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.

3 news stories

Here’s 3 unrelated reports of interest.  First, 2 hours after I posted the last piece on the hippocampus, I read the obituary of Suzanne Corkin.  I did not know her name but she was the principal scientist, after Brenda Milner, studying the famous patient and research subject H.M. after his bilateral hippocampectomy.  She spent years investigating his memory loss and what he retained.  As mentioned in the previous post she spent hours many days with Henry Molaison (H.M.) who never recognized her but thought maybe he had been to high school with her.  She was respected for the thoroughness and rigor of her work.  In her book about him, Permanent Present Tense (I might have to check it out sooner than later), she wrote, reports the NYT, of coming to see Henry as a person and not solely a research subject but a collaborator in the research.  She also said he retained some strong memories from the distant past in an austere manner which she labeled ‘gist’ memories’, saying his memory had lost the capacity for narrative richness.  Thank you, Dr. Corkin, and thank you, Henry Molaison


Neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin worked with Henry Gustave Molaison, who had severe amnesia, for 50 years — from the 1953 surgery that caused permanent damage to his brain until his death in 2008.

Next up a brief report from Earthsky.org on the Rosetta spacecraft orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko since August, 2014.  It has detected glycine and phosphorus on the comet.  Glycine is a simple amino acid and phosphorus is essential to building  DNA, so comet 67P orbiting our galaxy and who knows where else carries some of the building blocks of life.  Gaia seeded from Mars?  Maybe, but life from Andromeda maybe as well.  Don’t you love it when we get some empirical confirmation towards some of the wilder ideas out there?

Finally, another NYT story reports that researchers have found a Neanderthal construction from 175,000 years ago (remember that the earliest cave art is only about 50,000 years ago).  This pushes back the hominid timeline a great deal.  Evidently Neanderthals deep in a cave in France broke off stalagmites and stalagmites and arranged them in a circle way back then.  The ability to navigate that deep underground is impressive and then they were able to break off these mineral formations and then for some reason arranged them into a pretty decent circle.  Meditate on those findings for awhile and see what you come up with thinking about what our minds were like back then.  Thank you Neanderthals and thank you researchers.

That’s it for now, so after you do the above meditation, please travel on.





Beyond hippocampus redux

Another article in Science News (4/30/16) shows our further understanding of this remarkable structure and lets me speculate even more. This new report is about research that shows that the hippocampus maps social objects, i.e., conspecifics or people if you are Homo sapiens as in the experimental study, or maybe rats if you are a rat, a mammal in which the hippocampus evolved early to serve memory especially for spaces and sounds in their case. This brings up two issues: one is how we conceptualize and talk about such phenomena and our research into them and the second is the difference between experimental laboratory studies and in vivo ecological studies, i.e., real life not the lab, and my speculation on what we will find we can do more of the latter.

To review a bit for the newer readers of my blog, the hippocampus (actually hippocampi, right and left) is a cortical structure which receives input of highly processed information from the posterior perceptual areas for processing as old or new, remembered or to be remembered, and feeds its results into frontal areas to support intentional guidance. It is one of my favorite areas for discussion so I have several blog posts on it over the years. It is an area between midbrain and cortex, so that is either at the peak of midbrain evolution and operates as the cortex for the limbic system, the emotional core of the brain or at the beginning of the neocortex and the evolution of the cerebral hemispheres and higher cognition.


Hippocampus on the left side under the cut away cortex and on top of the limbic system

The Science News article focuses on studies with rats when mapping tonal sequences or time’s passage is important and a study with humans undergoing a computer simulation of hunting for a new home or job. The subjects interacted virtually with different characters and formed judgments about their power and approval of the subject. The interaction with the virtual characters correlated with activity in the hippocampus and upon further analysis, the judgments formed correlated with some behavioral traits associated with social anxiety. So imagine in the real world, going to a party with mostly familiars or with mostly strangers, we would imagine that our hippocampi would keep up with, i.e., map, the people we meet in different ways for strangers and familiars, that people with different social approaches, e.g., low or high social anxiety, introversion or extroversion, would map the interactions quite differently and subsequently remember the events quite differently.   So later on, say that night while sleeping, the hippocampi would consolidate particular memories of the party; they would extract the more salient experiences for memory input based upon their emotional stance.

The articles I read in Plosbiology are quite technical and I can only partially digest them. Still what I can glean there is interesting. They all used the electrical activity (EEGs of various sorts) to correlate with behavioral/mental activity. One looked at how the hippocampus grows quieter during REM (dream) sleep, where by quieter I mean more synchronized, i.e., less analysis going on, and with lower energies. This would seem to indicate that its role as memory organizer for input has momentarily paused while the selected memories are consolidated for later recall. Another article reports research showing that, contrary to current thinking and models, memory input-recall is done unconsciously as well as consciously. Many currently think conscious processing is needed for input and recall, though why I do not know. There is a lot of literature now showing that subconscious processes do much of the work—see Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink for one perspective on this.

The third article is the most interesting to me because it shows differences between right and left hemispheres in detecting new information. Specifically the left hippocampus works more at detecting violations of expectations while the right hippocampal circuit monitors novelty and changes more generally. Are we using our left sided linguistic abilities to set and codify expectations for monitoring? Sure, look at the science about inner speech. Is the right side more concerned with the ongoing present, our consciousness being the remembered present (to use William James’ term)? Sure, look through my blog.

Now all these studies looked at the brain’s and the hippocampus’ response to events impacting our perceptual systems as set up by experimental designs. Leaving the strictly positivistic behind while still remaining empirically oriented I want to ask about functioning in the natural world (in vivo and ecological), about how we talk about hippocampal processing, and most especially, about the brain’s own creative processes that underlie artistic activity.

Consider how the hippocampus and its functions presumably develop early in life. Mostly immature at birth it quickly matures during the sensitive early years to acquire the ability to map space and time, things, and animate objects, not just people–remember toddlers’ affinities to other animals, especially dogs. These social maps, in conjunction with other areas such as the higher visual cortex for facial recognition and the lower limbic areas for attachment and emotional regulation, come to demarcate family and intimates from others, familiars from strangers and safety from danger. Imagine the impact on these incipient maps when intimates turn out to be dangerous as happens in instances of childhood maltreatment. Treasure the impact of healthy families on these same maps.

Consider what is actually being mapped here. Yes, experimental science, in order to progress in a sure-footed manner, must study aspects with careful controls. So studies have shown that the hippocampus maps space, time, things, and others. In a more holistic sense the hippocampus maps our experiences. Remember the patient H.M. (see post on ) who had a bilateral hippocampectomy, i.e., surgical removal of both hippocampi, in the effort to control severe epilepsy. He lost the ability to make new memories even though he could remember educational material and some events from his long past. He failed to recognize his doctors and other medical personal and the scientists studying his neuropsychological deficits even though he saw some of them almost every day, even though he had seen them an hour beforehand. He could converse and express himself on many topics and retained some procedural memories of how to do things. One conversation I find remarkable is reported in Joseph’s Neuroscience text. H.M. asked someone what he had done in the past little while because he was worried he may have done something wrong. He knew he had done something but he did not know what and so worried about that. His consciousness lacked the experience of the remembered present. (To my mind his worries mark him as a true gentleman as opposed to some politicians and sociopaths who worry about this not at all).

Consider what we do not know about hippocampal functioning during artistic endeavors such as dance, novels or music. I am quite sure that dancing, at least well with others, involves hippocampal maps for guidance. Ritualized and choreographed motions would necessarily involve maps for space, time, and others as well as procedural memories for the actual movements. Ritualized motion would summon emotional involvement in a consistent acculturated manner; modern choreographed motions would summon emotional involvement in a dramatic manner. What about novels with their virtual space, time, characters and experiences, all from different perspectives? Here I do not think we know much about how the hippocampus might function in support of the virtual domains involved and I do not think the hippocampus as a part of the perceptual-motor system dealing with objective events is sufficient for virtual operations. For these I think that dorsal and ventral loops involving longitudinal fasciculi in the cortex must contribute (see post Important stuff 2/11/16). So I wonder how Faulkner knew Yoknapatawpha County so well and how Gandalf and Aragorn knew all the paths of Middle Earth.

Finally consider music that I have focused on here so recently. Memory for tones, rhythms, melodies, beats seem basic and probably involve procedural memories as well. Memories for the biographical frames of favored songs are among the last to be lost with dementia, sometimes lasting even after one’s own identity is forgotten. This highlights again an important feature of hippocampal functioning, the setting of a standard or the stabilizing memory of the song’s emotional tone and echoes in a fashion analogous to its noticing things are out of place or out of order as reported in the previously cited studies and in H.M.’s worries. We experience only as we are able to fit moments together and this requires that we organize our mental functions coherently in an integrated fashion as moments in our life. Somehow our brains know what melodies work for a particular culture–no atonal tunes for me please–and some brains know innovative genius upon hearing; think of the responses to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  So good job, hippocampus, and thanks for the memories.

Theta moments, completion of a composition, & cortical fasciculi

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


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

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

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


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

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

arcuate fasciculus

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

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

(Hippocampal) experience

A recent Science News (12/12/15) has an article about new research into the hippocampus of rats. Now the hippocampus has long been a favorite of mine and I have written about it several times here (see posts on 2/21/15, 11/4/15, 10/17/14, 9/8/14, or 2/14/14). To review just a bit, the hippocampus is so named because of its seahorse shape and is a very old structure of the neocortex.


Hippocampus: entorhinal cortex is at the lower, thicker end and information travels up and around to frontal areas

The perceptual areas of the cortex pass on their processed information, e.g., visual recognition of objects, faces, or auditory recognition of sounds, multi-modal maps of location, etc., to an area just before the hippocampus, the entorhinal cortex where the information is further processed, maybe collated and integrated, and then this is passed into the hippocampus for its distinctive processing of old and new in the service of memory which it then passes on to other areas such as frontal lobes for planning and acting, etc. A lot more could be said here about this important piece of the brain, but I want to focus on experience, or rather, how we animals experience.

A patient some years back known as H. M. had both hippocampi removed as a way to stop virtually constant seizure activity. Over the years Brenda Milner and others studied his neurological functioning in depth (See my post on ). Briefly, he could form no new memories. He could remember some things from before his surgery and he could talk and perform some cognitive tasks in a seemingly normal manner, but he would not remember meeting you if you left the room and came back in a minute. I do not believe he ever really recognized Dr. Milner who worked with him for many years. While he retained his ability to experience in a human manner, i.e., symbolically, he could not remember much, certainly not his autobiographical experience.

The hippocampus is not the only structure critical to consciously remembered experience; other structures also support our awareness and memory and they also communicate between the posterior perceptual areas and the anterior executive areas. One of the more prominent of these is the claustrum (see post on 8/17/14), that seems to play a role in organizing the blooming welter of experiential elements like, as Crick and Koch explained, a conductor leading a symphonic orchestra to produce a coherent piece of music (and a one, and a two, and . . .). When the claustrum has been rendered temporarily non-functional during surgical procedures, the patient loses consciousness and remembers nothing even as they stay awake. (Remember now that waking and consciousness are two different states).


claustrum running front and back deep inside the brain

All this brings us to the newly reported research showing that what are termed grid cells in the entorhinal cortex feeding into the hippocampus do not just keep track of the animal’s location (to be remembered then by the hippocampus) but also the animal’s distance and time traveled. The grid cells were discovered by studying how the rat brain functions as a GPS system (and Science News reminds me that this discovery was awarded the Nobel last year). This current study looked at grid cell functions as the rats ran on a treadmill; in other words their location did not change but the cells still kept up with the time and effort to travel. Now speaking like one of the rats that escaped cinematically a few years back, processing effort and time might be termed awareness of experience, or as we like to say, experience. Maybe not consciousness because of the hypothetical importance of symbolization to such as humans know, but to experience nonetheless both current and remembered, maybe even planned e.g., the rat returns to the nest or a source of food. Once again, I am amazed at the diligent ingenuity of scientists as they explore the intricacies here.

Finally one of the treatments I learned to use with children experiencing PTSD was a mindfulness technique in which the attention was focused on current percepts. Basically the kids learn to ground themselves in the moment by talking through a list of percepts. They start by saying “I see ___” for 5 different things, then “I hear ___” for 5 different things, and “I feel ____” for 5 different things, then repeating each for 4 different things, then 3, and so on. Try this; it is amazingly calming. And while it certainly involves verbal symbolizing, it does keep one’s focus on a sort of hippocampal immediacy (dare I say it, to a rat’s experiential awareness). The idea here is to disrupt the intrusive memories and reverberating echoes of trauma and emotional arousal bordering on fight/flight and anchor awareness into the boring and safe present place.

So happy holidays and for those of you with candles and evergreen scents and shiny lights and tasty food and the associated memories and memes of a special solstice time, keep the hippocampus and claustrum functioning full power. It is how experiences are made to remember.

the musical brain and artistic import

A longer post here than usual:

So I have finished Jourdain’s Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy; not sorry I read it and appreciate the opportunity to quibble. Chapter 7 discusses musical understanding and he contrasts the meaning between music and language. I liked his presentation of deep and surface structure (from Chomsky) and have long used this in my thinking. I did not find his presentation of “meaning” very knowledgeable, but then I have recently read Patel’s Music, Language and the Brain. Patel does not question the difference between the deep structures of language and music so much as to hypothesize what these might be.

Both Jourdain and Patel base their thinking on empirical studies, clinical and experimental. To no surprise of the initiated, Susanne Langer explored the differences between art and language through her philosophical musings back in the 1950s and further researched their biological implications in her 3 volume Mind: An essay on human feeling. If fortunate, read Langer’s 1957 Problems of Art, a clear exposition of the difference between discursive symbols, exemplified by language, and presentational symbols, exemplified by art. (For further understanding along the philosophical vein, read her Philosophy in a New Key and especially her aesthetic statement in Feeling and Form). Presentational symbols are virtual constructions in which each element has no meaning independent of the total gestalt, as opposed to discursive elements that are lexical items of steady and stable meaning no matter the context. Further, presentational symbols are then not constrained by the necessities of linearization in the form of a grammar transforming deep to surface structure, e.g., sentences. Instead, presentational symbols express some symbolic formulation of an experience in a complex, contextual, non-linear structure, i.e., painting, music (yes, I know music is half linear but the elements depend upon the total gestalt for significance–makes it hard to study empirically), sculpture, architecture, dance, drama, poetry, fiction, etc. In Problems of Art Langer determines that linguistic meaning is just that and another term is needed for the deep structure of art and this she terms ‘import’.

Our challenge, then, is to understand how the artistic brain generates and expresses import and how this is different from linguistic meaning. Oh, I could expand here a long time but strive for short posts. Let me just start with a discussion of hippocampal functions as perceptual processing flows back to front into areas for action, i.e., motoric behaviors, contrasted with the cortical fasciculi running between posterior and anterior areas, e.g., arcuate fasciculus, superior longitudinal fasciculus, and uncinate fasciculus.

Remember that the hippocampus determines old and new information, thereby initiating mnemonic input and retrieval, as well as cooperating with limbic structures involved in valence, e.g., does it feel good or bad or what? Information from the visual, auditory, and bodily orientation systems converge for integration in the entorhinal cortex of the temporal lobe before merging into the hippocampus that then communicates with frontal areas.


In a post of long ago (try 2/14/14& 4/11/14), I discussed old/new processing across species. Basically, as the brain evolves with a MEMBRAIN and its interior mind, old/new shifts from a concrete and immediate context to virtual one displaced from the time/space context. Thinking about musical import helps to understand how this shift happens.

Consider again the long cortical fasciculi. The superior longitudinal fasciculus is a complex group of fibers arising from the O-T-P (occipital-temporal-parietal) conjunction and communicating with frontal areas. The arcuate fasciculus is a part of that and communicates specifically the motor patterns for speech on the left side and, somewhat more speculatively, motor patterns for empathic communication on the right. Other parts serve to help control attentional processes.

Sobo_1909_670_-_Uncinate_fasciculusarcuate fasciculus

The uncinate fasciculus arises in the anterior temporal lobe where it merges through the entorhinal cortex into the hippocampus and then communicates with prefrontal areas.

The idea is this: the hippocampus is bound to ambient processing of the old/new in the here and now and survival and social; the cortical fasciculi permit the processing of old/new in the mind with mental structures in the subjective interiority. While the arcuate fasciculi carry information pertaining to the surface structures to be expressed and received, the other fasciculi contribute to the construction of deep structures, i.e., linguistic meaning and artistic import, using old/new information the definition of which is not constrained by ambient and emotional conditions and is controlled by the processes of symbolic generation.


What about music? Like all art or presentational symbols, its import comprises experiential information from the ambient and emotions in a whole gestalt that has been constructed through control of hippocampal mediation, e.g., the autobiographical associations with the tune as well as the emotional arousal, and the non-immediate, now virtual mental forms here presumed to be mediated by cortical fasciculi. Aesthetic sensibility typically is understandably more right sided given its focus on the present context. This is in contrast to linguistic meaning that is more left sided given its focus on contextually independent elements. Music, especially harmony and melody, derives from the aesthetic processing of sounds to render artistic import either for reception (quite common) or expression (not so much), thereby rendering some vital emotional knowledge about life into communicable form. And then we have ear worms, segments of surface structure looping probably through the arcuate fasciculi until something else rings in its place. Listen up and travel on.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds, Lucy . . . .

Lucy in the sky with diamonds, Lucy . . . .

beyond our ken

Here’s story about archeological discovery of buildings purportedly used for divination: http://www.livescience.com/49871-ancient-shrines-discovered.html

The researchers here focus on several buildings from 3300 years ago at Gegharot in Armenia. Inside were objects thought to be used for divination: bowls for drinking wine (of course), incense burners, bones with magical markings, round multi-colored stones in their own bowl, a small mill for grinding wheat but no oven, stamps to imprint shapes in the dough or whatever and more. All these things are known to have been used by the ancients to understand and foretell events. The archeologists think this site was used for about a century by some newly organized polity; these were rising and falling with frequency in the area at that time. For another reference, this is around the time Julian Jaynes said the gods from our right hemisphere stopped talking and human consciousness took form. But, such methods of divination most certainly had been used for a long time and continue to be used today either as superstitious actions or by true believers (think astrology, Tarot, and myriad other practices in cultures not fully informed by scientific attitudes. Not a bad thing, just saying).

Humanity seems to include a proclivity for sensing that there is more out there than the apparent universe. The Tao lies behind the 10,000 things of our cluttered reality. My Celtic ancestors looked to what lay behind the north wind as an unseen power shaping events, the corona borealis (Northern Crown) its landmark, the wheel of fate manifested in the moon and the castle of the white goddess, Arianrhod. Ancient peoples buried their dead with supplies for travel, the Norse even put the elite in boats to help speed them on their journey. As Scully and Mulder found in the X-files, ‘the truth is out there’. From this spiritual sense or impulse or seed grows religious culture and organization but also a quest for truth. This seems a basic facet of humanity no matter what is out there.

I have finally finished Joseph’s Neuroscience text, a long compendium of clinical and research findings. He stayed pretty close to reporting data and only occasionally veered into more speculative thoughts about mentality. Consciousness figured in not so much but he did talk about structures serving awake, dream, sentience, etc. Still somehow our biological roots have produced as a part of our consciousness the sense of something beyond our ken.

Joseph does tell a story I have never heard before about H.M. (Henry Molaison who died in 2008) the famous patient who had both hippocampi removed to control otherwise intractable seizures. He was studied for years by Brenda Milner and colleagues because of the effect on his memory and consciousness.


As I have noted before, the hippocampus receives multi-modal information and through its detection of old and new information, constructs situational gestalts for guidance. Its removal left H.M. with severe anterograde amnesia, i.e., he could remember nothing of new experience, only what had happened long ago.   He retained some cognitive abilities and could still remember spatial locations, even new ones, and learn new motor skills, but he had difficulty remembering who Brenda Milner was even though he saw her many times over the years. If you met him, walked out of the room and returned, he would not remember he had just talked with you. In the inverse of the saying, “He never met a stranger,” H.M. always met a stranger.

Joseph relates a story showing that H.M. did realize that things were happening outside of his ken on a very practical basis. He was aware of his disability and apologized for it. He said one time, “Right now, I’m wondering—have I done or said anything amiss? You see, at this moment everything looks clear to me, but what happened just before? That’s what worries me. It’s like waking from a dream. I just don’t remember . . . every day is alone in itself, whatever enjoyment I’ve had, and whatever sorrow I’ve had . . . I just don’t remember.” (Joseph, p. 406) H.M. had no new autobiographical memories after surgery; he was lost in some ablated existential moment. He did still worry, experience sadness and happiness, but no continuity of his life. I take this as a metaphor of sorts for the human condition. We do not consciously experience what goes on before birth or after death (the great discontinuities), we do not know what will happen except under scientifically engineered circumstances, and so we wonder and try to discern what is out there beyond our ken, and then another proclivity often comes in, our talent for making it up (and some saying they divined it). Travel on.