a culture of faces

Please buckle your seatbelts—I want to cover a good bit of ground rapidly. The impetus for this journey comes from two reports of recent research about (1) facial recognition and (2) differences in facial processing between autistic toddlers and ones developing normally. For more context (that is my plea every time I seek out news but alas it is rare) remember these facets of our humanity that I have posted about in the past. First, one of the earliest advances of our mammalian brains came with the evolutionary appearance of the hippocampus, that started remembering locations, then experiences and then social objects, e.g., conspecifics (see post 5/27/16 and others about hippocampus). Second, remember that the right-sided processing focuses more on the immediate concrete context while the left focuses more on information displaced in time and space primarily through language. This suggests that we perceive something happening now with a more right-sided bias and then process verbal associations about that perception with a left bias. Third and associated with #2, facial recognition of people met in the past, even including family and friends, happens on the right side. A specific lesion there can lead to prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize familiars even though the systems for processing faces is intact, e.g., the person knows it is a face, can often read its emotions, etc.; the person with prosopagnosia just does not recognize people he or she knows. This can happen as a result of brain injury, e.g., stroke, or sometimes occurs developmentally. Fourth, faces are important. Eric Kandel in his very interesting book (see all too brief post 8/27/14) The Age of Insight says that “face perception has evolved to occupy more space in the brain than any other figural representation”.  More from him later. Finally, consider the place of faces in human relationships beginning with the attachment and bonding (see post 1/24/14) between infant and parent and on into every relationship afterward. Whew! But wait, there’s more.

Our brains can recognize faces from many angles and even with a face partially hidden; our brains know a face as an invariant form. Our brains then also process a face’s variance, those features expressing current emotion even of those people we have never met though perhaps without the same accuracy as those we know intimately. Some people are able to process micro-emotions. These are expressions that flit across a face that are all but imperceptible to most of us; perceiving these accurately is a fairly rare talent. However, most of us apprehend the major emotions as a person’s facial expression manifests them. Kandel cites research by Paul Ekman that indicates that the upper half of the face, primarily the eyes, features more prominently in expressing sadness and fear, while the lower face, primarily the mouth, conveys happiness, anger, or disgust. And if you want to know if a person’s smile is genuine, you look back at the eyes (a real smile is accompanied by eye crinkling in a particular way).

The faces we find most attractive are more symmetrical; most of us have faces that have significant differences between right and left halves. For example, most of us find the right side is more emotionally expressive. (Remember that the right side of the face is controlled by the right side of the brain; the crossover [decussation] happens lower down the spinal cord that is responsible for right hand-left brain control). For purposes of sexual selection most of us find faces that are symmetrical or at least an ideal face comprised of average features right and left more beautiful (related to my recent post 6/19/17). Similarly most people find faces of people more closely related to them in race and ethnicity more attractive than those less so. So faces again are a big deal.

Science News of 7/6/17 gives a short report of scientists who diligently studied how monkey brains process facial information. The NYT gave a slightly longer version a few weeks back here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/science/facial-recognition-brain-neurons.html. Using a variety of techniques, including monitoring the electrical firing of individual neurons, these assiduous folks teased apart how the monkey brain sees faces. They understood this so well that they could assemble how the face looked by examining the brain’s firing pattern. This is remarkable work, I think, because it enabled them to be able to ‘read’ what the monkey was seeing by analyzing brain functioning quite accurately. Look at the NYT piece for the pictures demonstrating this; it is impressive. This science shows how our perceptual system gathers sensory data and assembles it analytically to perform the basic functions of identifying that the eyes are seeing a face, that invariant form, as a precursor to remembering or recognizing that face as familiar.

The next study shows the variability among people in how we examine and process facial information. This was recently reported in the NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/12/health/autism-faces-genes-brain-development.html. These results showed a significant difference in how toddlers with and without autism deal with faces. The experimental set-up involved showing toddlers a video and tracking their eye movement. Normal developing children looked at faces more than objects, autistic children more at objects, this to a significant degree. The scientists found that identical twins looked at faces the same way, looking at the eyes and shifting their gaze to take in the whole picture at the same rate. Fraternal twins matched some but not as much. Randomly paired children matched very little. The article also cites research showing that we all have our characteristic ways of looking at faces, some at the eyes and upper half of the face and some at the lower. We tend to go for the eyes to establish recognition, I think. Anyway this study shows a deep genetic influence in how we perceive faces. That, like most mental functions, is complicated, as we construct our percepts using foveal vision (the focused point of view) to gather the details and peripheral vision to help assemble the whole gestalt of the figure (Thank you, Dr. Kandel, for explaining that).

This study is important because faces are so important to our social-mental development. Consider what I call Empathy Central (EC) that the academics call Theory of Mind (ToM), the locus of which is in the right posterior hemisphere and surely feeds off the process of both facial recognition and reading emotional expressions, i.e., empathy. When facial processing is diminished, the development of EC would also be affected. And some differences in the development of facial processing would lead to different personality styles. Remember that reading facial expression connects to the mirroring system via the arcuate fasciculus (or if no recall, see my most read post on the arcuate fasciculus and mirroring from 4/24/14, still read each week by several folks from all over the world), and mirroring (see 9/27/15 post) is also important. Indeed, some of the more effective therapies for autistic spectrum use imitation to stimulate mirroring. By the bye, I read a report in developing this blog that people who are attractive, i.e., have symmetric or the idealized average face (both sides the same) tend to be extroverted, a trait that happens to be quite stable over the life span. Extroverts tend to relax through social contact like, I guess, looking at other faces (or listening to voices over the phone), while introverts tend to relax through quiet withdrawal. You can see how pervasive the place of faces plays in our minds.

Onward from personality and cognitive style to cultural manifestations. Consider that different cultures tend to enhance or diminish facial expressiveness from exuberant to poker faced. Consider the role of faces in art, a subject much discussed in Dr. Kandel’s book, The Age of Insight, where he discusses the stew of ideas in early 20th century Vienna and how these affected painting and how we understand art. (Reviewing this book to help with this post I concluded that I must re-read it in the near future). Dr. Kandel won the Nobel in 2000 for his research in how neurons help us remember. He co-authored one of the first big books on neuroscience I read back in the day, Principles of Neuroscience (1981), and his 2012 book Age of Insight on art, the brain, and the unconscious is very special.


Eric Kandel 1978 Thanks, Dr. Kandel

Finally, consider how female faces are treated differenetly in cultures around the world in, for example, our magazines (oh so attractive sells the most) and quite stringently in Islam, where some version of the burka covers the body and especially the face, excepting the eyes sometimes, whenever the woman is in public. Faces go from the sexualized advertising in our media to the binding of personal expression in social interaction, and that is quite a range of manipulating the roles ascribed to females through their faces. Males, not so much. Another aspect of this is from an article I read a long time ago entitled “Perfidious Female Faces” that reported that female faces sometimes conveyed confusing signals when they are angry, i.e., the mouth smiles as other features signal anger, another example of cultural shaping. Anyway, a varied culture of faces, so now we can travel on.

A good study so why quibble?

Because it is fun and improves my mind.  Here is an excellent example of social praxis demonstrated in simians:  PLOSone has a report of another experimental studies designed to investigate whether great apes, e.g., chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans, can distinguish another’s ‘false beliefs’ and act upon that discernment to help them. The researchers used procedures adapted from human studies that demonstrated some understanding of another’s false beliefs at 18 months of age and good understanding by age 3 or 4 years old. The researchers were very diligent in their design and implementation in order to ensure validity and reliability; I will give only a bare outline before going on to deeper issues. You can read for yourself at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0173793

The basic set-up is this: Actor A comes into the room and puts an object in box 1 and then leaves the room. Actor B comes into the room and switches the object to box 2 and then leaves. Actor A returns. Which box does he go to? The subject has watched this whole scenario knows the object is in box 2 but also, if socially cognizant, knows that actor A believes the object to be box 1. In some protocols the visual gaze preference is measured, i.e., how long the subject looks at agent 1, box 1 and box 2, the assumption of this measure of passive action being that gazing more at box 2 shows awareness of the false belief. A more robust protocol is for the subject to move and help actor A open the correct box. And indeed the results show that young humans and the great apes move to show actor A the true location of the object, trying to help by correcting the false belief. More on this in a bit.

The basic set-up is also modified so that after placing the object in box 1, actor A stays in the room and watches actor B come in and move the object to box 2. I really like this variant; it shows the ingeniousness of scientists in clarifying the data’s interpretation.. When actor A goes to box 1 and tries to open it, little humans and great apes try to help him open box 1, seeming then to understand that actor A knows where the object is but wants to open box 1 for some other purpose. In another variation, if actor A opens box 1 and looks puzzled at not finding what was desired, subjects helped focus on box 2 and so retrieve the object.


Now when was the last time you had your keys?

I think this is a great study along the lines Frans de Waal calls for to help us understand how smart other animals are, and I have some quibbles and want to think about further examples of distinguishing false beliefs from human cultural and symbolic behavior. My first quibble is that in the abstract the researchers state that their results demonstrate that this type of social cognition and understanding, which had been thought to be exclusively human, might now be found in other animals. “Great apes thus may possess at least some basic understanding that an agent’s actions are based on her beliefs about reality. Hence, such understanding might not be the exclusive province of the human species.” If you have followed this blog at all, you know what my challenge will be. What anthropodenialist (see 4/8/16 post on de Waal) and all too precious human assumed (do I detect a false belief there?) this was to be found in humans only? Not good, especially in this day and age when we understand that human evolution includes no discontinuities with our ancestors. Research like this is not really changing our view of who we are (or at least it shouldn’t be) but rather reveals how the biological roots of our humanity grew our species.

Secondly, here is perhaps an obviously semantic quibble: Why call this false ‘belief’ when a much better word would be ‘assumption’, thereby reserving the word ‘belief’ for some thought formed with less ties to sensory data? Consider two known features here, mirroring and the kinesic communication of intent (a basic form of empathy). Mirroring cells in at least the primate cortex are motor cells that fire when the animal sees another perform an action (see many posts here about this, especially my most popular post of all time on the arcuate fasciculus, mirror cells, and memes). In the experiments described above, the subject animal, be it human or great ape, would respond through mirroring to the reappearance of actor A when approaching a box. Further, some studies have suggested that mirror cells are sensitive to the other’s intention, e.g., seeing the other pick up a cup, different cells fire when the other is going to drink from it as opposed to doing some other unrelated task. So the subject animal needs only mirroring and basic empathy coupled with environmental object mapping (quite evident in the rat brain) to identify the false assumption; the impulse to help would be again a basic empathic action that forms the incipient base of social praxis. (Remember watching somebody struggle to do something and your impulse to grab the object and do it for them?) The mirroring system may go a long way in offering some understanding of this social cognition, and the assumption of continuity in the perceptual world along with communicated intent is a basic, so that belief is not really a construct needed to understand this.


I always thought god was a bonobo, and now you tell me . . .

What about the broader, deeper phenomena of detecting (and responding to) another’s perceived false beliefs, real beliefs about abstract matters rather than perceptual data? We humans, at least, seem to have a talent for apprising others of their false beliefs. You know, like someone just knows I am going to hell because of my false beliefs? Or an example of more consequence, people who deny scientific findings because why? The false beliefs of scientists, of course, thereby exposing their own false beliefs, also called ignorance, about the nature and process of science. So much of our world, the human Umvelt, is dominated by symbolic information displaced in time and space, abstracted from experience and formulated with, at times, great creative license, that finding agreement rather than parsing others’ mistakes might seem the challenge. That, of course, is a function of culture, however, and oh, wait, is that part and parcel of the scientific method, and I hasten to add, the basis of democracy? Now, about the emperor’s new clothes . . .

Dogs, language and laterality

The linguistic lateralization of our dog buddies spotlights a theoretical mystery

Many news outfits have published stories about a recent study wherein dogs were trained to lie still enough in an fMRI while listening to humans talk to them. The results indicated that our evolutionary partners processed emotional tones on the right side of their brains and specific words on the left, just like humans. The more we study dogs, the more we find how smart they are and how much we have adapted to each other for interaction. Check out the research done by Brian Hare and colleagues.

I first read about the fMRI study in Science News from 10/1/16. It provides a good summary (as they usually do—what a good magazine) and then they ended the article with the idea that because dog-human relations have only developed over the last 30,000 years, too short a time for evolutionary progress to produce such linguistic abilities, “some older underlying neural mechanism for processing meaningful sounds is present in other animals”.

This highlights for me the theoretical mystery on the biological nature not just of language but of symbolization in general (so it includes art as well). As I have said before, understanding symbolization is the holy grail of understanding ourselves biologically, and so let me render a conceptual outline of this mystery. First consider the bond between dogs and humans and that emotional communication through voice (and sight) is processed by the right side of the brain in both of us. We have researched this broadly in humans as intonation or non-verbal vocal communication, and/or kinesics. All of this to my mind is empathic communication and its processing is right sided; we find a cortical area for its integration there at the tempo-parietal junction that I call Empathy Central but the academics call ToM (Theory of Mind). Do dogs have an Empathy Central area? Unknown for now but I am taking bets they do and planning on how to spend my winnings.


Looking left, currently bored

Next consider this basic feature of lateralization. The right side processes emotional expression and empathic communication just like it processes the current perceptual-motor domains, i.e., the right side processes the specious present. The left side then directs its energies towards information displaced in time and space, initially as a supplement to the specious present by recognizing and recalling information and then increasingly as a virtual domain for information to be composed independently from current objective events. Language, as a symbolic function, is so powerful because it allows us not only to control the input and retrieval of displaced information from memory, not only because it allows the composition of new information from imaginal processes, but also and especially because it allows us to communicate about what isn’t there in front of us but exists only in our minds, apprehensible only to oneself and in symbolic communication.

So when the article ends by asking what the underlying neural mechanism might be, my answer is not about language but about its precursor in the symbolic control of displaced information. Why should that be lateralized to the left? Ah, because timing is important. The right side matures at a faster pace than the left, due primarily to the differential effect of testosterone which slows the left’s maturation more than the right’s (and so males show more distinct patterns of lateralization and more language problems from sometimes too slow a pace on the left side). The right side develops the capabilities to process current information early on while the left side is coming online, so to speak, a bit later, and when it does come on line, it is not totally in sync with the right sided processes for the specious present. Its information is displaced (read out of sync) almost from the beginning of the incipient specious present. Symbolic processes enable finer, more powerful control of such displaced information. So the right side focuses more on the current coin of interaction, i.e., empathic communication, and the left side more on non-current, i.e., displaced, information. Verbally this relies on lexical knowledge, the processing nexus of which is in the left temporal-parietal junction. As we learn more about animals, especially mammals, we will find the precursors of these underlying neural mechanisms in virtually all of them. You can count on it.

A couple more quick notes. It would seem likely that dogs were domesticated and became our close buddies because the genetic streams feeding their evolution ran close to ours—our brains are sympatico in how they process social information.   Human genetic streams, however, also evolved a lower larynx and hyoid bone, greater breath control, and oral-facial musculature thereby enabling articulate speech and even more critically to our humanity, gave rise to longer cortical fasciculi. The arcuate fasciculus is a prime example here. Remember that it carries the surface structure of words on the left side between front and back so that we can repeat what we just heard said. On the right side it might could carry emotional expressions for mimicking. (See my most popular post from 4/24/14, Arcuate fascicles, mirror neurons, and memes). The important feature here, however, is that these long fasciculi facilitate the composition of invariant information forms, e.g., words, discrete emotional forms, and their expression. (And how about art and its special modes of symbolization? Ah, beautiful). The creation of these invariant forms is what enables the separation of deep and surface structures and the subsequent development of syntactic control of their compositional connection. The creation of these invariant forms, both long-standing (lexical items) and in passing (conversation), by the welter of connectome activity in the presence of ambient flux is the remarkable basis for humanity’s intelligence and it has grown from deep roots.

Finally, remember to mark your calendars for Mammalian Heritage Day on November 2 and celebrate those roots. 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.

Conscious or not?

For some reason several news stories have popped up questioning whether other animals are conscious. Try these links:




I like these stories because they bring up the issue of what kind of minds our fellow beasts have. Of course some scientists and philosophers reserve consciousness for animals with symbolic capabilities, which restricts it to humans, but I think other factors are involved here. The earthsky article says that animals, like Inky the octopus who smartly escaped his aquarium, are intelligent enough to be conscious, but if intelligence were key, that would rule out some people I know and some politicians I read about.

Long ago I posted about the difference between sentience and consciousness. Let me review: They are not synonyms. Sentience is the alert perceptual awareness of your environment, internal as well as external. When you sleep, then you are insentient. Sentience would seem to me an inherent property of all life because all life must sense and find resources. Sure sentience comes about in many ways, from the amoeba’s sensitive membrane, the lobster’s vision and chemical senses, or mammalian perception along with the sleep-wake cycle. So all life is sentient (yes, even trees in this view—don’t their leaves follow the sun? don’t  they communicate with chemicals?); one facet of their intelligence is how sophisticated their sentience is .

Now consciousness is a different matter. We can be sentient but unconscious as when we are hypnotized or drive too long fatigued and experience what is called highway hypnosis. We can be insentient but conscious as when we dream. We can be both sentient and conscious as I hope we all are as of this writing and reading or we can be neither as when we fall into deep, non-REM sleep. (It has occurred to me that dissociative processes can involve being both sentient and conscious in a disconnected way, e.g., PTSD flashback). Consciousness, then, is a quality dependent upon our internal subjective awareness. I have posted before about the claustrum that Crick and Koch think is the conductor organizing mental or conscious processes. When the claustrum is momentarily ‘turned off’, the person remains awake but unconscious and remembers nothing of the experience; our subjectivity is disrupted.

We humans are able to monitor and control (to a lesser degree than some might think) our thoughts because of our symbolic capacity, so it does seem that symbols are important to our consciousness. While other animals may not communicate symbolically, some must have some proto-symbolic processes that facilitate mental control. (So as not to ignore what ‘proto-symbolic’ entails, please consider how animals control information displaced in time and space mnemonic or imaginative but beyond the current situation). I think that something else is important to whether or not an animal’s sentience also develops into consciousness (hint: the title of this blog).

Consciousness arises in animals who are social and have an empathic awareness of another’s mind and so an increased awareness of their own. (This is close to the basis of object relations theory in psychodynamic psychology.) In this view consciousness is a matter of degrees, not all or none. How empathically tuned is the animal and how robust are its symbolic or protosymbolic capabilities? Our human consciousness is a paragon here because our roots of empathy and symbolization have joined mightily in the evolution of our lineage.

Yes, some old fogeys want to keep consciousness as one of humanity’s special traits, but don’t you buy it. That is, in de Waal’s terminology, anthropodenial. On the other hand, yes, your dog is conscious to some degree, but a different one than ours or simians or cetaceans. In one of his books, Frans de Waal utters a challenge for anyone to interact with a bonobo or chimpanzee, look into their eyes and then deny they are conscious. Can’t be done if you yourself are conscious.

Which brings me to consider whether or not some politicians who utter repeatedly an ill-considered script and show an utter disregard for the empathy required for normal interactions are conscious. Could NIMH study them? Maybe better to follow the path set by Inky. Travel on.


So you think you are conscious and that it somehow matters, eh?

2 roots or 2 lenses &

a heartwarming confluence of ideas

So keen readers of this blog will have realized that I think our humanity stems from 2 roots of our evolution, empathy developing deeply and robustly within our mammalian ancestry and symbolization developing more recently from somewhere within our ancestry, some current still mysterious despite the power of our science to understand such things. I think that is changing as I write. I read (think and write) with those two lenses to help me focus on empathy and symbolization in order to understand what I consider of paramount importance, our humanity, and I am glad I do, because the confluence of findings is, to say it simply, simply beautiful.

For the past 18 months or so I have been reading books about music and the brain (& periodically posting about it here—see posts on  6/17/14, 6/15/14, 11/12/14, 12/17/14, 5/19/15). Most recently I have started reading Origins of Music, a collection of articles presented as the initial text of evolutionary biomusicology. Wow, a third into the book and it is already worth every penny and second spent reading it.   Peter Marler, one of the preeminent early researchers into bird song if you did not know, writes that he believes the creativity evidenced in certain species’ songs may well represent an evolutionary stream contributing to the thoughtful varied expression of human music and language.   Thomas Geissmann, whom I do not know much about, writes that a primate relatively close to hominids, the gibbon, sings duets that may also represent an important contribution to our musical (and linguistic?) abilities.


Mozart the mockingbird, a great singer

Let us look at these through my two lenses, empathy and symbolization.  Marler provides a cogent analysis of the different bird songs such as the acoustic shape of the song, its context and presumed communicative function, e.g., territorial, mating, warning, spacing, etc. He finds that the birds with the most varied songs could perhaps be incipient to human music. The link is the creativity shown in vocal performance along with social communication. (One key difference is the regularity of the beat in human music). These birds, including the mocking bird and the brown thrasher, have, as it were, a creative sense of melody; does this reflect some significant difference in neural processing? Is this difference also manifest in relationships or is bird song, even at its most creative, so constrained by a brain quite limited to some immediate present, i.e., limited by the lack of power to displace information evident in mammalian evolution, heightened in primate and then, especially, hominid minds. These questions are based upon the idea that bird song became music, i.e., became a symbolic form as do all symbols, through the control of displacement from and abstraction of current information. To be plain about it, this is a primary root of symbolization.

Thomas Geissmann likewise provides a cogent analysis of gibbon song, and it turns out to be even more incredible than I previously suspected (see post 6/15/2014 on bird and gibbon songs. My next post will discuss some of these issues further). He focuses on the duets sung by male and female pairs. One most interesting finding is that the occurrence of duets correlates with the social interaction of bonding, e.g., grooming, sharing favored food source, behavioral synchronization, etc. Further, these gibbons are monogamous and they perform their duets, which are not that variable in form, with their partner. Geissmann reports that all primates that sing and not just call and hoot and such like have a monogamous social structure. Ah, song arising from intimacy. The male and female contributions are stereotyped in sequence and acoustical characteristics. Geissmann reports that a pair broken up and forced to bond with a new mate will each develop a new duet specific to that relationship. They do not, as my wife reacted when she heard this study, stop singing forever. I do not know the specifics of the experimental manipulation of forced bonding but I will say that my heart palpitates anxiously at what these scientific ethics entail.


A silver gibbon parent–they sing with their mates

So the main point here is that we have vocal communication serving the empathic relationship. Another feature of gibbon communication figures as an incipient homology to human music. When gibbons sing their duets and communicate vocally with the wider tribe, e.g., “Hey, look at the unfamiliar conspecific”, a stranger as it were, in our domain, they, or at least the females, always move not so much as for practical functions as for expressive engagement, termed more scientifically, a stereotypical locomotor display. Now compare this to what many who have studied the matter think, that music and dance evolved together. The gibbon songs are not so much creative statements of conceptual activity as social attunement. Ah, empathy.

So we have now looked through the dual lenses of empathy and symbolization at what these studies might mean. One of my contentions is that symbolization grew (grows) from the empathic awareness of another’s mind, their hidden subjective domain, in contrast with one’s own, and the subsequent call and challenge to communicate otherwise hidden contents. While birdsong creativity is important, generally only males sing. While primate song is generally stereotypical and not learned from parents, both sexes participate in vocal communication. An early confluence would seem to be between the creative novelty found in bird song and the empathic communication found in gibbons, but how could these different evolutionary streams merge? As I said at the beginning, our understanding of this question is changing as I write.


Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river?

Much more can and will be said about this. For now, Happy New Year, and travel on.

2 quibbles, 1 new & 1 old

My new quibble is with myself.  I have realized that I misnamed this blog when I started it around 2 years ago.  Instead of “Biological Roots of Humanity,” which refers more to the origin of our species, I would have done better to name it “The Biological Roots of Our Humanity.”  This would refer to our human qualities and abilities, sort of like the biological roots of dogginess as opposed to wolfishness.  A small difference but a significant one that I have figured out after only 2 years (I never claimed to be quick, or at least not recently).  There is not much argument any more outside of fundamentalists’ circles that our species arose through evolution, i.e., that we have biological roots.  So my argument is that whatever it is that composes our humanity, e.g., art, religion, governance, science, etc., has biological roots (in this facet I stand with the sociobiologists), and this brings me to my old quibble now with Mr. Jourdain in his book, Music,The Brain, and Ecstasy, that I mentioned in a recent previous post or two.

Consider this passage on page 307:  “An organism must be able to look far into the future, and to remember far into the past, to make possible the give-now-and-receive-later calculus of cooperation.  Only the symbolic minds of human beings are up to the job.”  Oh my, this is exactly what I have written against here these past two years and talked about for 45 years. Peruse past posts and you will see plenty of cooperation evidenced by other species.  We have been aware of our commonalities here at least since Darwin, if you are not blinded by the mythic uniqueness of humanity (the species).  It would be perhaps more accurate to say that only humans, with their special symbolic capabilities, manage to kill so many of our own kind with incredibly destructive weapons over cultural differences and not over resources.  But cooperation?  Read this blog; even better read books often mentioned here by Frans de Waal for a true glimpse into the capacities of other animals.

in the last post I passed over the insufficiency of Jourdain’s discussion of ‘meaning’ in music.  That it is insufficient may be traced to the distorted lenses of humanity’s (our qualities) special abilities that have arisen without precedent.  I will also add that any discussion of our humanity must include not just the usual focus on our symbolic capabilities but also our empathic ones, and that goes double for any discussion of aesthetics.

Now it is time for me to travel on.

Cooperate? Yeah, I cooperate.  What's it to ya?

Cooperate? Yeah, I cooperate. What’s it to ya?