Autism, religion and the frame of discourse

In his book Neurotribes Steve Silberman details the divergent views of the two pioneers who early on recognized autism as a syndrome.  Briefly, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger saw autism as an outlier on the spectrum of normalcy and believed that some of its traits/talents, e.g., focus on patterns, mental obsessiveness, contribute to many achievements in art and science.  American Leo Kanner saw autism as strictly pathological that resulted from deficient parenting by a cold mother.  I have posted before about my disdain for Kanner’s approach (see review of Neurotribes9/13/15).

I bring this up to emphasize that how we frame a topic determines to some large extent how we go on to think about it, e.g., normal or pathological, multi-factorial genesis or blame the mother.  I go back to Bourdieu’s conceptualization of the doxa, i.e., the entire realm of discourse, its accepted partition into an orthodox domain, and the rest is heterodox.  Historically religious authorities have treated heterodox thinkers harshly. Science is better but even scientific orthodoxy can limit what heterodoxical views and work can be admitted into the realm of discourse.  Remember Naomi Oreskes‘ work showing how American geologists regarded European Alfred Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics as crackpot (he was not a trained geologist, oh, the horror) only to be proved wrong and Wegener prescient. Also remember that behaviorism in its heyday greatly constrained research into mental phenomena, you know like thoughts and feelings.  Thankfully great scientists like Karl Pribram, A.R. Luria, L.S. Vygotsky, J. Piaget and Noam Chomsky evicted behavioral theory from the house of orthodoxy.

Now I read a curious chapter in The Encultured Brainon autism and religion that asks a heterodoxical (to me at least) question about how people with autism view god and religion.  I had never considered (surprisingly in retrospect) that autists may think of god differently because they think of the world and people differently, but it makes sense, sort of.  How to frame this investigation?  Rachel Brezis studied this question through a neuroanthropological approach.  Evidently J. Bering had proposed earlier “that our ability to infer others’ thoughts and intentions (theory of mind) served as the evolutionary basis for our automatic search for meaning and agency behind events in the world (existential theory of mind).”  Further, given that autists have different/diluted theory of mind, they would have trouble forming a personal and lively relationship with god and discerning the deity’s presence in the world.

Long story short, Brezis research casts doubt on that presupposition.  Studied more systematically autists showed quite robust religious beliefs similar to non-autists.  She thought that maybe the deficit lay in autists’ self knowledge, not knowledge of others.  The frame here is important.  I have not read the background material, e.g., Bering’s hypothesis that our theory of mind, i.e., what I call EC or Empathy Central, influences our relationship with a god that controls the universe, but from Brezis’ summary, this effort seems based upon a Christian, even an evangelical, frame.  Ask a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Taoist or even Spinoza about their personal relationship with a deity and most likely they will stare at you as they wonder just how answer such a primitive question. Brezis did part of her research with Jewish youth who certainly showed that they had inculcated their tradition in forming their beliefs but in my admittedly few conversations with Jewish people, I cannot remember any of them espousing a personal relationship with Yahweh; they are fully engaged with their tradition but this relates more to the Torah, ritual and community than the Baptist tradition I was raised in where personal acceptance of Jesus, etc., was a requirement for membership.

Empathy Central involves social understanding and social skills through empathic feelings and kinesic communication.  How this develops in each of us greatly influences our personality and interpersonal functioning.  This stems from a deep and old biological root and I find our notions of god(s) rather historically irrelevant to this.  Remember the Atargatis (see a post on 11/10/14).  This was a goddess of fertility in the Middle East also around the time of Jesus that even had a coin minted in her name.  To become a priest, the novitiates (all males) worked themselves into a frenzied state of mind, ran through the streets naked with a knife, cutting themselves to be bloody, and at the right moment, castrate themselves. They then chose a house to throw their genitals in the door and that family was required to give the newly minted priest female clothes.  (I have always assumed they chose families whose ladies were fashionable dressers). Now I am not sure what kind of relationship they had with Atargatis but I myself would not call it a ‘personal’ one despite the intimate sacrificial gift.

Our modern notion of god, especially in cultures where scientific and technological advancements have been incorporated, must be quite different from the pagan and animistic religions of the past, including those later polytheistic ones and I have to wonder about the early days of any monotheistic beliefs, not to mention the Buddhist and Hindu beliefs of 2500 years ago.  My point is that “a personal relationship with god” based upon a person’s functioning Empathy Central is not really an adequate frame for discussion.  Humans have evolved a powerful EC; our capacity for empathy and intimacy is in the rarefied zone but it is still closely tied to our mammalian heritage and operates with kinesic information focused on the present, specious as it is, and its higher level integrations are about our real relationships.  What this frame of EC lacks is the understanding that spiritual beliefs and religious institutions are evolutionarily more recent and are based primarily upon our symbolic capabilities and their transformation of our intellectual abilities much more than our EC.

Spiritual beliefs, from which religious institutions emerged with all the features of any other human institution, derive, I think, from a deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind and this aesthetic in a spiritual domain operates on a symbolic level.  It is an aesthetic that enables us to find patterns, to complete incomplete patterns, to imagine patterns that are nowhere apparent, and to apprehend somehow where a pattern should be but isn’t.  This last one is key because it presages our sense of the mystic beyond and the universe, large and small, beyond our phenomenal apprehension or science’s ken.  Further, the deep aesthetic includes our sensitivity to the fitness of a pattern internally and in context and, here is the crux of the matter, to the energy or beauty or luminosity of that pattern. (Remember the 3 aspects of an aesthetic: integrity of parts fitting together, unity of the whole, and luminosity of the form as composed by the artist and then beheld by the audience).

This is quite a different frame from seeing spiritual beliefs as reflecting our ‘personal relationship’ to a god.  High functioning autists of the sort assayed in this study are generally keenly sensitive to patterns in all their aesthetic grandeur, even though they may not rhapsodize on their beauty as some of us (like me) might, and even as their engagement in the empathic side of relationships is a little thin.

Let me end by suggesting another frame. Jacques Monod attributed humans’ proclivity to religion and spiritual beliefs to 1) our discomfort in apprehending our solitude in the grand scheme of the universe and within our own subjective isolated domain, and 2) our insatiable appetite for final certainty. People of all sorts vary in their anxiety about being alone and in their need to know for certain (even when it is wrong, like conspiracy theories).  Maybe someone could study these psychological variables and their relationship to religiosity.  If I were younger, I would consider it, but I am not, so I take my approach from Monod’s colleague, Albert Camus, and say, “Yes, we are alone, so what?  That just makes it all the more important to abide by the golden rule, to treasure your loved ones, listen to the music, and cherish our lovely Gaia carrying us around in space.  And yes, there is no certainty, get over it and get along with what you have to do to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance.”  This, I think, follows from Monod’s postulate of an ethic of knowledge and its corollary that we grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I will reiterate that that The Encultured Brainis a positively provocative book and add that at least in some respects it carries a fault common to many recent books and intellectual traditions in its failure to recognize the importance of symbolization as a basic concept.  Up until the 1980s or so, we had a strong tradition of considering symbols as basic to our mind’s functioning, from C. S. Pierce through Ernst Cassirer to Susanne Langer, and then for some reason associated, I think, with the developing power of machine intelligence and the incredible understanding brought about by genomic science including molecular biology, we forgot in our rush to advance.  Travel on, I hope, to a place where symbols and their remarkable functional complexity are remembered.  No need to hurry.


Evolutionary tidbits

To reiterate my understanding of the biological roots of our humanity, I see human empathy as something special and it laid the foundation for symbolization and that enables us to think and talk about everything and nothing and to create it if it is not already there in reality.  Through our empathy we humans are keenly aware of another’s mind, that they have subjective considerations, and how we can interact with each other mindfully.  Symbols carry this social effort forward with scope and power.

This empathic capability is centered in the right hemisphere that processes kinesic communication and maintains Empathy Central in the temporal-parietal junction where knowledge about our relationships contributes to what the academics call ToM (theory of mind).  Anyway, my thought is that this keen sensitivity to others’ minds became integrated with our mirroring capabilities, so that certain actions could be replicated readily upon observing them in another.  This replication of mirrored actions comprises the invariant forms of social communication, and when our mirroring system came to include vocal signals, so that we could hear a conspecific vocalize/verbalize and reproduce that sound and not just the objectively observable motoric behaviors, e.g., lifting a cup to drink.  This is the functional significance of the arcuate fasciculus on both the right and left sides, but especially on the left, where the af enables the repetition of what we just heard another say (see my post of 4/24/2014 on the arcuate fasciculus and mirroring).  Putting together, i.e., integrating, the awareness of another’s mind and the knowledge produced by the mirrored invariant behaviors led to symbolization, at first linguistic and then artistic (ask me to explain that sometime).  Symbols, if you remember, have a deep structure (what resides in our minds subjectively) and a surface structure (what we use to formulate and then communicate those subjective musings), and voila! language, art and the cultural wealth of our kind.

That said, I have been reading Georg Striedter’s Principles of Brain Evolutionand find a couple of evolutionary tidbits that help to carry my speculative imaginings forward (and I find nothing so far contrary to this path). Consider that human eyes are almond shaped and that our irises are surrounded by white sclera while the eyes of other primates are round and the irises surrounded by dark sclera (though the sclera hidden within the eye socket is white.  Striedter interprets this to show that we humans monitor each other’s gaze and so gather more information about the other’s subjective musings; further that our eyes’ structure facilitates this with its almond shape and white sclera shows that such kinesic communication is important evolutionarily. I see this as an example of our keen awareness of the other’s mind.

Think of some examples of this.  Parents follow the gaze of pre-verbal infants and move to facilitate their exploratory activity.  As Michael Tomasello explains, joint action is a critical advance in our social coordination and eye gaze is an important means by which we cooperate, e.g., one holds something still while another performs a more intricate action such as a nurse clamping a wound while another stitches it up, or one hunter with a bow shifting gaze to match another’s and finding prey.  Finally in this regard, in my early career I learned about the challenge of hearing impaired children (and adults) who must watch the other’s hands to communicate about a task that needs to be seen to be learned. Eye gaze is important in juggling these gaze shifts and we humans have extra talent for this.

Father child

joint gaze and joint action

Streidter also discusses the size of our brains in absolute terms, compared to our body mass, relative to other animals, the amount of cortex relative to the medulla, etc.  He points out that large brains are ‘expensive’, e.g., they require high protein diets, they pose problems for live births due to mismatch between skull size and birth canal, and they pose challenges to communication between neural areas.  This last comes about because areas farther away take longer to communicate with each other and that poses a problem for timing.  Much of our neural processing depends upon the simultaneity or temporal match of parallel processes.  Our brains have evolved with some work-arounds such as long, thicker nerve tracts that nerve impulses travel along faster than thin fibers.  Our brains have many more modules and these connect especially to those nearby with some longer fasciculi, e.g., the arcuate fasciculus, the superior longitudinal fasciculus, the claustrum and the corpus callosum, bearing the burden of longer range communication.


The arcuate fasciculus is part of the superior longitudinal fasciculus. Thicker axons help nerve impulses travel long distances faster.

Now here is another interesting tidbit.  Our corpus callosum is relatively smaller than those in other primate species, i.e., our cerebral hemispheres are less connected than might be expected.  Streidter says the data show that the human brain is more asymmetrical than other species’ brains; this works because our two hemispheres specialize in different functions (yes, even as they perform much of the same functions, one leads, and while brain damage when young can be compensated for, damage when older is less so because the specialization has become at least partially irreversible). Again this difference in connectivity is relative; I have posted here before that studies of our connectomes show females generally have more bilateral connections, i.e., they make more use of their corpus callosum, while males have more connections within each hemisphere than between.


corpus callosum with part of right hemisphere cut away

Now this bit of information speaks to two issues.  First is that females and males (please remember that I use the terms in a relative manner and appreciate all manner of androgeny in our variations) approach interactions differently.  This is especially noticeable in preschoolers where girls are both more verbal and tuned into relationships and boys are somewhat less verbal and their attunement to others is, shall we say, less robust.  Actually, talking with my 30 something daughter and others, this difference may even be accentuated in mature humans (maturity, again, is a relative term, guys).  In any event, the functioning of the connectome when emphasizing social and linguistic information together would use the corpus callosum more fully and that would correlate with a female sort of pattern.

The second issue here goes back to my thesis that symbolization arose from, first, the integration between the keen empathic apprehension of another’s subjectivity and the invariant behavioral forms that operate in mirroring, and then, second, once the connections are formed, their separation into the surface and deep structures of our symbols.  Human brains are more asymmetrical and this I associate with the differentiation of function between Empathy Central on the right side and linguistic functions on the left, e.g., one side is pragmatic and the other syntactic/semantic.

The last tidbit comes from Streidter’s analysis of the human brain’s enlarged lateral prefrontal cortex (adjacent to motor and premotor areas) primarily on the left side.  This relatively species-specific area serves, Streidter hypothesizes, our abilities to use our hands and words in very flexible, facile, novel and unconventional ways.  We are able to do things hitherto unseen, un-imitated and even unimagined until we do them.  This includes our words as well as our hands.  This highlights one of the great paradoxical strengths of our language. We use words, conventional symbols with socially established meanings, to say many things that have never been said before, i.e., they are novel and unconventional.  We do this day in and day out in small and large ways for mundane and profound topics.  Back in the day Noam Chomsky focused on this generative capacity to demonstrate the theoretical poverty of behaviorism, and we are still learning about this today.


lateral prefrontal is in lower blue area towards the front

So a long post.  Funny how tidbits expand when I am (you are too hopefully) having fun and learning about our humanity, eh?  Travel on.

a cultural tidbit

I have been thinking of culture again for some reason probably having to do with reading about neuroanthropology and their emphasis on how our brains do culture, and thinking more about Bourdieu’s habitus as the cultural way of doing things and how that does not seem to capture the knowledge structures that also contribute to culture, e.g., our values.  Along with this I continue to ponder with reverence Monod’s analysis of religion, science and values and his exhortation that an ethic of knowledge will lead to a knowledge of ethics.  And being a modern American I frequently worry about the media term, ‘culture wars’, as I resist the notion that people with conflicting values necessarily must clash and war over them and search for other metaphors to capture this phenomena.

I recently read a Vanity Fair article about Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, who advocates for acculturation as a way of assimilating the dispossessed, including immigrants, into mainstream society.  That is an interesting contrast with some in this country (and others) who assume that others must adopt on the own and immediately the general culture and its values to some specific degree or else be rejected as outsiders and alien.  Macron wants to help those who do not already participate in the majority’s cultural tradition to appreciate what he considers to be a friendly French culture and to incorporate new aspects from the cultures these ‘others’ bring with them. Sounds so very civilized, even normal, including the criticism that Macron is focusing on the cultural facet enjoyed by the more highly educated, even Parisian as some gasp, and that his effort to assimilate some cultural bits from others amounts to appropriation by the dominant majority (elite).  While I still think his effort to be inclusive is laudable, this notion of ‘high’ culture is what stimulated Dorothy Parker to pun, “You can lead a horticulture [whore to culture] but you can’t make her think”.  I think my country is now demonstrating that being an advanced nation with great material culture, even an educational system once held in high esteem, is no guarantee of intelligence, especially of a critical sort.

I also think that this notion of culture is like icing on a cake, lovely icing sometimes, not too sweet, but it is the cake underneath that is the basis of culture. This is why Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus is so apt, i.e., the habitual way a cultural group does things.  This applies to such things as eye contact, e.g., what is respectful between children and adults or younger adults with their elders, physical distance when conversing, e.g., Americans stand a couple of feet way, many Europeans move closer, emotional expression, e.g., boys don’t cry, some Asian societies maintain impassive expressions, how children are disciplined, etc, etc., etc.  Bourdieu did much cultural research into how marriages are arranged and determined to be good for both families in some Arab societies.  Look at how different cultures manage what are acceptable roles for females or the role of fighting between young males or more generally what is respectable or orthodox.

I read in The Encultured Brain, a primer for neuroanthropology, that some less modern cultures regard knowledge of healing practices as secret and that if shared outside the healer-patient relationship, the knowledge becomes useless, i.e., the practice consisting of magical chants will not be effective. Contrast this with western medicine where healing knowledge is publicly disbursed and evaluated so it may be made more effective.

Then I also read there:  “Long term neurological and perceptual adaptation to the tasks we set ourselves is a form of enculturation”.  In a chapter about how equilibrium varies among cultures Greg Downey focuses on his training in capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian form of martial arts, where it seems you spend some time upside down or sideways and must keep you eyes on your opponent, thus you cannot use vision to maintain balance but must train your body to rely on body awareness and vestibular feedback.   Acknowledging that maintaining one’s equilibrium is not really a conscious task, i.e., the more you have to focus on balance, the less you can focus on otherwise, he maintains that equilibrium is a learned skill and that makes it a cultural one (I am not sure about that).  He cites research showing that toddlers just learning to walk use vision more to right themselves; older kids rely more on vestibular sensing; again this seems biological more than cultural.

He also mentions that many Japanese walk using more of a lower leg focus, e.g., knee to foot, while many Westerners organize their gait from their hips and so take longer strides.  I found this interesting for a couple of reasons.  I spent my teenage years in Japan and remember that many used a more shuffling sort of gait, i.e., short steps, coming down less severely on the heel, almost stepping flat-footed but not quite.  This was more prominent with elders and with women and I attributed this to the constraints of their clothing and their wooden sandals that have two vertical strips of wood underneath the flat bed rather than a raised heel, instep, etc. like our shoes do.  (These sandals seemed especially apt on rainy days.)  Any way, another cultural feature is that they never wear shoes in the house, only slippers.

Another reason is that with two joint replacements and a bit of age on me I find walking in the dark more difficult, harder to maintain my balance without visual input.  And our farm here in a high mountain valley has no level or even ground anywhere except garden patches, so I find that a knee to foot gait with shorter steps and less emphasis on heel-toe ala Japanese is quite adaptive to maintaining balance on this terrain.  Now here is my question:  What is the distinction among cultural phenomena, adaptive skills given age, terrain, etc., and training specific abilities to a higher level?

Culture is an amorphous concept with many levels, from the high culture historical identity, the arts, key values, and form of governance down to more basic levels in roles ascribed to females, males, etc., and body language and social mores.  A martial art such as capoeira is certainly cultural, so I guess the subsidiary training for proficiency is also cultural, but I also wonder if skill development should really be termed cultural.  Sure play and sports contribute to culture because they are social forms (mental, behavioral, cognitive) that are shared amongst members of the group. A kid on the playground practicing dribbling with either hand and between the legs or a farmhand working to pick faster with both hands while still handling the fruit carefully do not, to my thinking, share cultural forms as much as they concentrate on one’s individual ability.  True that ability is for cultural practice but that seems to me a social frame or role. Otherwise I think everything we do might be called cultural when I think everything we do is biological and culture should be reserved for the social constructs governing our participation in group interactions, i.e., habitus, or this is how we do things and how you perform some of those things is your own making special your performance.

Complicated issues here and I must say these are my first thoughts upon reading in The Encultured Brain.  One sign of a good book is what thoughts it provokes and I am enjoying reading it.  Think about this a little bit before traveling on.

Partial review: The Encultured Brain

Sometimes quantitative assessments lead to important ideas.  I have been enjoying later chapters in my new book, The Encultured Brain: an introduction to neuroanthropology, edited by Daniel Lende and Greg Downey.  Their early chapters giving synopses of later chapters to introduce the rest of the book seemed more a marketing ploy for yet another new academic discipline (worthy, yes, but do we really need a new term for every time we do cross discipline thinking?)  Their chapter on “Evolution and the Brain” was, however, magnificent, and later chapters by others have so far been very interesting.  So consider this list of findings from their brain evolution chapter.

  • The biomass of humans is 8 times that of all the wild terrestrial vertebrates, i.e., we are successful replicants. (Also I remember von Neumann’s estimate that each human body has about a tablespoonful of genetic material in all its cells that control the soma).
  • The genus Homo appeared around 2,000,000 years ago with a sudden increase in brain volume that then slowly increased until 500,000 years ago when another surge in brain size appeared.
  • Human encephalization (the concentration of nervous tissue in a brain, i.e., head) is 5-7 times what would be predicted based on a mammal of our size.
  • As the neocortex evolved to dominate lower brain structures, specialized cortical fields developed that facilitated complex processing and inter-connectedness throughout the brain. Early mammals have 15-20 cortical fields; humans have maybe 150.
  • Larger areas both evolved later and mature more slowly.
  • Our brains have continued a mammalian and primate trend in lateralizing so much that some scientist refers to us as the “lop-sided ape”. (In addition, remember that males and females have relatively different patterns in our connectome with males showing more connections within hemispheres and females more connections between hemispheres).
  • Birds, fish and reptile brains grow throughout their life spans (neurogenesis or generating new neurons) but mammalian brains finish up neurogenesis relatively early.
  • Our brains triple in volume after birth while other primate brains only double.
  • Finally our post partum brain growth comes despite pervasive neural pruning in the first years of life; the estimates are that the adult brain has only 20-80% (quite a range, I know, but you get the idea) the number of neurons present at the peak early in life. Neurons survive because they become integrated into functional circuits; if they stay isolated, they die off.


All of these are pretty amazing and all support the idea that our brains are shaped, as Gerald Edelman maintained, first by genetic information and then in very large and important ways by experience.


Our connectome with many systems lit

Now Lende and Downey quote two well known neuroscientists (Cosmides and Tooby) that “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind,” and I have no qualms about that because I think a Stone Age mind was actually a pretty good one (some politicians today cannot manage even that level of intelligence).  They also point to the remarkable and wonderful development of our social capabilities and find that we are drawn to social interaction for “intrinsic emotional rewards” and not just self-interest for our genes’ continuation.  And they recognize that the true power of human intellect, while derived from our rather different brains, is really due to the “synergy of many brains.”

Neuroanthropologists, as best I can see with my limited exposure, treat culture as part of our extended phenotype, i.e., culture is not an acquired overlay but is rather an integral component of the human Umvelt.  It is a direct outgrowth of our biological roots of empathy and symbolization (though I do not see anything here about art).  More to say later but I need to get to my farm work. Oh, one more recommendation for this book—the lists of references yield a lot of gems.  Travel on.

Two evolutionary episodes

Michael Tomasello in his book, The Natural History of Human Morality argues with good data that humans are more cooperative and the simians more competitive, so how might we have evolved just so?  Here are two possibilities.  First here’s a story from the NYT on a group of chimpanzees who have moved from the forests to the savannah, from shady, cool environs with lots of fruit to sunny, hot grasslands where food is harder to come by:  Why the move? Perhaps their leaders had a yen for new, less crowded surrounds, sort like Daniel Boone or, as I have posted here periodically, those who settled the Andes or the Himalayas or the Artic. Perhaps they were a small group threatened by a larger and more belligerent group and so sought out safety in a place the others did not want.  The researchers gathered the chimps’ urine, no small undertaking in a hot, dry environment.  Even to get close enough to see them micturate and then collect the samples took 4 years of gentle contact so that the chimps became more comfortable with human presence. This is good, patient research. The urine showed that they were getting enough food but that their lives were stressful enough so that stress hormones were consistently elevated.

Now this is important because elevated stress hormones over the long haul can lead to health problems—the body and mind sort of wear out and grow thin with that load of stress.  Burn out we call it.  A sustainable life style would demand measures taken to lessen the stress, e.g., moving on, or behavioral change to cope with the conditions more effectively.  These chimps have changed their foraging behaviors to do more at night, avoiding the heat, though their species specific pattern is more activity in the daytime.  These chimps take a siesta during the heat of the day.  Of course at night more big predators may be about, so group communication becomes more important, as does having an escape plan. Then I thought about how we cooperative creatures cope with stress through social means, providing emotional support, increased creature contact, sharing the good stuff, etc., and I wondered about the genes promoting such behaviors increasing as the savannah chimps reproduce over the generations.  That is one episodic way we could have become more cooperative creatures.

The second episode comes from a new book I am reading, The Encultured Brain. I will say more about it later but now I want to cite a study of a baboon population reported therein. Baboon society is notably harsh by our standards; social order is based upon coercive and aggressive actions by the alphas.  A longitudinal study of one group, however, showed that after most of the alphas died in a virulent epidemic, the group now led by the non-alphas (betas?) became more peaceful and cooperative:  less fights, more grooming and sharing.  Further, new baboons that joined the group adapted their behaviors to this new ‘habitus’ and these changes have persisted over some years now.  I presume that the alphas were more susceptible to the disease for some reason (the heightened stress of leading by force? Like our type A behavior people die more from heart attacks, etc.) and the betas liked their way of interacting, having developed increased empathy from their lower position and perspective on the social scale.   A stretch there, I know, but a viable hypothesis nonetheless.

I read somewhere that the meek shall inherit the earth, and despite much data contrary to that, when I ponder these studies, I think maybe so.  Maybe so.  Travel on.


A particularly interesting study

The NYT reports a great experiment originally published in Nature Communications:  The researchers started with an entire graduate school class of 279 students who now knew each other fairly well (none of those unstable and immature undergraduates used for this study, thank goodness) and asked them to fill out questionnaires about their social connections within this group.  They then asked them to undergo a further study using brain scans and 42 agreed (just 42? Come on, kiddoes, help us understand—you’re in graduate school for some reason, right?)  The scans were done while the subjects watched videos of relatively mundane events, e.g., an astronaut demonstrating the gelatinous behavior of water in low gravity, a Jewish wedding of gay men, some comedy clips, a music video (described as awful), etc.   They filtered the results for common features of identity, like ethnicity, religion, and family income, and then analyzed them for congruence among brain responses and closeness of social connections.  Brilliant, eh?

The results showed a significant correlation between neural responses to the videos and the how close the subjects were, i.e., the closer the friendship, the greater congruence in neural responses.  The researchers trained a computer program to analyze neural response patterns and predict degree of friendship and this was successful.  Now the researchers say they will use the imaging methodology on an incoming class before they get to know one another and see if they can predict who will develop closer friendships.  This is such a grounded and intelligent a research endeavor; I hope they get good funding during these perilous economic times for science.  (Oh, you didn’t understand that when Americans elect anti-science officials that funding for even basic research is reduced?  Look at the budget priorities of  this administration.)

The NYT article also gives some context.  Friendship is an increasingly important concept for us to understand as researchers study it in a variety of ways.  It protects against illness, stress reactions, bad habits, etc.  Many other animals form and maintain friendships; birds do it, even bats do it by regurgitating blood to feed a sick friend (but not that difficult bat hanging over there).  I have written here in the past that we have long known that the mammalian hippocampus keeps a spatial map to help move around in a reliable fashion and that more recently we have learned that the hippocampus keeps up with autobiographical experiences and time and with social objects, as intimates and familiars are called. Eric Kandel reports that the facial recognition system for primates is very well developed, including a large number visual processing cells dedicated to faces, both identifying and reading. Our relationships can range from familial and intimate through close friend and acquaintance to workplace relations to strangers, and now with our media engagement, many feel identification with people they have never met and can never meet because the personality is a fictional portrayal (Sorry, Outlander fans, Jamie and Clare are only married fictionally; Sam and Catriona each have their own lives, though I wonder how their neural responses to the experimental videos would match up).

The scientists note that the areas of greatest convergence were in the nucleus accumbens, a very old center important for reward, and the superior parietal lobe, a relatively new center important for attentional focus.  So the people with similar interests attend to similar patterns and tend to like each other.  This report does not give any differences in lateralization, nor were personality factors included, but clearly much delightful work can follow from this pioneering study.  Oh, and what about married people, do our patterns at the beginning of a relationship predict any success?  Do our patterns after being together a good while move towards more congruence?  And if people have a personal profile of aesthetic responses, say as measured by Aesthemos, do their neural patterns match? And the list goes on.

The NYT article ends with a quotes that I really like from Alexander Nehamas, a philosopher at Princeton; the short version is: “the aesthetic choices we make [are] an indication of who we are” and we live “immersed in art.”  I have been pondering how Homo sapiens’ penchant for art is critical for our humanity for a good while now; this blog is one general result, the posting on Aesthemos is a specific example.  Recently I have reflected on the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind and how this deep aesthetic is a manifestation of a general principle of biological beings from the fit between proteins that forward organic processes to the pattern finding talents so evident in ourselves.  So it makes very good sense to me that we will find some form of aesthetic governing the formation of friendships once we figure out how to look for this, and of course, more people need to understand that aesthetics, in all of its manifestations, is important enough to appreciate and understand.   Travel on.

Travelogue: Ireland and humanity’s progress

Here is something a little different.  On our recent trip to Ireland I visited two sites important to us all.  The first was the University College Cork (UCC) where George Boole studied and taught mathematics, developing what came to be called Boolean logic or algebra, the mathematical basis for information processing.  Boole was born in England to a mostly unsuccessful shoemaker, who, too poor to send his children for much schooling, taught them at home, but he taught them a great deal like the mathematics for making lenses and telescopes.  George learned many languages on his own, especially those needed to read the classics, e.g., Greek, Latin, French, and German.  He went to work as a teacher at age 14 to help support his family, at one point starting his own school and then taking over another where he was a great success.  In 1841 he invented a branch of mathematics called Invariant Theory that influenced the development of 20thcentury physics.  In 1849 at the age of 34 he became a professor of mathematics at UCC despite having never attended college himself.  He was regarded as a great and thoughtful educator with a human touch and a mathematical genius.  Here is the main quadrangle where he walked to class.


UCC quadrangle

In 1854 George Boole published his most important book, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, where he demonstrated that mathematics could be applied to any orderly structure, data, or information. Bertrand Russell said that Boole’s book was “the work in which pure mathematics was discovered”. His logic used just 3 operators:  and, or, not. Claude Shannon was to develop Boole’s logic into machine language in his 1948 book, The Mathematical Theory of Communication,which set the stage for information theory, computers, etc., etc., etc.

I did not learn about Boole until a few years ago, and talking with acquaintances I find few enough have heard of him. When we planned our trip to include Cork, I knew I had to visit UCC.  He and his wife raised 5 daughters, all of whom achieved in various fields.  Boole himself championed the integration of science and art.  Here we see the self-educated man as one of the best men.  He died in 1864 after catching pneumonia walking to class in the rain where he taught all day in wet clothes and then was treated according to a medical theory of the day by reproducing what had made him ill, i.e., they soaked him down more with cold water.  Oh well.  Here is a lovely river scene bordering the UCC campus where I imagine Boole leisurely poling his punt enjoying a lovely day.


Next we have the manor house of Derrynane, country home of Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), Irish politician and statesman called “The Liberator” for his successful advocacy for the emancipation of Catholics in Ireland and his work for Ireland’s independence, women’s suffrage and to end slavery.


Derrynane House

O’Connell was actually born into lesser circumstances and was fostered out to a shepherd’s family for a few years at an early age.  Here he worked on the farm and spoke Gaelic exclusively.  He later went to school and became a lawyer, though as a Catholic he had limited opportunities to practice.  Eventually he inherited Derrynane House from his uncle who had amassed a sizable estate from smuggling.  O’Connell enlarged it for his family and developed the lovely gardens.  He loved to come here for respite from the political battles in Dublin and London.  He worked for change through peaceful means, especially organizing at the ballot box and not paying land rents to absentee English landlords.  When the English imprisoned him, he directed his many ardent followers to maintain peaceful activities and resist violent means.  His arguments for civil disobedience later inspired Gandhi and then Martin Luther King, Jr.  O’Connell died from a brain tumor shortly after making his last speech to the parliament at Westminster pleading for relief for the starving Irish.

In reading about Irish history over the last several months I have learned that some modern historians have eschewed the term “Irish  famine” for “Irish starvation”, the argument being that there was plenty of food in Ireland to feed the people but the English landlords and business men took it all and sent it to England.  O’Connell gave his last speech in vain and Ireland’s independence and subsequent land reform giving ownership to the Irish farmers would come over 70 years later after much bloodshed.

Derrynane House is a good visit with a movie about the Liberator and incredible gardens and beach walks.  Here are a few pictures before we travel on, remembering two Irishmen who advanced Humanity’s cause considerably, even if they are not widely known today.


Derrynane Gardens


Derrynane Beach

And from this beach you can see the Skellig Islands, home to the reclusive monks around the 8th century.


Skellig Michael is on the right where you-know-who retreated from battling the evil empire.