Theta moments, completion of a composition, & cortical fasciculi

Following up from last post: Ah, theta moments, specifically hippocampal theta moments when the apprehension of something new instigates the mental response composing a new situation. I have written about this several times before. Theta waves manifest during key behaviors, simple ones like the chicken’s head bob (yes, almost everything is new because so little is old) or a rat’s step (yes, safety demands almost constant appraisal and memory for location to gain food or avoid danger) or more complex ones like a cat’s orienting response (of what interest is that and should I bother the cat must ask) or a chimpanzee’s expression of bewilderment when an expected treat does not materialize (now what does this mean and what should I do?). Theta is named for the slower waves which accompany these behaviors and signals that diverse areas are focused on the salient event. As the animal processes incoming information the theta disappears as faster, more irregular waves in diverse areas indicate specific information is being processed to help delineate the contextual situation.


The hippocampus is old, deeply embedded cortex. Cortical input flows into the thicker end and the output from the narrower part.

The important thing here is that the hippocampus receives highly processed perceptual information (forms, movement, id of conspecifics, predators, etc. are more automatically recognized) that it processes and then sends the results on upward to the frontal areas engaged in planning and implementing actions and downward as it contributes to the emotional processing carried on by the limbic system. As I have noted before, the hippocampus is way cool. Consider, then, that a theta moment is when the animal formulates a new situational gestalt, a governing form or proto-narrative structure developed from ambient information as discussed in my last post, and then other processes fill in the details, i.e., they finish the composition with perceptual analyses and emotional streams. Of course, these theta moments are actually completed when the animal initiates its next action, e.g., fight or flight, eating, exploration, retreat, or social behaviors.

We humans have a strong network of cortical fasciculi or fiber connections between and among perceptual areas and frontal action areas. These fibers connect the same areas which contribute to hippocampal input and receive its output to initiate the plans and structure of behaviors but they bypass the hippocampus and its situational construct of the immediate ambient and the pressure to act accordingly as well as with the emotional dynamics governing the animal’s responses. By doing so, bypassing this involvement through lower channels, these cortical fasciculi would seem to permit the processing of information apart or displaced from ambient and emotional conditions. What happens to our theta moments there?


Hippocampal theta, remember, first marks something as new or salient and then holds that as a gestalt for the brain to fill in needed information. In this some information, even as it is noticed as new, is held as invariant or as old, so that it can operate as an anchor for further processing of variant information. With the systems connected by the cortical fasciculi, old and new are not contingent upon perceptual notice but upon, at least for us, the gestalts and composition of symbolic information, e.g., the syntax for a linguistic utterance, the intuitive form for aesthetic pieces. So theta moments may be relegated to eurekas, epiphanies, ‘sudden’ insights, realizations, or coming to your senses, etc., the function of generating an invariant form as an anchor for further composition may now continue independently of hippocampal circuits.

I do not want to go into the sleepy land of complicated thinking here about propositional forms based upon the invariance of the verb case frames or how the arcuate fasciculus of the dorsal loop

arcuate fasciculus

helps to maintain the invariant relationship between phonemes and articulatory movements (see recent post on dual loop model) or the invariance of memes as cultural constructs or the invariant memories held in place by guilt or joy, etc. I do want to say that artistic inspiration, that theta moment, major or minor of ‘aha’ or ‘ummm’, when the artist intuits the commanding form and begins to add newly variant elements to compose his or her artistic piece, is one of the most important moments in terran biology and that when we evolved to do this, the universe, well, as it were, sort of, changed for the better. Life began to create new out of the old on its own intentionally without relying on the universal flux of the environment that is slowly, entropically degrading to ‘om’ and that creation was based upon our feelings of fitness, aesthetics, or our sense of beauty.

Now last post I said that Daniel Stern’s understanding of the ‘proto-narrative envelope’ [commanding form) and vitality affects [vital feelings abstracted from experience] from his studies of infants was important. Consider that state of an infant known as the quiet alert state that occurs after feeding. Then the child is most available for social interaction, most readily engaged in rhythmic social exchange and in playful affect modulation. Then the parent helps the child develop the capability for positive affect through engagement. And then it seems to me, the infant sees its whole life as a theta moment as he or she begins to accrue the schemas needed to interpret experience and live a human life. Artistic inspiration and effort has often been compared to these child-like energies and for good reasons. We can see this clearly in the quiet alert state now open for reflection, inspiration and beginning a composition. Artistic creation is clearly related to such youthful joy and we sense this in many artistically talented people (though perhaps cloudily in the tormented geniuses of historical stature). And this has biological roots. I will travel on now to work simply in the garden.

More about musical import

Remembering that Susanne Langer called the symbolic information conveyed by art “import” in the effort to differentiate it from linguistic “meaning,” I read with great curiosity a chapter in Origins of Music, which I am close to finishing. In his chapter, “The Question of Innate Competencies in Musical Communication,” Michel Imberty uses language and conceptualizations strikingly similar to Langer’s in Feeling and Form, though he appears not to be familiar with her work. Consider his statements that he defines the macrostructure of music as a “schema of time,” or that music and dance “are ways of feeling—of being with—before being emotions” or identifying the artistic impulse as “something that weaves itself and makes meaning in time.”

Now compare these to Langer’s conceptualizations that I have written about here over the past several weeks in my Re-Reading 4.0 series.

-the primary illusion of music is the sonorous image of passage

-musical duration is the image of what may be termed “lived” or “experienced” time

-the semblance of this vital experiential time is the primary illusion of music

-the most important and novel revelation of music—the fact that time is not a pure succession, but has more than one dimension  [my favorite]

-the commanding form is not essentially restrictive, but fecund

-the great moment of creation is the recognition of the matrix [commanding form].

I could go on and on with these but better for you to read Feeling and Form, especially chapter 7.

Imberty based some of his analysis on work by Michael Stern, a well known researcher of infant/child development, especially two concepts. One is the “vitality affect” which are feelings before they coalesce around recognizable and conventional emotions, feelings more concerned with dynamic properties such as tension, resolution, building, diminishing, etc. These are the very feelings upon which Langer built her philosophy of art. That Stern discerned these in infants is important—more later. The other one is the “proto-narrative envelope” that “constructs the narrative of time, clarifies the reality of human becoming.” It is the matrix that “makes something weave itself and assume meaning in time.” And this too is important for Stern to have discerned in infant development.


So we have here a view of musical composition that begins with an intuitive gestalt (commanding form or protonarrative envelope) formed or abstracted from one life’s experiential passage and then completed with elements (vitality affects or symbolically rendered elements of sound representing those affects) also therefrom.  Listening and appreciation of this artistry would involve recovering some of the form and elements, though not through some inverse process because lives are disparate and complex. Both the composition and recovery is the beauty of symbolic processing whereby minds share information about their experiences.

And the importance of infant development here? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, “Theta moments, the completion of compositions, and cortical fasciculi” coming soon to this blog.  You can’t get there if you don’t travel on.

Rereading 4.3: Leaving Langer for Woolf to wonder about

The biological basis of genius.

I believe Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” While some of us may think that the truth value of this soundbite is limited, its memic power lasts because bringing an idea to fruition does require due diligence. In her discussion of art Langer presents the idea of the ‘commanding form’, the gestalt that comes into the artist’s mind that can then be expressed fully according to the artist’s talents. Picasso worked rapidly to paint out his ideas as he carried forth traditions, initiated new forms and then tried out different expressions of those new forms. From this we could think that genius requires both the visionary seeds and talented expression, including the assiduous effort to stay true to some intuitive commanding form, and I think we would be right. Actually this also applies to scientific endeavors; consider Einstein’s daydreams, Archimedes ‘eureka,’ Pythagoras vision of geometric relations and the musical scales, or Newton’s apple (oh sure, just another memic fantasy that one).

I recently re-read Virginia Woolf’s remarkable novel about artistic being, the complexity of human thought and relationships, and the passage of time, To the Lighthouse. Consider this passage thought out by Lily Briscoe, by all accounts, even her own, an amateur albeit thoughtful artist of small gifts.

“Where to begin?—that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea that seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still the risk must be run; the mark made.”

Much in this novel, as in most of Woolf’s mature writings, presents us with her understanding of the compositional process ongoing in the human mind and personality and how art is a parallel process with special purpose. Risk? Of course courage in pursuit of the full expression of the commanding form, be it artistic, scientific, or invention, is required if only for power it brings to one’s focused effort. And genius also seems to include the ability to live mentally in some self created virtual domain; indeed, I suspect much of the gratification and survival value of artistic effort is in just this moment of abstraction from life experience. One more passage from Woolf:

Before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness, when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt.

So it would seem that artistic genius at its base helps each one of us to experience such a moment when our unborn soul stands in solitude before becoming embodied and life’s reality resumes its prominent passage even as we are changed by the artistic experience. Ah, but travel on.


Virginia Woolf


Next up: Naomi Oreskes on seeing the difference between a charlatan and a visionary.