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:  http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0030079.   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.


Praxis and beyond

So I am thinking about lateralization in order to understand better how the left hemisphere is better at operating with displaced information and the right better with the immediate moment. I have periodically written about that here and so here we go again but I will end up somewhere beyond.

My idea is that while the hippocampus constructs relevant situations from old and new perceptual elements, cortical processes construct situations from variant and invariant subjectively produced (Langer’s autogenic) information, and that this is more fully realized in the left hemisphere, though long cortical fasciculi on both sides function to organize invariant forms, such as our favorite one, the arcuate fascicles. One early function to emerge here is handedness wherein certain actions become invariant through practice and inculcation as a skill, e.g., writing, playing the piano but also speaking, etc.

I first learned about the neurology of this as a speech-language pathologist under the rubric ‘praxis’. Adult stroke patients sometimes show apraxia or dyspraxia. Ask them to show you how to brush their teeth or pour a cup of coffee and their movements are disorganized. This results primarily from insults in the left temporal-parietal junction. Some of the children with articulation disorders with whom I worked had difficulty of a mild sort uttering sounds clearly whose distinctive features were consistent with the invariant forms of a word’s phonological form, and some had a more challenging difficulty with the rapid, highly organized movements for speech. Adult stroke patients also show dyspraxia of speech usually from more anterior lesions. So praxis involves movement organized for skillful repetition; the motor engrams, as the movement memory is sometimes termed, represent invariant forms that can be recalled and enacted with some variation as needed, e.g., a different keyboard or hammering a nail in an awkward space.

To aid my thinking I looked up ‘praxis’ on the internet and don’t I love Wikipedia (be sure to give a donation sometime to help them along). There I read some of what I already knew when I saw a reference to Hannah Arendt, whom I had just read about in The Existentialist Café, a group biography of the early existentialist philosophers, especially Sartre, de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and others. Hannah Arendt was a younger member of that group who studied with Martin Heidegger. She was born in Germany to a Jewish family and emigrated to the US in part to escape the ravages of WWII and the holocaust.

The others may be more famous but Ms. Arendt is top-notch. On the praxis page she is noted to have criticized philosophy as focusing too exclusively on the ‘contemplative life’ and not enough on the ‘active life.” I would imagine this idea was part of her existentialist stance. So praxis, the doing of life, for her was critical to the human mind, not praxis as I have been discussing it but a more generalized way of looking at our actions.

She evidently thought of herself as more a social/political thinker than as a philosopher. Sartre and de Beauvoir both emphasized social engagement in their philosophy. Arendt, given her time in history and the freedom in the US to pursue her ideas intellectually and also to cover certain moments like the Eichmann trial as a journalist, has much to offer us today on totalitarianism. She coined the phrase, ‘the banality of evil’ to capture how we can grow numb to or normalize evil developments. And then I found these two pictures with quotations on line which, I thought, had special relevance to this week.  I will let you make of them what you will.


or at least, their labor is not their own




Travel on.

Dogs, language and laterality

The linguistic lateralization of our dog buddies spotlights a theoretical mystery

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

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

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


Looking left, currently bored

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

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

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

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

Extreme altruism and the amygdala

Here’s some fun.  The Economist reported research on the brains of those who manifest extreme altruism, in this case by donating a kidney to a stranger.  Differences were found both in the structure and function of the amygdala as these people had larger amydalas on the right side and these were more active when viewing pictures of emotion laden faces.  Remember that the amygdala is central to processing emotions and the subsequent valence (positive or negative) of experience.


The article posited that these results suggested that those of extreme altruism were on the opposite end of the spectrum from psychopaths, whose amygdalas are smaller and less reactive to the emotions of others.  Maybe.  We humans are fond of patterns and continuums and suchlike.  I myself like dialectics.  In his book, the Science of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen contrasts psychopathy with autism spectrum.  So, without specifying a continuum, we have altruists, who feel and act for others even to their own detriment or risk, autists, who find the emotional coin of relationships mystifying, and psychopaths, who exploit others for their own gain regardless of the harm they inflict.  An extreme altruist was discussed in the post previous to this in Walt Whitman, who helped voluntarily the wounded and dying to the point of damaging his own health.  Autists can be brilliant people but lack the theory of mind needed to empathize with another’s emotions and the subsequent ability to relate skillfully.  They are not abusive or exploitative and indeed are quite rule bound and can show caring behaviors as they learn how.  Psychopaths, many of them at least, are quite skilled interpersonally; they can walk into a crowded room and within seconds discern who might be vulnerable to their manipulations and what might be obtained.  They know how to act to gain trust but they do not value trust except as an instrument of control.  Oh, and they care little for rules or social mores and they are less reactive emotionally to their own states and those of others.  The research here confirms that their amygdalas function at a lower level (continuum) or differently (non-continuum).

The Economist article asserts that we do not know why the amygdala on the right side should be larger and more reactive to others’ emotions.  Oops.  We do know that neurological lateralization extends down into the mid-brain and beyond and that the right side in humans and presumably other primates and even other mammals is specialized for monitoring the current situation, including especially emotional communication.  While we know that the left side is specialized for language, my thought is that at base it is specialized for a non-current situation or for information displaced in time and space.  Indeed, while psychopaths are very attuned to immediate social interaction, it might be that their processing is restricted to the more abstracted, displaced modality used for instrumental but not social behavior.  Analogously, autists show right sided learning disabilities, e.g., impaired common sense activities of daily living/management and difficulty processing the empathic flow in relationships, but their abilities to process abstracted, displaced information, especially patterns, can be gifted.

And then we have the altruists, whose awareness and valuing of others’ emotions and needs leads them to prosocial actions sometimes requiring personal sacrifice.  Actually I think we do this in small ways all the time–it is one of the great albeit rarely noticed features of our kind and of other kinds (think parenting up and down the evolutionary scale).  Fun, huh?

Elephant voice recognition

I posted a few weeks back about elephants (Indian these were) comforting one another when in distress.


Now a report comes about African elephants recognizing which humans are dangerous by their voice and the language they speak.  Researchers played audiotapes in the wild and observed the elephants’ reactions.  Briefly, the elephants sought to escape when they heard a Maasai male’s voice but not a child’s or female’s voice.  Maasai are hunters/herders and known to hurt elephants in competing for the land.  When they played male voices from another tribe speaking a different dialect, the elephants’ reactions showed less concern, more defensive and less escape.  The phrase was a neutral one, something like, “Oh look, here comes an elephant,” spoken in a calm voice.  The report was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Here is link to a story about it.


In humans voice recognition is also quite specialized and is lateralized to the right hemisphere.  We recognize individual identities or a stranger’s sex, race, age, emotional state, even intent solely by their voice.  Elephants do not have language (not to the extent that they can tell us about it) but their brains, like all mammalian brains, have some degree of lateralization.  I do not think we know much about this in elephants.  Is their voice recognition also right-sided?  Do they have something like handedness or is their trunk bilaterally controlled?  The identification by dialect implies rather specific feature detectors in their auditory processing system. Interesting but difficult to answer without using elephant EEG or fMRI so I guess and hope we let that mystery be for awhile.