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.

dialectical path 2.1: alpha & omega: error recognition and response

My dialectical path wanders between mysticism and positivism in a noumenal sort of way and between religion and science in a phenomenal one. The latter pair both are systems with different levels, e.g., social in their churches and labs & epistemological in their seeking true knowledge. Errors are important in both. Consider this comparison of error recognition and response between the two systems: within science errors are inadequacies in experimental design and control or if the data has been gathered with utmost rigor, errors lie in our theoretical understanding. Scientific response, then, comprises reworking the experiment for greater reliability and validity or challenging and changing the abiding theoretical understanding of the ultimate state of nature. Science, like Hegel’s history, is a paragon of dialectic. Within religion errors are deviations from some god’s law or the laws of a karmic universe. The socially approved responses include individual repentance or congregants’ compassionate prayer for that individual should he or she persist in their un-repentance, or should an individual assiduously rail against the orthodox, the authorities, acting again at the behest of their god, categorize them as in the outgroup, the consequences of which range from mildly predicting their eternity in hell to their torture/murder as apostates. No dialectic exists here within their system, because errors are not ever considered as signals that the standards, e.g., god’s laws, need revision, i.e., that something is amiss with the law itself. Where is the alpha and omega here? Science is always an alpha approaching asymptotically at best the omega of understanding nature. Religion is always an omega as the alpha was already set in stone, so to speak; it may be an omega waiting to happen with the end of days, or an omega of transcendence whereby one leaves off the attachment to this dreary world, but there is no dialectic of religious thought, only evolution of church functioning.

Or consider another frame. I have recently had consideration of the phrase, “coming to my senses,” brought up again. When does someone say this? When realizing that continued effort in the same way would be futile, i.e., senseless, like when someone realizes that a relationship will never be good or healthy or that a plan of action being implemented is untenable or that some belief or assumption is rather unquestionably wrong. “Coming to my senses,” then, is when an omega moment occurs and transforms to an alpha, e.g., Archimedes’ ‘Eureka!’ or (dare I say this) Saul’s epiphany on the road to Tarsus. I use these examples to emphasize that coming to our senses is no sure road to epistemological truth; our senses are famously quite constructive and rather vulnerable to perturbation and error. Still, “coming to my senses” usually connotes a positive and adaptive change of mind. I don’t know if I have ever heard the inverse phrase, “leaving my senses;” I think we tend to say instead, “I am losing my mind.” Curious metaphor that, where the disregard of data engenders mindlessness. And that brings us up to an ever growing facet modern American culture, our fundamentalist religion and divisive politics. Better travel on now rather quickly.

Dialectical path 1.1: aesthetic patterning

I am close to finishing an interesting book by Frank Wilczek, A Beautiful Question . He along with some colleagues won the Nobel Prize in physics for, I think, understanding the ideas of quark confinement by the strong force and asymptotic freedom (an interesting idea, that the closer the particles, the less force binding them together). His book provides a review of the development of the standard model in physics and work towards a unified theory with an eye towards the beauty of the mathematical formulas and our clear understanding of nature. He writes for a general audience so I did understand a good bit here but also lost the thread several times, understandable given my last educational exposure to physics and calculus was 1968 in college.
Mr. Wilczek brings in some interesting philosophical notions as he endeavors to explain some esoteric material to us non-mathematically inclined and I appreciate it. One notion is the principle of complementarity: in a relativistic universe many ways to conceptualize a phenomenon exist, some of which are mutually exclusive. Take his example that light can be conceptualized and measured as either a particle or a wave but not both at the same time. This principle strikes me as analogous to gestalt principles, e.g., the face-vase picture, and applicable to the mystic-positivistic event horizons with which I am working.

face-vase, particle-wave, mystic-positivistic

face-vase, particle-wave, mystic-positivistic

Considering the epistemological biases in how religion and science handle error and change, it is difficult to understand how they could be seen in a unified view (and so must be dealt with dialectically). When religious laws are broken, well, that is a sin and the person is in error. Some people say they know of the corrective consequences in the next world, but meanwhile the earth continues to spin around the sun and people keep on behaving naturally. When scientific laws are broken, we understand that the law itself is faulty because our knowledge is faulty and so work to understand the world better and thereby modify the law. Errors and change are important in both perspectives but handled very differently.
So is there a guide to help find a dialectical path connecting between the mystic and positivistic? Intuitive connections certainly occur frequently enough to suggest so. I have written before about how the chemist August Kekule, who was trying with others to understand the chemistry of the benzene ring, dreamed of the ourobouros, the mythic snake circled around to grasp its own tail, and so understood the ring structure of the benzene molecule. Many scientists tell similar tales of inspiration when taking a walk (Wilczek), watching a movie with his wife (Francois Jacob), or daydreaming on a streetcar (Einstein).
But return to Wilczek’s notion of finding beauty in theoretical formulations for understanding reality. This is dear to my heart because it brings the idea of aesthetics to the forefront of our humanity. I believe it is our sense of beauty that best guides our dialectical path. Art, being a creative and symbolic rendition of some vitally felt form, does not observe the process of error and change except in its composition as the artist seeks to construct a whole, coherent, and vital form congruent with his or her artistic vision. We are gifted patterners; neuroscientists tell us that we are excellent at finding patterns and creating them. And some patterns are constructed aesthetically guided by some features of symbolic creation, say, along the lines of Thomas Acquinas’s 3 principles (as expressed by a young Stephen Dedalus aka James Joyce), unity (unitas), coherence (harnonius) and vitality (luminas). Wiczek’s presentation of beautiful equations, e.g., Paul Dirac’s mentioned here before, is again an esoteric, highly intellectual view of rare aesthetic, and while it may not be artistic vision, it is vision, one of humanity’s better ones.
Daniel Dennett posed the question of what to save if you have a choice between saving a scientific document, say Newton’s Principia Mathematica or Einstein’s E=MC2, or a work of art, say Michelangelo’s Pieta or Picasso’s Guernica, and answers that he would save the art because it is unique and irreplaceable and we will always recover some increased understanding of nature’s patterns and rules.
In one direction we find the aesthetic spectrum from mathematical beauty and in another orthogonal direction is the beauty we find in nature, not in understanding its orderliness, but in its connection to the mystic. Again, what guides us to explore the space between is art. A couple of posts ago I wondered when in our evolution we began to apprehend the divine, say in the landscape where Stonehenge or Glastonbury were built. An even more basic question would be when did we begin to see beauty in the view?

Let's build a henge here.

Let’s build a henge here.

Do other animals, other primates look at the land and light and weather and sigh with romantic satisfaction? I am pretty sure they do not feel religious, but . . .? Is this the precursor to seeing the divine as we transition from luminous to the numinous?

What's it to be, luminous or numinous?

What’s it to be, luminous or numinous?

Travel on.

Finding a dialectical path between positivism and mysticism 1.0

Herein starts an ongoing, albeit irregular, serial with this title and theme.


Consider what we know about life (considerable especially since Crick, Watson, Monod and others). Consider how we know it (and how very technical, even esoteric this has become). Then consider what you know about life and how you know it (just what you know now excluding what we know). Let’s call these two perspectives the ‘social’ and the ‘personal’. For Homo sapiens what we know seems enormous due to our empathic and symbolic abilities. Social knowledge then comes in the forms of religion, art, science, governance, memetic culture, etc. What you or I personally know individuates within our life span; it grows from our somatic biological roots. Thus it depends upon each person’s neurosocial integrity; personal knowledge is further constrained by our life life span but also by a person’s social place. This shapes the content of our information capabilities such as pattern recognition, sense of the mystic, critical assessment, symbolic repertoire and its correspondent conventionality and creativity, and learning of experiential contingencies, i.e., experience. (A society does not have experience, it has instead what we might call culture).

All life is local. Elementary particles and their constituent parts, electromagnetic energies, gravity, dark matter and dark energy are present throughout the universe albeit in clumps. Life is present only in extraordinary cosmic locales and so far we are sure of only this one.

we are all mutants

we are all mutants

Now consider what we don’t know about life and why. (I would go on to add the consideration of what you or I don’t know about life, but that can of worms must be set aside for awhile). We do not know how life began here or how it will end. We do not know about other life in the wide universe. We cannot know another’s conscious experience. We do not know these things because our perspective is limited by space-time scale and the integrity of individual lives. We seek to expand beyond our space-time and personal scale through religion and science, both powered by imagination and based upon an assessed value of ignorance. With one we seek to go beyond the limits of personal knowledge, beyond an individual life span, to what happens, if anything, to our person before birth and after death. With the other we seek to go beyond the limits of or, better, to expand the limits of our social knowledge of life, our lives, our place in the cosmos and of course, the cosmos itself.

I make free use of the metaphor of an event horizon, i.e., that boundary of a black hole where the information within cannot be perceived due to the gravitational force containing it. This is because I find other sorts of event horizons limiting our information, though less because of gravity than because of some other exigencies of our world. So the event horizon for personal knowledge is marked by mysticism and the event horizon for social knowledge is marked by positivism. Let me explain here a bit. Personal knowledge is necessarily limited by one’s life span. We can follow William James and explore up to the moment of death (perhaps a bit further, see my post on 10 January 2015), and we can imagine/apprehend our existence before and after that span, but in fact, we cannot know this socially, except through the culture of religion, so our personal knowing reaches an event horizon. What really happened to me (did I experience) before birth and will happen (that I experience) after death? Following William James, this is apprehended in most varieties of religious experience as ‘mystical’—the name I give to the event horizon containing each human life.

vital energy flowing

vital energy flowing

In terms of social knowledge we approach our life and our world most comprehensively, most efficaciously empirically with the natural philosophy of positivism that then follows. What can we know about how everything happens and how may we escape the limitations of personal knowledge? Our social knowledge expands as civilization and culture develop, and while the event horizon of positivism follows outwardly accordingly, we push intelligently (we can only hope) and assiduously against it still. Given this formulation of personal and social knowledge and their respective event horizons, believing we are looking at a gem with many facets and in the importance of seeing it whole, I follow a dialectical path between mysticism and positivism. Maybe that is why my mind feels so unsettled at times, as if my neural synchronization was oscillating like a dog’s with his nose out the car window.    Traveling on.