MEMBRAIN, mirroring and the god within

Writing about the MEMBRAIN and reading various works brought about some relevant or new associations.  Remember that the MEMBRAIN functions by gating material and information or not.  I use the word ‘information’ now somewhat guardedly.  Basically I use the word to mean as defined by Gregory Bateson, ‘the difference that makes a difference’.  Our eyes take in information by transmuting energy from the visual spectrum into nervous transmission.  That sounds very simple.  The question some ask is what information is preserved from the eyes and what is added by the brain & its MEMBRAIN in processing.  However, the common understanding of genetic transmission is that the genes encode ‘information’ which specifies the construction of the organism’s soma, and this many now regard as a quite inept conceptualization.  Our genome does not constitute a blueprint but rather is a component in the inherited developmental system that also comprises complex environmental and epigenetic factors along with the amazing constituents of somatic cells, especially, I guess, the first one at the inception of a new soma.  So the genome is not a blueprint but is more aptly conceptualized as potentially instigating a series of chemical events that can and does go in many different directions depending upon the context of the whole developmental system.  As Evan Thompson phrases it: the developmental system, including the genes, lays down a path by walking—no blueprint, just structured contingencies.  So information in biology has become a more complicated, even problematic, issue that should be approached, at least it seems so to me, humbly.

I say that the MEMBRAIN functions to help form and contain the unity of a mind which has also arisen in an embodied fashion from the soma and its brain and that then structures the interaction with other minds and organisms, especially one’s conspecifics.  Now consider mirroring (see posts 7/29/18 & 7/31/18).  Remember that mirror neurons, discovered in the 1990s or so, are cells that upon seeing an action convey information to motor cells that enables them enact that very action (mirror neurons are probably the motor cells but really they are a component of a mirror system, aren’t they?).  Thus, I see you pick up a coffee mug and my motor cells that enable me to pick up a mug light up, even though I am not doing any such motion.  Here the MEMBRAIN gates in a perceived action and is prepared to emit the same action.  The mirror system works even if the cup is not actually present and the action is only mimed. This gating occurs more with conspecifics, I assume, and wait, there is more.

Some research has shown that different cells light up depending upon the purpose with which the mug was lifted, e.g., to drink from or to wash, so that the perceptual process figures out (from contextual clues or from how the mug is gripped or ?) the other’s purpose.  This is a great example of the MEMBRAIN as it functions to connect minds, i.e., not just the actions for imitation but for the subjective processes mobilizing those actions.  The important feature here is that we use the surface structures, to adapt a linguistic term, of behaviors to empathize with the other’s deeper structures of feelings, emotions, and intents.  For example, right hemisphere led processing focuses on facial, vocal and postural features to glean kinesic information about the other’s internal subjective and private cognitions (just as the other person is doing with our kinesic behaviors).  Part of this processing includes identification of our own emotional states as analogous to theirs, and a component of this process would sometimes rely on mirroring the other’s expressions for ourselves.  Maybe a bit complicated but essentially we know another through knowing ourselves both in specific processes and in relationships generally.

I first posted about this some years ago on 4/24/14, ‘Arcuate fasciculus, mirror neurons and memes’.  Recall that the arcuate fasciculus (AF for short) conveys information about words heard from temporal lobe processing to frontal lobe processes for speaking those words.  This can happen irrespective of any meaning, and indeed, sometimes we can repeat what we did not understand and that helps us recover the sense of what was said.  I was reminded recently that this mirroring is a bit more complex than simple reflection. Consider the speech signal as it arrives at the ear; it is a continuous stream of sound without word or sound boundaries, as shown in this sound recording:


speech signal showing no pauses or gaps between words or phonemes

In carrying out its mirroring function, the auditory cortex automatically parses the stream into sounds, words, and phrases for comprehension; the AF can also then transmit that linguistic surface structure, i.e., the phonemic string, to the motor cortex for potential replication, i.e., mirroring.  What is even more complex is that any individual phoneme can and does vary quite a bit phonetically (phonetics refers to the actual acoustic properties of the sound emitted while phonemics refers to discrete, well defined sounds as linguistic categories) and still be identified as that phoneme.  For example, both ‘p’ and ‘b’ are made with the lips closing and then releasing the air stream (they are both plosives).  They differ in VOT or voice onset time, i.e., that moment when the larynx begins to sound the next vowel.  In general, VOT for ‘p’ comes some 10s or 100s of milliseconds after the lips open and release and VOT for ‘b’ comes just before, during, and just slightly after the lips release.  Our brains recognize the phonemes despite some natural variations in VOT within and even beyond (using context) these parameters.  One reason computer speech sounds artificial is because these variations are absent—VOT is the same every time.  To add another level of complexity, the way Americans and French folks say ‘b’ is different enough that we can tell which is which and this is due to some small differences in VOT.  One more example here is that ‘p’ is said differently at the beginning versus the end of a word; ‘p’ at the beginning is followed with breathy noise (aspiration) while at the end the sound stops more abruptly.  Try saying ‘push’ and then ‘stop’ to notice this difference.

The point of this may be arcane but it is that perception is very active and constructive, not a passive copying; our brains construct and add to any received sensory stimulus, not just with linguistic communication, but with many sensory inputs.  Many scientists and philosophers over the past 70 years or so have emphasized that our symbolic capabilities begin to operate early on in neural processing; they do not just appear as our intellectual musings rise to consciousness but are present in our perceptual processing.  Indeed, Langer, enlarging on the gestalt psychologists and philosophers of phenomenology, went even further, saying that humans are ‘driven’ to make meaning, i.e., to make more of what we perceive, feel, think, etc. than what is initially given.

So mirroring involves the MEMBRAIN gating information in while at the same time enacting the neural reconstruction for the surface features of the perceived behaviors.  Mirroring occurs automatically and incidental to whatever other neural processing is proceeding. Generally, however, mirroring is just that; it does not result in the behavioral enactment of the mirrored action (except in some neurological conditions that are marked by echolalia—see that same post 4/24/14).  I have been thinking, though, that maybe we mirror internally what we haven’t seen or heard, i.e., we are prepared to gate out some surface features without having actually gated them in.  This would be the basis for projections of a particular sort wherein we see or hear aspects or features of our humanity, its vitality, agency, intentionality, etc.  These sorts of projections would underly animism and anthropomorphism.

I am reading Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion by Stewart Guthrie.  His thesis is that humans anthropomorphize a great deal; we do it automatically, mostly incidentally, sometimes though quite intentionally and metaphorically.  We anthropomorphize in pursuit of meaning and Guthrie presents a great deal of evidence from philosophy, psychology, religious theory, perception and the arts to support his thesis, and he takes the further step to assert that this proclivity lies behind the religious impulse.  We see human agency, feelings, vitality, intentionality in all sorts of things, sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically and many times religiously.  Humans ancient and modern interfacing with nature, and reality in general, imbue features that we encounter with our own sense of vitality, life, emotions, etc. and that, asserts Guthrie, has given rise to our finding a spiritual reality behind or inherent within natural events and objects, e.g., we see faces in clouds.

As I read his explication of anthropomorphism, I kept thinking of mirroring.  What we mirror, to some large extent, is also what we project when we anthropomorphize.  To be clear, this is not the same anthropomorphism that scientists guard against, i.e., attributing human motives etc. to other animals, though Guthrie and others would say that science is also an effort to understand the world through and on our own terms, but a more basic psychological process, one more akin to the metaphorical basis of our intellectual constructs as described by Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (see post 12/26/17 among others—I just realized that I have never focused on this important book in a post.  In short they argue that metaphorical thinking is the basis for most, if not all, of our intellectual constructs and the language for discussing them).  Not so clearly, I think de Waals’ anthropodenial (see post 10/26/17) might apply to those who would deny Guthrie’s thesis.

We naturally think of mirroring as a reflective process, but the power and fecundity of our symbolic capabilities could also make mirroring a projective process.  This seems to be what Guthrie is exploring. Indeed, the confirmation bias articulated by Tversky and Kahneman and seen so prevalently in our political culture would also seem related to this.  That does not make it bad or good; it does mean that we should be mindful of our mind’s limits and not mistake our own projections for god or any other sort of primal truth or privileged reality within, and with that I will travel on.

I stumble through and bump my head

For a couple of years now I have been reading various works from Asia and pondering how Eastern thought contributes to our understanding of ourselves and our world.  This includes specific ancient texts, like the Tao te Ching and various sutras, as well as commentaries thereon, and ancient to almost modern poetry.  Lovely stuff!  I have also been going through The Gateless Gate  (an old collection of Buddhist koans—paradoxical statements meant to help one along the way to enlightenment, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping? Or one of my favorites:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?) very slowly and marveling at how Buddhists can confound linear thinking.  While I learn much from all of these texts, I also have had a nagging quibble that seems important but difficult to articulate  . . . .

. . . Until I read a statement of some hybrid beliefs involving Buddhism and Gaian theory and my quibble crystalized into a coherent structure.

More context before my quibble.  I was reading a book not about Eastern thought but one about Gregory Bateson, a very interesting fellow.  He comes from a self-described family of atheists, himself being the fourth generation of skeptics.  In Gregory’s youth they hobnobbed with some of the great thinkers of early 20thcentury England such as the Huxleys and Alfred North Whitehead.  His father was instrumental in spreading the ideas of Gregor Mendel, the monk who worked so assiduously on plant genetics, integrated with Darwinian ideas; indeed he was one of the first to call this study of heredity “genetics” and Gregory was named after the monk.  The father seems to me a prime example of being in the right place at the right time with a mind prepared to grow the opportunity.

Gregory Bateson was a mostly independent scholar who worked across many disciplines.  As a young man he married Margaret Mead and they did research together in the south Pacific islands.  He then had a long and influential career studying cybernetics, psychiatry, semantics and communication theory, as well as anthropology.  I had heard mention of him over the years without remarking upon him very much until recently, and then his ideas seemed quite relevant to mine and important in general, so I read Understanding Gregory Bateson:  Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earthby Noel Charlton (a decent read though Mr. Charlton spends much energy evangelizing for Bateson’s ideas—they are good but this is not how change comes about.  I may get around to a more thorough review of this book later).

Bateson saw all of nature as a series of nested minds, ours being nested on some intermediate level, so that all of our ecology is actually one mind composed of many minds.  He saw that in our separating ourselves from nature, we had lost ‘grace’ and were harming our world and so also ourselves.  The way back to grace is to engage with the sacred or the unitary grandness of life on our planet (oh, I am simplifying here a great deal—read more for yourselves) through aesthetics, the beauty of nature, and human art.  If you follow my blog you can understand why I wanted to know more about his work.

In the penultimate chapter Charlton reviews how other thinkers were influenced by Bateson and how other ideas meshed with his ecological views.  One of these was Gaian theory, of course, and one of these thinkers was a Buddhist-Gaian scholar named Joanna Macy. This seems a natural confluence here, and you know I like confluences.  When I read Charlton’s rendition of Macy’s ideas, I realized what my mind had balked at as I read other ideas from the East.  Specifically I struggled to understand the notion that enlightenment involves experiencing the unity between objective and subjective or the truth that there is no self.  Yes, I do accept that in meditation such boundaries can and do dissolve but once again, anyone who experiences enlightenment is a biological creature and that entails certain corollaries.

So Charlton says this of Macy’s ideas:  “Similarly, in both Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Macy uses this term interchangeably with ‘systems cybernetics’), the self is a process that cannot be abstracted from its context in nature and society.  It is an ‘open system’ and it is impossible to distinguish self from non-self.  Any division is arbitrary; the individual self is a fiction” (p. 189). Oops!  Sure self is a process on many levels but it can and is abstracted from its context; indeed, at a very basic level anything we use words to discuss is already abstracted from the flux and phantasmagoria of experience.  My question is always about the adequacy of the abstraction, i.e., does it capture the primary structure and its history along with its inter-relationships and dependencies with its soma, its ecology and its its ancient past?

The self, like its soma, is not an ‘open system’ and can certainly be distinguished from non-self, just like the soma is understood to be a life form. These are not ‘open systems’ because a soma, a brain and its MEMBRAIN maintain their integrity through control of the membrane functions, passing information in and out, keeping information in and out. The self follows along with this pattern.  Sure the soma is a wonderful composition of different life forms—the biome is a necessary adjunct to its healthy vital operations, and the self is also a complex composition dependent upon social interaction for its derivation.  I maintain that that the basic features are an autobiographical sense of its life and a sense of its agency, but secondary features abound, e.g., roles, selves associated with those roles, an apprehension of conscious subjectivity, etc.  Again, an adequate abstraction must also include what supports these features that operate below the limen of awareness, and also what the self keeps out of its ‘self-definition’.  For example, I am myself a father and husband, which are clearly within my self’s bounds, and I know the alphabet and basic math, but those are not a part of myself. Is this a fiction?  Why yes it is as a construct in the mind, but as Dumbledore told Harry, it is still true.

Somehow my mind likes Eastern philosophies; I find a good deal of truth and wisdom in their approach.  I think Buddhist enlightenment is a worthy goal, of sorts.  As I say in my creed, I follow an ethic of knowledge, and this leads me to explore the mystic boundaries within and beyond myself.  I find there a most agreeable landscape to wander (yes, yes, remember that not all who wander are lost).  But read the third chapter of The Gateless Gateabout Zen Master Gutei who always answered any question about Zen by raising one finger.  When he heard that his young assistant answered a question about his master’s teaching by raising his one finger, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. The boy ran away.  Gutei called him back and raised one finger, and “the boy was suddenly enlightened”.

Somehow this enlightenment came with the experience that the self is a fiction, that his finger was part of what separated him from this realization, and that he understood that his self was a fiction and experienced reality as unitary and without conceptual distinctions—finger or no finger is a distraction.  Oops and ouch!  I have reached a mystical boundary and bumped my head in finding it.

With any religious school of thought and discipline my skepticism finds antiquated constructs, and there one is.  My ethic of knowledge keeps me grounded in my biological roots.  So enlightenment is a biological notion (maybe a rock or tree is enlightened but they, not some human being, would have to communicate that to me and I do listen out as I wander the farm.)  The self is an outgrowth or feature of life; it bears many relations to all that surrounds it now, past, and future, but a life has an onset and termination.  Some spiritual and religious traditions maintain the self is independent of those events, and I myself wonder about that, i.e., about how it could be true in my cosmology which is devoid of the supernatural. (Remember my motto: “If it is, it’s natural.  If it isn’t natural, it isn’t, except as an imaginative dream).  But the self and its soma is not an open system nor a closed system but a gated system operating to sustain the negentropic balance of energies working at the heart of life’s vitality.

How we understand life and cherish Gaia and structure our participation in this transcendent reality is important.  Bateson and many others know that we as a species are not doing a good job of this. How do we find and follow a better path? I do not know, but I think, like Bateson, that engaging with natural beauty and the vital experience artists render for us is very important.  I also think following an ethic of knowledge and seking a knowledge of ethics is important, e.g., appreciate our science and our human relationships with each other and Gaia.  As the previous post put it, “sometimes human beings are stupid”.  And sometimes we are smart.  I wonder about the cultural rhythms of wisdom and ignorance and travel on seeking a better wave.  But I cannot hold up one finger to indicate the one true way or condone mutilation in the interest of religious purity or spiritual realization.

4th Anniversary #4: Some of my basic lessons

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. Over the course of these past four years I have learned some wonderful basic lessons. Some have come directly from my reading. I re-read Langer’s Feeling and Form to gain more insight into art and presentational symbols. I re-read her Mind, vol. 3, and understood more about two important dialectics. The first is within the individual between the need for reality orientation and the pleasure of unbounded symbolic creativity. The second is within society between its need for each member to commit resources for group maintenance and to carry traditions forward for continuity and the need for individuals to be creative and innovate to maintain social vitality.

I understood from Chris Hitchens the possibility of the natural noumenal, i.e., a noumenal realm filled with the shadowy ideals and mystic forms not in some supernatural domain but in this positivistic one. And of course, this past year I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity to find that the ethic of knowledge directs us to the natural spirit inherent in the descent of genetic forms evolved through countless random events beginning with the appearance of life on Gaia. Along with that I read Tomasello’s The Natural History of Human Morality that confirmed two ideas, that an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics and that our cultural values, while distinctive, are based upon some continuity with the rest of the animal world. Our humanity is indeed rooted in empathy and symbolization.

One of my evolving lessons comes from long efforts at understanding how our mind works. Since my first stint in graduate school in speech and language pathology in the mid 1970s, I had pondered the role of old and new information, beginning with hippocampal functioning but going on to how our brains define or create the categories and how they are transformed, i.e., old becomes new and new sometimes becomes old. Over the past four years I have realized that these processes are actually embedded in the larger functions producing variance and invariance. Remember William James’ characterization of consciousness as the “remembered present” or someone’s phrase the “specious present”. It takes some short passage of time before information from the retina or cochlea or skin reaches the brain and then is processed enough to be available for sentient awareness. (Another of my lessons is that I came to differentiate sentience as deriving from perceptual impact and consciousness as deriving from autogenic, i.e., self generated, information). Thus the information of which we are aware is necessarily old. New information comes about when we notice change; this is seen perhaps most importantly in hippocampal processing where change=new information (or sometimes no change violates expectations for change and that also equals new) which triggers theta processing, i.e., a new focus and situation is engendered. Along with this remember that recognition occurs when new information is ‘recognized’ as old and recall occurs when old information is ‘recalled’ as new, and that this is based on memory, i.e., past experience is held as an invariant form.

I have come to understand that variance/invariance is an extremely basic, even essential, concept for our understanding of life. I started down this trail upon reading a research article on the dual loop hypothesis of language. The loops are a dorsal one composed, I think, of cortical tracts that maintain primarily invariant information and a ventral one composed of cortical tracts involved in the processing of variant information. Consider the writing process or any example of verbal composition. Some invariant bits, e.g., words, are assembled according to syntactic rules to convey a new and variant message. This has always impressed me, that while we have formulaic speech for social purposes, e.g., “How about this weather?” most of our utterances are novel. While maybe the sentence’s propositional form follows an old/new pattern in subject/predicate or topic/comment, this serves the basic ongoing hippocampal processes of contextual generation of usefully defined situations, which for linguistic performances, must be a relatively rapid process in order to facilitate the intentional guidance of expression.

But variant/invariant can operate independently of temporal parameters, e.g., old/new, and so is important for our mental displacement of information divorced from current time and space. This seems to me now to be yet another manifestation of the basic biological processes underlying life. As we humans have extended our knowledge by understanding larger and smaller scales, e.g., cosmic and quantum, we again come around to Herodotus’ dictum that you can never step into the same river twice. Change and flux seems to be the basic order of the universe as it runs down to some entropic end. Life’s vital processes hold this procession in abeyance, the soma a protected environment where flux is background noise. We have come to understand that life is defined by our genes holding still as invariant forms, albeit with important random and rare mutations, replicating through generations. Thus Monod characterizes the forms of molecular biology as irregular crystals. That our minds operate to hold information in invariant forms, e.g., memory, is only another version of that tale.

Monod starts his book giving us the source of his title from Democritus, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” This from the man who around 400 BCE understood that atoms were a basic element of our universe. Monod found that evolution proceeds through chance or random events but that once a new gene passed two challenges, fitting into the coherent whole of the genome and then promoting adaptability of the organism, the new structure continues by necessity. Our brains and MEMBRAINs carry that feature through our mentality. Life in essence operates to mitigate exigencies and to exploit opportunities. No surprise that our minds do the same. Consider this example from current events: once we form an opinion we tend to preserve it despite new contradictory information. Invariance is naturally a conservative process. Cultural orthodoxy, especially religious, maintains invariance; rebellious hereterodoxy promotes variance until it succeeds in transforming views. The beauty of science lies in how it handles errors, i.e., variance, in its practice and theory and in how it institutionalizes the disjunction between our conceptual world, i.e., the doxa, and reality or nature, thereby making the empirical process necessary for objective and reliable understanding, so the need for our ethic of knowledge.

As I have studied our roots, some questions have come unanswered. What was the chemical process initiating life? How did sexual reproduction start and take hold? What were the genetic springs that fed the streams leading to humanity? Were the dominant ones for empathic and cooperative relationships or ones for control of displaced information? Are our distinctive mental faculties based upon cognitive advances, i.e., the orthodoxy, or are these advances really to serve a remarkable blossoming of empathy, i.e., heterodoxy? How is the self composed from the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN? Why were some of the earliest artworks hidden deeply within caves? What led to our awareness of a noumenal domain and then to its reification as supernatural? And how is it so much ugliness is tolerated by a species that developed such a keen sense of aesthetics?

In the course of writing these anniversary posts I realized more explicitly than I had previously why I have always written “soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN.” While the MEMBRAIN understood simply and basically as an exaptation of the brain, the MEMBRAIN is strictly speaking not of the soma or its brain. It is rather a construction based solely on social interaction; it is necessarily a social organ embodied in many conspecific somas. It comprises the self of social individuation based upon attachment and socialization and not just the self of agency and autobiography. It comprises the self as presented socially through various roles as well as the self hidden behind those presentations. Of paramount importance it comprises the self’s adoption of the habitus, the cultural mores and practices that knit the social organism together.

One final lesson for me from me: the dialectic between positivism and mysticism that operates as my mind finds its way to understanding. In these posts I have focused more on the former and now I will conclude with the latter. The ancient Greeks thought that the universe was composed of 4 elements: water, fire, air, and earth, and this conceptualization served them well for a time. Before I travel on, here is a scientifically transformed elemental prayer.

Elemental Prayer

Let me hold this water I use today

Remembering its earthly passages

And wondering how it came here.

Let me burn this energy I use today

Remembering its finitude between earth and sun

And wondering at its myriad forms.

Let me breathe this air I use today

Remembering that I am a human

And wondering how the fire burns within.

Let me walk this path I find today

Remembering those here and passed

And wondering at Gaia’s kindness.

The heirs of Wolfgang Kohler


Wolfgang Kohler

This is Wolfgang Kohler who had a remarkable and distinguished scientific career in Germany and then America where he went to elude Nazi authorities. He was one of the founders of Gestalt psychology and coined the phrase, “The whole is different from the sum of its parts.” He understood the methodological and theoretical limits of introspection and behaviorism, and he studied chimpanzees for awhile early in his career. Thank you, Wikipedia. I refreshed my memory there because his name came up in two very different books.

I have finished re-reading Edelson and Tononi’s How Matter Becomes Imagination, and Kohler is mentioned at the very end. They discuss the necessity of incorporating values and emotions into our theories and experimentation for neuroscience if we are to understand consciousness. They conclude by citing the title of Kohler’s 1938 book, The Place of Value in a World of Fact. Their stance, especially Edelson’s, that the brain is not a computer is noteworthy in this regard. Their analysis focuses on language as a necessary condition for what they call ‘secondary consciousness’. Their ‘primary consciousness’ is what I would call sentience, and while they acknowledge that our minds are embodied in social animals, their analysis slights this facet by neglecting empathy and kinesic communication to focus on linguistic symbolization.

Now contrast their approach with that of Frans der Waals who focuses on empathy and social relations and shows a high level of consciousness amongst the simians at least. I am now deep into his newest book, Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Animals Are?, and he mentions Kohler many times because Kohler advocated getting to know the species by observing and working with them based upon their natural, ecologically driven behaviors. Der Waals says at one point that a human giving human tests to children and chimpanzees in order to compare their intelligence, saying they had treated them the same, is like throwing a cat and a fish in a pool and saying they had treated them the same. Kohler was early on, say 1913, a proponent of species specific talents requiring sensitivity for studying their particular intelligences. One of the great pleasures of reading this book is der Waals’ incredible knowledge of different animals’ different behaviors and what these indicate about their cognitions.


Der Waals highlights another early scientist, Jakob von Uexkull, and his concept of the Umwelt, i.e., “the perceptual world in which an organism exists and acts as subject” (from Wikipedia). The umwelt is the beginning of signifying functions for the organism. In vertebrates the sensorium or ambient of its ecological niche is different from their umwelt which is transformed by the values placed upon or interpreted from the sensorium. Important, yes? Our umwelts differ from that of chimpanzees or bonobos not in our consciousness of others but in the prominence of our conspecific relations (this from der Waals). Mammalian umwelts differ from those of non-mammals by the prominence of social relations in general.

This is one motivation for my concept of the MEMBRAIN, that part of the brain that processes social communication. Within each MEMBRAIN a self gazes upon an umwelt filled with social objects, procedures and autobiographical memory along with information from the sensorium. With the advent of symbolic capacities the umwelt depends less upon ambient information and more upon information generated within through symbolic control. The common factor in all of this is conspecific relationships.

These two books are both excellent and quite different from each other because the science behind them is quite different. Edelson (now deceased) and Tononi, who have probably forgotten more neuroscience than I will ever know, examine brain functioning from a high theoretical perspective from where they can see neural systems energize, organize, and flow as conscious processes arise to facilitate adaptive mentation. They are quite positivistic in orientation and exemplary in their understanding of the limits such an approach meets. For example, they say that art results from consciousness but that studying the brain does not contribute much to our aesthetic understanding; they say that such contemplations yield only “trivial” contributions. Amen (and someday I might discuss this in terms of a book, Biopoetics).

Der Waals, on the other hand, studies animal behavior through observation of the species in a more natural ecological setting and through experimental designs based upon our current understanding of the animal’s umwelt. In his discussion of animal research we see the power of life as it is manifested in mental control of adaptive processes and the biological roots of our humanity. Travel on.

Let’s get esoteric here, just for a moment

I have written some about ‘memes’, the smallest units of cultural replication as named by Richard Dawkins. I don’t think I have mentioned ‘trope’ before now, but I am reading The Daemon Knows by Harold Bloom, and he has used the term seriously and playfully. The book presents his view of the genius, the daemon lifting some of the great American writers to write sublimely. He is both knowledgeable and passionate, so his perspective from up high given his study over the past many years is illuminating. He is a great reader and passes some of that in this book. He is over 80 and is keenly aware of mortality, so this also feels like a true culmination of his intellectual life.

Anyway, as I was reading about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, I wondered how ‘trope’, i.e., an artistic image resonant with intuitive, symbolic meaning, and ‘meme’ might be related. Looking at the dictionary, a trope is a figure of speech used artistically (but I think there are visual tropes in painting as well) and can be a fresh creation or a cliché, so tropes vary in freshness or vitality. Memes are passed on or replicate throughout a cultural group and pass in and out of the meme pool over various periods of time. Reading Shakespeare requires understanding the different memes of his time and tropes of his language. One meme would involve the divine status of royalty, e.g., king=divine=sun=god=do what he says. One trope would be Romeo’s “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”

So how are these related, or more relevantly, how does a biological creature like us produce both? At first I wondered if a trope were a specific kind of meme, a sub-category of memes specific to artistic expression while other sub-categories of memes operate within other domains, e.g., governance, religion, science, etc. And while that may be the case, I focused on how the MEMBRAIN might process them differently. Sure both operate between minds. A meme can be used as a trope and a trope can become a meme. Both would seem to involve some imitative process, as Dawkins and other mimeticists think, or better termed, I think, they would be an elaboration of the mirror functioning I have discussed before. Briefly said, mirror neurons, which, in response to seeing another perform an action fire up preparatory to performing that same action, are one manifestation of our powerful empathic, mirroring engagement. We feel, and can think, the same in response to another’s affect, etc.; this is basically how we come to understand one another.

From this perspective, this view into one facet of our being, memes and tropes would both be expressions used in our communication, empathic, symbolic, and cultural, and would still be different from each other. So how to understand this? I am going back to my Soma, Brain, and MEMBRAIN diagram as a broad reference.


A trope is an element of aesthetic construction; in its most powerful expression a trope helps induce our feelings of beauty, what Dr. Bloom terms the sublime, and further he understands that an artist’s demon, that individual ‘spirit’ that rises from within and is different from the usual cultural maxims, is at the source of good and great art. The art object, Langer’s presentational symbolic form, conveys through mirror functioning, these feelings which arise from soma into brain until the MEMBRAIN composes the figure. Art, e.g., a trope, involves the self’s expression, the self as biologically, vitally embodied.

A meme functions between bodies on a cultural level; selves are involved in mirror processing the manifestations of memes in a socially regulated process. A meme is a social construction that promotes, hopefully, group cohesion, identity, and activity; it is not basically an aesthetically embodied product. It is a more prescriptive form of symbolic information, and as such, we deal mostly through mimetic communication. A trope is produced as an individual differentiates his or her stance towards life experience from the socially engendered or cultural mimetic forms. We operate with the MEMBRAIN most prominently during the day, as it were, and then we operate as an embodied self during the night, meaning our moments of private reflection and intuition.

So the difference between meme and trope lies somewhere here: a trope serves the organization of the individual’s symbolic capacity and a meme serves the organization in the society’s need for cohesion. Both are part of the biological mirror functions that help us be together. I will leave another view of this difference until a later time (that tropes serve as the coin of the individual subjective dialectic between somatic necessity and symbolic creativity and that memes are the coin of the social dialectic between an individual’s creative needs and society’s need for regulated participation. Both of these dialectics come from Langer in Mind, v.3, and I have discussed them in little bits over the past year or so).

And now, remembering the importance of art promotion, education, and sharing, it’s time to travel on.

Life’s other property

All life is local—one of my favorite sayings, almost a tautology of sorts but life’s locality comes on many levels. Consider our chemistry: oxidation happens the same everywhere; metabolic oxidation happens only somewhere. Rather than our energies disperse and spread out to become information-less as entropy demands, they sustain a fragile structure in a negentropic manner within the boundary of a semi-closed system. Of course entropy is the law so each structure will cease to be maintained sooner or later and hopefully after reproduction.   While our genes replicate individuals, more or less, the experiential details compose the life history. Life is inherent in genes; it is manifest in the soma.


All right, so what is life’s other property? The clues are in our semi-closed system and genetic replication, and the answer is displacement. Reproduction displaces the currents devolving in one life into the flow of the next. The soma within its boundary, such as cell membranes or skin, moves on its own displacing space over time.   The soma ingests and excretes (displaces) in the service of sustaining metabolism, thus we are a semi-closed system. Most curiously the soma’s brain transforms ambient energies, chemical scents, visual lights, auditory vibrations, skin temperature and pressure, thereby displacing the stimuli of the moment to a another nervous time and space, and then our brain develops a very local, interior virtual domain with its MEMBRAIN in control. The evolution of empathy and symbols allows sharing among interiorities, between different localities.

Out of this comes a common, important, sometimes overlooked in the course of business fact: All life is local and not alone; all life is local and together. Travel on.

mysteries 4.1

Just to be clear about my favorite mysteries cited again in the last post, the origin of life and the beginnings of intellect (and so our humanity) in lower animals. Didn’t Darwin see beyond the facts (a lot of them too) to some very helpful and thus enduring truth? One facet of our humanity is our fascination with mysteries. This fascination is also a mystery because we fabricate them in our minds, i.e., the interior of the MEMBRAIN, so why are they mysteries, as opposed to unknown but knowable or the unknowable? The mysteries explored by ancient peoples were mainly deemed unknowable until the Enlightenment, when we began to develop a more intellectual understanding of our earth, our universe and ourselves, empirically based, treasuring errors and their correction, and providing an increasingly powerful basis for interacting with our world. The unknowable shrank and the knowable grew fatter. I like my favorite mysteries because they pose questions whose answers are unknown but knowable and because how we do answer them can lead back to the ancient thread of all mysteries, well articulated by William James, the mystic experience, our sense of what lies beyond the North wind, our sensory experience which we can only apprehend but do not and maybe cannot comprehend, the prime unknowable.

So to be clear about where these mysteries originate, here is a rough diagram of mine.


From the 4/17/15 post:

“Call the body of any organism its soma; to remain vital a soma must ingest food, etc. Organisms with somas in which brains have evolved have been quite successful—they have spread, grown larger and more complex. While much of the brain remains dedicated to somatic vitality, certain parts have evolved to form what I call the MEMBRAIN of the mind. These structures surround and create a virtual interiority, larger on the inside than outside, constructed with information old and new”.

Somas exist ‘for’ genetic transmittance and they exist by metabolism; they take in nutrients, use them, vent the wastes and move around to sustain and replicate. All of this is done in real, i.e., immediate, present or non-displaced, time. Somas with brains begin the sentient evolution powered by the nervous system’s transduction of ambient energies and guidance toward or away from what is out there, all very much in service to their somas. This is the basis for an embodied mind, the organic one, the one with an inherent, not external, power source. From the beginning the transduction of ambient energies leads to displacement, i.e., they are transformed to be processed as old/new information. Nervous processes involve at least this displacement of information.

Now, according to my way of thinking, the MEMBRAIN evolved as the embodied self was able to co-opt sentient processes independently of the current ambient and process information autogenically (to use Langer’s term) or autonomously (to use another term). MEMBRAINs began with recognition (new becomes old) and recall (old becomes new) and then, with the social opportunity of intimacy increasing, moved on to symbolic formulation and control and communication of the interiority. So where are these so called mysteries?

Well, they exist within the MEMBRAIN’s interiority but they arise between MEMBRAINs, in their interstitial communication back and forth, so to speak. This highlights, perhaps, that the unknowable mysteries are the limit of consciousness in apprehending the present embodiment of the mind and the limit preventing us from apprehending what is in another’s mind. And somewhere between these two limits, these two mysteries, we find the mystic sense. Travel on.

dried neurons?

So periodically I fulminate against the notion of the brain’s hard wiring like in my post last year on the movie Transcendence or just a few weeks ago about variant views of empathy. In the effort to be more balanced I want to discuss more about the chemical side of the MEMBRAIN. I have been thinking as I have read various things, especially Joseph’s Neuroscience text, about cephalization, the evolutionary trend in which neuronal structures and processes increasingly congregate in the head, i.e., into a brain.   I once had a ‘discussion’ with a friend who insisted that if you pushed a knife through a lobster’s shell just behind the eyes, it would feel no pain once thrown into the pot because the brain would be severed from the spinal cord. It mattered little to him that lobsters do not have a brain and spinal cord but lines of ganglia. They do have a head ganglion that is larger in order to process visual information and coordinate movements to gather in food or grab objects with their claws but otherwise the ganglia operate relatively independently. I suspect they do feel some version of pain maybe in one ganglion or several when confronted with aversive stimuli such as high temperature or another lobster clipping a leg or claw off, but I know it is not pain as a centralized emotion such we ‘cephalized’ creatures feel.  Sharks were in at the beginning of the cephalization movement some 420 million years ago.


With cephalization comes a more complicated MEMBRAIN and a greater interiority, i.e., the mind within the MEMBRAIN greater on the inside than outside. The MEMBRAIN functions, then, of passing information in and out and keeping information in and out, correspondingly grow more complicated. Yes, the neurons, dendrites and axons are organized wire-like into different systems or circuits, and intra-neuron communication is via evoked potentials, thus we can measure the electrical activity of the brain, e.g., EEGs. However, inter-neuron communication is via chemicals, i.e., neurotransmitters, and there are many and they are important to way the MEMBRAIN works.

Structure of Neurotransmitters

For one example, take passing information in through various channels. Different circuits in the perceptual system operate with different neurotransmitters as I learned from Panksepp and Joseph. Parallel processing using these different neurotransmitters works to select and sharpen different percepts and inhibit others. For example, per Panksepp, norepinephrine helps to elevate a particular signal over the surrounding noise, acetylcholine promotes arousal and attention to sensory channels, and serotonin modulates input to keep sensory information clear as it is integrated across modalities. Then we have dopamine that mediates motivation and stimulus valence.

Likewise, per Joseph, on the output side, the same neurotransmitters as on the sensory side organize and carry out motor commands to muscles but other neurotransmitters, GABA and glutamate, modulate the signals outward bound so that muscle contractions are graded and coordinated. Also on the output side dopamine is important in maintaining clarity of signal and inhibition of unintended movements. For example, in Parkinson’s disease, low dopamine translates into unwanted tremors that interfere with intentional actions.

All so complicated and I have not gone into my usual riff on hormonal influences, such as oxytocin on social caring behaviors. We have much to learn on many levels here and I find that exciting. I hope you now understand why I react so to the overuse of the “hard wired” metaphor for our brains, and why I propose we call computer circuits “dried neurons”. Travel on.

Locked in syndrome

I saw a national news report last week about Martin Pistorius. At age 12 he came home sick from school and quickly grew worse, lapsing into a coma that lasted for some 3 years. The doctors were not sure what was going on but given his condition, did not expect him to live. They also told the family he could not see, hear or feel anything. Diagnostic details are lacking. Then he slowly ‘woke’ up—he was conscious but could not move or control movements like eyeblinks, so no one knew he was present. After some time a therapist noticed some “glimmer” in his eyes and this led eventually to the discovery that he was conscious, just “locked in”. Over more time he recovered some motor control over eye blinks and even his arms/hands, so that he could then use a computer to communicate. He eventually became a computer programmer and married a friend of his sister’s and wrote a book about his experience, Ghost Boy.

I am curious about this and have put his book on my reading list. His MEMBRAIN essentially shut down, all channels closed, nothing in or out, yet his brain maintained his vegetative functions so he continued living, and then the channels in (at least vision and hearing) came back and then in a very limited way some channels out returned. I went online to find out more but there is not much out there. I did find reference to ‘locked in syndrome’, a rare and usually fatal condition believed to be from some brain infection, but Martin Pistorius weathered this viral storm and came back. Wow!

Many questions now arise. His connectome seems to have survived essentially intact; he remembers events and people except when he was in the deepest coma and he retains his identity, but is there some amnesia for some events? He seems quite able to learn and grow. How can this be? His muscles atrophied and neurons also do not do well without stimulation but his brain, despite its comatose level of functioning, kept on. I wonder what his pre- and post IQ were (but probably no record). When he was emerging from the coma, was he sentient but unconscious for awhile, as in highway hypnosis or the claustrum study reported here a month or two back? Did he dream during any of this time? Diurnal/sleep cycles? Did he perceive without any emotional response at some time? Did he experience frustration arising from intentions being formulated but without the capability of implementation? Questions about what caused this or how he weathered it are probably pretty unanswerable at this point but still remain.

What I can figure out is that part of his brainstem was affected, most certainly the pons which enervates the brain for arousal and conscious processing. Maybe also the thalamus which acts as a processing center between the brainstem/lower midbrain perceptual input and the cortex was also affected. Other brainstem centers, e.g., medulla, concerned with vegetative functions certainly were relatively unaffected.


The hypothalamus was probably unaffected as it is involved in maintaining vegetative homeostasis. As he recovered, the pons and thalamus came back to function, but anterior motor systems remain impaired either through damage to the basal ganglia which coordinate movements or motor neuron damage similar to ALS, a sort of high level atrophy.


Finally he has recovered some motor control over his head, eyes, arms and hands. I recently learned through my reading of Joseph’s Neuroscience text that two different systems serve high level sensorimotor functions. One system works to maintain the body’s position in space and then to guide movement through the environment. Mr. Pistorius can navigate as he moves in his wheelchair, so his movement disorder is more similar to motor neuron syndrome such as ALS. The second system works to perceive objects that are within reach and then to guide his arms and hands through touch and vision as they perform skilled movements. Fortunately this system and the lower level motor neurons for his hands/arms seem mostly intact.

So a devastating brain illness affecting MEMBRAIN functions but keeping the soma alive though with muscle atrophy, and then recovery of the connectome holding the identity and psychology of one person, such as personality, memory, etc. and partial recovery of motoric abilities, fine motor better than much gross motor functions. He and his family deal with tragedy and then triumph through a perceptive therapist and computer technology permitting him to communicate from the interior of his MEMBRAIN. His book should be a very interesting read.

fractured MEMBRAINs

I mentioned awhile back I am reading R. Joseph’s Neuroscience text to review and expand some old learnings. One thing I have not thought about for a long time are some particular lacunae in our consciousness such as phantom limbs, denial of disability, split brain and other disconnection effects, etc. Joseph highlights these in several places to illustrate the sequelae of neurological damage. In these cases the MEMBRAIN may retain its over all integrity surrounding our interiority while fractures hamper its functions of passing information in and out and keeping information in and out.


I talked about split brain phenomena earlier in discussing Jaynes’ book on the “Origin of Consciousness”, i.e., when the corpus callosum is surgically severed in the effort to control seizure activity by confining it to one hemisphere. Joseph relates further anecdotes from this research, such as a patient who was smoking with his left hand while the right kept trying to snatch the cigarette and throw it down and saying, “Stop that.” Here the right hemisphere wants to smoke but the left does not. Because the two are disconnected, they do not present with an integrated intent and instead present as if two minds were extant in one brain, fractured now into two MEMBRAINs containing two interiorities.


Consider the phenomena of a ‘phantom limb’ and its converse of sorts, a ‘neglected limb.’ When someone loses a limb that part of the brain’s connectome which served it retains the memory of that limb for a long time. Even though the person can see it is missing and certainly cannot use it, they feel it, they have impulses to use it, etc. Here the MEMBRAIN keeps in what has passed through and the new information now coming only slowly displaces the old. Even more remarkable in a way, Joseph cites many examples of neglect, which occurs when a perceptual area of the brain is damaged or its connections severed. We see this when a right handed person is asked to draw a clock and they crowd all the numbers into the right portion of the field because their right hemisphere is compromised, so the left portion is virtually (literally) unknown or unperceived. (Everybody remembers that right brain serves left side and vice versa, correct?) When the damage impairs the sensorimotor fields serving a limb, the rest of the brain does not receive innervation from it and so does not ‘know’ it exists. Sometimes the brain confabulates, i.e., makes up information, to fill in the void. A person whose arm has been neurologically disconnected in such a way, when asked about the arm, say to move it or if they can feel touch, will tell the doctor that that arm is not his. When asked whose it is, they will say, ‘It must be yours, doctor,’ and when the doctor holds up his or her two arms, then another story is concocted assigning the arm to someone else. We can more easily detect the neglect here because it involves the perceptual-motor system but other disconnections occur. A person may not show any emotions that they do feel because of the disconnect with areas serving empathic expression or they may not recognize familiar faces, even their own, because of damage to that area, a condition known as prosopagnosia. Some are virtually blind due to stroke damage and still maintain they can see even as they fumble and fall and bump into things.

My interest here arises from how these phenomena demonstrate so concretely the fact that our conscious reality is constructed at a very basic level. This only begins to approach the facts evinced when the construction somehow includes hallucinatory information of all types, e.g., psychiatric, normal, religious, dream states, inspirational, etc. The MEMBRAIN can be fractured in many ways and the interiority then loses some of its integrity as its tie to the sentient world is broken and then fills with information from other realms. Most times but not always a bad thing, that. Dream on.