Writing about the MEMBRAIN and reading various works brought about some relevant or new associations. Remember that the MEMBRAIN functions by gating material and information or not. I use the word ‘information’ now somewhat guardedly. Basically I use the word to mean as defined by Gregory Bateson, ‘the difference that makes a difference’. Our eyes take in information by transmuting energy from the visual spectrum into nervous transmission. That sounds very simple. The question some ask is what information is preserved from the eyes and what is added by the brain & its MEMBRAIN in processing. However, the common understanding of genetic transmission is that the genes encode ‘information’ which specifies the construction of the organism’s soma, and this many now regard as a quite inept conceptualization. Our genome does not constitute a blueprint but rather is a component in the inherited developmental system that also comprises complex environmental and epigenetic factors along with the amazing constituents of somatic cells, especially, I guess, the first one at the inception of a new soma. So the genome is not a blueprint but is more aptly conceptualized as potentially instigating a series of chemical events that can and does go in many different directions depending upon the context of the whole developmental system. As Evan Thompson phrases it: the developmental system, including the genes, lays down a path by walking—no blueprint, just structured contingencies. So information in biology has become a more complicated, even problematic, issue that should be approached, at least it seems so to me, humbly.
I say that the MEMBRAIN functions to help form and contain the unity of a mind which has also arisen in an embodied fashion from the soma and its brain and that then structures the interaction with other minds and organisms, especially one’s conspecifics. Now consider mirroring (see posts 7/29/18 & 7/31/18). Remember that mirror neurons, discovered in the 1990s or so, are cells that upon seeing an action convey information to motor cells that enables them enact that very action (mirror neurons are probably the motor cells but really they are a component of a mirror system, aren’t they?). Thus, I see you pick up a coffee mug and my motor cells that enable me to pick up a mug light up, even though I am not doing any such motion. Here the MEMBRAIN gates in a perceived action and is prepared to emit the same action. The mirror system works even if the cup is not actually present and the action is only mimed. This gating occurs more with conspecifics, I assume, and wait, there is more.
Some research has shown that different cells light up depending upon the purpose with which the mug was lifted, e.g., to drink from or to wash, so that the perceptual process figures out (from contextual clues or from how the mug is gripped or ?) the other’s purpose. This is a great example of the MEMBRAIN as it functions to connect minds, i.e., not just the actions for imitation but for the subjective processes mobilizing those actions. The important feature here is that we use the surface structures, to adapt a linguistic term, of behaviors to empathize with the other’s deeper structures of feelings, emotions, and intents. For example, right hemisphere led processing focuses on facial, vocal and postural features to glean kinesic information about the other’s internal subjective and private cognitions (just as the other person is doing with our kinesic behaviors). Part of this processing includes identification of our own emotional states as analogous to theirs, and a component of this process would sometimes rely on mirroring the other’s expressions for ourselves. Maybe a bit complicated but essentially we know another through knowing ourselves both in specific processes and in relationships generally.
I first posted about this some years ago on 4/24/14, ‘Arcuate fasciculus, mirror neurons and memes’. Recall that the arcuate fasciculus (AF for short) conveys information about words heard from temporal lobe processing to frontal lobe processes for speaking those words. This can happen irrespective of any meaning, and indeed, sometimes we can repeat what we did not understand and that helps us recover the sense of what was said. I was reminded recently that this mirroring is a bit more complex than simple reflection. Consider the speech signal as it arrives at the ear; it is a continuous stream of sound without word or sound boundaries, as shown in this sound recording:
In carrying out its mirroring function, the auditory cortex automatically parses the stream into sounds, words, and phrases for comprehension; the AF can also then transmit that linguistic surface structure, i.e., the phonemic string, to the motor cortex for potential replication, i.e., mirroring. What is even more complex is that any individual phoneme can and does vary quite a bit phonetically (phonetics refers to the actual acoustic properties of the sound emitted while phonemics refers to discrete, well defined sounds as linguistic categories) and still be identified as that phoneme. For example, both ‘p’ and ‘b’ are made with the lips closing and then releasing the air stream (they are both plosives). They differ in VOT or voice onset time, i.e., that moment when the larynx begins to sound the next vowel. In general, VOT for ‘p’ comes some 10s or 100s of milliseconds after the lips open and release and VOT for ‘b’ comes just before, during, and just slightly after the lips release. Our brains recognize the phonemes despite some natural variations in VOT within and even beyond (using context) these parameters. One reason computer speech sounds artificial is because these variations are absent—VOT is the same every time. To add another level of complexity, the way Americans and French folks say ‘b’ is different enough that we can tell which is which and this is due to some small differences in VOT. One more example here is that ‘p’ is said differently at the beginning versus the end of a word; ‘p’ at the beginning is followed with breathy noise (aspiration) while at the end the sound stops more abruptly. Try saying ‘push’ and then ‘stop’ to notice this difference.
The point of this may be arcane but it is that perception is very active and constructive, not a passive copying; our brains construct and add to any received sensory stimulus, not just with linguistic communication, but with many sensory inputs. Many scientists and philosophers over the past 70 years or so have emphasized that our symbolic capabilities begin to operate early on in neural processing; they do not just appear as our intellectual musings rise to consciousness but are present in our perceptual processing. Indeed, Langer, enlarging on the gestalt psychologists and philosophers of phenomenology, went even further, saying that humans are ‘driven’ to make meaning, i.e., to make more of what we perceive, feel, think, etc. than what is initially given.
So mirroring involves the MEMBRAIN gating information in while at the same time enacting the neural reconstruction for the surface features of the perceived behaviors. Mirroring occurs automatically and incidental to whatever other neural processing is proceeding. Generally, however, mirroring is just that; it does not result in the behavioral enactment of the mirrored action (except in some neurological conditions that are marked by echolalia—see that same post 4/24/14). I have been thinking, though, that maybe we mirror internally what we haven’t seen or heard, i.e., we are prepared to gate out some surface features without having actually gated them in. This would be the basis for projections of a particular sort wherein we see or hear aspects or features of our humanity, its vitality, agency, intentionality, etc. These sorts of projections would underly animism and anthropomorphism.
I am reading Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion by Stewart Guthrie. His thesis is that humans anthropomorphize a great deal; we do it automatically, mostly incidentally, sometimes though quite intentionally and metaphorically. We anthropomorphize in pursuit of meaning and Guthrie presents a great deal of evidence from philosophy, psychology, religious theory, perception and the arts to support his thesis, and he takes the further step to assert that this proclivity lies behind the religious impulse. We see human agency, feelings, vitality, intentionality in all sorts of things, sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically and many times religiously. Humans ancient and modern interfacing with nature, and reality in general, imbue features that we encounter with our own sense of vitality, life, emotions, etc. and that, asserts Guthrie, has given rise to our finding a spiritual reality behind or inherent within natural events and objects, e.g., we see faces in clouds.
As I read his explication of anthropomorphism, I kept thinking of mirroring. What we mirror, to some large extent, is also what we project when we anthropomorphize. To be clear, this is not the same anthropomorphism that scientists guard against, i.e., attributing human motives etc. to other animals, though Guthrie and others would say that science is also an effort to understand the world through and on our own terms, but a more basic psychological process, one more akin to the metaphorical basis of our intellectual constructs as described by Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (see post 12/26/17 among others—I just realized that I have never focused on this important book in a post. In short they argue that metaphorical thinking is the basis for most, if not all, of our intellectual constructs and the language for discussing them). Not so clearly, I think de Waals’ anthropodenial (see post 10/26/17) might apply to those who would deny Guthrie’s thesis.
We naturally think of mirroring as a reflective process, but the power and fecundity of our symbolic capabilities could also make mirroring a projective process. This seems to be what Guthrie is exploring. Indeed, the confirmation bias articulated by Tversky and Kahneman and seen so prevalently in our political culture would also seem related to this. That does not make it bad or good; it does mean that we should be mindful of our mind’s limits and not mistake our own projections for god or any other sort of primal truth or privileged reality within, and with that I will travel on.