Cortical chauvinism

Long ago in my previous life as a fifth grade teacher right after college, I read a good many classics in early neuroscience and linguistics, books by A. R. Luria, L.S. Vygotsky, Karl Pribram, Noam Chomsky, Eric Lenneberg, etc.  And reading and talking to some others I thougt then that much of our thinking was distorted by cortical chauvinism, i.e., we thought that our cortex does everything important and lower neural structures were beneath us humans.  I understood two reasons for this narrow-minded view.  First, and most understandable, were the technological challenges of studying and understanding subcortical structures.  The cortex was more available through EEG and experimental studies of higher functions especially when combined with clinical studies following strokes, e.g. aphasias, etc., and trauma, e.g., Phineas Gage.  Subcortical structures were and are much more difficult to access unless we use other animals for our studies, and this brings up the second reason for cortical chauvinism.  Even back in the 1960s we thought that our minds were oh so special and that this was due to our remarkable cerebral cortex, which led to the assumption that we could learn little of the human mind by studying other animals and lower neural structures.

Thankfully these days have seen many of those myths about our specialness revealed as ignorance and we have developed quite powerful techniques for studying the entire brain. This includes the brains of our own species but also now we can study the brains of other animals and understand more about our own. Shining examples of our progress here include the work of Jaak Panksepp (of course), Frans der Waal (of course), and many others, e.g., Antonio Damasio, Michael Tomasello, Jean Decety, and many, many more.  (Damasio points out the case of Phineas Gage who suffered subcortical brain injury (also involving a little cortex) who recovered virtually all of his cortically based intellectual functions yet was extremely disabled because he could not focus or make anydecision—see post 12/9/18).

A couple of ancillary developments have furthered our better understanding.  Back in the days of cortical chauvinism, many thought that our intellect was powerfully rational, even logical. Scientists like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have showed how hollow that claim to a powerful rationality is, and many, like Jonathan Haidt and Antonio Damasio have shown we mostly form our opinions and then devise a rationale for them, e.g., Haidt’s description of our minds’ functioning as an intuitive dog wagging a rational tail. In Moral Tribes Joshua Greene shows how our moral principles are also thinly constructed and compares our rationalizing our moral stance to a stroke patient’s confabulatory renderings trying to explain their strange reality.

Another development would seem to leave behind the old notion of our higher cortical centers controlling the lower emotional centers in favor of understanding the remarkable interplay in 3 dimensions:  up and down between horizontally organized neural structures, e.g., cortical hemispheres, limbic system, basal ganglia, etc.; back and forth between anterior (descending) and posterior (ascending) systems at various levels; and within this back and forth interplay between processing organized into dorsomedial and ventrolateral systems.  (This last will need further explication below).  Notice I did not mention coordination between left and right hemispheres; while our conception of this has also evolved I want to address this in a later post because my ideas here are well outside the boundaries of orthodox thinking.

Consider the connectome (see posts 1/10/15 & 8/2/16) not just as it appears cortically but in the whole of the brain.  I read one of the grand visions of this in Edelman and Tononi’s book as they explained re-entrant processing (see post 7/7/16).  As different systems interact up and down, back and forth, medially and laterally (and I suppose left and right), the input from one is recalibrated through further processing and returned to its source (a very relative term here) to enhance or diminish the neural patterns and forms currently in process. Yes, the cortex does inhibit subcortical centers but this inhibition can result in diminishing a pattern, e.g., anger modulation, or in enhancing a form, e.g., sharpening the figure out of the ground or permitting a positive emotion to grow stronger.  We now know that GABA, a widespread inhibitory neurotransmitter, plays such a complex role, even as its counterpart, glutamate operates as a ubiquitious excitatory neurotransmitter.  Ponder the connectome from this perspective for a short moment and you will understand why I think an estuary is a very apt metaphor for our brain.

Finally, back to the dorsomedial/ventrolateral organization. Lateral is along the sides of the brain or the outer surface and medial is inside more down the midline.  Several research lines have coalesced into the dual loop theory, as it is sometimes called (please revisit post from 2/11/16). Now Joshua Greene in his book, Moral Tribes, proposes a dual process model for our moral decision making. Simply put, simple decisions involving oneself and one’s own tribe can be done quickly and routinely through a station in the medial system, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, while more difficult decisions are better resolved through a slower, more reflective process involving a station in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.  These more difficult decisions typically involve us vs. them, i.e., a conflict between the values of two different tribes.

The lateral loop operates more reflectively because, as the great Antonio Damasio puts it, it operates with ‘as-if’ situations that involve less immediate personal involvement.  I intentionally used the word ‘stations’ for both the ventrolateral prefrontal and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortical areas to signify their many connections up/down, back/front, and medial/lateral. They are interconnected with posterior cortical areas via long nerve tracts, i.e., fasciculi, and with the limbic system through a variety of connections and loops.  Remember Tversky and Kahneman’s idea that we think fast by using heuristics and slowly by reflective analysis.  Following Greene, I wonder if heuristics are likely more associated with the dorsomedial system while reflective considerations more with the ventrolateral.  Our brains operate importantly upon two dimensions; one is old/new through the hippocampal system and the other is variant/invariant through several different systems.  Their heuristics, Bourdieu’s habitus, vocabulary of meaning-sound mappings, and others are more invariant and will be found to be supported by the dorsomedial loop. Novel analyses, modulating habitual and skilled cultural actions, and the subtleties underlying individual performance, e.g., playing a sonata with passion, are supported by the ventrolateral loop.  Both loops involve back and forth and up and down integrations.

Viewing the connnectome through the prisms of these three neural dimensions, up/down systems, back/front systems and dorsalmedial/ventrolateral systems shows how incredible brain functions must be to engage in the old/new and variant/invariant features of human cultural behaviors.  Yes, our cortex is really magnificent but let’s not be chauvinistic here:  that magnificence depends upon the connections with subcortical and autonomic systems.  To purloin Daniel Dennett’s critique of consciousness as a Cartesian theatre, nothing cortical could play without the subcortical stage, props, lighting, etc.  Indeed the cortex alone would not foster much of any significant activity without that stage.  Without the whole embodied system a mind would be sleeping emptily.  The estuarine brain really is a sort of muddy mix of salt and fresh water enlivened by a phantasmagoria of vital activity, and that is what makes it and conscious animals (& there are so many more even without a cortex similar to ours) so special.

Remembering what I will not forget

In my former life as a speech-language pathologist working in an early intervention/prevention project focused on the mental health of preschoolers, I enjoyed giving parent/teacher talks on language development, communication difficulties, how to recognize when help is needed and how to promote healthy development.  Lovely work, eh?  In many of these talks I presented a brief glimpse into the complexity of development that started something like this:  After fertilization, the egg begins to divide and multiply. When there are roughly 50-100 cells, one cell appears that becomes the mother of all neurons.  Slowly this cell line multiplies to form a neural tube and from within that tube more cells would be born that would then travel to the outer edges and form the brain. 10,000,000,000 cells would arise and find their place in this way in just a few months, so a few traffic jams and mis-directions might be expected along with some individual variability.  Wow!  I would also talk about some of the maturational/developmental differences between boys and girls and then get into the specifics of language development.

Now I am finishing up Georg Striedter’s text, Principles of Brain Evolution, and understand that my earlier rendition of complexity was more a 2 page Reader’s Digest version of the Encyclopedia Britannica (anyone else remember those?)  The task neuroanatomists take on is enormously complex and even knowing a little bit for sure requires diligent, rigorous, and assiduous study.  Understanding how brains increase in size and connectivity and then how brain functions change and increase in power is a humbling endeavor, one that I am glad those with such talents work on and one that I find spiritual in Monod’s sense of spirit (see post on 3/25/17).  So let me add some to my story above.

Those 1010 cells find their way along a variety of chemical trails and gradients and then when they arrive they send out dendrites and axons to connect with other cells and this connectivity is also developed through a variety of biochemical trails, and then synapses are formed and coordinated so that integrated intercellular communication can begin.  Striedter cites estimates that each mammalian neuron connects with around 500 other neurons through 8000 synapses.  Let’s see:  1010 x 500 x 8000 = a lot.  Also, remember that neurogenesis, that early embryonic stage when virtually all of our neurons appear, produces many cells that disappear in the first years after birth through apoptosis, i.e., cells die because they are not in the right place or connected in viable networks.  Streidter says that brain areas vary in how many cells are lost and cites evidence that different systems have 20% to 80% fewer neurons at maturity than at birth.  Finally, remember that neurons communicate with over 50 neurotransmitters that form the substrates of different systems processing information in their various ways, e.g., inhibitory, excitatory, etc.


Our connectome: If you get dizzy reflecting on the complexity of embryogenesis and subsequent functional development given the numbers cited here, please sit down and breathe slowly.

The individual brains of any one species are remarkably similar in terms of neuronal systems, etc.  The genetic controls and epigenetic forces are quite rigorous in their replication of each organism.  I especially like the story of C. elegans, a roundworm whose nervous system comprises 302 neurons that connect in very consistent ways.  Thank you, diligent researchers for finding that out through marvelously detailed work.

So I learn again and remember what I will not forget, that understanding enough to know what we do not know is the prime intellectual task, and good scholars and mystics look at our ignorance with excitement.  Travel on.

Book review: Inferior

I liked this book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini; it is not, perhaps, the most sophisticated or conceptual review of sexual differences focused on the brain but she exercises due diligence in seeking out the scientists who are studying the matter and writes well about the historical development of the field. Her self-set goal is to explore the scientific basis first for saying male and female brains are different and second that one (yes, you know it is the female one) is inferior in some respect, thus the title of the book.

Some time ago around a dinner table with a diverse group of people discussing the art and artefacts we had seen on our tour of southern France, I made what I thought was a pretty non-controversial subject, that male and female brains are different. Whoa, several young ladies who were undergraduates objected, I think, on social justice grounds. I have no problem with that, but I do think our brains are different. The difficulty, which Ms. Saini documents very well, is that the cultural biases about and against females is very strong. Orthodoxy is not just conservative but its biases are also insidiously pervasive, so that even our basic conceptualization can be distorted. I would add that we have this rather stupid proclivity for quantifying and comparing, thus saying something is more or less than another thing, when there is not a valid basis for doing so. We talk about not comparing oranges and apples and then do just that all the time. It’s ugly, really.

So I think male and female brains are different, an apple and oranges sort of thing. Ms. Saini actually cites one clear difference but does not make enough of it. When comparing male and female IQs there is little difference manifest at the top of the scale; men and women are both very intelligent and talented. The difference comes at the bottom of the scale where more males have lower IQs and this is because of increased developmental disabilities. That is a key difference because it reflects the heightened vulnerability of male brains especially as our brains are shaped early on by higher testosterone levels. This I learned from Norman Geschwind long ago and that result has held up.

Now Ms. Saini cites Dr. Geschwind also reaching a rather stupid conclusion (or at least trying out a stupid hypothesis) from this data when he argued that because testosterone slows the cortical maturation of the left hemisphere in particular, males would have a stronger right hemisphere. No, males have a weaker left hemisphere and many of their developmental disabilities are language based. Correlated with this, remember that a higher percentage of males are left-handed than females; this is not a sign of stronger right sided functions but of compensatory adjustment for that left sided delay. So at my dinner conversation a few years back I was talking mainly about the hormonal influence on brain maturation that results in a statistically significant level of cortical disorganization more in males than females; the increased incidence of learning difficulties in males is a reflection of this.

Ms. Saini also reports another finding that fits with this line of thinking. Research into the connectome using ever increasingly sophisticated technology shows a small male-female difference in connectedness. Males show slightly greater connectedness within each hemisphere and less between hemispheres while females show more connectedness between hemispheres. I think this manifests in a couple of ways but this is only my thinking; to be frank our ignorance of brain functioning makes any statement a tenuous hypothesis. Nonetheless, my understanding is that the right hemisphere is dominant for processing information derived from the current moment, especially for the kinesic communication and empathic functions supporting social skills (Theory of Mind stuff or as I prefer, Empathy Central), while the left is dominant for displaced, verbally abstracted information (both sides do both so please remember that dominance is quite relative and also quite variable in the population both male and female). Females from a very young age show more engagement in social interactions of various sorts, and I think they are more engaged because their brains function in a more integrated manner between immediate Empathy Central and displaced abstractions. Along with this consider that females are more resilient in recovering from brain trauma, e.g., areas in the other non-damaged hemisphere are better able to compensate for the loss because of the inter-hemispheric connections.

Anyway, I think male-female brains are different in some significant but subtle ways. Much of what the scientists told Ms. Saini reflects this, i.e., any differences are mostly hidden by the great variability among individuals of both sexes, variability increased by the plasticity of the brain over a life-span. The signal of significant differences is difficult to separate from the background noise due to traditionally very low statistical power, a criticism made powerfully by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. What Ms. Saini reports on very well is how society and scientists have misused these results to confirm biases against women, e.g., that they are less intellectual, less talented, less sexual, less whatever. She documents how popular science writing often misrepresents what a study actually finds, blowing it up to hype the drama. She also documents how these misconceptions and misrepresentations underlay horrendous practices such as female genital mutilation. I had no idea of its prevalence, wow.

Inferior is a good read. I had an early quibble when Ms. Saini says that studying human infants is difficult, almost “like working with animals.” Oops! Then a few days later I saw an article by David Premack, a preeminent pioneer of simian research, entitled, “Human and Animal Cognition: Continuity and Discontinuity”. As I was saying, some categorical errors are embedded in the habitus in an insidious pervasive manner. So while still a quibble, it seems a small one indeed.

I realized at the very end why I liked this book. Ms. Saini is following, probably without knowing it, Monod’s prescription for an ethic of knowledge leading to a knowledge of ethics. To quote her last sentences, “The facts are what will empower us to transform society for the better, into one that treats us [females] as equals. Not just because this makes us civilized but because as the evidence already shows, this makes us human”. Well said.

I despair for my country. I think America last election jumped into the toilet and pushed the lever down and that shows, I think, our culture’s intellectual integrity is cracked, perhaps fatally, but time will tell whether my pessimism is justified. I am encouraged about my species, however, as we begin somehow to treat females with equality and respect. Thus, from the past women’s suffrage and the right to own property  and not to be property and now, Malala Yousafzai’s efforts for female education, recognition of women who contributed mightily to major scientific efforts without adequate credit before now, even Saudi women driving cars (please see movie Wadja) and most recently, the light of day shining so strongly on male sexual harassment and assault showing that it is unacceptable, give me some hope. Maybe someday soon women will be paid equally for equal work and all cultures will value female babies enough not to kill them and refuse to treat girls and women as chattel even lower than cattle. Ms. Saini’s book helps us along this path and I am happy there to travel on.

culture and the connectome

I have finished, sort of, Pierre Bourdieu’s A Theory of Practice. I say ‘sort of’ because towards the end his prose became quite ridiculous and somewhat redundant so I skimmed. My wife is fond of quoting W. C. Fields, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Truth be told, Bourdieu does both in this book. Also, to be clear, I do not think he had any real notion of seeing his work in the light of biological science, but I sure do.

First, consider his idea of the culture as the habitus, i.e., an acquired set of predispositions that guides our actions in new situations according to socially developed and learned ways of responding. These predispositions would cover quite a variety of activities, from body language and emotional expressiveness to methods of farming and cooking to ritualized social actions like marriages and hospitality to sex and gender roles, to, well, the list goes on quite a while. Bourdieu studied and found great differences between traditional agrarian societies and modern ones as well as among those dominated by industrial capitalism and ones more conscious of social equality. The habitus changes as each generation encounters new kinds of experiences, and the rate of cultural change seems to have accelerated over the past 120 years for obvious reasons.


Our connectome with many systems lit

Remember the connectome, that patterning of neural connections and firings responsible for virtually everything we do and are, like when a young lady dies in icy waters and is resuscitated several hours later and then over time recovers her pre-morbid functioning, i.e., her identity, her habitus and her professional abilities (see post 1/10/15 ‘Death and the connectome’: She had acquired her cultural predispositions mostly early in life; they were maintained in some sort of invariant form and then implemented flexibly and this was carried out through the connectome over her life span before and after dying. Our language and its pragmatic use, our personality and its acculturated form, and our habitual ways of engaging in important social activities are manifestly inherent in our biology.

Next, consider another idea from Bourdieu, the doxa, and this is a mite subtle, so please bear with me. The doxa, in Bourdieu’s view, is the realm of discourse. It has two contributing components, one the natural reality of the world and the other our social, i.e., cultural, conceptions. In the doxa in its plain, simple, and incipient state, these two components are identical, or close to it, but this is based upon a shared illusion, a lie as it were, because our cultural conceptions are arbitrary constructions. They could be, and indeed are, composed any number of ways, while natural reality is simply that, real and without versions (or such is the orthodox view but don’t get me started). With the doxa we pretend that our concepts are identical with reality; that is the source of their truth and validity, but that is a lie we share, e.g., it goes without saying people are free and god grants them their freedom. In natural fact people are quite constrained and god contributes nothing except what we create in our cultural domains.

When people realize that the cultural conceptions are arbitrary and that there is more than one way to go about inhabiting the realm of discourse, say through contact with strangers or travel to foreign lands, the doxa becomes segregated. Now the predominant cultural view is orthodoxy while the rebellious alternative is heterodoxy. Like the doxa, orthodoxy determines the realm of discourse, e.g., what is considered true, possible, probable, etc., and thereby relevant for discourse while heterodoxy challenges that arbitrary conceptualization with another deemed more accurate or valid, or at least corrective. We can see this in many examples from the religious domain, e.g., Martin Luther, and we can also see this in politics, where conservatives and progressives each see their views as orthodox with some 3rd parties being heterodox, in social movements, e.g., Realpolitik where aggression and war are natural and necessary vs. the Peace movement (I like John Lennon’s “Imagine”) and in science, e.g., different paradigms like Ptolemaic vs Copernican.

I would add here that how we view humanity is important for both the habitus and the doxa: are we a member of the animal world or something different. Are there ghostly spirits? Are there subspecies of humans? I remember during my graduate work in clinical psychology (late 80s) some faculty and many students thought studies from other animals were irrelevant to human psychology. The most glaring example was in ADHD where much work is necessarily done with other species if we are to understand the neurological processes of attention and concentration and their dysfunction. There were times I felt like a congenital heterodox because not only did I think animal research applied to humans, it included humans, and in what I am sure was viewed as absurd, that the department of psychology should be in the school of biology. Oh well, crank or ahead of my time, their imaginings or mine? Neuroscience has had a lot to say on this matter since then.

Two final points here. First is that the cultural doxa, along with its segregation into orthodoxy and heterodoxy, determines what is admissible into the realm of discourse and this channels how we think about the world. This entails that the connectome functions more fluidly with orthodox notions [lights up with many more and more stable connections] and must accommodate its habitus in order to consider any such heterodoxy [lights up with far fewer and less stable connections and even those deemed at least somewhat invalid] fully. An example from our history is that enslavers held the orthodox view that people of color were an inherently different and substandard species. In fact many who were against slavery held some version of that view. The heterodoxical view that Africans were equal in their humanity, both in intelligence and capability of culture, was inadmissible to many, especially to the enslavers in the south. Who espoused the heterodox view that blacks were like us? Abe Lincoln had his doubts; John Brown did not. His plan at Harper’s Ferry was to foment slave rebellion and include the enslaved in the process because they could be equal contributors. Not many, even on the Union side, held that opinion. The connectomes of the people back in the day, like everyday, were bound by the constraints of the habitus and the doxa’s admissibility of concepts into discourse.

My second point is this: THE PRESUMPTION OF CONCORDANCE BETWEEN NATURE (or reality or god’s way) AND THE TERMS OF CULTURAL DISCOURSE (i.e., the doxa) IS DANGERGOUS, because that presumption leads to the ideological and fanatical disregard of the arbitrariness of cultural conceptions and of another’s truth. Someone can bring up a heterodox challenge but it is disregarded because with that presumption of concordance, the essentially arbitrary nature of our cultural constructions is ignored and false beliefs are sustained. (Science is important because it institutionalizes the discordance between our conceptions and nature.)  Consider again the historical example of enslavement. Some of my relatives some 100 years after the Civil War still held that African-Americans were inferior and they could not, i.e., would not, admit any difference between their orthodoxy and reality. Still to this day consider the rise of white nationalism.

Boudrieu’s dazzlement with the habitus and doxa is a brilliant achievement and most helpful as we try to understand humanity today and its biological roots. And remember Mark Twain’s words: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Travel on then.

Not your father’s fitness

I have long appreciated that our intellectual life is governed by feelings of fitness. Take for example grammar and handedness. Some linguistic constructions feel fit, i.e., they are grammatical, like this very sentence is. Others feel awkward, e.g., “Bluebirds the lands the house on nest build to”. No logic required here, just the grammatical intuition of how things are supposed to fit together. Similarly, fold your arms right over left and then left over right and then do the same with your hands. One way will feel more natural, i.e., fit, and the other more awkward. Being right handed means that turning the screwdriver with the right hand feels right and more skillful and turning it with your left is not. Linguistic grammar is analogous to the fit coordinations of handedness. Back in my days as a speech-language pathologist I used this analogy to explain to parents the development of their young child’s grammar. A toddler says ‘tow’ for ‘cow’ and uses abbreviated syntax because that is what feels right to them. Correcting their child’s performance often resulted in the child saying something that felt awkward and wrong to them. As their brains mature and their grammatical feelings change, their speech comes to accord with adult grammar in a most marvelous manner.

So now re-reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity I realize again how important ‘fit’ is to life. In laying out the molecular basis of the genetic control of protein synthesis, Monod discusses how proteins work by folding into particular specific shapes so that they fit into other molecules thereby catalyzing and regulating the molecular biology of cellular function. With the presence of one molecule the protein folds one way and carries out one function and with the presence of another molecule the protein folds another way and carries out a different function, both because the two shapes fit exclusively into different substrates and so engender different chemical processes. He, Wolff and Jacob won the Nobel for discovering this phenomena by studying how yeasts metabolize one sugar at a time and when the supply of that sugar is exhausted, the genetic mechanism directs the shift to metabolize another sugar if present. This shift occurs within minutes of one sugar’s depletion and another’s presence is detected as the synthesis of the new necessary protein increases a thousandfold in a matter of molecular moments. Amazing, and then he goes on to explain how similar processes carry forth the ontogenesis of a new life, even more amazing.

Fitness is not just a concept of evolutionary viability anymore. It would seem to be functional principle in life’s operations, from the replication and transcription of DNA and proteins described above as based on stereotaxic fit between molecules to the grammatical compositions we use for communication (and so much more). I am fascinated by aesthetic fitness, by how the elements of an artistic work fit together coherently to form an integrated whole that shines somehow with felt life. Great art, as I think Aquinas noted so long ago, works with unity, integrity and luminosity. Not so great art misses on one or more of these three dimensions. Bad art simply appeals to some shallow stereotypical emotional response. And somehow, like linguistic structures, aesthetic works result from a composite of neural processes working together in a fit manner.

Now consider the connectome. Monod describes DNA and its accompanying proteins as crystalline structures, not regular repetitive lattices like salt or quartz but aperiodic ones whose components are self organizing like salt’s but whose irregular shapes then fit with other molecules out there initiating chains of process and thereby creating function (based upon the decision points or choices like a binary algorithm). So look at this picture of the connectome in this light and see fluid crystalline molecules lighting up crystalline modules of different functions that must fit together to be operational, and in order to be optimal, must fit according to some linguistic or aesthetic grammar.



Both composing and comprehending linguistic and aesthetic productions involves different modules lighting up and their functional ‘shapes’ fitting together according to their grammatical rules. A stroke can hinder or prevent the parts fitting together so the patient is aphasic or has amusia. Cultural expectations shape what is considered fit, so that some music seems to violate tonal rules and causes consternation, as when Stravinsk’s Rites of Spring premiered to a riotous reception or like when I hear certain music or see certain paintings and wonder why bother. Clearly the notion of ‘fitness’ is important and pervasive.

Finally consider the old myth that creative, e.g., artistic, people use their right hemispheres more. This is one of those statements that sounds good enough for some to believe but that everyone should know is too simple to be true. A brief note from the Duke Chronicle reports some brain research showing that people who rank high on creativity (and how did they assess that? Don’t know.) use both sides of their brain, especially some frontal areas, more than people who rank the lowest on creativity: This suggests that creativity stems in part from the communication between hemispheres, or following the idea here, that the functional crystals on one side communicate and operate in fit manner through the anterior commissure and corpus callosum with the functional crystals on the other side. Oh, could I go on from here, but enough for now; just look at the connectome and imagine the forms lit up and flashing between the two hemispheres (and don’t neglect subcortical structures). Time to travel on.

Return to invariance for the holidays

I had another thought about invariance/variance yesterday as I reflected on some recent experiences. One aspect of life I find entrancing is the rich chaotic activity it seems to be, like an estuary, yet in the constant flux, amid the “buzzing, blooming confusion” we find channels of activity both variant and invariant. Consider again the rendering of the connectome,


Connectome picture

remembering that neural structures are only the substrate of much dynamic activity, including electric action potentials, neurochemical messengers and actors, and a plethora of protein action. Recently I have written here about the structures and functions of language, invariant (words, stock phrases, syntactic structuring) and variant (sentences and conversational flow), but there are different and larger invariant structures we all have that shape our personalities.

So consider the tapes that play in our head, the consistent (invariant) worries rational and irrational that occupy our thoughts. Some are fairly adaptive such as goals and motivations (these change adaptively with circumstances) and some less so, inflexible neurotic anxieties that compose our responses to similar situations even though they are out of date and no longer relevant really to what is going on now. And then consider that neurosychiatric disorders might be seen as monolithic stone in an otherwise vibrant landscape, e.g., the depressive thoughts and feelings that stay the same as life goes on and even gets better, or as liquidities of a dissolving mind rendering reality testing rather impractical, e.g., the hallucinatory escapades of a thought disorder. The ancients knew that a healthy life depended upon balance; here I am saying the balance holds functioning from swinging to far towards petrification or diarrhea of mental life. Our patterns of balance and imbalance are multitudinous and vary from culture to culture and from family to family. So this holiday, when one of your family members re-enacts the same old schtick or becomes drunkenly mercurial (even without imbibing), be thankful you have flexible enough balance between variant and invariant processes to see the difference. Travel on.

Back to the connectome

So re-reading Edelson and Tononi’s book, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, I began thinking about the connectome. In previous posts (5/31/15, 6/29/15, 9/23/15) I have talked about how the connectome is the dynamic set of connections and neural activity that is ongoing, shaped by experience, flexible enough for cogitating new circumstances yet set deeply enough to maintain personality, cognitive skills, and autobiographical memory over a lifetime and even beyond when you consider the young lady (see post 1/10/15) who was chilled to death for some hours and then revived well enough with therapeutic help to recover her self more or less completely over time. She put the ‘om’ in connectome.


Connectome picture

Now as best I can understand, Edelson and Tononi’s model for conscious functioning is that some large and specific portion of the connectome organizes into a dynamic core of activity where neural systems in the cortex and their perceptual motor systems switchboarded in the thalamus sustain patternings that then shapes them as needed. Here is where their concept of re-entrance comes in because it is through feeding forward (and backward and sideways) to enhance and diminish certain facets so that the dynamic core is sustained, i.e., by ‘re-entering’ processed results into the same systems to support both invariant information structures and then editing needed variants. The scope and specificity of their conceptualization of a general process capable of operating on many levels is mind-boggling and the reason why I am reading it again slowly.


The thalamus has many divisions that relay and integrate perceptual-motor information with their corresponding cortical areas.

Two things re-enter my mind here. The first is the PLOS article by Eve Marder (see post 5/31/15 & 6/3/15 & 6/29/15) wherein she discusses her rigorous work developing a technique for stimulating, i.e., delivering an electrical pulse, a small number of neurons, even just one, and then studying the resultant spread of excitation. Looking at the image of the connectome, imagine kicking one node and figuring out what changes, i.e., discerning the variance in the patterns. In her article she says something to the effect that the ongoing connectome activity is so powerful that one change is quickly drowned in a sea of complexity and the connectome’s momentum, like a single drop into choppy waters. Change large enough for the dynamic core to be a re-frame comes about through specific events, e.g., startled by the lion’s roar, or through the intelligent re-entrance as the brain clarifies, apprehends, understands, considers and acts.

What I find especially important here is the autonomy and flexible independence of the connectome because this smacks of the animal’s own determinate life impulse.   Living forms are the compositors of their own experience, and we humans are distinctly talented primates in this regard. We not only compose and re-compose our experience as we live but we also compose what is beyond our experience. I do not think we could do this without a well-organized self agency and a virtual mental context generated through symbolization. Further I do not think doing this would matter at all if not connected empathically with other minds.

Here I come back to what has kept my interest for a long time, Susanne Langer’s characterization of mental action as either impactive, i.e., incipience felt from without, or autogenic, i.e., incipience felt arising from within. For example, I startle with the impact of the lion’s roar; my emotional energy rises autogenically to energize and direct my actions. Consider the connectomes and which information or processes were re-entered, i.e., kept in mind, prevalent in a hunter-gather society, in a pre-literate one, in farmers, with the advent of writing, in shaman organizing metaphysical activity, in scientists dedicated to understanding our world and ourselves, and here’s the most interesting one to me, in artists composing their works as an expression of their felt experience, some invariant form communicable to others composed from the variant images, thoughts and feelings of their lives.

Each person’s connectome must absorb much impactive energies to maintain reality orientation and adaptive success, and every person’s connectome is an expression of the autogenic energies from within; indeed, the genome of a fertilized egg is the chemical spark igniting each life that then burns for awhile before exhausting its run. Understanding this life energy as the basis of artistic endeavors is the task I took from reading Langer long ago and again recently as I re-read Edelson and Tononi. Travel on.