Most excellent science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All synchronized, are we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father child

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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?


Descartes’ errors

I have finished reading Damasio’s Descartes’ Error and I was right to suspect that he saw more than one error.  The simplest one was his “I think, therefore I am” (‘cogito ergo sum’) that Damasio says is backwards, because being comes before thinking.  The backwardness is part of a larger error though as Descartes believed thought was a manifestation of spirit or soul and that the body was a mechanical, thoughtless bit of life.  This error, Damasio relates, has rippled out through our science and philosophy since Descartes plopped it down in the sea of intellectual life.  Never mind that many of his contemporaries challenged this, e.g., Diderot as reported in last post; Descartes’ stature was such that his name carried forth the error while those assigned a lesser prestige carried the truth to the discriminating few.

In the last chapters Damasio waxes a little philosophical himself as he extrapolates from his very real scientific understanding of neural processes and mind to what this knowledge means.  One important obvious conclusion that our culture seems to ignore is that given the lack of robustness, e.g., prone to error, in our rational thinking, we ought to cultivate a more rigorous intellectual way of thinking, e.g., perhaps staying closer to data, safeguarding our conclusions from errant assumptions and shortcuts, tending our logical ways more carefully, etc.  In short, ensuring our educational systems work to counter our tendencies to thinking falsely.  (Let’s not mention current political discourse here and keep our tears to a minimum).

Damasio also takes his understanding to a different place.  He writes that given that “reason is nowhere pure”, we need to attend to the vulnerability of the world within, and a most serious consequence of Descartes’ error is that its subsequent versions “obscure the roots of the human mind in a biologically complex but fragile, finite, and unique organism; they obscure the tragedy implicit in the knowledge of that fragility, finiteness, and uniqueness.  And where humans fail to see the inherent tragedy of conscious existence, they feel far less called upon to do something about minimizing it, and may have less respect for the value of life”.  Well now that is saying something so very well:  that ascribing mind to any supernatural forces prevents us from realizing that our biological nature is incredibly special and must be cherished—that this life and our minds that experience it is of the utmost value.  (And that is not done shutting off education, engaging in conspiracy theories, or misconstruing what we know to aggrandize our selves and our positions or beliefs).

Damasio also believes that neurobiology can and does contribute to our appreciation of, he quotes William Faulkner’s words, “the old verities and truths of the heart”.  Damasio points out that our challenge here is to understand how our neurons respond so “thoughtfully,” and that this challenge is literally enormous. The number of synapses is at least 10 trillion and the length of the axons forming neuronal circuits is “on the order of several hundred thousand miles.”  Some of our thoughts are indeed well traveled, eh?  Further, he asks why some events are experienced as suffering and answers, “Because the organism says so”.  Our suffering is a necessary feature of our existence and no wonder I find Buddhism’s percepts here so apt—they keep the cause of suffering in the natural world and the solution in our minds and actions towards others.

Damasio ends with a story about Almeida Lima, a gifted and compassionate neurosurgeon who helped develop a procedure called prefrontal leucotomy wherein pain centers are dissociated from emotional centers.  This is used very rarely in cases for the management of intractable pain—pain that is mind-numbing yet of no immediate consequence for life.  Lima introduced Damasio to one such patient, who, when asked if his pain was gone, replied, “Oh, the pains are the same, but I feel fine now, thank you”.  Though in pain, it was not emotionally excruciating and he did not ‘suffer’ the mind numbing effects.  I am reminded of Reynolds Price, a marvelous author who suffered spinal cancer.  Though it was successfully removed, it confined him to a wheel chair and left him in severe pain, unable to live and think and write.  He learned pain management skills using self-hypnosis at Duke Hospital and went on to enjoy life (I watched him enjoy dinner at a fine restaurant one evening) and write more incredible books.

So read this book or one of Damasio’s other books.  He understands that William James was correct when he asserted that humans have more instincts and not fewer than other animals, and that one of our instincts is a passion for reason, “a drive that originates deep in the brain’s core” for us to be reasonable.  It is still, after all is said and done, an instinct, and means that we must cherish our reasonableness all the more.  Travel on.

Professor Bourdieu, meet Dr. Damasio

I am reading Descartes’ Error by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who always has something interesting to say.  I don’t know which one of Descartes’ errors he focused on yet; Damasio says early on he will reveal this at the end and I am only 2/3 the way through, so more later.  He does emphasize several important modern notions.  Our higher level cognitive abilities are grounded upon lower level processes.  One of these is our emotional capacity, which he says is critical to our thinking adequately about social interaction and thinking through and accomplishing tasks.  He describes several clinical cases illustrating the negative impact on cognition of brain damage affecting emotions, one of which is Phineas Gage, a famous instance from the 1900s.  Gage was tapping some explosive into a hole preliminary to blowing up some rock in the way of construction when the explosive went off prematurely and sent a steel rod through Gage’s head, destroying areas in his frontal lobes.

Gage survived and recovered much of his cognitive functioning, but while he could think and talk about many things, he could not do so much.  His efforts dissolved into blithering, meandering actions without any focus and movement towards completion.  Along with this his doctors noted that he had very flat affect; he just was not concerned about anything.  Damasio and his wife explored the records and even studied what precise areas were probably damaged, given the early descriptions of the injury, and they explored several contemporary cases where strokes, etc., had damaged patients’ brains similar to that hypothesized for Gage. Investigating these cases very systematically, using modern imaging techniques and neuropsychological tests, they demarcated a clear syndrome wherein almost all cognitive skills were left intact, yet the patients were virtually affect-less and unable to accomplish much due to their dithering.  Ah, says Damasio, emotion is necessary to cognition.  Indeed, while they are different, they are mutually interdependent for adequate adaptive functioning.  Amen!

In developing a hypothesis to understand how this could be, Damasio recognizes the important research of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, showing that our rational processes are far from logically fail-safe and quite dependent upon cognitive shortcuts that they call heuristics (see post 6/11/18).  Damasio finds a linkage between these heuristics, austere thinking and emotional buttressing.  He sees a neurological system with an important nexus in the ventral medial frontal lobe that creates dispositions for action he calls ‘somatic markers’.  His discussion here is quite complex with several perspectives and lines of evidence to support it.  I began to understand it when I realized its relevance to Bourdieu’s habitus, of which more later.

Damasio’s somatic markers come about through the interaction of cognitive processes rendering the situation, actions, and consequences and of emotional processes that render an assessment of the desirability of the action.  They are learned or acquired through experience and that experience is referenced to the body, i.e., the soma, thus the name somatic markers.  As we encounter (read ‘generate’ or ‘delineate’ mentally) situations, we respond based upon these dispositions sometimes and at other times we engage in a more rigorous cognitive evaluation.  This fits with Tversky and Kahneman’s thinking fast and slow—sometimes we use quick heuristics and sometimes we actually think things through. This also fits with Damasio’s observations of patients with frontal lobe damage like Phineas Gage—they know the situations and can even articulate the rationale for their actions, but they fail to change their dispositions and learn from negative consequences.

Damasio discusses current empirical support for his somatic marker hypothesis and what needs to be determined through future research.  One aspect here is that while we primarily process these markers through objectively happening situations, we also, and increasingly so with intellectual development, secondarily process situations “as-if”, i.e., we imagine virtual situations and develop hypothetical or abstract markers, so that our dispositional actions are “as-if”.  This is a necessary level if symbolic activity is to be accounted for in this hypothesis.  Damasio goes on to say that, given the learned nature of these dispositional markers, he expects a lot of individual variation in our acquisition of these proclivities.

Now as I worked to understand this, several things came to my mind.  First is Bourdieu’s exposition of the habitus, our cultural ways of doing things (see post 8/13/17).  Some of our “as-if” somatic markers would be acquired through the processes of acculturation, e.g., how to marry, how to organize group activities, the social mores governing group interactions, etc.  Some somatic markers, primary and secondary (as-if), would be acquired through the processes of socialization, e.g., how our family and culture express emotions, treat with elders, etc.  It seems to me that Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis provides us with a way to begin understanding the neuropsychological underpinnings of the habitus.  Most excellent!

Return to the idea “of individual variation in our acquisition of” these somatic markers and their associated dispositional actions. Here individual variation can mean the variation between people inherent in their socialization, acculturation, and acquired invariant dispositions (after all we each experience our life quite differently from anyone else, so how could our dispositions not vary?), and variation within each person according to the processing systems of our specialized neurological structures.  This latter is the one I find especially interesting, because we can see an important distinction in the acquisition of somatic markers and their dispositions. Damasio refers to it as the distinction between social interactions and the actions needed for praxic solutions, i.e., how to do things, not do with people.  I translate this to convey that we have social dispositions both personal, e.g., differing displays of affect according to audience, and not-personal, e.g., driving a car.  This seems to me two basic modes of processing context and intent that are inherent in our brains.  I think it is not just personal-impersonal—it is also immediate, because most social interaction is most appropriately immediate and so biased to the right hemisphere, or displaced because we deal with so much information that is not immediate by using our language to create context (topic) and figure (intentional propositions) and so biased to left hemisphere processing.

Is the experience being learned from as we form a somatic marker part of our autonoetic or autobiographical/episodic record, which is heavily biased towards interpersonal activity and so emotionally engaged and infused, or experience dominated by abstract and semantic memories, which are heavily biased towards accomplishing intentions and so emotional control and dissociation are paramount?  Damasio discusses the VMPFC, the ventral medial prefrontal cortext, as a nexus for composing somatic markers.  What else goes on there?  Damasio says this region is special for its connections to virtually all the rest of the brain, saying there is no experience to which it does not have access.


DMPFC=dorsomedial prefrontal cortex MPC=medial parietal cortex Illustration provided by Georg Northoff – Georg Northoff Brain and self – a neurophilosophical account Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2013, 7:28.

The prefrontal cortex is important to human cognition because it links with so many other areas and because it processes this information in some specific ways.  Damasio says the lateral or outside side processes information from the outside, e.g., objects, consequences of actions, etc., and thus can be dissociated from more personal engagement.  This stems from its connections with posterior areas that provide information about perceptions and body orientation and with motor planning and enactment areas, plus areas giving rise to plans and intentions in general.  The inside or medial prefrontal cortex, those areas hidden down in the cerebral commissure, function quite differently, as I have posted in recent weeks.  Damasio notes that they work with bioregulation and social interaction, i.e., they maintain emotional control and govern relationships.  Hmm, core (inside) areas work with somatic and personal engagement and lateral (side) areas work with actions with non-social environment. For a complex example using both, consider your ancestor who cooperates with his clan, with one of whom he just had an argument, while hunting a larger animal and moving silently through terrain and coordinating the use of his weapons.  It takes a whole brain to make a functional mind.

Recall now two recent posts, one on autonoesis (9/16/18: Existential neuroscienceand autonoesis) and one on Decety’s model of empathy (9/9/18: Whose brain could we study?).  Autonoesis refers to experiences that are important to the self, i.e., the self is engaged emotionally and socially as opposed to those humdrum activities that bear little import for the self, e.g., adding numbers, driving, washing dishes (unless doing so mindfully).  Marco Iacoboni thinks that our mirror system plays an important role here; specifically the medial parietal cortex (posterior and part of Empathy Central) and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (frontal area important for motor and intentional activity) light up together when the experience is deemed important. He cites research showing that these areas light up when political aficionados discuss politics and do not light up when someone is bored by that topic.

Jean Decety’s model of empathy emphasizes that our brains distinguish our autonoetic experiences from those we empathically feel from another person, that we are able to set our own autonoesis in the background in order to fully consider the other person’s perspective, and that we can regulate our emotions in order to maintain our focus and keep diverse information in mind regardless of the social context.  These same prefrontal areas contribute to these empathic functions, including processing social feedback from others about ourselves (and that shades into autonoesis very quickly).

The formation of Damasio’s somatic markers and behavioral dispositions involve both autonoesis and empathy. We acquire (or not—consider our president per 9/9/18 post) our cultural ways of forming autonoetic experiences and of empathizing with others as we are socialized and acculturated.  These developmental steps are at the root of Boudrieu’s habitus.  We can see this in how different cultures manage such phenomena.  Autonoesis is different between Asian and Western cultures. Asians see the self as defined by and subordinate to social relations; showing off is extremely poor manners. Westerners see the self as defined by individual achievement, so showing off is only ‘natural’.  Similarly empathic expression differs with Asian cultures maintaining a more stoic expression around non-intimate others.

A more deleterious example of differential empathy development comes with our acquisition of racial or other constructs, e.g., our habitus holds some other people distinguised by their skin tone, religions, or other markers to be inferior, even the enemy not worthy of humane consideration.  These cultural features can be changed in an individual when we understand that commonly held assumptions are wrong, e.g., rejecting our family prejudices against another race, and they can shift over time, as when our art shows us a deeper truth, e.g., Brokeback Mountain,Call Me By Your Name,Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner, or South Pacific (see my post 3/6/18: art and cultural shifts).

I want to post again about Damasio’s book, which I find to be informative, provocative and leading to a wisdom of sorts.  And I want to connect these ideas to my conceptualization of the soma, its brain, and the MEMBRAIN.  So, hasta la vista and travel on.


Inky is my hero

NY Times science writer Carl Zimmer has an interesting article about the high intelligence of octopi, which is now fully recognized but not clearly understood.  Good stuff:  Back in the day (early 80s) when I was thinking about returned to grad school for my PhD, I took a course in biological psychology.  One of our assignments was to do a paper on a researcher who studied other species, and I was assigned someone (can’t remember his name) who studied octopi.  He was a pretty strict behaviorist (and even then I said, “Ugh,”) who tried to condition an octopus to go from one side of the aquarium to the other with very little success.  His conclusion was, of course, that they were not very intelligent since they did not learn from his experimental setup.  Nowadays we understand that the scientist wws not very intelligent because their experimental setup was ignorant of the species being studied.  Remember Frans de Waal’s book Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Other Animals Are?

More rigorous studies are now ecologically based, so that we know that octopi use shells to create shelter, squirt ink to confound predators who hunt visually and flee from those who hunt using olfaction, can open jars to obtain food, and so much more.  Zimmer reports that scientists are not sure how their intelligence evolved because they are barely sociable, have a more decentralized nervous system (much of their ‘brain’ is distributed in their 8 legs, and they are relatively short lived; all 3 traits are correlated with higher intelligence.  They do have a well-developed visual system and the ability to almost instantaneously change the coloration of their skin to camouflage with their surroundings.

Zimmer reminded me about Inky ( and then I followed links to two other examples.  Inky was a reluctant resident of a New Zealand aquarium who disappeared from his tank. The keepers figured out that he (?) slipped out of his tank through an overflow pipe, traversed the floor to a drain, and squeezed (he was the size of a soccer ball but they are flexible and soft animals) down to escape into the bay below.  Ah, the intelligent wanderlust of the eight-legged creature is an inspiration to us all.  Another story comes from a London aquarium where an octopus repeatedly at night (they are nocturnal by nature) left his tank, went over to a fish tank to dine, and then returned to its home tank.  Fine dining, no reservations needed.

The third example comes with an ethical question.  Octopi are rarely sociable except when they mate; they are otherwise solitary. They share some neurotransmitters with mammals, however, and some researchers gave one a low dose of MDMA (ecstasy on the street) to stimulate the warm sensual feelings humans feel under its influence.  This seemed to work as expected—the octopus became more social and interested in other octopi for awhile.  Now I am trying to remember a movie about a mentally challenged man being given a drug which made him smarter for a brief period but then he returned to his former state with some consequent feelings about the whole affair.  I assume that an animal rights’ committee approved this octopus research based in part upon the assumption that the octopus’s cognitive, mnemonic and emotional abilities were insufficient to suffer harm, but we don’t know that, do we?  I read so much research where someone assumes that an animal does not feel or understand something when in fact we know that they do, just in their own way.

So did this experimental subject, i.e., the octopus, remember the drug induced episode with positive feelings, e.g., it was a good ‘trip’, guilt, e.g., can’t believe I hugged that other octopus for no good reason, or regret, e.g., how do I get those warm feelings back.  I know this is putting an anthropomorphic frame on the experience but in actuality we have little way of knowing what the mental consequences were of drugging an animal whose intelligence we are only now beginning to understand.  I am not sure that I would not have approved the experiment if I been on the committee.  I am pretty sure the researchers had a rationale justifying this experiment in terms of helping humans but that is not reported in the news, nor are any ethical questions about research with other species.  Some scientists are acting unethically with our own species—consider the quack in China who created GMO human twins.  It’s a brave new world we have here and caution is advised.  That is why one of my heroes is Inky, who found a way to escape to the wild and freedom (from us).  Travel, really travel, on.

biological machines or mechanistic life?

So periodically I read something that refers to us, i.e., living beings, as machines.  More often than that I read about our brains as machines, i.e., computing machines, hard-wired, programmable, etc., and I have written here my thoughts about using that metaphor to capture neurological functioning (see posts 2/12/15: “dried neurons?” & 7/28/14: oh me, oh my!).  But considering biological entities, e.g., organisms, to be machines is something different and a bit more complicated because there is some literal truth to it.  Essentially I see two issues here:  1) how are we to understand the biochemical activity composing life given that such chemistry is governed by laws which operate mechanistically and we consider life to be vitally free from such constraints, and 2) what are the critical differences between organic and inorganic forms?  Read on with the understanding that I do not have the answer to those questions.

I am reading an old essay (1995?) by Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical biologist at Cambridge U., entitled “The Uses of Consciousness”.  Spoiler alert: the primary use is to understand the subjective musings of another by examining our own—a fairly apt answer, that one.  He brings up several interesting ideas, one of which is this notion that organisms are machines.  I was interested in his several referrals to Denis Diderot, a French writer of some renown of whom I know little.  He refuted Descartes idea of humans having two ‘substances’, body and soul, in classic fashion, i.e., there is no evidence for soul and no ideas about how spirit and matter could interact and fuse into one.

Now over my years I have read about Descartes repeatedly, especially his “Cogito ergo sum” business, and not until now (or in 1995 if I had been paying better attention) did I learn that his learned contemporary found his formulation “deplorable”.  This confirms my worry that our intellectual heritage and educational system has grown thin, emaciated even, as we focus on the catchy phrases and ‘stars’ and leave out contrary views, even when those views are more in line with our modern truths. Oh well, at least I was lucky enough to learn about Spinoza awhile back.

Back to mechanistic life.  Humphrey takes a practical, everyday approach to such issues.  I follow the great Jacques Monod in this from his landmark book, Chance and Necessity: yes, biochemical activity is mechanistic and yet biological processes are not “deducible from first principles”.  Monod gives a beautiful exposition that life evolves by chance and replicates its structure by necessity, and indeed, any feature of life would seem amenable to this analysis.  As I understand it, modern chaos theory follows along here—chaotic systems slowly organize in an unpredictable manner but that organization bespeaks future developments.

Humphrey refers to stalwart philosopher Daniel Dennett as one proponent that life is a machine, and further, that our consciousness is mechanical.  Dennett (per Humphrey) believes that in principle a machine could be constructed that would mimic us closely enough so that we would be ‘fooled’ into thinking that the machine is conscious.  Indeed, Dennett thinks that is what we already do with one another—we believe others are conscious based on our inferences from their behaviors but without any direct, real knowledge of their subjective domain, i.e., we are fooled into thinking others have minds.  Humphrey counters that this ‘problem’ of another’s private subjectivity is actually overblown and that philosophers would do well to read more biology on this matter.  Subjectivity is a natural consequence of being an organism, i.e., it is a fact to be understood and does not present a barrier to knowledge of each other.  I do like a common sense approach.

Go back, though, to the thought experiment of how to tell if an object is a living organism or an artifact mimicking life.  Monod addresses this early on in Chance and Necessity. An organism comes about through autonomous morphogenesis; it is a self-constructing machine that owes next to nothing to anything outside itself to its own creation.  Further, an organism comes with its own purpose; it projects that purpose through its genesis and life span.  Life is not teleological, i.e., growing to some endpoint as Teilhard de Chardin believed, but it is teleonomic, per Monod:  this ‘thing’ with its internal autonomous determinism carries forward its project of invariant reproduction.

So how to tell machine from organism?  Study “its origin, its history, and for a start, how it has been put together” (Monod, p. 13) and you cannot fail to notice that the machine was assembled from and by forces outside itself and the organism by forces internal to its own somatic creation.  And that seems to me the incipient quality necessary for subjectivity.  Yes, we are assembled through biochemical, mechanically governed processes, and yes, we do it ourselves, autonomously.  While we could theoretically construct a machine that mimics that closely, its history betrays its lack of autonomy and thus its lack of subjective integrity.

Biology also fosters the notion that subjectivity is no great decider of our success.  Rather, it is the linking of subjectivities that contributes evolutionary force to our lineage.  Remember that mammals are especially remarkable for our sociability and that we humans are amongst the most social of all.  Do I know that you have a subjective domain?  Yes, I do; I can sense it through our empathic relatedness. Do I know what is in your subjective domain?  Only by reading your signals and comprehending your symbolic communication. Humphrey clearly understands this as a primary function of consciousness, and to give him credit, he knew this before we had any good understanding of our neurological mirroring systems.

This view supports the notion that our consciousness derives from social interaction and that our identity, our self, comes about as we differentiate and integrate our early relationships.  It also supports the notion that other animals have some form of consciousness to the degree that they are sociable.  Again, this seems to accord with Humphrey’s common sense approach to these issues.  For a different approach, read about a panpsychical approach at ( where two psychologists speculate that consciousness is based upon the vibrational resonance between particles, so that everything in the universe can be seen as conscious because everything vibrates at times resonantly and there is little difference between vital and inert forms.  Amusing, perhaps, and curious, but not very nutritious.  Humphrey cites Diderot (was this man ahead of his time or what?) as saying, “One day it will be shown that consciousness is a characteristic of all beings”.  That is ‘beings’, you know, living things.  Though Humphrey disagrees with this statement, I think it is closer to the truth than some other views like panpsychism.

I will conclude with two thoughts.  One is my old idea that we should distinguish between sentience as life assaying the ambient, which is a property necessary at some level for adaptive success, and consciousness as the organism’s autonomous contribution to its apprehension of its own experience, including the ambient yet still independent of external stimulation.  Thus, I would say all life is sentient and any life that is social may develop consciousness.  I have written several posts about this before; see for example 4/21/16: “conscious or not?”.

The second idea is the importance of grounding our ideas in our biological nature. The guiding principle here is that our minds are embodied. Even at the highest levels of our intellectual production our minds rely on somatic experience for reference points.  This seems to me to be quite remarkable and important.  We might be machines of a special sort but we use our physical presence as a way to understand ourselves and our universe, and we do this with the power of metaphor, which is not exactly a mechanical  process.  I refer you to two books by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live Byand Philosophy in the Flesh, both of which but especially the latter explain very clearly cognitive processes by which our embodied minds build upon somatic experience to conceptualize and abstract through metaphor as we seek greater understanding, you know like comparing life to a machine. Travel on.