When 1 +1 = 3

Actually I am just playing around here; I do not think the above equation is ever correct, but I am exercising my brain by pretending so. Though, now that I think more about it, sometimes we do take one idea and combine it with another and so develop a third that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Let’s try it and see.

Georg Streidter in his text Principles of Brain Evolutionwrites that, though the idea is too general to offer much guidance for research, it is true the larger the brain, the more capable the species is in adapting to other niches, and that the larger the brain, the more the species engages in play. General yes, but also intriguing. Playful behavior speaks to a flexibility of behavior and indicates that the animal has greater degrees of freedom in developing actions that exploit opportunities and ameliorate exigencies, and that helps in adapting to the changing contingencies of the world. Plus, Jaak Panksepp in his book, Affective Neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions, writes that rough and tumble play, e.g., mixing it up with conspecifics in various ways, promotes joyful feeling.

So we have the ideas that a larger brain relative to body size increases behavioral degrees of freedom, enables greater adaptation in the face of environmental challenges, and leads to greater play and that helps to generate joyful interactions with conspecifics.  Now consider my idea about our lateralization, i.e., that the right hemisphere generally focuses on the current situation, especially the activity in the social domain, and the left hemisphere generally focuses on information displaced in time and space, especially information controlled through linguistic symbols.  One observation neuroscientists have made is that, again generally, the emotional valence of right sided processes is somber, maybe sad but at least seriously practical, while the emotional valence of left sided processes seems lighter, even happy.  I think this might be because right sided considerations concern the current activity where the situation is delimited and possible actions are proscribed, i.e., behavioral degrees of freedom are fewer because of the practicalities involved. Left sided considerations, concerned with some abstracted and symbolically constructed situation, involves many more degrees of freedom because the situation is fluid and possible actions open to creative solutions.

Going a bit further, this difference seems to reflect the distinction between serious, practical engagement, e.g., work, and light-hearted speculative engagement, e.g., play.  Now consider the famous masks of drama, tragedy and comedy, and how the plays end.

theatre-masks-happytheater-masks-silhouette---free-clip-art-19tqgcvz

A tragedy usually involves a final action with little possibility for further development; the play ends with virtually no behavioral degrees of freedom for the characters.  A comedy is the opposite; the characters leave the field of play, i.e., stage, to live happily ever after—the future is wide open with many degrees of behavioral freedom.  Classical dramas followed this convention fairly closely.  When we approach modern times, drama begins to reflect the curious muddle of our lives today.  Just how does Waiting for Godot end for these characters of limited repertoire?

One more idea seems relevant here, at least to me.  I am reading The Embodied Mind: Cognitive science and human experienceby Francisco Varela, Evan Thonpson, and Eleanor Rosch, a fascinating book in which they seek to bridge the quite recent positivistic efforts of cognitive scientists and the understanding of human subjective experience as understood by long-standing Buddhist traditions (a slow, deep read for many reasons).  Deep into their analysis they assert that analysis of the visual and other neural systems shows that the bottom up flow of information, e.g., from the retina through the lateral geniculate nuclei to the visual cortex, which we think is decisive in determining our perceptions is actually exceeded by the top down flow of information from higher neural centers.  These processes from above contribute to determining perceptual forms, figure-ground, attention and focus, and more we have yet to understand.

Let me imagine just a bit further that the bigger the brain, the more top down processing flow there is (because that is where the enlargement is) and that is what helps to develop greater degrees of freedom, increase adaptive flexibility and empower playful action.  Now consider the idea I have promoted here about how to define sentience and consciousness.  The general orthodox definitions show that the terms are conflated, i.e., used as synonyms, but for a variety of reasons I have given before (e.g. see post on 4/21/16, or 11/30/17), I think they are better distinguished as follows.  Sentience grows as the basic function of an organism in apprehending its ambient; this is based upon perceptual organs and is what Susanne Langer called impactive activity, i.e., neural action engendered by energies and material impacting on the soma from without.  Neurologically this is what Varela and colleagues call the bottom up processes.  In my heterodoxical view consciousness is autogenic (Langer’s word for the autonomous and independent activity of the brain); it is the top down processes cited by Verala et. al.  Consciousness is what we bring to sentient processing that is not engendered by the current perceptual processes but by our own shaping of our sentient domain and even more for humans by the displaced information remembered, imagined, and controlled through symbolic processes.

So our bigger brains have allowed us to bring more to the current social situation, what I have characterized as heightened empathy leading to deeper intimacy, and more to our interaction with the world at large through our symbolic control of information that we apply to our experiences of the world around us and ourselves.  Take a couple of ideas, add them together, and get something more, eh?  Time to travel on, playfully.

The brain as jello (with fruit)

In my effort to find non-machine metaphors for the brain, I remembered a presentation some years back by a neurologist who described the brain as jello with fruit in it. His purpose (and all metaphors have purpose—see Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson) was to illustrate how trauma damaged specific parts of the brain. It does have the consistency of jello and the fruit in it, say grapes, represents neural centers, concentrations of grey matter, i.e., nuclei of nerve cell bodies, such as the amygdala or substantia nigra. If you jerk and shake the bowl, you can see that the grapes jostle more, being denser and heavier, and thus, if they were neuronal nuclei, would be at risk of tearing apart from their axonal and dendritic connections. A notable example of this would be a boxer, say Muhammad Ali, who endured many punches to the head. The damage arose in just this manner, as different nuclei were repeatedly jarred and torn from their place in the connectome. The old phrase is “punch drunk” because of the slow, slurred motor patterns due to this trauma to lower motor centers in the brain.

So there you go, another metaphor. Now I want to go back to my metaphor of late June, the brain as river delta. I have always revered estuaries; they are places of great fertility, seemingly so messy as to be chaotic, a lovely ecology engendered by the meeting of fresh and salt waters. Deltas are estuaries that have evolved and grown over time due to the strength of the inland flow. Here is a false color image of the Mississippi.

Mississippi_Delta_IR

This image conjures for me, among many other thoughts, the evolution of the brain. Different islands, i.e., cell nuclei, arise from the deposition of detritus carried down the river while the water, i.e., connectome flow, continues through various channels until it slows and merges with the ocean. The size and shape of deltas depend upon many factors but especially the river that meets the ocean. Here is an image of the Nile delta.

Nile_River_and_delta_from_orbit

Deltas, like brains, develop embryologically and then accrue experience with changing structures. Deltas, like brains, evolve over geologic time, as land forms change and shift, creating and modifying watersheds. Consider just these brains, the shark and human brains with the rat and cat brains as intermediaries, to see this thought illustrated over the course of evolution.

Vertebrate-brain-regions_smallratbrain

cat

cat brain

Unlike deltas, brains have evolved through the process of natural selection in the genetic domain. The hominid brain derives from a watershed of genetic flow through the life forms of our ancestors that has changed and enlarged, thereby improving our viability and contributing further to our particular current in the genetic pool. Our brains, unlike computer circuits (as useful as that metaphor is), are more delta-like in their disorderliness. The fertility of our minds is more estuarine than machine.  (I will address those whose brains are more jello like (& no fruit) later if and when I consider our cultural idiots, e.g., current flag ‘controversy’?).

Before traveling on, dive into the metaphor a little deeper.  Remember these lyrics from David Byrne and the Talking Heads?

Take me to the river

Throw me in the water

And how about these from Toni Childs?

Where’s the ocean?

Where’s the moments I once knew inside my heart?

Where’s the ocean for us, where’s the ocean for me?

.        .        .        .        .

The ocean’s here, the ocean’s here.

And now travel on, if you will, to meet with us, as Van the Man sings, into the mystic. And again I remind myself that my purpose is to understand the biological roots of our humanity, all of it, especially art and imagination.

Many ancestors and they were busy

Several stories from recent Science News issues paint a picture of human ancestors 2.8 million years ago shaping stone tools as their brains grew in size, and then around 40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens crowded out Neanderthals with the help of dogs (says one author).  The 3/21/15 issues has a story about finding a human gene that promotes larger brains which wrinkle it up to squeeze it all in.  A chimpanzee has a similar gene but it does not promote as much growth.  They found this out by injecting the genes into mouse embryos (remember the movie, Secret of NIMH?).  Further research on our variant indicates that it appeared in our lineage about 5 million years ago around when our stock split off from the chimpanzees.  One researcher points out our brains did not really begin to increase in size until 2 million years ago so this gene was not fully functional, maybe, for 3 million years.

skulls of different hominds

skulls of different hominds

Two articles in the 4/4/15 issue speak to the 3 million year mark.  One is about the controversy on how to classify a newly found fossil from 2.8 million years ago.  Is it part of Homo, which was just emerging from the gene pool, or an ancestor like the Lucy fossil, Australopithecus afarensis, or some transitional species in between?  In that same issue is a story about research into tools, presumably from some hominid line.  Though stone tool industry increased noticeably in the archeological record around 40,000 years ago, some shaped stone tools have been dated back to 2.6 million years ago.  Wow, I had not realized tool making was that old an art.  The story tells of the controversy between those who classify the tools by time/location and those who say that is not very informative and instead classify by the techniques used to form the tool.  Several of this latter group are expert stone ‘knappers’ themselves and that seems a good study.

Tool use in modern humans is supported by the left parietal lobe, the center for praxis.  If I remember my brain evolution correctly, our brain’s early enlargement came in the parietal lobe and then the temporal lobe, then later on frontal areas expanded.

parietal in yellow, temporal in green

parietal in yellow, temporal in green

Where these two lobes meet is where language abstraction is centered in Wernicke’s area.  So we have a gene which promotes brain growth in the embryo beginning to come on strong around 3 million years ago and shortly thereafter tool making appears.  We do not know how such creatures organized socially nor how they communicated.  We can be sure that empathic connectedness had emerged and that tool making techniques continued to develop over this time suggests cultural transmission and change.  Quite a history a long ways back.

Also in the 4/4/15 issue is a review of a book by anthropologist Pat Shipman who traces the domestication of dogs to 40,000 years ago when Homo sapiens left Africa and migrated into Europe.  Shipman finds linkages between modern humans and dogs and the eventual disappearance of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and large mammals like mammoths and cave bears.  Thus, the “Fido hypothesis” offers some explanation as to Homo sapiens ascendance during that time.  Oh, and other articles in those two issues speak about dogs’ abilities to read our emotions.  Yes, early humans traveled far and wide and met many friends along the way.  Travel on.

cooking and civilization

I have long said that civilization began at the hearth.  Watching Anthony Bourdain’s recent episode of Parts Unknown about Lyon, France, I remembered some other thoughts.  Over the past 10 years some evolutionary thinkers have proposed that human brain size is related to the discovery of fire and cooking.  Our brains relative to our body size are significantly larger than our relatives and they consume 20% of our energy.  (Remember that, dieters, think more and you will burn more calories).  A primatologist, Richard Wrangham, proposed that our brains grew in association with our ability to extract calories from food, and that is done by cooking it.  The site LiveScience.com reported studies on diet, energy extraction, and energy needs to our evolving brains that concluded that cooking and eating meat were critical to that growth.  So while salads are beautiful, delicious, and light, they were not a major force in our evolution.

Image

These studies suggested that cooking and eating meat were important over the past million years of so of our evolution.  No doubt that the control of fire was integral to our development and there is some paleoarcheological support for its beginning long ago.  My old anthropology professor told of a South American tribe, the Bororo, that threw meat on sunny rocks for a few days because “putrefaction is nature’s way of cooking,” so that once the bacteria have finished their job, the meat protein is more readily available.  Cooking certainly seems preferable and our taste organs, tongue and nose, have evolved a preference for umami, a savory flavor from cooking distinct from salty, sweet, bitter, and sour.

Image

So from the humble beginnings around the communal fire, culture and civilization developed to include not just nutritious family meals but cuisine, food prepared with an aesthetic feel for special flavors and presentation.  Bourdain’s show about the cuisine from Lyon shows a marvelous appreciation for this cuisine, its culture, and its creators such as chef Paul Bocuse.  A very special show.

Civilization began at the hearth.  I also have said it will die in committee, and looking at the debilitated state of American political discourse, I see no reason to change that,  But I also have to add that processed food would also seem to be a sign not of technological progress but of devolution.  Bon appetite.