Damasio’s Strange Order of Things

I actually finished reading Antonio Damasio’s book, The Strange Order of Things:  Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures, a few weeks back.  While reading I thought of several things about which to blog but I was very busy on the farm.  Now I have gone back over my highlights and will write a review about it, but I seem to have lost several of my ideas from before.  Let that be a lesson to me—write down thoughts even if not enough time to work up a proper post.

If you have read any of Damasio’s other books or any of my posts about them here, you already know that he thinks that we conceptually slight feelings and emotions, that these are really the foundation of our mental life and that thinking follows feelings’ lead.  This is quite in line with Susanne Langer’s notion that our minds are based upon feeling, thus the title of her magnum opus, Mind:  An Essay on Human Feeling, so I really appreciate Damasio’s conceptualization.  (He does not cite Langer; very, very few do and I find that regrettable). And in Strange Order he makes an even stronger statement, oh boy!

A couple of quotes will frame his view for us.  Damasio sees “the roots of human cultures in nonhuman biology” and he finds that “the conventional contrast between affect and reason comes from a narrow conception of emotions and feelings”.  His understanding rests upon the central importance of homeostasis, that function wherein life maintains itself within healthy parameters.  Our emotions and their mental derivatives, feelings, are in his view our response to changes in homeostasis.  For example, consider how our impulse to be sociable varies with our homeostatic status.  When we are sociable, our homeostasis becomes more stable, and when we feel unsociable, our homeostasis grows more vulnerable.  Thus, a key factor in the health and continued longevity of elders is their social contact.  Remember as well that married people (really those in a close, stable relationship) generally enjoy greater health.  Damasio even makes the argument that  religious beliefs and practices function to ensure that humans are sociable and thus enjoy more stable vitality.  That is what feelings and culture do for us.

Damasio sees such phenomena as basic to life, i.e., evident throughout different evolutionary complexity.  Bacteria in a resource rich environment that enables easy homeostasis go their own individual ways, but in a resource poor one they clump together for support. Some use chemical signaling to monitor how many conspecifics are around just in case.  Likewise, human “cultural instruments first developed in response to the homeostatic needs of individuals and of groups”.  Damasio understands that “feeling and subjectivity are old abilities” and not dependent upon the evolution of brains with cortex.

He gives a complex and sophisticated explanation of how our mental subjectivity developed.  He says that the basic unit of the mind is the image and that our particular (I want to say ‘special’ but this is fraught with anthropocentric connotations.  I would mean ‘special’ in the sense that it denotes a feature specific to a species.  Thus I could also write about the special feelings and subjectivity of planaria) subjectivity comes from our talent for imaging our own internal workings, e.g. our gut has an enteric 2ndbrain with many neurons and more dopamine, and our external world, and then integrating the two into one mental image of our experience as we incidentally form a narrative with our feelings as our life unfolds.  I must say this is a rich and concise formulation of our mentality.

I see life functioning to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance; that is what we animate beings do (this following Heraclitus and Monod).  Damasio formulates it slightly differently, that life sustains itself by countering, i.e., he says ‘resisting’, entropy and continuing the life stream into the future.  And he emphasizes that our humanity is yet another iteration of this. “In the end human creativity is rooted in life and in the breath taking fact that life comes equipped with a breathtaking mandate:  resist and project itself into the future”.

This book covers a great deal of scientific and philosophical ground and that gives me plenty to ponder and learn.  Damasio is a big fan of Spinoza (see his earlier book on this) and he also cites Nietzsche saying that humans are “hybrids of plants and ghosts”.  That is a lovely and funny metaphor.  Damasio discusses our evolution and appreciates our control of fire not just to cook food and so support our homeostasis that way but also to provide the hearth environment for socializing and so support our vitality thusly.  One more point: he discusses anger as a negative emotion that has functioned quite well and adaptively over the course of our evolution but asserts that it now poses diminishing returns for our species, i.e., our anger is more destructive of our ability to live together than constructive in maintaining our lives.

An interesting and richly rewarding read. Keeping with my tradition, I will mention a small quibble about how he verbalizes sometimes about the relation our brains have with our somas, e.g., our brains as independent units. Ugh!  Never will I succumb to that view, nor does Damasio, I think, as he discusses the embodiment of our minds.  Why use that phrasing? I do not know.  Apart from that I found myself extending his analyses by formulating what he wrote into how I see our individual minds as a function of our social and cultural group. That, however, suits my purposes, not his, which was to enrich our impoverished understanding of emotions and feelings.  Wonderful.


fluid culture

A shorter post here before a longer one.

Several news outlets have recently posted stories updating our research into whale songs.  We have big questions here:  Why do they sing and why change their songs over time, do their songs travel underwater for thousands of miles with purpose, etc.  Whales are intelligent, conscious creatures, of that we can be sure, and still we are caught trying to understand them between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial.   Our rather weak conceptual basis for understanding their psychology depends upon their being mammals, big brains, once land animals, social, etc.  The difficulty comes from the usual mystery of another’s species’ mind and from their lives in the ocean; what must that be like?

I have several stories that I remember when I ponder their lives and minds. Their world is getting more polluted by human trash and noise.  Our navy performs underwater sonar experiments that are excruciating to them, yet we blithely complain that our diplomats in Cuba suffer brain injury due to sound waves.  We have hunted them cruelly for oil and meat, and indeed, Japan recently pulled out of a treaty banning whaling so that its ships could harvest more, they claim for research but what has been published? and besides they value and sell the meat as an expensive delicacy.  I have seen a video of a whaling ship killing a female blue whale, and then when its mate came charging at the ship, they killed him with their exploding harpoon gun. Remember that the story of Moby Dick was based in reality as a large sperm whale destroyed the whaler Essex in 1820.  That it was whitish is explained by the more recent finding that blue whales grow whiter with age, so Moby Dick was a vengeful elder.  Some whales feast on plankton, others on small animals, even seals for the orcas.  Some cooperate to blow a cylindrical ring of bubbles to corral the fish for their feeding. And many frolic and play.

My favorite story is the one a few years back when divers discovered a large humpback whale fatally encumbered by tangled fishing lines.  They teamed up to cut the whale free and when they had succeeded, this whale, remember now it is 20-30 tons of graceful and fluid power, went up to the divers and tapped its nose on their face mask in what the divers saw was clearly an expression of gratitude.  Google ‘whale gratitude’ and you will see several examples of similar actions.  Finally consider that whales have been known to support sick brethren in reaching the surface to breathe and that they are capable parents.

So this new research shows that whale songs develop over time: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/07/science/whales-songs-acoustics.html.  Consider this quote:  “Male humpback whales within a population tend to sing the same song type, but it’s continuously changing and evolving over time,” said Melinda Rekdahl, the study’s first author and a marine conservation scientist with the wildlife society. “It’s thought to be one of the best examples of cultural evolution in the animal kingdom.”

While their songs seem to be specific to each group, there are indications that songs might be shared between groups or that they influence each other.  Some whales travel long distances through several oceans, singing away through the deeps, so a cross pollination of sorts is easily conceivable if hard to document.

And now for something really interesting.  In one paper, Jenny Allen, who was a doctoral student with lead investigator Dr. Noad, found an unexpected pattern among humpbacks. Once their songs reach a certain level of complexity, humpbacks drop that tune entirely and pick up a new, simpler one. Her study, the first to quantify the complexity of the songs, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. So like the best jazz musicians, whales begin a song simply, develop it to a crescendo of complexity, and then drop back to the simpler, perhaps more lyrical pattern.  (Yes, I did see this very thing with the fabulous Joshua Redman quartet in concert last night and they are some of the best jazz musicians playing together with such artistry—catch them if you can).

Art, says Susanne Langer, is an expressive symbolic form rendering some portion of the vital experience of the rhythms of life.  In her later work she explored at length how organisms are born of rhythms, so of course, art, especially music because it presents a virtual image of time lived, portrays waves rising, building to crest and roll over to break and foam, subside and begin to swell anew.  I don’t know exactly why whales sing but I bet their songs express in some cetacean way their experience living in the ocean, and that, whether your bias is against anthropomorphism or anthropodenial, must be considered beautiful and a cultural sharing of their lives with their kin.

My next post, I think, will be a longer one about a debate among biologists about beauty and evolution.  Listen carefully while you travel on.

All synchronized, are we?

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

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

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

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

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

The thought behind this blog came when I read a recent study on PLOS (https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2006328.  The article, “Parental neural responsivity to infants’ visual attention: How mature brains influence immature brains during social interaction”, shows again how important parent-child interactions are and how good parents help their infants synchronize their actions and so their brain waves.  The researchers recorded EEGs from both parent and child during the child’s solo play and joint play.  They found that certain patterns during solo play predicted what the infant would pay attention to and that during joint play the infant EEG was less predictive and seemingly affected by their interaction.  The more the parent, as demonstrated by EEG patterns, attended to the infant and its activity, the infant attended longer to the objects and presumably its EEG reflected those changes.  There is more to this study to ponder, such as, for example, the adults’ theta wave (marker of attention) grew as the infant engaged in joint attention.

Father child

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Bourdieu, meet Dr. Damasio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Let’s go beyond stale and dismal science vs religion juxtaposition

I have been feeling a wee bit cranky recently.  It probably has something to do with changing weather patterns that make this old man work extra hard to manage the farm and with the ongoing realization that the intelligence of the American people either has always been low and the mask has recently slipped off (again, I hear H. L. Mencken say) or it has devolved down to a level hitherto unseen in human history (probably with the aid of electronic media and machine intelligence). I listened to our president and his advisers a few days ago and I said to my wife, “I have heard farts that sounded more intelligent, though few have stunk like that”.  I try to avoid any visit to the Land of Stupid; now I see all too many go there as tourists, some on extended vacations.  Our leadership looks to have emigrated and taken up residence there full-time.

Anyway I had recently been feeling better.  The weather improved and I turned off the TV, and then I read a NYT Stone (their philosophical forum) article (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/opinion/why-we-need-religion.html.) about religion and feelings, and boom, back came my crankiness when I read this:  “My claim is that religion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.”  My primal scream at that point was that we do not access emotions, we feel them and that science and religion are so different in their inception, in the consequent institutions, and in their management of knowledge, ignorance, and consensual activities that comparing them for their ‘management’ of emotions is a false comparison (see posts 4/4/17,9/28/17).

After a bit I realized that my crankiness had led me to perhaps overreact negatively to this essay, so I read it again more carefully.  I still do not like it because I am quite tired of reading variants of the science-religion topic when so few of them seem to lead anywhere new.  Mr. Asma uses some of the same old tropes to make the case that religion helps us manage our emotions while science does not (of course he does not mention anti-depressants, etc.).  He presents an anecdote showing how a woman’s religion helped her cope with the despair she felt from the brutal murder of a son. He argues in short that religion is primarily therapeutic and the most powerful cultural analgesic we have for the painful vicissitudes of life, and that the atheists who “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee” fall short of the mark.  More on that in a moment.

Mr. Asma shows great command of the obvious in some generalizations that are so muddled that they have left any truth behind.  One is that emotions are from the old “operating system” (regular readers know I find such hard wire metaphors cringe worthy) in the limbic system while rationality (I guess he means science in this regard—he does not seem to differentiate here) comes from the “more recently evolved neocortex.” Going further he says that, “Religion irritates the rational brain because it trades in magical thinking and no proof, but it nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty”.  Now here is one of my major criticisms.  It should not be a news flash that religion being a cultural and symbolic activity is also associated with neocortical functioning. Religion can facilitate emotional balance; indeed most cultural activities contribute to balance in one way or another, as does walking your dog, listening to music, grooming a fellow chimp, stretching, sleeping, watching a sunset, good food, sex, friends, etc.  (Mr. Asma does have the grace to admit that religion can disrupt emotional and cognitive processes.  Reverting to my initial outrage at his idea of religion accessing emotions, my first image was of an ISIS recruit ‘accessing’ his murderous rage through religious belief).  This means that religion is as much a part of the rational brain as is science.

Science and rationality are not synonymous; science is a method for ensuring our rationally conceived ideas match reality as best we can at this time (See my posts on 1/7/17).  Rationality is the humdrum everyday thinking that we carry on and it is notoriously unreliable, ergo the need for empirical validation.  We have known for a long time that our rational processes are unreliable, at least since Freud showed the influence of unconscious processes and more recently with the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (see Micheal Lewis’s The Undoing Projector Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow) showing how our brains, even highly educated brains, use heuristics that are quite fallible.  And I would think Mr. Asma might be interested in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind that demonstrates how we rationalize and justify our political and religious beliefs after we intuitively decide what to believe.  I do not want to go further now into how cortical and subcortical systems interact to contribute to emotional processes and intellectual ferment, but they do, and Mr. Asma’s reification of their differences is, at this time in our scientific understanding, deplorable.

My other major complaint is his characterization of atheists and their (or anyone’s for that matter) rejection of religion.  To repeat from above, Mr. Asma says atheists “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee”. I have read Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, and my favorite, Christopher Hitchens, and I cannot recall them talking about the moral weakness of  devotees.  Hypocrites, certainly.  Superstitious, yes.  Taking false comfort, ok.  Chris Hitchens in his book, God is Not Great, assesses that the destruction waged in the name of god exceeds the good religion does.  Further, religious people do not behave better despite their claim to moral authority.  I find particularly onerous religious attempts to obfuscate science, e.g., design and anti-vaccination biases, and to impose their morality on others, e.g., women as second class citizens or worse, as male property, or condemning those of racial or gender differences.

I live on a farm in the country.  Religion is strong here mostly, I think, because the dispersed population needs a sense of community as they depend upon each other.  And yes, religion does help people cope.  I found it laughable, though, when Mr. Asma says that Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson dropping by to discuss the physiology of suffering would not be helpful in consoling victims, thereby presupposing that true consolation rests solely with the religious.  I am sure Mr. Nye or Mr. Tyson would be a good friend to help someone get through hard times.  They are good, sensitive and intelligent humans.  And science?  Understanding Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grieving has helped many people cope with terminal illness and loss.

Probably the thing that upset me about this essay even more than Mr. Asma’s trivialities, distortions, and misappropriations, was that he adds nothing to this rather stale and dismal juxtaposition between science and religion (see post 2/4/14).  My context is this:  Religion, or rather spiritual beliefs, has contributed to human culture (see post 7/8/17: a positivist genesis myth) for at least 100,000 years if you go by archeological evidence of burial practices.  Spiritual beliefs have evolved over the eons since then and religious institutions have proliferated with a fecundity of gods.  Humans have always had a reality orientation and some leaning towards empirical studies.  Ancient astronomers were quite knowledgeable, as were farmers and metal workers. Science as a rigorous system of knowledge was born in magical alchemy and grew into a mature epistemology with the Enlightenment and now with even more rigor with the development of positivism and modern mathematics, e.g., Boolean logic, statistics.

Here is my point:  Religion is a part of our cultural evolution; if it disappears that will be a result of further cultural evolution.  If it stays, same thing.  In either case it will not be because of our willful intellectual manipulation of ourselves nor of our society.   Our task, as I see it, is to further our cultural development through the fermentation and distillation (wonder why I used that metaphor?) of our understanding. Atheists, too often defined by a negative, are at their best when they proffer something positive and religion is at its best when it offers a meaningful way forward through the knowledge of our time.  I hear some ask who does this?  The current Dalai Lama is a wonderful example of this.  As I have written about before (and will do so again next post), Jacques Monod carried this forward (see post 3/25/17).  In his own way because of the integrity of his intellect I think Chris Hitchens did as well (see post on natural noumenal 4/13/17).  I am talking here about the dialectic between mysticism and positivism, neither complete in and of itself, the dialectic providing the means to move forward (see posts 2/4/16 & 11/15/15).

To recapitulate:  I have been in a sour mood.  When I read an essay purporting to provide balance in the debate between science and religion, I reacted quite negatively.  Recovering my own emotional balance I considered the essay in more detail and found that while my mood contributed to the intensity of my initial appraisal, my reaction was authentic, reasonable and accurate.  And I felt my feelings and thought my thoughts with my whole brain, cortical and subcortical, without needing religion to ‘access’ them.  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.

no more anthropodenial

One week from today will be my self-proclaimed holiday “Mammalian Heritage Day” that I started last year. I will re-post from those posts next week but today I want to refer you to 2 news reports that illustrate the remarkable path the earliest mammals started us down on some 300 million years ago.


In this new tree of life mammals would be found in the green projections in lower right corner.

The first report is about the empirical support now in for the ‘cultural’ brain hypothesis’, i.e., essentially that our brains, especially as primates and before that as mammals, enlarged with our increasing sociability, meaning the rich domain of information our empathic and signal communication contributes to our lives and experience. Over the past several years researchers have documented deep similarities between human society and cetacean society. Check out this story from Earthsky.org: http://earthsky.org/earth/whales-dolphins-live-human-like-lives. This list covers some remarkable evolutionary developments that have culminated with primate and cetacean species. Consider that we all are

– Working together for mutual benefit
– Teaching others how to hunt and cooperative hunting
– Using tools
– Complex vocalizations -‘talking’ to each other – including regional group dialects
– Signature whistles that are unique to individuals
– Name recognition
– Interspecific cooperation (working with humans and other species)
– Adult animals looking after youngsters that aren’t their own
– Social play

The second story comes from researchers who have documented that chimpanzees, both in human captivity and in the wild, show stable personality traits quite similar to ours, to which we now say, “of course”. Consider this NYT story: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/science/chimpanzees-goodall.html. This report accompanies the release of a new documentary about Jane Goodall’s early research. What a brilliant human she is, first as a scientist with immense vision and courage developed through the most rigorous fieldwork imaginable and now as a wise and astute advocate for Gaia and especially its creatures under duress of extinction. When she began her studies back in 1960, her findings were belittled as anthropomorphic projection. Now we have Frans de Waal cautioning us against anthropodenial by which we deny and ignore the evolutionary continuities between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom (especially mammals like primates and cetaceans). Our similarities run deep from our shared genetic heritage up to, as research continues to demonstrate, our social selves and groups. Makes me glad to be alive, so I think I will travel on with a little swing to my step.