2 quibbles, 1 new & 1 old

My new quibble is with myself.  I have realized that I misnamed this blog when I started it around 2 years ago.  Instead of “Biological Roots of Humanity,” which refers more to the origin of our species, I would have done better to name it “The Biological Roots of Our Humanity.”  This would refer to our human qualities and abilities, sort of like the biological roots of dogginess as opposed to wolfishness.  A small difference but a significant one that I have figured out after only 2 years (I never claimed to be quick, or at least not recently).  There is not much argument any more outside of fundamentalists’ circles that our species arose through evolution, i.e., that we have biological roots.  So my argument is that whatever it is that composes our humanity, e.g., art, religion, governance, science, etc., has biological roots (in this facet I stand with the sociobiologists), and this brings me to my old quibble now with Mr. Jourdain in his book, Music,The Brain, and Ecstasy, that I mentioned in a recent previous post or two.

Consider this passage on page 307:  “An organism must be able to look far into the future, and to remember far into the past, to make possible the give-now-and-receive-later calculus of cooperation.  Only the symbolic minds of human beings are up to the job.”  Oh my, this is exactly what I have written against here these past two years and talked about for 45 years. Peruse past posts and you will see plenty of cooperation evidenced by other species.  We have been aware of our commonalities here at least since Darwin, if you are not blinded by the mythic uniqueness of humanity (the species).  It would be perhaps more accurate to say that only humans, with their special symbolic capabilities, manage to kill so many of our own kind with incredibly destructive weapons over cultural differences and not over resources.  But cooperation?  Read this blog; even better read books often mentioned here by Frans de Waal for a true glimpse into the capacities of other animals.

in the last post I passed over the insufficiency of Jourdain’s discussion of ‘meaning’ in music.  That it is insufficient may be traced to the distorted lenses of humanity’s (our qualities) special abilities that have arisen without precedent.  I will also add that any discussion of our humanity must include not just the usual focus on our symbolic capabilities but also our empathic ones, and that goes double for any discussion of aesthetics.

Now it is time for me to travel on.

Cooperate? Yeah, I cooperate.  What's it to ya?

Cooperate? Yeah, I cooperate. What’s it to ya?

the musical brain and artistic import

A longer post here than usual:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sobo_1909_670_-_Uncinate_fasciculusarcuate fasciculus

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

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


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

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

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

Recalibrating the art history of music

So reading Robert Jourdain’s book Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, I wondered some more about the biological roots of music. Mr. Jourdain observes that we moderns listen to music almost on demand in incidental and volitional ways and states that the special participatory nature of music has consequently diminished. Before the concert form arose in the parlors of the rich in the 17th century, he says further that musical experience was lacking for most and that to a peasant in the middle ages, music was mostly work songs and lullabies. I believe this neglects a lot of history.


We have a bone flute estimated at 43,000 years old. We have the earliest literature derived from oral traditions mentioning bards, poets, songs, lutes and lyres from 8000 years ago. Musical scenes on pottery derive from the same time. Lao-Tzu mentions music and voice in the Tao Te Ching from the 6th century BCE. Drums are more fragile with time’s passage but I think it is a safe assumption that they are at least as old as the flute. We have visual art from 45,000 years ago, so some aesthetic sense was rising. (Remember we have an estimate that modern languages appeared 500,000 years ago, fire and cooking 1.8 million years ago, and tools from over 2 million years ago—see post 5/2/15).


As discussed a few posts below on 9/8/15, A. Patel in his masterful book, Music, Language and the Brain, says that the best candidate for a distinctive musical evolutionary trait is our ability to keep a regular, e.g., metronomic, beat (though more recent research shows some of the same in bonobos). Susanne Langer in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, v. 3, imagines that dancing to the beat provided the opportunity for mathematical advancement in the discovery of patterns, even in fractions, as some rambunctious young dancer double-timed the steps and jumped the beat. And let us not forget Pythagoras (say 500 BCE) and his followers who found mathematical patterns in tonal octaves or even earlier, Apollo as the god of music.


The development of technology for making instruments, musical notation and finally recordings are in some ways analogous to the development of glyphs with oral language—we began a new learning curve. Same with the influence of photography on painting.   My point here is really that there is a long and largely unconsidered history to music that we are actually just beginning to explore with any rigor. Yes, music is participatory in its inception and now we listen more passively but so did the Greeks listen to Homer and other bards strumming the lyre, playing the pan pipes, and beating the drum. And music is pervasive in human culture. In the mid-19th century Alexander Carmichael gathered hundreds of songs and chants from the oral traditons of the Scottish people in his Carmina Gadelica. These pieces were about every facet of daily life and spiritual practice from both pre-Christian pagan times (say <400 C.E.) and Christian times. These accompanied, no doubt, a rising tradition of the Ceilidh, a social gathering centered around music, dance, and conversation (with perhaps some whisky about). Music, especially drums and trumpets, has been martial for a good while too. The English banned the great Highland pipes (bagpipes were known in 1000 BCE) in the 1700s as instruments of war (listen to a grand piper summoning the warrior spirit and you will understand). Later, with the development of excessive zeal from the reformation and the heightened superstition of the devil and dance, preachers ordered many of the Scots highlanders to destroy their fiddles, etc.

My, my, so much to consider, and here is one last item. Remember the research, again posted below on 8/27/14, that musical memories are some of the last to go in Alzheimer’s, even after memory of others’ and one’s own identity. So now we have music as magic, spiritual, daily, ritual, repression, expressive, mnemonic, emotive, martial, social, participatory, dance, mathematical, and starkly aesthetic as in sublimely artistic (think Mozart and Beethoven). Better travel on. And a one, and a two, and a . . .

Einstein’s glia

So here is the maestro himself:einstein1

His brain was harvested within several hours of his death with or without clear legal permission–I could not find clarity online about that–so it has been studied in several ways.  More later.  Now here is a visual rendering of the connectome.

Connectome picture

This represents the connections and flow of information through neuronal processes, their axons and dendrites.  Here is one of those:axon

Each neuron sends out one axon that can end in hundreds of synapses on several other cells, and each neuron receives hundreds on inputs through the synapses on its dendrites.  The connectome activity is through these connections for 10,000,000,000 neurons forming all of our learnings, thoughts, feelings and self.  And then we come to glial cells; they are not in the connectome picture because they are the chemical partners of the neurons, many glial cells for each neuron.  So far this is old news, sort of.

Then we have the Science News article, 8/22/15 entitled “Maestros of Learning and Memory” about how glial cells do not just provide metabolic support to neurons, as I was taught back in the day, but contribute to learning, forming and maintaining memories and increase and decrease in size and number as their neurons need.  Oligodendrocytes provide the myelin sheath to improve transmission (the Schwann cells above), the astrocytes infiltrate synapses influencing their function in learning and memory, and microglia tending to the health of neurons.  This is a really cool read.  Returning to my metaphor of the brain as river delta (see post 7/25/15), the water and its channels would be the neuronal connectome while the various islands, mud flats, and marshy colloids would be the glial cells.  Collections of glial cells would then be fertile estuaries accruing from connectome activity.

Keeping on with my exploration of our humanity, especially our art, I am reading Robert Jourdain’s interesting book, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy.  So far I find his rendition of the musical side very informative and the brain side very elementary and at times wrong.  He writes that the only unusual feature of Einstein’s brain was an increase of glial cells in the left inferior parietal lobe which would serve  spatial imagination and he was famous for thinking with visual images.  I remembered it differently and checked my recall.  Indeed, Einstein’s brain differed in other ways, a larger corpus callousum,

corpus callosum connecting the cerebral hemispheres

corpus callosum connecting the cerebral hemispheres

larger motor areas presumably supporting violin playing, and others suggestive of the ability to make creative connections.  The glial cells finding is a more recent finding, but the take home finding is the same, that the connectome river and the glial delta form a neural ecology and some of these support extraordinary fertility, whether this is seen in Einstein or Mozart or Picasso.  The times, they are a’changing.  Travel on.music-notes