MEMBRAIN, mirroring and the god within

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:

speechsignal

speech signal showing no pauses or gaps between words or phonemes

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.

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?

large and small news about language

What is the most ubiquitous human social activity?  I vote for conversation (see my post from 3/30/14).  The ease with which we carry on conversing belies the complexity of the matter:  listening and understanding is complex, formulating and uttering our next contribution is complex, taking conversational turns is not simple,  and keeping it all on topic and relevant seems more than some can manage.  We rely on social formulas, e.g., how’s the weather & how’s the family, to facilitate quick exchanges and we give more thought to our serious discussions.   Highlighting the skill needed to participate is the rapidity of our exchanges; a conversational turn may take less than a second and even long-winded turns generally take only a few seconds.  Yes, some people go on for sometime, but their listeners generally remember something else they have to do and move on.  Conversational turn-taking is so natural we have to learn to inhibit it in order to become listeners.  I learned this watching preschool story time where the initiates kept speaking up in response, that is only natural to them, but they eventually with the help of good teacher learn to just listen and save their participation for later, a very interesting process to observe.

To lose the ability to participate is really difficult and frustrating, as I learned working with stroke patients.  Many others lose the ability due to nervous diseases that impair motor control.  They listen and think of responding but the words won’t come, so it is a large report that scientists have developed a way to translate the brain’s motor speech impulses that are blocked from enactment directly into computerized speech.  I marvel at the complexity of translating the specific nerve impulses for the speech organs, i.e., lips, tongue, jaw, pharynx, larynx, etc., into the phonemes and then assembling those phonemes into coherent speech.  This study shows that this can be accomplished in principle and now the hard slog to make this augmentative communication practical begins.  I saw this large story at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/health/artificial-speech-brain-injury.html.

The small story is from the 3/30/19 Science News about singing mice and duets. Who knew?  (Well, maybe Frans de Waal did—I just read in his new book about how mice communicate through high-pitched squeaks outside of our hearing range.  They ‘laugh’ when their tummies are tickled. That Frans de Waal is a tickling fanatic, see my post 4/8/16). Scientists found out that a species in Central America sing to each other and then they studied their brains as they did so.  They found that one neural area produces the song and another controls it for turn taking (hmm.  Sort of like our left hemisphere controls speech and the right manages the pragmatics of turn taking?)  They discovered this by using either cold or drugs to inhibit one area or the other. These ‘duets’ are better termed conversations, I think, and they are “carried out with split-second precision”. Oh, and if the turn-taking area is numbed, the songs grow longer.  Tell me about it.  Anyway, a small report of a finding that contributes to our understanding of the brains, the mice’s and ours, on the way to helping with communication difficulties.

With a large and small news report now posted, I will travel on.

Why are we so smart? Really?

A few posts back I wrote about Nicholas Humphrey’s take on the uses of consciousness.  I later found an old  (1976) paper of his that evidently was fairly influential back in the day, “The Social Function of the Intellect.”  He basically asks why are we so smart?  I guess we could be a lot dumber and still thrive and degrade Gaia with our machinations. Humphrey concludes that our intellect serves to maintain society and he provides a wide-ranging discussion to support this idea, believing that the ability to think socially gave our ancestors a keen advantage.

He opens with an anecdote about Henry Ford, who had his minions search junk yards to see what parts failed on the model Ts.  They reported that every part seem to fail except one, which never failed, and Ford then directed that that part be manufactured at a lower quality, thereby saving money and increasing sales of new cars.  Sounds American, doesn’t it?  This anecdote, though, illustrates a key assumption (and bias) about our evolutionary thinking, i.e., the competitive advantage our intellect yields is a commercial one of beating out others.  Like many others Humphrey sees this as the primary advantage of our intellect:  “an animal’s intellectual ‘adversaries’ are members of his own breeding community. If intellectual prowess is correlated with social success, and if social success means high biological fitness, then any heritable trait which increases the ability of an individual to outwit his fellows will soon spread through the gene pool.”  (Just to be clear here at the outset I think any trait which increases the ability of an individual to mobilize and work with our fellows will spread more deeply through the gene pool albeit still with severe constraints).

Later on in the paper Humphrey posits a cooperative impulse, one that constrains our primarily selfish bias:  “the selfishness of social animals is typically tempered by what, for want of a better term, I would call sympathy. By sympathy I mean a tendency on the part of one social partner to identify himself with the other and so to make the other’s goals to some extent his own. The role of sympathy in the biology of social relationships has yet to be thought through in detail, but it is probable that sympathy and the ‘morality’ which stems from it (Waddington, 1960) is a biologically adaptive feature of the social behaviour of both men and other animals – and consequently a major constraint on ‘social thinking’ wherever it is applied.”  My quibble here is that ‘sympathy’, or better, to use my term, empathy, is not just a constraint on social thinking—it is what makes social thinking possible. Remember here the biology of attachment, of parenting, of mirroring, of the myriad ways empathic communication supports relationships, including sexual reproduction.  Also, consider here the empirically developed hypotheses of Michael Tomasello (see posts 7/31/18, 4/30/18 & 12/12/17) that humans are distinguished from other animals by our cooperative nature, e.g., our ability to relate empathically contributes mightily, is even a primary influence, to our cognitive abilities and our social mores, and these would seem to be the intellectual bases of society.

Humphrey gives another interesting anecdote, this one about his early career as a research psychologist.  He studied a monkey whose visual cortex had been ablated to see how much visual function, e.g., 3D spatial vision, could be recovered.  While the monkey recovered some visual abilities, she did not recover 3D spatial vision even after 3 years.  After 5 years she was retired and granted more access to the outdoors. Within 3 weeks she recovered in full her 3D spatial abilities.  Her ‘recovery’ had been constrained by her previously “stultifying” environment. Humphrey looked at the monkeys in other research projects and saw that they were housed in groups which made a much richer, and critically so, environment.

Clearly we are interrelated with the environment, and for us and many other species that includes our conspecifics.  For humans our conspecific relationships become cultural.  Yes, we progress culturally through a ‘competition’ of ideas, but one criterion for winning the competition is the degree to which an idea engenders cooperative success.   Remember Eastern and Western cultures differ considerably in how they implement this criterion (for related posts see 7/20/18 & 2/3/15).  And this may or may not be contributing to our genetic success, because such features take a long time to play out.  Cultural success can take place on the near, short or long term. For example, our president has inflated his success over the short term but over the long term this is being deflated. Are his fiduciary and competitive genes winning an even longer term competition here?  I doubt it but that is oh so complicated a question and I must now travel on.

bonobo1

The genetic advantage of singing is most powerful: And we’ll all go together To pluck wild mountain thyme All around the blooming heather Will ye go, Lassie go?

 

4th Anniversary: the view from here

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. Over the course of these past four years while blogging here I have worked assiduously on my book and I near the completion of this, the fourth and, I have promised myself, final draft (I want to go on to other projects). I have changed it substantially since that first draft around 3 years ago, in which no one was interested and I did not feel like self-publishing. The draft now reflects what I have learned since then and I will self publish maybe late next year (still have to finish last chapter on ethic of knowledge). Chapter 3 is entitled “Selves Within MEMBRAINs Sharing” that reflects the journey to find our roots in empathy and symbolization that grow to flower and fruit in culture, especially the aesthetic aspects. Here are its concluding paragraphs that capture, I think, where my intellectual journey has led me so far and the view from that vantage point:

“Now we can survey how selves within MEMBRAINs share information, i.e., how embodied minds communicate incidentally and intentionally amongst one another and so create a social (though the term seems less than apt I know of no other one) organism. (Perhaps ‘social being’ is better, our counterpart to the bees’ swarm or Star Trek’s Borg. In any event while each soma maintains its individual embodiment, each soma and its brain participates at an essential level in the MEMBRAIN). Begin with the Umvelt, so that each soma has a common experience/construction of reality, initiate conspecific relationships through sexual reproduction which begins the evolution of powerful empathic abilities evidenced in child-rearing and further development of kinesic communication enabling more complex interaction and cooperation (and competition too, I guess), then with the increased awareness of the other’s subjective self and mind coupled with a highly developed and deep seated empathic altruism, develop signal and symbolic communication. This provides the skeleton of the social organism; the evolution of greater means, e.g., memory, maps, social objects, and symbols to control and displace information that serves to enrich each individual mental domain, then provides the muscle for the social organism to act as a unity. Finally the development of social constructs, forms shared more or less invariantly, upheld and inheld by each individual created culture, e.g., the habitus of shared predispositions, i.e., information shared and inculcated as a matter of socialization and acculturation, e.g., a group ‘mind’.

This reveals the complexity of one mind embodied within a MEMBRAIN in a brain within its own soma. A mind whose consciousness is continually composed from sentient awareness of the ambient and conscious contributions from its own sources, e.g., memory, imagination, etc., information old and new, invariant and variant, immediate and displaced; a mind also serving the self arising from a sense of agency and autobiographical memory, the self allocating volitional and intentional energy to its actions; consciousness organized through various systems which contribute and organize the results of subliminal processing, e.g., Ff: feedforward (constructive), Fb: feedback (corrective), and Fs: feedsideways (intuitive); a mind keenly engaged not just with social communication but also with social existence including empathic, symbolic, and cultural domains; and finally a mind whose unity of consciousness in a specious present and whose independent subjective singularity based upon the integration of many temporal operations and loops is its ultimate illusion.

Out of this complexity comes our sense of time, life span, experience, past, present and future. None of how we experience ourselves and our world is determined or ruled by any logic other than the chance and necessity of our evolutionary past. Our minds are islands in an ocean of reality and we experience the tidal shifts and the waves glistening and breaking to wash up on our shore. Time flows but is not linear—we have only to listen to music to apprehend the multi-dimensionality of our temporal sense. A life rises and ebbs—we have only to reflect upon our own basic autobiography and our feelings for those who have come and gone to apprehend the singular act our life comprises. Experience is a construction from many disparate parts or systems—we have only to meditate to apprehend the challenge of mindful peace. The future flows backward through the present into the past—we have only to appreciate art to apprehend a moment from another life and share a brief feeling of the tides, waves and winds on the banks of that other’s island nearby or far off in the distance in seemingly the same ocean of experience.

Finally, our biological heritage leads to an ethic of knowledge. A soma carries the genetic material into the next generation; to do so it must mitigate exigencies and exploit opportunities. Its brain evolved through the genetic flow from the SWP watershed to process ambient information and retain its experience in some form that help to meet the exigencies and possibilities of a wider world. With the CR watershed and the increased flow of empathy, the MEMBRAIN formed within the brain to engage with its conspecifics and so transmutes the individual challenge of each soma to live and reproduce into a social effort, or better, a communal one, and going further, a conscious one. Human intellect is only one of the many paths leading into the future world. Our heritage has led us to this point where we understand that understanding is the key to our successful adaptation and survival, and our empathy is key to our understanding. Thus our intellectual imperative is to pursue and honor an ethic of knowledge with some assurance that this will lead to a knowledge of ethics, that our ignorance of ourselves and our world, whatever our knowledge of them may be, is the source of all mysticism and of future intellectual progress, and that our loneliness, felt from within the mind’s isolation and with the memory of those who are gone by, is the measure of our engagement and love of others within the limits of this particular life. With a true ethic of knowledge we both stand on the shore and ponder the ocean’s currents, winds and waves and walk inland to gain a renewed mystic apprehension of our world. That is what enables us to enliven our bond with other, even unknown, life.”

Travel on.

 

4th Anniversary #4: Some of my basic lessons

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. Over the course of these past four years I have learned some wonderful basic lessons. Some have come directly from my reading. I re-read Langer’s Feeling and Form to gain more insight into art and presentational symbols. I re-read her Mind, vol. 3, and understood more about two important dialectics. The first is within the individual between the need for reality orientation and the pleasure of unbounded symbolic creativity. The second is within society between its need for each member to commit resources for group maintenance and to carry traditions forward for continuity and the need for individuals to be creative and innovate to maintain social vitality.

I understood from Chris Hitchens the possibility of the natural noumenal, i.e., a noumenal realm filled with the shadowy ideals and mystic forms not in some supernatural domain but in this positivistic one. And of course, this past year I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity to find that the ethic of knowledge directs us to the natural spirit inherent in the descent of genetic forms evolved through countless random events beginning with the appearance of life on Gaia. Along with that I read Tomasello’s The Natural History of Human Morality that confirmed two ideas, that an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics and that our cultural values, while distinctive, are based upon some continuity with the rest of the animal world. Our humanity is indeed rooted in empathy and symbolization.

One of my evolving lessons comes from long efforts at understanding how our mind works. Since my first stint in graduate school in speech and language pathology in the mid 1970s, I had pondered the role of old and new information, beginning with hippocampal functioning but going on to how our brains define or create the categories and how they are transformed, i.e., old becomes new and new sometimes becomes old. Over the past four years I have realized that these processes are actually embedded in the larger functions producing variance and invariance. Remember William James’ characterization of consciousness as the “remembered present” or someone’s phrase the “specious present”. It takes some short passage of time before information from the retina or cochlea or skin reaches the brain and then is processed enough to be available for sentient awareness. (Another of my lessons is that I came to differentiate sentience as deriving from perceptual impact and consciousness as deriving from autogenic, i.e., self generated, information). Thus the information of which we are aware is necessarily old. New information comes about when we notice change; this is seen perhaps most importantly in hippocampal processing where change=new information (or sometimes no change violates expectations for change and that also equals new) which triggers theta processing, i.e., a new focus and situation is engendered. Along with this remember that recognition occurs when new information is ‘recognized’ as old and recall occurs when old information is ‘recalled’ as new, and that this is based on memory, i.e., past experience is held as an invariant form.

I have come to understand that variance/invariance is an extremely basic, even essential, concept for our understanding of life. I started down this trail upon reading a research article on the dual loop hypothesis of language. The loops are a dorsal one composed, I think, of cortical tracts that maintain primarily invariant information and a ventral one composed of cortical tracts involved in the processing of variant information. Consider the writing process or any example of verbal composition. Some invariant bits, e.g., words, are assembled according to syntactic rules to convey a new and variant message. This has always impressed me, that while we have formulaic speech for social purposes, e.g., “How about this weather?” most of our utterances are novel. While maybe the sentence’s propositional form follows an old/new pattern in subject/predicate or topic/comment, this serves the basic ongoing hippocampal processes of contextual generation of usefully defined situations, which for linguistic performances, must be a relatively rapid process in order to facilitate the intentional guidance of expression.

But variant/invariant can operate independently of temporal parameters, e.g., old/new, and so is important for our mental displacement of information divorced from current time and space. This seems to me now to be yet another manifestation of the basic biological processes underlying life. As we humans have extended our knowledge by understanding larger and smaller scales, e.g., cosmic and quantum, we again come around to Herodotus’ dictum that you can never step into the same river twice. Change and flux seems to be the basic order of the universe as it runs down to some entropic end. Life’s vital processes hold this procession in abeyance, the soma a protected environment where flux is background noise. We have come to understand that life is defined by our genes holding still as invariant forms, albeit with important random and rare mutations, replicating through generations. Thus Monod characterizes the forms of molecular biology as irregular crystals. That our minds operate to hold information in invariant forms, e.g., memory, is only another version of that tale.

Monod starts his book giving us the source of his title from Democritus, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” This from the man who around 400 BCE understood that atoms were a basic element of our universe. Monod found that evolution proceeds through chance or random events but that once a new gene passed two challenges, fitting into the coherent whole of the genome and then promoting adaptability of the organism, the new structure continues by necessity. Our brains and MEMBRAINs carry that feature through our mentality. Life in essence operates to mitigate exigencies and to exploit opportunities. No surprise that our minds do the same. Consider this example from current events: once we form an opinion we tend to preserve it despite new contradictory information. Invariance is naturally a conservative process. Cultural orthodoxy, especially religious, maintains invariance; rebellious hereterodoxy promotes variance until it succeeds in transforming views. The beauty of science lies in how it handles errors, i.e., variance, in its practice and theory and in how it institutionalizes the disjunction between our conceptual world, i.e., the doxa, and reality or nature, thereby making the empirical process necessary for objective and reliable understanding, so the need for our ethic of knowledge.

As I have studied our roots, some questions have come unanswered. What was the chemical process initiating life? How did sexual reproduction start and take hold? What were the genetic springs that fed the streams leading to humanity? Were the dominant ones for empathic and cooperative relationships or ones for control of displaced information? Are our distinctive mental faculties based upon cognitive advances, i.e., the orthodoxy, or are these advances really to serve a remarkable blossoming of empathy, i.e., heterodoxy? How is the self composed from the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN? Why were some of the earliest artworks hidden deeply within caves? What led to our awareness of a noumenal domain and then to its reification as supernatural? And how is it so much ugliness is tolerated by a species that developed such a keen sense of aesthetics?

In the course of writing these anniversary posts I realized more explicitly than I had previously why I have always written “soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN.” While the MEMBRAIN understood simply and basically as an exaptation of the brain, the MEMBRAIN is strictly speaking not of the soma or its brain. It is rather a construction based solely on social interaction; it is necessarily a social organ embodied in many conspecific somas. It comprises the self of social individuation based upon attachment and socialization and not just the self of agency and autobiography. It comprises the self as presented socially through various roles as well as the self hidden behind those presentations. Of paramount importance it comprises the self’s adoption of the habitus, the cultural mores and practices that knit the social organism together.

One final lesson for me from me: the dialectic between positivism and mysticism that operates as my mind finds its way to understanding. In these posts I have focused more on the former and now I will conclude with the latter. The ancient Greeks thought that the universe was composed of 4 elements: water, fire, air, and earth, and this conceptualization served them well for a time. Before I travel on, here is a scientifically transformed elemental prayer.

Elemental Prayer

Let me hold this water I use today

Remembering its earthly passages

And wondering how it came here.

Let me burn this energy I use today

Remembering its finitude between earth and sun

And wondering at its myriad forms.

Let me breathe this air I use today

Remembering that I am a human

And wondering how the fire burns within.

Let me walk this path I find today

Remembering those here and passed

And wondering at Gaia’s kindness.

4th anniversary #3: soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. So I have found that a summary, i.e., a brief conceptualization encapsulating a developed set of ideas and data (you know, information), is helpful (to me at least) in thinking and talking about our biological roots. I have two main ones for rendering my ideas. I posted about the genetic watersheds previously and here is the second, the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN. The basic idea is that the soma (the body) and its brain have evolved as the genes flowed down from the Solving World Problem watershed to our pool and so shaped our current evolutionary form. With the additional flow from the Conspecific Relations watershed that began with sexual reproduction, the brain began to develop special abilities related to mating, communication, child rearing, and group formation and maintenance. These new exaptations specifically supported social relations and eventually brain systems became dedicated to these functions, and in doing so became the MEMBRAIN of the mind. The brain thus developed a MEMBRAIN because family, tribe and group relations turns out to be a very powerful factor promoting evolutionary adaptability. (This underlines the prominent place of mammals, including us, in the evolutionary tree of life—see recent posts about Mammalian Heritage Day).

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Where is the self? the habits? Oh so many more questions.

A cursory glance shows how somas have evolved through the eons of life on Gaia. Changes in sensory and perceptual capabilities along with changes in motoric abilities have yielded many varied life forms that cover the planet and its many niches. One of my favorite examples is birds migrating thousands of miles attuned to the seasons and guided by geography and the magnetic field of the earth. Another is that fish can be frozen and thawed out some time later, then brought back to life, their biological clocks picking up where life’s rhythm left off. Insects are incredibly prolific, diverse and successful. Cockroaches have maintained essentially the same form for many millions of years. Butterflies range from drab to brilliant. Oh, the list goes on to include all of the living organisms on our planet from the net of fungus and other microorganisms thriving just below the surface to humans as we leave for other worlds.

Similarly, brains have evolved to greater and greater complexity thereby enabling more powerful capabilities. The modern evolved brain still interfaces with the somatic external boundary for the ambient, i.e., the sensorium, and within the soma internally through proprioception, its autonomic systems, i.e., sympathetic and parasympathetic, and chemical systems, i.e., hormonal and neurotransmitters. The nervous system, central, peripheral, and autonomic divisions, maintains homeostasis and vitality. The central nervous system with its increasing encephalization generates contexts that are deep in purview and broad in scope. These then form the basis for complex intentions and plans that guide increasingly sophisticated behaviors. Over the course of evolution, then, brains enlarged perceptual processing and integration, memory systems, motoric control, management of impulses and implementing complex purposive behaviors. And all of this is contingent upon emotional control and stability, i.e., nervous homeostasis.

With the rising evolutionary importance of conspecific relations, extant systems in the brain were dedicated to social interaction through exaptation that led to further development of systems to form the MEMBRAIN. Recognition of individuals, coordination of mating and child rearing practices along with signal communication appeared early on. The advent of live birth, altricial young and a prolonged juvenile period increased the importance of parenting, cooperation and communication. Systems operating with empathic communication through kinesic channels developed from facial recognition and increased with social agency. Neurologically this resulted especially in enlarged parietal and temporal lobes that increased the complex interplay between occipital and frontal lobes. The momentous developments of attachment and individuation based upon a powerful empathic sense of others led to a sense of self, and then culminated in symbolic communication to share information displaced in time and space, i.e., mentally and not perceptually generated information, among each others’ minds. The MEMBRAIN, then, initiated with social interaction, became the organ controlling mental information, and finally constituted a interpersonal shared organ supporting or comprising the habitus and cultural learning, i.e., the social mind composed from many individual minds.

This summary shows the constancy of what I call the 4 membrane functions: keep material/information in and out, pass material/information in and out. Even the first soma fulfilled these four functions in order to solve the basic world problem of obtaining nutrients and eliminating wastes and keeping toxins out while keeping metabolic machinery protected within. This is all in keeping with mitigating exigencies and exploiting opportunities (chance and necessity). Early somas’ membranes evolved in more complex organisms to become skin that then fulfilled these same functions. The evolutionary appearance of brains continued these operations, and it makes perfect sense that neurological tissue develops in the embryo from the same tissue as skin. With the powerful transformation enacted by CR the MEMBRAIN appears and these specialized systems fulfill the membrane functions for social/mental information. It is all of a piece.

This synopsis of the soma-brain-MEMBRAIN evolution shows the biological roots of our humanity from deep in mammalian evolution through primates (50 million years ago) and then hominids (500,000 years ago). And that led to cultural evolution of the past 100,000 years or so, especially the most recent 15,000 years since the advent of agriculture. Time to travel on to #4: some things I have learned from doing this blog.

art: solitary and social

I am reading Richard Ellman’s 1948 biography of WB Yeats. I have read smaller pieces before but this is more comprehensive and details his life events in relation to his literary output. Good stuff. I was struck by JB Yeats, Willie’s father, and the cogency of his philosophizing about art. JB made a go of it as a portrait painter. His paintings were well received but his family was continually poor because he completed so few commissions as he fussed over perfection. Yeats and siblings spent much time in Sligo with his mother’s family, the Pollexfens, who were well-to-do. JB gave his son much advice and direction, most of which was later spurned, while mostly educating him himself at home. It is telling that Willie did not attend Trinity College as his father planned because he seems not to have been able to pass the entrance exams.

JB thought about art and psychology a good deal and imparted that to Willie along with his disbelief in religious objects, e.g., gods. Ellman quotes JB as saying, “Art is the social action of a solitary man.” And this resonated with my biological view of art. I work here from two perspectives of artistry, one involving everyone who makes art incidentally as they live life where art is ancillary to any role and the other where the life is of an artist, where the role is to make art. I have written before of Ellen Dissanayake’s notion that the origin of art is “making special”, i.e., we make an object beautiful less from a symbolic aesthetic and more from giving that object our own special flavor (see post 5/16/16).  Art here is perhaps more decorative but it is also an expression of an individual self’s vision or inspiration. Art is an accompaniment to the person fulfilling his or her roles, so we have a person acting socially but giving it a personal touch, e.g., a worker decorating his or her tool, beautifying the home, or even painting a mural on a wall.

This is distinct from a person’s role as an artist, i.e., someone making art for art’s sake, as it were, professionally, or at least as central to their intent and not incidental as in ‘making special.’ The role of an artist is somewhat exotic in its seeming lack of utility. Art here is not made in fulfillment of a social role yet it still contributes to society. It is more the expression of an individual’s inspiration to render their experience aesthetically (thereby using the tools of art according to their aesthetic purpose) and so share a complex understanding of life with others. The role of artist is isolated from utilitarian life yet the aesthetic production participates fully in the cultural life of the group. Art here is a social action of a very circumscribed scope from a solitary perspective because it is so intimately involved with one self and that self’s aesthetic, i.e., symbolic expression of a presentational sort and not discursive, following Langer (as always; try posts 2/17/16 & 9/13/16 for example).

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Given my construct of a soma with a brain and its MEMBRAIN (see posts 5/17/15, 8/11/15 & 4/17/17), we can see the self develop through three stages. At the level of the soma, the self develops through a sense of agency. Somas do things to sustain themselves, including reproduce to continue their genetic line. With the development of the brain the self develops through its retention of experience, i.e., the soma’s autobiography (this rises to a new level with the hippocampus; search for many posts like 5/27/16, 9/8/14, 12/24/15, 5/31/16 & more). With the development of the MEMBRANE (posts 11/14/14, 4/7/14 & 1/8/15) the self becomes socially defined in divers ways: through the empathic understanding of one’s own subjective domain and the objective mystery of the other’s subjective domain, the intimate roles of family, the familiar roles of cooperation, and the social mores regulating transactions with those known only through commerce and joint projects. Within each MEMBRAIN some activity is personal, i.e., self-involved, and some impersonal, i.e., defined solely by the roles characterizing the interaction or about abstract information. We mark this difference when we talk about wisdom vs. knowledge. We learn differently about death when a loved one passes from learning about numbers or metabolic processes; the former is self-involved, the latter not so much. An artist, by sharing a personal, subjective, and individually constructed symbolic work, acts socially in an intimate manner outside of any of the usual roles and relations. To paraphrase JB Yeats, an artist is a solitary person acting in a most social and intimate manner by sharing the symbolic rendition of a self’s deep experience. That is a special role indeed and not far afield from a spiritual realm.

The heirs of Wolfgang Kohler

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Wolfgang Kohler

This is Wolfgang Kohler who had a remarkable and distinguished scientific career in Germany and then America where he went to elude Nazi authorities. He was one of the founders of Gestalt psychology and coined the phrase, “The whole is different from the sum of its parts.” He understood the methodological and theoretical limits of introspection and behaviorism, and he studied chimpanzees for awhile early in his career. Thank you, Wikipedia. I refreshed my memory there because his name came up in two very different books.

I have finished re-reading Edelson and Tononi’s How Matter Becomes Imagination, and Kohler is mentioned at the very end. They discuss the necessity of incorporating values and emotions into our theories and experimentation for neuroscience if we are to understand consciousness. They conclude by citing the title of Kohler’s 1938 book, The Place of Value in a World of Fact. Their stance, especially Edelson’s, that the brain is not a computer is noteworthy in this regard. Their analysis focuses on language as a necessary condition for what they call ‘secondary consciousness’. Their ‘primary consciousness’ is what I would call sentience, and while they acknowledge that our minds are embodied in social animals, their analysis slights this facet by neglecting empathy and kinesic communication to focus on linguistic symbolization.

Now contrast their approach with that of Frans der Waals who focuses on empathy and social relations and shows a high level of consciousness amongst the simians at least. I am now deep into his newest book, Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Animals Are?, and he mentions Kohler many times because Kohler advocated getting to know the species by observing and working with them based upon their natural, ecologically driven behaviors. Der Waals says at one point that a human giving human tests to children and chimpanzees in order to compare their intelligence, saying they had treated them the same, is like throwing a cat and a fish in a pool and saying they had treated them the same. Kohler was early on, say 1913, a proponent of species specific talents requiring sensitivity for studying their particular intelligences. One of the great pleasures of reading this book is der Waals’ incredible knowledge of different animals’ different behaviors and what these indicate about their cognitions.

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Der Waals highlights another early scientist, Jakob von Uexkull, and his concept of the Umwelt, i.e., “the perceptual world in which an organism exists and acts as subject” (from Wikipedia). The umwelt is the beginning of signifying functions for the organism. In vertebrates the sensorium or ambient of its ecological niche is different from their umwelt which is transformed by the values placed upon or interpreted from the sensorium. Important, yes? Our umwelts differ from that of chimpanzees or bonobos not in our consciousness of others but in the prominence of our conspecific relations (this from der Waals). Mammalian umwelts differ from those of non-mammals by the prominence of social relations in general.

This is one motivation for my concept of the MEMBRAIN, that part of the brain that processes social communication. Within each MEMBRAIN a self gazes upon an umwelt filled with social objects, procedures and autobiographical memory along with information from the sensorium. With the advent of symbolic capacities the umwelt depends less upon ambient information and more upon information generated within through symbolic control. The common factor in all of this is conspecific relationships.

These two books are both excellent and quite different from each other because the science behind them is quite different. Edelson (now deceased) and Tononi, who have probably forgotten more neuroscience than I will ever know, examine brain functioning from a high theoretical perspective from where they can see neural systems energize, organize, and flow as conscious processes arise to facilitate adaptive mentation. They are quite positivistic in orientation and exemplary in their understanding of the limits such an approach meets. For example, they say that art results from consciousness but that studying the brain does not contribute much to our aesthetic understanding; they say that such contemplations yield only “trivial” contributions. Amen (and someday I might discuss this in terms of a book, Biopoetics).

Der Waals, on the other hand, studies animal behavior through observation of the species in a more natural ecological setting and through experimental designs based upon our current understanding of the animal’s umwelt. In his discussion of animal research we see the power of life as it is manifested in mental control of adaptive processes and the biological roots of our humanity. Travel on.

Intimacy and MEMBRAIN 2.0: ripening and bruising

I have been thinking more about the MEMBRAIN with its intimate functioning and its risk of disruption (think recent news reports of sexual assaults on campus). Imagine a head of cauliflower, how it develops up from the stem, expands through the addition of increasingly differentiated flowerets, and then ripens as a model of the brain. The growth follows two gradients, first from the inside out and of course, bottom to top.

plain

Looking at the ‘brain’ from the bottom we can see how its growth spreads and expands through differentiated tissues. Our brains start with a neural tube from which all the nerve and glial cells emerge and then travel to their assigned place; the tube ends up being the ventricles wherein cerebral-spinal fluid is made to bathe the cells in nutrients. At the head of the tube the midbrain and cerebrum form with all their lobes and wrinkles.

basal

Imagine further that different vertical structures operate with different neurotransmitters, so that some of the ‘florets’ are one color and some another, some fire up quickly in passing and some slow and sustained, and then further that ‘floret’ tops communicate with each other through long fibers front and back (green bands), left and right (commissures). Get the picture? (Yes, we see).

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As stated in the last post, intimacy involves very open MEMBRAIN functions, much is let in and out, not much is kept in or out. This permeability is managed through the arousal (and then the attentional) system that initiates from a central structure and goes up into the cerebrum. That is the red circle at top. Indeed, when you watch an fMRI you can see the intensity of arousal rising up through the middle and then spreading out as the lateral systems begin to process front and back, left and right.

arousal

We start our intimate journey at the outset with our parents when our brains are beginning to ripen, i.e., mature. When we attach and bond with them we are using and developing lower and central structures and because the right side matures earlier than the left, we are also using our right hemisphere more. The mother-child communication is done with the right side of the brain.

Mother-Child_face_to_face

These experiences are important for oh so many reasons, particularly because this helps us develop our control of emotional arousal and thus MEMBRAIN permeability. Wow! And later, as the left hemisphere comes into its own, the child learns to attend to fine motor tasks while ensconced in a safe, nurturant and guiding relationship.

Father child

Now some early events can bruise the ripening fruit and affect its subsequent development, subtly affecting its capacity for intimacy. Should the mother become unavailable through emotional difficulties, illness, substance abuse, physical absence (think military deployment), or death, this loss can affect how the brain ripens. Likewise, trauma, especially family violence and sexual abuse, bruises the brain and this bruise can be seen in the deficient development of emotional control and the subsequent compromise of intimacy. And this is important because we start by developing our intimacy capacity as we travel on to develop our intellectual abilities.

Consider two features of children with attachment disorders and/or an early history of family based trauma. The first is that they want constantly and this want is rarely satisfied. The parent (figure) can give and give but the child does not take it in really; their MEMBRAIN is impervious to affection and its manifestations. You give them a hug and they want more or something else or you hugged another child so . . . or you give them shrimp and they want steak or . . .you get the idea. This emotional coldness extends to their own lack of empathic consideration for others. The second is that they do not operate with sequential reasoning very well and this includes responsibility for their own actions. Parents can watch the child’s misbehavior directly and then grow exasperated when the child denies its actions. When working with them therapists (and parents) have to back up a step and teach them to think in story board form like a comic strip, e.g., this follows from this and that follows from that. Their intellectual grasp of these matters was compromised when the MEMBRAIN was bruised early on.

The violation of intimacy by males sexually assaulting females is related to this and I will say more later about that, but I am also getting an itch to talk about other topics. So long for now.