divisive politics. Better travel on now rather quickly.

Dialectical path 2.0: alpha-omega series

So in keeping with the spirit, at least, of the Dialectical Path, I want to meditate on beginnings and endings. I think modern humans have only a few boundaries of the unknowable. One is the experience of another’s subjectivity; this one will endure while humans exist. Another one is the alpha moment of the Big Bang, the creation of the universe and the rise of life within it. While we develop our conceptual understanding of this alpha based upon our positivistic efforts, and we can understand even the beginnings of life in this manner, we will not ever know the particular local circumstances and history of it. The third continues to be the omega moment of death, not the universe’s or earth’s or life on earth, but our own; none of us can know what happens after our death to our own self or the world around. These are important because beyond these boundaries, there is no continuance, and so there is no dialectic. Within these boundaries, however, we have myriad series of alpha-omega, whereby the omega becomes the new alpha and this then develops into the new omega. Pretty soon you have a real dialectic there and dialectics are important. Through them we improve our understanding over time. My guiding image throughout this series will come from my metaphor of the river delta, its estuarine living structure and function, as the brain, and I will now add another facet to the metaphor, the tidal wash, the ebb and flow, of some particular experiences we share through the biological roots of our humanity.

To start today with a basic one, consider our experience of Gaia. Yes, Gaia is both alpha and omega. Our world is, of course, a special place where life initiated or arrived and took hold and so began the history of our ecology and evolution. The end result of this, so far, is our awareness and understanding of Gaia’s existence. Yes, we created the concept but we did so based on our senses and comprehension of the world patterns and puzzles manifest there. So Gaia is an alpha moment at the origin of our world and life and it is an omega idea at the current terminus of our understanding. Now our vital understanding develops with the ongoing dialectic from the mystic sense that all life is related and the positivistic knowledge that, why yes, all life is connected through genetic flow, that the fabric of the universe can be studied at large and small scales of space and time, and that the end result, more an epistemological way station, is our positivistic rendering and explication of the old mystic song.   And so we travel on and on and on and on . . . . . with the tides of Gaia.

hie you to the NCMA

Yes, hasten to the North Carolina Museum of Art to see two temporary exhibits on M. C. Escher and Leonardo Da Vinci.  The first is one of the most complete exhibitions of Escher’s art and he had a long career.  I knew the Escher impossible space ones, but those seemed mundane next to his earlier ones exploring long and deep perspectives.  He produced phenomenal art from late teens to his death in 1972 at age 73.  Escher was especially inspired by Da Vinci because of their shared passion for geometries and mathematical patternings.


M. C. Escher

Da Vinci’s work is represented by a wonderful exhibition of the Codex Leister (now owned by Bill Gates and thank you, Bill), his journals, written in mirror writing, that concerned his scientific and engineering efforts to understand and control water, how fossils come to be at the mountaintops, how water which always runs downhill can emerge in mountain springs, how to measure water pressure, and well, I hope you get the idea.  Many pages written in a fine delicate hand with very precise drawings mostly on the margins.


Leonardo da Vinci

In a couple of passages in the Codex Leister da Vinci presents a view that the earth is like a body, the ocean its heart, its rivers the blood vessels, the mountains its bones, the vegetation its flesh.  So he knew about Gaia early on in the development of positivistic science; indeed he was one of the creators of science and engineering, both imaginal and practical, even as he was an artist of enormous range and power.  Talk about a hero, who first walked the dialectical path between mysticism and positivism showing us the way.

On a wall in the Escher exhibit was a quote from da Vinci in which he discussed how looking at a rock face one can see shapes and objects emerge or listening to chimes one can hear words and melodies.  This is from his Art of Painting.  And it also fits with the paleolithic cave art in Europe, where the beautiful paintings of animals take advantage of the natural contours of the walls (and who knows, the shadows from the torch or candle).


Altamira bison

So hie yourself to the NCMA if you can; it is well worth it.  And look for this guy wandering the dialectic.


da Vinci’s man in proportion


Dialectical path 1.1: aesthetic patterning

I am close to finishing an interesting book by Frank Wilczek, A Beautiful Question . He along with some colleagues won the Nobel Prize in physics for, I think, understanding the ideas of quark confinement by the strong force and asymptotic freedom (an interesting idea, that the closer the particles, the less force binding them together). His book provides a review of the development of the standard model in physics and work towards a unified theory with an eye towards the beauty of the mathematical formulas and our clear understanding of nature. He writes for a general audience so I did understand a good bit here but also lost the thread several times, understandable given my last educational exposure to physics and calculus was 1968 in college.
Mr. Wilczek brings in some interesting philosophical notions as he endeavors to explain some esoteric material to us non-mathematically inclined and I appreciate it. One notion is the principle of complementarity: in a relativistic universe many ways to conceptualize a phenomenon exist, some of which are mutually exclusive. Take his example that light can be conceptualized and measured as either a particle or a wave but not both at the same time. This principle strikes me as analogous to gestalt principles, e.g., the face-vase picture, and applicable to the mystic-positivistic event horizons with which I am working.

face-vase, particle-wave, mystic-positivistic

face-vase, particle-wave, mystic-positivistic

Considering the epistemological biases in how religion and science handle error and change, it is difficult to understand how they could be seen in a unified view (and so must be dealt with dialectically). When religious laws are broken, well, that is a sin and the person is in error. Some people say they know of the corrective consequences in the next world, but meanwhile the earth continues to spin around the sun and people keep on behaving naturally. When scientific laws are broken, we understand that the law itself is faulty because our knowledge is faulty and so work to understand the world better and thereby modify the law. Errors and change are important in both perspectives but handled very differently.
So is there a guide to help find a dialectical path connecting between the mystic and positivistic? Intuitive connections certainly occur frequently enough to suggest so. I have written before about how the chemist August Kekule, who was trying with others to understand the chemistry of the benzene ring, dreamed of the ourobouros, the mythic snake circled around to grasp its own tail, and so understood the ring structure of the benzene molecule. Many scientists tell similar tales of inspiration when taking a walk (Wilczek), watching a movie with his wife (Francois Jacob), or daydreaming on a streetcar (Einstein).
But return to Wilczek’s notion of finding beauty in theoretical formulations for understanding reality. This is dear to my heart because it brings the idea of aesthetics to the forefront of our humanity. I believe it is our sense of beauty that best guides our dialectical path. Art, being a creative and symbolic rendition of some vitally felt form, does not observe the process of error and change except in its composition as the artist seeks to construct a whole, coherent, and vital form congruent with his or her artistic vision. We are gifted patterners; neuroscientists tell us that we are excellent at finding patterns and creating them. And some patterns are constructed aesthetically guided by some features of symbolic creation, say, along the lines of Thomas Acquinas’s 3 principles (as expressed by a young Stephen Dedalus aka James Joyce), unity (unitas), coherence (harnonius) and vitality (luminas). Wiczek’s presentation of beautiful equations, e.g., Paul Dirac’s mentioned here before, is again an esoteric, highly intellectual view of rare aesthetic, and while it may not be artistic vision, it is vision, one of humanity’s better ones.
Daniel Dennett posed the question of what to save if you have a choice between saving a scientific document, say Newton’s Principia Mathematica or Einstein’s E=MC2, or a work of art, say Michelangelo’s Pieta or Picasso’s Guernica, and answers that he would save the art because it is unique and irreplaceable and we will always recover some increased understanding of nature’s patterns and rules.
In one direction we find the aesthetic spectrum from mathematical beauty and in another orthogonal direction is the beauty we find in nature, not in understanding its orderliness, but in its connection to the mystic. Again, what guides us to explore the space between is art. A couple of posts ago I wondered when in our evolution we began to apprehend the divine, say in the landscape where Stonehenge or Glastonbury were built. An even more basic question would be when did we begin to see beauty in the view?

Let's build a henge here.

Let’s build a henge here.

Do other animals, other primates look at the land and light and weather and sigh with romantic satisfaction? I am pretty sure they do not feel religious, but . . .? Is this the precursor to seeing the divine as we transition from luminous to the numinous?

What's it to be, luminous or numinous?

What’s it to be, luminous or numinous?

Travel on.

Finding a dialectical path between positivism and mysticism 1.0

Herein starts an ongoing, albeit irregular, serial with this title and theme.


Consider what we know about life (considerable especially since Crick, Watson, Monod and others). Consider how we know it (and how very technical, even esoteric this has become). Then consider what you know about life and how you know it (just what you know now excluding what we know). Let’s call these two perspectives the ‘social’ and the ‘personal’. For Homo sapiens what we know seems enormous due to our empathic and symbolic abilities. Social knowledge then comes in the forms of religion, art, science, governance, memetic culture, etc. What you or I personally know individuates within our life span; it grows from our somatic biological roots. Thus it depends upon each person’s neurosocial integrity; personal knowledge is further constrained by our life life span but also by a person’s social place. This shapes the content of our information capabilities such as pattern recognition, sense of the mystic, critical assessment, symbolic repertoire and its correspondent conventionality and creativity, and learning of experiential contingencies, i.e., experience. (A society does not have experience, it has instead what we might call culture).

All life is local. Elementary particles and their constituent parts, electromagnetic energies, gravity, dark matter and dark energy are present throughout the universe albeit in clumps. Life is present only in extraordinary cosmic locales and so far we are sure of only this one.

we are all mutants

we are all mutants

Now consider what we don’t know about life and why. (I would go on to add the consideration of what you or I don’t know about life, but that can of worms must be set aside for awhile). We do not know how life began here or how it will end. We do not know about other life in the wide universe. We cannot know another’s conscious experience. We do not know these things because our perspective is limited by space-time scale and the integrity of individual lives. We seek to expand beyond our space-time and personal scale through religion and science, both powered by imagination and based upon an assessed value of ignorance. With one we seek to go beyond the limits of personal knowledge, beyond an individual life span, to what happens, if anything, to our person before birth and after death. With the other we seek to go beyond the limits of or, better, to expand the limits of our social knowledge of life, our lives, our place in the cosmos and of course, the cosmos itself.

I make free use of the metaphor of an event horizon, i.e., that boundary of a black hole where the information within cannot be perceived due to the gravitational force containing it. This is because I find other sorts of event horizons limiting our information, though less because of gravity than because of some other exigencies of our world. So the event horizon for personal knowledge is marked by mysticism and the event horizon for social knowledge is marked by positivism. Let me explain here a bit. Personal knowledge is necessarily limited by one’s life span. We can follow William James and explore up to the moment of death (perhaps a bit further, see my post on 10 January 2015), and we can imagine/apprehend our existence before and after that span, but in fact, we cannot know this socially, except through the culture of religion, so our personal knowing reaches an event horizon. What really happened to me (did I experience) before birth and will happen (that I experience) after death? Following William James, this is apprehended in most varieties of religious experience as ‘mystical’—the name I give to the event horizon containing each human life.

vital energy flowing

vital energy flowing

In terms of social knowledge we approach our life and our world most comprehensively, most efficaciously empirically with the natural philosophy of positivism that then follows. What can we know about how everything happens and how may we escape the limitations of personal knowledge? Our social knowledge expands as civilization and culture develop, and while the event horizon of positivism follows outwardly accordingly, we push intelligently (we can only hope) and assiduously against it still. Given this formulation of personal and social knowledge and their respective event horizons, believing we are looking at a gem with many facets and in the importance of seeing it whole, I follow a dialectical path between mysticism and positivism. Maybe that is why my mind feels so unsettled at times, as if my neural synchronization was oscillating like a dog’s with his nose out the car window.    Traveling on.