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.


Male privilege is an ugly cultural trope

So I am talking with a friend, whom I know to be intelligent and fair-minded about Mr. Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford, and I am caught by surprise.  He says first that Dr. Ford has been too inconsistent in her testimony about who was in the room when she was assaulted (she hasn’t), so that he cannot believe her. Then he says the incident is not big deal because he as a teenager tried to “cop a feel” many times, thereby equating perhaps overly aggressive making out with forceful isolation and capture while trying to strip the lady (I heard this too many times when I worked with sexually aggressive youth).  Finally he says the #Metoo movement has gone too far because simply accusing a man ruins his reputation.  Geesh!  If he had ever expressed concern over the centuries old culture of men abusing women with impunity I could give him a break on this one, but he has not. We talked a good deal about his views mostly to no purpose and I have since wondered about the lacuna in his moral outlook and how it is that what we call ‘male privilege’ is inculcated mentally and then so strongly affects perception, action, and judgment and the male seems unaware of the effects.

One analogy here is our accent when speaking. We learn early on to speak with a regional and familial accent; we can recognize speakers from Boston, the Midwest, and different parts of the South.  Our accents can change incidentally when we move to a new region or on purpose as when some train their voices for media work.  Further, we make judgments about people based on their accent.  I lived all over the USA and graduated high school in Japan.  My accent was a conglomerate of family and different regions. Some years after high school and having lived in North Carolina for 12 years, I ran into an old girlfriend.  We had been talking for a while when she said that she knew I was smart but that I sounded so dumb with my southern accent. Who knew?  And after long holidays in Ireland and Scotland I find, and friends remark on it, that my accent has picked up a little of their lovely lilt.

Accents different from our own can be hard to understand and put people off. My mother grew up in south central Virginia.  She left there in the mid-1940s with my father who joined the Air Force.  In 1960 we moved to North Dakota.  In those days you went through an operator to make a long distance call.  When my mother tried to call home, i.e., Petersburg VA, the operator could not understand her and she could not understand the operator, who spoke and listened with the Norwegian rooted accent native to that area.  My sister stepped in to translate.  When we visited family the next summer, her sisters said my mother sounded strange to them and talked like a ‘Yankee’.  Oh, my.

I use this analogy only to highlight the incidental, mostly unconscious learning of specific cultural facets.  A deeper and broader facet would be sex/gender roles, e.g., boys don’t cry, girls do and that’s ok except that it indicates their lack of rationality. “Boys will be boys” and so much misbehavior, some of it quite serious in its violation of another person, is excused, and aren’t all men really boys at heart so give all of them a break, please. I have posted several times before about gender bias and sexual harassment/assault.  As a clinical psychologist I worked with many young males who had been sexually aggressive.  They wondered what the problem was or thought their actions were completely ok and justified.  The complexity of full consent was unknown to them as it is to many males in many cultures. Why?  Because full consent, in the view of many males, does not apply to them—this is the rotten core at the heart of male privilege.

We go from being young children with instincts for empathy, intimacy, fair play, helping others, & revulsion at seeing others hurt to (especially men now) feeling entitled to catcall and comment on a woman’s appearance, privileged to touch her without either explicit permission or, more commonly, mutually established trust and intimacy, and holding opinions that women do not want powerful and responsible positions because they are too fragile or just prefer someone else to do the heavy lifting.  And opining that the questions raised about a man’s behavior when a women alleges that he has been inappropriate are being handled unfairly, while showing little concern about the incredible numbers of women who endure sexualized mistreatment silently because they are only too aware that speaking out will compound their mistreatment by those who loudly carry forward male privilege.

When we consider how our brains are acculturated in this way, how we inculcate assumptions in our habitus about the rules of social behavior, and how our Empathy Central or EC (that’s ToM or Theory of Mind to most of you) operates with the moral lacunae of male privilege, when we consider such phenomena, our lack of knowledge about this neuropsychology is plainly seen.  But we do know some things; go back a couple of posts and read about Decety’s model of empathy (see post 9/9/18) and Iacoboni’s ideas about existential neuroscience (see post 9/16/18). The latter discusses the centrality of mirroring and mentalizing about others in social behaviors.  Male privilege can be seen as both a defective mirror that distorts the resonance with another (females are so different from us, huh, guys?) and inaccurate algorithms that provide errant empathetic suppositions about the other (she can’t rationally object to what I the man think).  Decety’s model includes the failure to mirror and resonate accurately and fully and he also adds 3 other systemic difficulties [from that post]:

  • Confusion as to the agent of thoughts and feelings. They think their own thoughts and feelings are also the other’s and they may fail to process accurately social feedback when the other tries to disagree or otherwise present their own perspective (familiar, ladies?).
  • This leads to problems with perspective taking. They may assume that their perspective is shared by everyone [males assume females share theirs]
  • Poorly developed emotional regulation presents difficulties for staying on mental task and intent as well as for responding with empathic concern for the other—instead they act upon their own egoistic anxiety and fail to engage socially in an adequate manner

Male privilege is a cultural trope that has maintained its bias through many iterations for a long, long time.  Such bias is inculcated while young in various ways with different forms according to one’s sex/gender, family traditions, social class, and educational level.  Like a linguistic accent, our social behaviors and attitudes have a ‘privileged’ accent.  Many operate with this accent, i.e., bias, without any cognizance that something is different, indeed that something is wrong.  Some do learn to operate socially and morally with a different accent, i.e., they reflect consciously on their attitudes, evaluating their accuracy and fairness, and change the bias acquired earlier in life.

As I posted in January about Oprah’s wonderful speech at the Golden Globes: “Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice is one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and refreshing view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right.” The change needed to fulfill this vision is, given the long history of cultural biases, enormous.  Indeed, it is in a way utopian, but it is also already evident in the cultural path of our civilization.  We are not alone in refusing to go forward with male privilege. That’s a good thing because the heavy lifting necessary for progress has gotten a bit heavier this past week or so. Travel on.

Existential neuroscience and autonoesis

I read a remarkable article by Marco Iacoboni in Social Neuroscience entitled “The Quiet Revolution in Existential Neuroscience”.  Instead of ‘quiet’ I wish it would be quite loud.  It makes for some dense reading but worth every nerve impulse to do so.  His main argument seems to be that instead of doing neuroscience based on the assumptions that the subjective and objective worlds are clearly delineated and that the subjective world is based upon representations which have been constructed through the accretion of analyzed elements (some pragmatic truth in that), our neuroscience should be based upon “the view of a human brain that needs a body to exist in a world of shared social norms in which meaning originates from being-in-the-world”.  What is important to our minds is not so much the analytic synthesis but the embodied context of experience.  Hey now, I can get behind that one.

Iacoboni marshals evidence for this view from a variety of research, especially studies into the frontoparietal mirror system.  (The frontal lobe has motoric functions that light up when we see someone doing something and the parietal lobe has perceptual and body schema functions that contribute to this mirroring).  Some studies show that mirroring emotions both incidentally and intentionally invokes not just the mirrored expressive actions but also the emotional processes themselves in the limbic system.  We mirror each other automatically on an almost continuous basis and that this leads to (I really like this next part) “a process according to which a certain intimacy is achieved . . . . . What is this intimacy if not the interdependence of both parties”.  What is emphasized here is not our separateness but our communal feelings. Mirroring helps us identify with and understand the other’s intention and emotional state.  This plays, of course, an important role in ‘mentalizing’ about others, what I call EC for Empathy Central and others label it ToM for Theory of Mind.

There is a lot more about this to be said but I want to explore another remarkable idea.  Iacoboni sees our minds interpreting much of our experience in context.  The same actions occur in many situations, so that to understand the other’s acts requires the inclusion of context in our deliberations.  (Be still, O my heart).  If I read him correctly, one major feature of any context is the degree of personal relevance; some situations are impersonal, i.e., without emotional engagement or involvement (think of doing things as a matter of course), and some are more personal, i.e., their emotional involvement leads to episodic memories (the experience is important enough to remember as an autobiographical episode of your life).  Experiences that are important to the self are autonoetic, as was discussed in my recent post 8/22/18, and autonoesis has many implications.


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.

Most amazingly, Iacoboni identifies two structures relevant to the mirroring system, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex, that light up when the experience is autonoetic (my interpretation).  For example, these two areas are silent during artificial laboratory tasks that have little ecological validity but they become more active when the task is social in a meaningful way.  Iacoboni says our ‘default state’ is to think socially and these two areas help in the ongoing social thinking needed to relate in a authentic, i.e., not rote or cant, manner.  To refer back to his earlier notion, these areas light up more when the situation’s import is based upon intimacy, i.e., engagement with the other, than when the situation is socially sterile.

Now, if you have followed my blog somewhat closely for more than a few months, you may already have a sense of how my dorsomedial prefrontal and medial parietal cortices are fired up.  Consider one of Iacoboni’s preliminary research finding that these areas light up when political aficionados discuss politics and grow dark when politically naïve or disinterested people do so.  I take this to mean that some of us feel politics is relevant to our lives and some do not.  Some do because they are cognitively engaged in issues and some do only because of the chameleon effect, i.e., they are responding by fitting in through social imitation and emotional contagion.  If you have done any phone canvassing for a candidate you might recall conversations based on positions, conversations based upon an emotional identification, and some when the person could care less.

Now consider a study posted about here on 4/18/18 that demonstrated that the closer you are, i.e., developing intimacy, with colleagues and friends, the more your neural responses to watching a movie are congruent with each other.  Also consider (and it may help to re-read my 8/22/18 post) the role of autonoesis in art. My empirical question is when someone ‘gets into’ a work of art, e.g., reading a novel that is hard to put down or seeing a movie that you love, do these areas indicative of autonoesis or personal engagement, i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal medial parietal cortices, light up? If you used an instrument to assess one’s aesthetic response such as the AESTHEMOS (see post 10/31/17), would this correlate with activity in these areas?  A very interesting study there wants to be done—oh to be a younger man in a research setting.  But go one step further with me.

Aristotle in talking about drama but it applies, I think, in some way to art forms in general, says that since we know the art is not ‘factual’, i.e., couldn’t be relevant to our ‘real’ life, to engage emotionally (and aesthetically, I would say) we must have a willing suspension of disbelief.  So I wonder if such a suspension allows what I am calling these autonoetic areas to fire up, and if we find art uninvolving, e.g., we could care less about the characters or the plot of a stupid movie, do these areas remain dark?  Oh my, that is seeking the deep aesthetic in life and mind.  Travel on.


Whose brain could we study?

I am going out on a lark here.  I just read an excellent review of research along with a proposed model of how our brains do empathy:  “A social cognitive neuroscience model of human empathy” by Jean Decety in another great collection of papers, Social Neuroscience: integrating Biological and Psychological Explanations of Social Behavior.  We are going to go into some complexities here but in truth, the reality is even more mind-boggling.  So Dr. Decety postulates 4 components to empathy:

  • ‘Shared neural representations’ which I understand to be the mirrored actions, especially emotional expressions, by which we resonate with one another.  (See posts 9/27/15, 7/29/15 & 7/31/15).
  • ‘Self-awareness’ which I take to be essential in knowing which resonant activity originated within us and which within the other.
  • ‘mental flexibiity’ by which Decety means the ability to set mentally one’s own perspective in the background and so enable the taking of another’s perspective.
  • ‘Emotional regulation’ which I understand to be quite basic to developing empathy and also higher intellectual skills. The development of emotional regulation is critical to our maintaining focus on our current mental set, intention, and task as well as to setting our personal feelings aside to address the concerns of others.

As Decety explains these 4 components, he reviews the neuroscience, including clinical findings, relevant to each.  For example, autistic people can generally engage in mimicry, i.e., mirroring, intentionally, but do not do so incidentally and this latter is necessary for mentalizing about another’s state of mind. It is one reason researchers like Ramachandran and Baron-Cohen (see my post 7/29/18 ) think autists suffer from a mirroring deficit.

The neuroanatomy supporting empathy is also profoundly complex.  Generally there are centers in the posterior brain, especially in the right hemisphere, that receive and integrate social information, and centers in the front of the brain that provide executive functions and guided responses to that information, again especially on the right side.  The front and back areas communicate with each other directly in some cases through long fasciculi, i.e., nerve fibers traversing the cortex, and also through their interconnections with lower centers like the hippocampus for memory and limbic system for emotional processing.


Exterior view of left hemisphere. Lobes are same on the right. Some structures are deeper within the larger folds.

Decety does an admirable job sorting through various findings to present relevant hypotheses about neural functioning.  For example,

  • The frontal polar cortex facilitates inhibiting our own perspective, which is the default one that we usually follow in our considerations, in order to take on another’s perspective. This area also helps evaluate our own responses and behaviors for their contextual fitness, i.e., do they fulfill the intent? Was the intent properly developed from a coherent adequately formulated context?
  • The prefrontal cortex interacting with the inferior parietal lobe (in the back and integrating information from many perceptual sources) and the insula (old cortex deep with the brain kind of in the middle) on the right side helps to differentiate actions from one’s own self from those of another.
  • The paracingulate sulcus (again old cortical structures deep in the brain) in the medial prefrontal cortex helps process social feedback, i.e., how do others view our actions?

And so forth.  I always find it amazing to consider that while these areas are performing these particular functions, they are also contributing to many others, e.g., attention and focus, memory input and output, etc.

Two ideas here struck me as particularly interesting.  First, damage from say a stroke to the right frontal lobe so important to emotional expression and social responding sometimes shows up in personal confabulation, i.e., the patient makes up stories about themselves seemingly unaware that he is doing so.  The second is that when faced with the personal distress of others, say due to their own circumstances or even to their assessment feedback of the original actor’s actions in some matter, our brains can respond either with empathic concern given their perspective (an optimal response) or with egoistic anxiety (retreating to one’s own narcissistic concerns).

Well, we have covered a good deal of ground here.  In my past life as a clinical psychologist I worked with many youth, including some with attachment and sexual aggression problems, who had deficits in some of these empathy ‘components’.  Each person’s deficits were unique in form and history and most retained some islands of empathic functioning.   Let me list some major areas:

  • Failure to resonate with another. The person may only resonate when the other mirrors them, but they seem unable to mirror or resonate with the other’s feelings.
  • Confusion as to the agent of thoughts and feelings. They think their own thoughts and feelings are also the other’s and they may fail to process accurately social feedback when the other tries to disagree or otherwise present their own perspective.
  • This leads to problems with perspective taking. They may assume that their perspective is shared by everyone.
  • Poorly developed emotional regulation presents difficulties for staying on mental task and intent as well as for responding with empathic concern for the other—instead they act upon their own egoistic anxiety and fail to engage socially in an adequate manner.

As I read and thought about these ideas I kept thinking of someone who seems to experience all of these deficits despite what otherwise may be intact intellectual capacity.  And I wondered if scientists could study that person’s neurological structure and functioning to learn from what seems to be an unusual case, someone whose empathy deficits appear global but without a history of neurological disease or injury or of developmental trauma.  I can think of only one person like this at the moment and that is why I want to ask our President, Mr. Trump, to donate his brain to science upon his death.  I know more could be discovered if he were to undergo evaluation while alive through experimental protocols, e.g., using fMRI, but I also know he is much too busy being president and running his businesses to do such a thing.  I am not talking about a simple post mortem autopsy such as the one that found a tumor impacting the amygdala of Charles Whitman, the Texas tower shooter (see my posts 9/3/15 & 12/26/17), but a detailed scientific examination of his brain structure, sort of like we wish would have happened with Einstein’s brain, which unfortunately was not done very rigorously.  I believe a knowledgeable neuroanatomist could assess the integrity of most of the relevant areas and some of their interconnections.

Now I have no way really of getting my message to our President and I am not on Twitter nor knowledgeable about it, but I wonder if some tweeting aficionados sent out some messages using #SaveTrump’sbrainforscience (if I understand the format correctly), what might transpire.  Travel on.

a precious process part 2

So we know from last post that the mirror system contributes to our social skill of reading another’s intention.  Most researchers frame their studies of this theoretically as contributing to cooperation and joint activity and that is fine as far as it goes, but I also think that mirroring and empathy play an important role in both the evolution and the development of intimacy, which is important to the development of verbal, i.e., symbolic, communication.  Consider the epitome of intimate relationships, mother and child.  Watch a video of a mother-infant face to face interaction, how they mirror each other in action, e.g., sticking out tongues, and in rhythm, and this is only the beginning. In my former life I was a speech-language pathologist working primarily with preschoolers, some of whom had articulation disorders that made their speech difficult to understand.  I learned that no matter how disordered the child’s articulation, his or her mother could understand them.  Often fathers could too, though not as well as mother, depending on how involved the dad was in parenting.  Also older siblings were usually pretty good at understanding them.  In these early years communicative success is critical to energizing development. Indeed, as throughout our lifespan, feeling understood is a prerequisite to feeling good about our relationships and our life.


so is this kid happy or what?

Parent-child mirroring also plays an essential role in the development of emotional regulation.  Allan Schore gives a comprehensive summary of research into this in his two volumes on Affect Regulation and Affect Dysregulation.  While most people focus on the how the child learns to gain comfort, calm, self soothe, and recover from emotional distress, Shore also sees the importance of emotional innervation, i.e., the infant learns how to be positively excited through mirroring with parents.  We need to develop and acquire the capabilities to cope with distress, alleviate sadness, and also very importantly to be happy, i.e., to energize with positive emotions and use that energy for relating, or as my wife and I said in our vows, “to build a space for joy.”

Consider now how energetic, joyful mirroring appears later in life and its important contribution to social bonding and the expansion of intimacy.  I believe all cultures, at least those healthy dynamic ones, have traditions that promote musical fellowship and ecstatic dancing, e.g., drum circles, Celtic ceilidhs, and some vibrant church services.


Who wrote the book of love?

As an example of what I would call an unhealthy culture, remember almost any repressive fundamentalist religion. Scottish Presbyterian ministers in the 19thcentury demanded that musical instruments be destroyed (how could they destroy the family fiddle?), my Baptist family frowned on all dancing and rock and roll (were Buddy Holly and Elvis really doing the Devil’s work?), and even today the Taliban and ISIS use inquisitorial measures to restrict dancing and music.  One measure of unhealthiness is hypocrisy; for example when allied forces invaded Afghanistan in the effort to fight terrorism, they captured some Taliban leaders and their cars that had within tapes and CDs of music they had forbidden others to have.  It’s a small sick joy listening must have brought them.

Finally consider falling in love and how sexual intimacy involves the energetic acceleration of each partner’s pleasure centers together.  This is a highly skilled, difficult and variable performance and its learning requires a certain level of healthy development that includes how to mirror such actions and feelings.  In my past life as a clinical psychologist I worked with sexually aggressive youth, i.e., they had sex on someone, not with them.  Their aggression generally resulted from key experiences that bruised their empathic capability and stunted their capacity for real intimacy.  They used sex to energize themselves through feelings of power and control at the expense of their ‘partner.’  This bruising and stunting is more pervasive in our culture than many understand.

Why is the #MeToo movement so important? Because it demands change to how males (mostly) exert power to gain energy for themselves while draining the other’s energy; indeed they transform the victim’s energy from intimacy’s positive dynamic to the negative toxins of trauma and assault.  And so, the #MeToo movement in its full expression insists that our culture promote true intimacy through the abnegation of the mostly male illusion that coercion is a path to intimate joy (and parents need to instill a finer model for masculine intimacy).  That mirroring leads to intimacy is then a most precious process, and we must nurture and protect it.  Intimacy needs cherishing, or as Stevie Wonder sang, “Love’s in need of love today”.   (Now don’t get me started about the separation of parents and children and the consequent bruising of the child’s development of empathy.)  Better now to travel on.

a precious process part 1

I found a 2015 article that shows an important aspect of mirror systems in our empathizing, the lateralization of empathy and verbally directed attention, and the necessary neural (is there any other kind?) connection between context and intention:   Marco Iacoboni and colleagues, who first discovered mirror neurons back in the day, used a complicated experimental design to investigate mirroring systems in humans.  The set-up is to show video clips to subjects undergoing fMRI and then examine and compare the different brain responses to different clips.  Now these films were of a cup grasped either by the handle or by the whole cup with either of two contexts, either a table set for tea with cookies, clean plates, folded napkins, etc. or a table after tea with only cookie crumbs on plates, napkins in disarray, etc.  The idea is to see what neural systems operate to identify the intention of the person grasping the cup, either to drink or to wash. They used variations so that they could subtract neural patterns from one another to see the effects of the different types of grasping, the effects of context without the cup being grasped, and context with the cup being grasped.  All told, a very logical design that let them examine those factors and brain patterns.

Their motivation was to see if mirror neurons contributed directly to the apprehension of another’s intent or if other neural systems were used to mediate that process.  Their results showed that the mirroring system does contribute directly to the viewer’s understanding of intent without other areas being recruited, that it was the mirrored action coupled with context that enabled the apprehension of the other’s intent, that the intent itself was processed especially in the right frontal lobe, and that verbal directions were processed more through the left sided attentional system.  Another implication is that the mirroring system automatically processed the information about the intent no matter if the directions directed the subject to attend to that or distracted the subject to other features.  Quite an accomplishment all this, I think.

I have maintained that right sided structures process the immediate concrete information while the left side deals more with displaced information.  The reading of another’s intent from actions would be just such a current event, so the nexus of processing the intent to the right side makes sense.  That the mirroring system does this as a matter of course also makes sense because monitoring another’s intention is critical to social interaction, specifically to interacting with social intelligence, and is usually done incidentally in an interaction.

Two thoughts to finish up here, one about when this mirroring system dysfunctions and one about how it culminates and fulfills its evolutionary mission. The first instance happens with brain damage and/or developmental deficits.  Strokes etc. rarely damage just the mirror system but when it is included, patients have difficulty imitating or miming actions, reading and comprehending another’s intentions and feelings, and behaving in socially appropriate ways. Developmental deficits, such as those on the autism spectrum, result in deficient empathy and all that that entails. Several researchers, such as V. S. Ramachandran, think that mirroring deficits are at the core of the autistic syndrome, i.e., the person’s ToM (Theory of Mind as it is generally called, EC or Empathy Central as I like to call it) is deficient, i.e., Ramachandran calls it ‘a broken mirror system’.  Without this precious knowledge a person experiences difficulty establishing and maintaining social connections.

What about when the mirroring system operates optimally and develops with appropriate experience?  Over the past year I have come to understand that just as our symbolic capability makes human communication distinctive in the animal realm, so too does our empathic capability make human intimacy distinctive.  Indeed, I think that our symbolic capability emerges from our intimacy (look back at recent posts to see this).  Now intimacy is hard to study empirically yet it is critical to our humanity. Consider how important trust issues are and how destructive a breach is; we think we know our intimates well enough to trust them completely.  When we meet someone who seems erratic we will constrain our trust and development of intimacy.  Also consider how well married couples, e.g., old people, who are very intimate, know each other’s intent implicitly; they can readily read each other’s intents even in novel situations.  It is as if they share one mind on some matters.

So the mirroring system functions as an initial phase in a crucial process that leads to intimacy if successful interaction proceeds on course.  I have more to say about this but that will be in part 2. Travel on.


Evolutionary tidbits

To reiterate my understanding of the biological roots of our humanity, I see human empathy as something special and it laid the foundation for symbolization and that enables us to think and talk about everything and nothing and to create it if it is not already there in reality.  Through our empathy we humans are keenly aware of another’s mind, that they have subjective considerations, and how we can interact with each other mindfully.  Symbols carry this social effort forward with scope and power.

This empathic capability is centered in the right hemisphere that processes kinesic communication and maintains Empathy Central in the temporal-parietal junction where knowledge about our relationships contributes to what the academics call ToM (theory of mind).  Anyway, my thought is that this keen sensitivity to others’ minds became integrated with our mirroring capabilities, so that certain actions could be replicated readily upon observing them in another.  This replication of mirrored actions comprises the invariant forms of social communication, and when our mirroring system came to include vocal signals, so that we could hear a conspecific vocalize/verbalize and reproduce that sound and not just the objectively observable motoric behaviors, e.g., lifting a cup to drink.  This is the functional significance of the arcuate fasciculus on both the right and left sides, but especially on the left, where the af enables the repetition of what we just heard another say (see my post of 4/24/2014 on the arcuate fasciculus and mirroring).  Putting together, i.e., integrating, the awareness of another’s mind and the knowledge produced by the mirrored invariant behaviors led to symbolization, at first linguistic and then artistic (ask me to explain that sometime).  Symbols, if you remember, have a deep structure (what resides in our minds subjectively) and a surface structure (what we use to formulate and then communicate those subjective musings), and voila! language, art and the cultural wealth of our kind.

That said, I have been reading Georg Striedter’s Principles of Brain Evolutionand find a couple of evolutionary tidbits that help to carry my speculative imaginings forward (and I find nothing so far contrary to this path). Consider that human eyes are almond shaped and that our irises are surrounded by white sclera while the eyes of other primates are round and the irises surrounded by dark sclera (though the sclera hidden within the eye socket is white.  Striedter interprets this to show that we humans monitor each other’s gaze and so gather more information about the other’s subjective musings; further that our eyes’ structure facilitates this with its almond shape and white sclera shows that such kinesic communication is important evolutionarily. I see this as an example of our keen awareness of the other’s mind.

Think of some examples of this.  Parents follow the gaze of pre-verbal infants and move to facilitate their exploratory activity.  As Michael Tomasello explains, joint action is a critical advance in our social coordination and eye gaze is an important means by which we cooperate, e.g., one holds something still while another performs a more intricate action such as a nurse clamping a wound while another stitches it up, or one hunter with a bow shifting gaze to match another’s and finding prey.  Finally in this regard, in my early career I learned about the challenge of hearing impaired children (and adults) who must watch the other’s hands to communicate about a task that needs to be seen to be learned. Eye gaze is important in juggling these gaze shifts and we humans have extra talent for this.

Father child

joint gaze and joint action

Streidter also discusses the size of our brains in absolute terms, compared to our body mass, relative to other animals, the amount of cortex relative to the medulla, etc.  He points out that large brains are ‘expensive’, e.g., they require high protein diets, they pose problems for live births due to mismatch between skull size and birth canal, and they pose challenges to communication between neural areas.  This last comes about because areas farther away take longer to communicate with each other and that poses a problem for timing.  Much of our neural processing depends upon the simultaneity or temporal match of parallel processes.  Our brains have evolved with some work-arounds such as long, thicker nerve tracts that nerve impulses travel along faster than thin fibers.  Our brains have many more modules and these connect especially to those nearby with some longer fasciculi, e.g., the arcuate fasciculus, the superior longitudinal fasciculus, the claustrum and the corpus callosum, bearing the burden of longer range communication.


The arcuate fasciculus is part of the superior longitudinal fasciculus. Thicker axons help nerve impulses travel long distances faster.

Now here is another interesting tidbit.  Our corpus callosum is relatively smaller than those in other primate species, i.e., our cerebral hemispheres are less connected than might be expected.  Streidter says the data show that the human brain is more asymmetrical than other species’ brains; this works because our two hemispheres specialize in different functions (yes, even as they perform much of the same functions, one leads, and while brain damage when young can be compensated for, damage when older is less so because the specialization has become at least partially irreversible). Again this difference in connectivity is relative; I have posted here before that studies of our connectomes show females generally have more bilateral connections, i.e., they make more use of their corpus callosum, while males have more connections within each hemisphere than between.


corpus callosum with part of right hemisphere cut away

Now this bit of information speaks to two issues.  First is that females and males (please remember that I use the terms in a relative manner and appreciate all manner of androgeny in our variations) approach interactions differently.  This is especially noticeable in preschoolers where girls are both more verbal and tuned into relationships and boys are somewhat less verbal and their attunement to others is, shall we say, less robust.  Actually, talking with my 30 something daughter and others, this difference may even be accentuated in mature humans (maturity, again, is a relative term, guys).  In any event, the functioning of the connectome when emphasizing social and linguistic information together would use the corpus callosum more fully and that would correlate with a female sort of pattern.

The second issue here goes back to my thesis that symbolization arose from, first, the integration between the keen empathic apprehension of another’s subjectivity and the invariant behavioral forms that operate in mirroring, and then, second, once the connections are formed, their separation into the surface and deep structures of our symbols.  Human brains are more asymmetrical and this I associate with the differentiation of function between Empathy Central on the right side and linguistic functions on the left, e.g., one side is pragmatic and the other syntactic/semantic.

The last tidbit comes from Streidter’s analysis of the human brain’s enlarged lateral prefrontal cortex (adjacent to motor and premotor areas) primarily on the left side.  This relatively species-specific area serves, Streidter hypothesizes, our abilities to use our hands and words in very flexible, facile, novel and unconventional ways.  We are able to do things hitherto unseen, un-imitated and even unimagined until we do them.  This includes our words as well as our hands.  This highlights one of the great paradoxical strengths of our language. We use words, conventional symbols with socially established meanings, to say many things that have never been said before, i.e., they are novel and unconventional.  We do this day in and day out in small and large ways for mundane and profound topics.  Back in the day Noam Chomsky focused on this generative capacity to demonstrate the theoretical poverty of behaviorism, and we are still learning about this today.


lateral prefrontal is in lower blue area towards the front

So a long post.  Funny how tidbits expand when I am (you are too hopefully) having fun and learning about our humanity, eh?  Travel on.