biological machines or mechanistic life?

So periodically I read something that refers to us, i.e., living beings, as machines.  More often than that I read about our brains as machines, i.e., computing machines, hard-wired, programmable, etc., and I have written here my thoughts about using that metaphor to capture neurological functioning (see posts 2/12/15: “dried neurons?” & 7/28/14: oh me, oh my!).  But considering biological entities, e.g., organisms, to be machines is something different and a bit more complicated because there is some literal truth to it.  Essentially I see two issues here:  1) how are we to understand the biochemical activity composing life given that such chemistry is governed by laws which operate mechanistically and we consider life to be vitally free from such constraints, and 2) what are the critical differences between organic and inorganic forms?  Read on with the understanding that I do not have the answer to those questions.

I am reading an old essay (1995?) by Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical biologist at Cambridge U., entitled “The Uses of Consciousness”.  Spoiler alert: the primary use is to understand the subjective musings of another by examining our own—a fairly apt answer, that one.  He brings up several interesting ideas, one of which is this notion that organisms are machines.  I was interested in his several referrals to Denis Diderot, a French writer of some renown of whom I know little.  He refuted Descartes idea of humans having two ‘substances’, body and soul, in classic fashion, i.e., there is no evidence for soul and no ideas about how spirit and matter could interact and fuse into one.

Now over my years I have read about Descartes repeatedly, especially his “Cogito ergo sum” business, and not until now (or in 1995 if I had been paying better attention) did I learn that his learned contemporary found his formulation “deplorable”.  This confirms my worry that our intellectual heritage and educational system has grown thin, emaciated even, as we focus on the catchy phrases and ‘stars’ and leave out contrary views, even when those views are more in line with our modern truths. Oh well, at least I was lucky enough to learn about Spinoza awhile back.

Back to mechanistic life.  Humphrey takes a practical, everyday approach to such issues.  I follow the great Jacques Monod in this from his landmark book, Chance and Necessity: yes, biochemical activity is mechanistic and yet biological processes are not “deducible from first principles”.  Monod gives a beautiful exposition that life evolves by chance and replicates its structure by necessity, and indeed, any feature of life would seem amenable to this analysis.  As I understand it, modern chaos theory follows along here—chaotic systems slowly organize in an unpredictable manner but that organization bespeaks future developments.

Humphrey refers to stalwart philosopher Daniel Dennett as one proponent that life is a machine, and further, that our consciousness is mechanical.  Dennett (per Humphrey) believes that in principle a machine could be constructed that would mimic us closely enough so that we would be ‘fooled’ into thinking that the machine is conscious.  Indeed, Dennett thinks that is what we already do with one another—we believe others are conscious based on our inferences from their behaviors but without any direct, real knowledge of their subjective domain, i.e., we are fooled into thinking others have minds.  Humphrey counters that this ‘problem’ of another’s private subjectivity is actually overblown and that philosophers would do well to read more biology on this matter.  Subjectivity is a natural consequence of being an organism, i.e., it is a fact to be understood and does not present a barrier to knowledge of each other.  I do like a common sense approach.

Go back, though, to the thought experiment of how to tell if an object is a living organism or an artifact mimicking life.  Monod addresses this early on in Chance and Necessity. An organism comes about through autonomous morphogenesis; it is a self-constructing machine that owes next to nothing to anything outside itself to its own creation.  Further, an organism comes with its own purpose; it projects that purpose through its genesis and life span.  Life is not teleological, i.e., growing to some endpoint as Teilhard de Chardin believed, but it is teleonomic, per Monod:  this ‘thing’ with its internal autonomous determinism carries forward its project of invariant reproduction.

So how to tell machine from organism?  Study “its origin, its history, and for a start, how it has been put together” (Monod, p. 13) and you cannot fail to notice that the machine was assembled from and by forces outside itself and the organism by forces internal to its own somatic creation.  And that seems to me the incipient quality necessary for subjectivity.  Yes, we are assembled through biochemical, mechanically governed processes, and yes, we do it ourselves, autonomously.  While we could theoretically construct a machine that mimics that closely, its history betrays its lack of autonomy and thus its lack of subjective integrity.

Biology also fosters the notion that subjectivity is no great decider of our success.  Rather, it is the linking of subjectivities that contributes evolutionary force to our lineage.  Remember that mammals are especially remarkable for our sociability and that we humans are amongst the most social of all.  Do I know that you have a subjective domain?  Yes, I do; I can sense it through our empathic relatedness. Do I know what is in your subjective domain?  Only by reading your signals and comprehending your symbolic communication. Humphrey clearly understands this as a primary function of consciousness, and to give him credit, he knew this before we had any good understanding of our neurological mirroring systems.

This view supports the notion that our consciousness derives from social interaction and that our identity, our self, comes about as we differentiate and integrate our early relationships.  It also supports the notion that other animals have some form of consciousness to the degree that they are sociable.  Again, this seems to accord with Humphrey’s common sense approach to these issues.  For a different approach, read about a panpsychical approach at ( where two psychologists speculate that consciousness is based upon the vibrational resonance between particles, so that everything in the universe can be seen as conscious because everything vibrates at times resonantly and there is little difference between vital and inert forms.  Amusing, perhaps, and curious, but not very nutritious.  Humphrey cites Diderot (was this man ahead of his time or what?) as saying, “One day it will be shown that consciousness is a characteristic of all beings”.  That is ‘beings’, you know, living things.  Though Humphrey disagrees with this statement, I think it is closer to the truth than some other views like panpsychism.

I will conclude with two thoughts.  One is my old idea that we should distinguish between sentience as life assaying the ambient, which is a property necessary at some level for adaptive success, and consciousness as the organism’s autonomous contribution to its apprehension of its own experience, including the ambient yet still independent of external stimulation.  Thus, I would say all life is sentient and any life that is social may develop consciousness.  I have written several posts about this before; see for example 4/21/16: “conscious or not?”.

The second idea is the importance of grounding our ideas in our biological nature. The guiding principle here is that our minds are embodied. Even at the highest levels of our intellectual production our minds rely on somatic experience for reference points.  This seems to me to be quite remarkable and important.  We might be machines of a special sort but we use our physical presence as a way to understand ourselves and our universe, and we do this with the power of metaphor, which is not exactly a mechanical  process.  I refer you to two books by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live Byand Philosophy in the Flesh, both of which but especially the latter explain very clearly cognitive processes by which our embodied minds build upon somatic experience to conceptualize and abstract through metaphor as we seek greater understanding, you know like comparing life to a machine. Travel on.

When 1 +1 = 3

Actually I am just playing around here; I do not think the above equation is ever correct, but I am exercising my brain by pretending so. Though, now that I think more about it, sometimes we do take one idea and combine it with another and so develop a third that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Let’s try it and see.

Georg Streidter in his text Principles of Brain Evolutionwrites that, though the idea is too general to offer much guidance for research, it is true the larger the brain, the more capable the species is in adapting to other niches, and that the larger the brain, the more the species engages in play. General yes, but also intriguing. Playful behavior speaks to a flexibility of behavior and indicates that the animal has greater degrees of freedom in developing actions that exploit opportunities and ameliorate exigencies, and that helps in adapting to the changing contingencies of the world. Plus, Jaak Panksepp in his book, Affective Neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions, writes that rough and tumble play, e.g., mixing it up with conspecifics in various ways, promotes joyful feeling.

So we have the ideas that a larger brain relative to body size increases behavioral degrees of freedom, enables greater adaptation in the face of environmental challenges, and leads to greater play and that helps to generate joyful interactions with conspecifics.  Now consider my idea about our lateralization, i.e., that the right hemisphere generally focuses on the current situation, especially the activity in the social domain, and the left hemisphere generally focuses on information displaced in time and space, especially information controlled through linguistic symbols.  One observation neuroscientists have made is that, again generally, the emotional valence of right sided processes is somber, maybe sad but at least seriously practical, while the emotional valence of left sided processes seems lighter, even happy.  I think this might be because right sided considerations concern the current activity where the situation is delimited and possible actions are proscribed, i.e., behavioral degrees of freedom are fewer because of the practicalities involved. Left sided considerations, concerned with some abstracted and symbolically constructed situation, involves many more degrees of freedom because the situation is fluid and possible actions open to creative solutions.

Going a bit further, this difference seems to reflect the distinction between serious, practical engagement, e.g., work, and light-hearted speculative engagement, e.g., play.  Now consider the famous masks of drama, tragedy and comedy, and how the plays end.


A tragedy usually involves a final action with little possibility for further development; the play ends with virtually no behavioral degrees of freedom for the characters.  A comedy is the opposite; the characters leave the field of play, i.e., stage, to live happily ever after—the future is wide open with many degrees of behavioral freedom.  Classical dramas followed this convention fairly closely.  When we approach modern times, drama begins to reflect the curious muddle of our lives today.  Just how does Waiting for Godot end for these characters of limited repertoire?

One more idea seems relevant here, at least to me.  I am reading The Embodied Mind: Cognitive science and human experienceby Francisco Varela, Evan Thonpson, and Eleanor Rosch, a fascinating book in which they seek to bridge the quite recent positivistic efforts of cognitive scientists and the understanding of human subjective experience as understood by long-standing Buddhist traditions (a slow, deep read for many reasons).  Deep into their analysis they assert that analysis of the visual and other neural systems shows that the bottom up flow of information, e.g., from the retina through the lateral geniculate nuclei to the visual cortex, which we think is decisive in determining our perceptions is actually exceeded by the top down flow of information from higher neural centers.  These processes from above contribute to determining perceptual forms, figure-ground, attention and focus, and more we have yet to understand.

Let me imagine just a bit further that the bigger the brain, the more top down processing flow there is (because that is where the enlargement is) and that is what helps to develop greater degrees of freedom, increase adaptive flexibility and empower playful action.  Now consider the idea I have promoted here about how to define sentience and consciousness.  The general orthodox definitions show that the terms are conflated, i.e., used as synonyms, but for a variety of reasons I have given before (e.g. see post on 4/21/16, or 11/30/17), I think they are better distinguished as follows.  Sentience grows as the basic function of an organism in apprehending its ambient; this is based upon perceptual organs and is what Susanne Langer called impactive activity, i.e., neural action engendered by energies and material impacting on the soma from without.  Neurologically this is what Varela and colleagues call the bottom up processes.  In my heterodoxical view consciousness is autogenic (Langer’s word for the autonomous and independent activity of the brain); it is the top down processes cited by Verala et. al.  Consciousness is what we bring to sentient processing that is not engendered by the current perceptual processes but by our own shaping of our sentient domain and even more for humans by the displaced information remembered, imagined, and controlled through symbolic processes.

So our bigger brains have allowed us to bring more to the current social situation, what I have characterized as heightened empathy leading to deeper intimacy, and more to our interaction with the world at large through our symbolic control of information that we apply to our experiences of the world around us and ourselves.  Take a couple of ideas, add them together, and get something more, eh?  Time to travel on, playfully.

4th anniversary: Post #2 Genetic watersheds

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. I watch from the perspective of two metaphors, 1: the genetic watersheds of SWP (Solving World Problems) and CR (Conspecific Relations) and their confluences into RS (River Sentience), RE (River Empathy), and their confluence into RC (River Consciousness; and 2: the Soma, its Brain and the MEMBRAIN. These ideas contribute importantly, I think, to understanding how embodied minds form and then come together to create the social mind of culture, a distinctly biological phenomena. Today I will summarize the watersheds. Next post will be about the soma-brain-MEMBRAIN.


Genetic watersheds of SWP (solving world problems) and CR (conspecific relations)

The flow from two main genetic watersheds fills our gene pool. Consider that life’s evolution progresses from “a vast reservoir of fortuitous variability”, to use Monod’s phrase, and this variability comes from the uncounted chance mutational events erupting from the ground, most rising and disappearing without consequence, contributing nothing to the watershed’s flow, but some rising to pass muster first as fitting coherently with the other segments of the genome and then as increasing adaptability; these then contribute to the flow down to proceeding generations.

The timeline is quantifiable and unimaginable. Our planet Earth coalesced around 4.54 billion years ago (bya), our moon formed by one or more big asteroid strikes 4.53 bya, our planet’s water was here from the beginning or arrived by more asteroids by 4.4 bya, and evidence indicates that life had begun by 3.7 bya. With that the transition from planetary Earth to vital Gaia began. Incipient life forms began evolving further means of SWP, Solving the World Problem of finding and using nutrients, and speciation developed as life forms spread into new environments and evolved the capabilities needed to exploit the opportunities in new niches. The metamorphosis to Gaia continued until the main phyla extant today appeared by 500 million years ago (mya). The genetic springs in the SWP watershed contributed the increased ability to sense and move and to use different nutrients, all in the service of mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance (these the functions of all life’s existence), and this led to life developing sentience. Thus, the main confluence flowing down from the SWP watershed I have named the River Sentience.

Back upstream a new watershed appeared around 1.2 bya instigated by a powerful spring for sexual reproduction. The flow from this spring enabled a new source of genetic variability, not that of chance mutations but from the recombination of existent genes leading thereby to a more diverse set of individuals from generation to generation. Along with this really monumental development, this spring added on the value of conspecific relations because the search for a proper mate from amongst the great variety of individuals took on an obvious importance. The genetic watershed that developed I call CR for Conspecific Relations. Furthermore, the value of CR increased from the necessity of mate selection to the opportunities of parenting. The springs of the CR watershed began to increase the prominence of cooperation, so that around 500 mya (when the main phyla were settling in) hormonal systems developed that included oxytocin and vasopressin to promote more powerful parenting feelings and behaviors. The genetic flow from CR produced signaling among conspecifics, leading to attachment and bonding with young, the formation of families, and finally, the incipient social relations permitted by new communications among kin and kind. Thus, the main confluence flowing down from the CR watershed I have named the River Empathy.

These two great rivers, RS and RE, flowed down to the ocean of experience, upon the shores of which genotype becomes phenotype, i.e., each species procreates through its individuals, and there we have arrived at the estuarine rebirth of generational life. Here one more important development occurs as a result of the confluence of RS and RE, a confluence made possible by the evolutionary appearance of symbolic thought. The advancement of empathetic communication about the animal’s feeling states of intent, affect and cooperative engagement coupled with mirroring action and intent led to signaling and then symbolic communication about subjectively processed information. As explained elsewhere, with the empathic sense of each other’s mind comes the impulse to share some of the mind’s contents, thereby empowering a new level of social interaction. Now solving world problems (SWP) becomes a shared socially organized activity and conspecific relations (CR) becomes a world problem to be solved. With this development symbolization and empathy interact and initiate human consciousness and culture (the habitus), and so I name the river resulting from the confluence of RS and RE the River Consciousness (RC).

This first metaphor captures the long evolutionary descent of genetic flows that contribute to our species-specific form and renders this remarkable number of infinitesimal chemical and energetic events into two primary flows, SWP that carries out the mitigation of exigency and exploitation of chance in order to gain from the environment what life needs and CR that creates social domains that enlarge Gaia in organizational, informational ways. From this phylogeny we travel on to the ontogeny of each individual soma, its brain (precursor to complex) and the MEMBRAIN in 4th anniversary post # 3.


The purpose of sleep and the mnemonic forms of experience


So we have a science story in the NYT entitled ‘The purpose of sleep is to forget’:

Catchy but maybe not as summary a title as one would want. They cite some assiduous research showing that during sleep the brain decreases synapses in some areas, an action mediated by at least one particular protein that we know of. Some of this work was done by Guilio Tononi who collaborated with Gerald Edelman before his death. What a lot of good science is being done. The premise underlying the title is that loss of synapses equals forgetting. Not so fast there, my friends. Pruning improves and sharpens growth, helping forms to be articulated more coherently, as the story goes on to explain. Sure we may forget some details due to pruning, but we also forget without pruning, and the larger purpose is to remember (and imagine) more clearly. Let me explain myself better.

The NYT title refers simply to the ongoing debate about what is sleep is for. Why sleep? We know sentience and being awake helps exploit environmental resources, e.g., food. Some think sleep keeps us quiet at night when predators are about; others think sleep lets the brain clean up metabolites and such, much like I take the compost out after cooking. Tononi and colleagues posed the hypothesis a while back that sleep lets us clear our minds of the residua of the day and prepare for another and further research has slowly begun to support such a view. Presumably the synapses that shrunk, in some areas by as much as 18%, quite a significant proportion, had enlarged dealing with the exigencies of the days past. Here is my question: does the shrinkage constitute pruning, like apoptosis, or consolidation, like items in STM moving to LTM, if you get my gist here. Remember that TMs are not spaces but activity and that activity contributes to invariant and variant mental structures (you know, of information).

Our model for pruning comes from apoptosis, the death of neurons that are poorly connected or that connect poorly during early maturation of the year or so after birth, thereby contributing to the invariances of personality through attachment and affective regulation. This pruning promotes the development of other systems and structures, reducing noise in the processes, that are presumably more adaptive to the person’s niche. Our model for consolidation is not quite so clear. It can be looked at from several perspectives. There is the long standing cognitive research tradition studying short and long term memories, how the transition between them might happen and what happens when it doesn’t happen as in the case of H.M. who had his hippocampi ablated to control epilepsy but taught us so much about the loss of that transition between STM and LTM. Neuroscience, both clinical and experimental, has long studied the processes of symbolic competence and performance, i.e., the maturation and development of language and how it is compromised by disorder and trauma (aphasias, etc.). For example, consider word retrieval. Frequently used words in your vocabulary come to mind almost effortlessly while more unusual ones are more difficult to remember. Could it be that the higher frequency usage keeps the memory traces of neurons and synapses primed while pruning leaves less frequently used words less accessible?

Consider as well the connectome, that ongoing connective patterning of CNS communication amongst its systems, and the clinical example of a young scientist falling into icy water who died, whose body was recovered after some time underwater, and who was later resuscitated at a hospital, her identity intact and who with therapy came back close to her previous self and competence. Somehow her connectome was resilient and unpruned or at least, information not forgotten and lost.  Next consider the question of how dreaming plays into synaptic flux. Do synapses shrink or grow or just maintain with dreaming? And what about meditation? How does this pruning/consolidation change with developing expertise at meditation?

My list goes on, a sort of wish list for empirical clarification. When someone is depressed and their cognition is a maladaptive redundant feedback loop called rumination, what happens to their synaptic tidal rhythms? Does cognitive therapy bolster both the ebbing of ruminative circuits and their replacement with the flow of adaptive flexible and realistic cognition? Does this tidal flow while sleeping contribute to that? When someone cogitates over a problem like Monod’s colleague, Jakob Wolff, who subconsciously solved a problem leading to our understanding of rDNA, how does the brain keep the thought processes alive when asleep, as with Kekule’s dream of the benzene ring or Wolff’s insight flash during a movie with his wife? (She did indeed, I hope, understand why they had to leave the theatre and return to his desk). Did the cogitations over a theoretical problem keep certain thoughts bright and let others dim, thereby heightening and clarifying the gestalt answering the theoretical call?

This is already a longer post for me (and I have much else to do today), so let me not go into a lot more details of which there are many, and instead go back to my notion that sentience and consciousness are quite different. In my thinking sentience is a basic life function; the sensing of the environment is necessary to solve the world problem of finding nutrients and conspecifics and avoiding the bad stuff. The evolution of sentience, then, can be traced from early single celled organisms to multicellular ones and then through its evolutionary victory with vertebrates, especially mammals. When we think of an animal’s Umvelt, we usually think of its sentient abilities. Consciousness is the contribution of the organism’s own autogenic impulses to its Umvelt; consciousness is the suffusion of information from memory and imagination to sentience. I have talked about this many times in past posts, like when I say we can be +/-sentient and +/-conscious, creating a 4 celled matrix:

SENTIENCE/CONSCIOUS            + sentient                                  -sentient

+conscious                                       awake                                              dream (REM sleep)

-conscious                                       hypnosis/dissociative                    sleep (slow wave)

I have also discussed this in reference to Jaak Panksepp’s remarkable observation that the center for dreaming (REM) seems to have appeared in evolution before the centers for arousal/awake. Thus, looking at this in a poetic light, animals dreamed before they awoke. (Actually the earlier dream centers controlled arousal through the suffusion of conscious energy into sentient processes. With further evolution sentient processes gained their own arousal governance system, I presume because of the increasing scope and power of perceptual abilities, e.g., olfactory, auditory, and visual and the special systems for conspecific recognition and interaction and consciousness increased in its power to manage memory and imagination.)

Here’s my point now: The research into the tidal ebb and flow of synapses during sleep does not reveal that the purpose of sleep is forgetting, though that is part of it, but it does provide a glimpse into how sentience and consciousness interact in a balanced manner, of how they are balanced. This is a dialectical process by which the organism’s vital nerve centers incipient to its intentional stance exert control over and respond to the sentient processes that are necessary for adaptive functioning. Unconscious sentience is mechanical and inflexible. Insentient consciousness is fluid with a reality unbounded by necessities though fertile with possibilities. Conscious sentience, when balanced, allows creative intelligence to flourish, and some of that balancing occurs when unconscious insentience allows the chaff of the days to be separated from the seeds needed for the next mental crop.

So remember, please, as you travel on, where you read such thoughts first put together. I will pause and dream about variant and invariant forms in language and art, in memes and tropes, and how each aesthetic communication transmits an organized form of experience allowing it to be replicated in another mind and how this organization leads to mobilization. Right on.

Conscious or not?

For some reason several news stories have popped up questioning whether other animals are conscious. Try these links:


I like these stories because they bring up the issue of what kind of minds our fellow beasts have. Of course some scientists and philosophers reserve consciousness for animals with symbolic capabilities, which restricts it to humans, but I think other factors are involved here. The earthsky article says that animals, like Inky the octopus who smartly escaped his aquarium, are intelligent enough to be conscious, but if intelligence were key, that would rule out some people I know and some politicians I read about.

Long ago I posted about the difference between sentience and consciousness. Let me review: They are not synonyms. Sentience is the alert perceptual awareness of your environment, internal as well as external. When you sleep, then you are insentient. Sentience would seem to me an inherent property of all life because all life must sense and find resources. Sure sentience comes about in many ways, from the amoeba’s sensitive membrane, the lobster’s vision and chemical senses, or mammalian perception along with the sleep-wake cycle. So all life is sentient (yes, even trees in this view—don’t their leaves follow the sun? don’t  they communicate with chemicals?); one facet of their intelligence is how sophisticated their sentience is .

Now consciousness is a different matter. We can be sentient but unconscious as when we are hypnotized or drive too long fatigued and experience what is called highway hypnosis. We can be insentient but conscious as when we dream. We can be both sentient and conscious as I hope we all are as of this writing and reading or we can be neither as when we fall into deep, non-REM sleep. (It has occurred to me that dissociative processes can involve being both sentient and conscious in a disconnected way, e.g., PTSD flashback). Consciousness, then, is a quality dependent upon our internal subjective awareness. I have posted before about the claustrum that Crick and Koch think is the conductor organizing mental or conscious processes. When the claustrum is momentarily ‘turned off’, the person remains awake but unconscious and remembers nothing of the experience; our subjectivity is disrupted.

We humans are able to monitor and control (to a lesser degree than some might think) our thoughts because of our symbolic capacity, so it does seem that symbols are important to our consciousness. While other animals may not communicate symbolically, some must have some proto-symbolic processes that facilitate mental control. (So as not to ignore what ‘proto-symbolic’ entails, please consider how animals control information displaced in time and space mnemonic or imaginative but beyond the current situation). I think that something else is important to whether or not an animal’s sentience also develops into consciousness (hint: the title of this blog).

Consciousness arises in animals who are social and have an empathic awareness of another’s mind and so an increased awareness of their own. (This is close to the basis of object relations theory in psychodynamic psychology.) In this view consciousness is a matter of degrees, not all or none. How empathically tuned is the animal and how robust are its symbolic or protosymbolic capabilities? Our human consciousness is a paragon here because our roots of empathy and symbolization have joined mightily in the evolution of our lineage.

Yes, some old fogeys want to keep consciousness as one of humanity’s special traits, but don’t you buy it. That is, in de Waal’s terminology, anthropodenial. On the other hand, yes, your dog is conscious to some degree, but a different one than ours or simians or cetaceans. In one of his books, Frans de Waal utters a challenge for anyone to interact with a bonobo or chimpanzee, look into their eyes and then deny they are conscious. Can’t be done if you yourself are conscious.

Which brings me to consider whether or not some politicians who utter repeatedly an ill-considered script and show an utter disregard for the empathy required for normal interactions are conscious. Could NIMH study them? Maybe better to follow the path set by Inky. Travel on.


So you think you are conscious and that it somehow matters, eh?

a longer post on sleep

Awhile back I read two things that jostled something loose in my brain and I am working to get a handle on what and where it is. The first item was a PLOS article asking if infant sleep were a precursor to adult sleep, linked here.

This is an odd question to me, because all things infant (except those neurons marked for apoptosis or cell death) are the precursors of most adult things. Ask William Wordsworth and he will tell you:

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

Anyway the researchers found infant sleep to have similar components to adult sleep, so we also have it scientifically. The specifics here are interesting. The researchers identified cells in the pons (of mice) that turn off the body’s motor output, resulting in atonia, the limp, relaxed body state of sleep. Other cells turned on the twitching movements characteristic of dream states. Both of these are critical components of REM sleep, so that infant sleep is indeed a precursor to adult sleep, i.e., there is continuity of function through development. Of course we knew that but just hadn’t found it right here.

Reading further these researchers are following up on some work by Howard Roffwarg, a preeminent sleep researcher since the 1960s. He presented the notion in 1966 that dreaming, aka REM sleep, plays a role in our neurological development. In this he focused on the fact that for all mammals, REM sleep is more frequent during infancy than during adulthood, and that for adults, sleep and dream deprivation has serious negative results. This is great work.  Here is his picture and a good bio:

Dr. Roffwarg

Dr. Roffwarg

Now while reading about this research, I also read in Joseph’s Neuroscience text that infants, who we know spend much time asleep and much of that time in REM sleep, also show REM during wakefulness. Dr. Roffwarg, it turns out, was probably one source for this information. He found that infants engage in more REM sleep, go directly from awake to REM unlike adults who have to have some period of deep sleep before REMing, and that the eye flutters and gurgles of satisfaction after nursing are really the manifestation of REM, the pons instigating the movements and relaxation.

I like this. If you have followed this train in my posts, you may remember that 1) I think consciousness is the autogenic (following Langer) control of sentience and 2) that sentience and consciousness, being two different things, can be on and off at different times. Sentience is a basic life function: find the nutrients out there and move on to more. Consciousness evolves as the CNS cephalizes and autogenic impulses, the vital energy the animal produces autonomously not in response to any impact from outside, take control of  sentient functions. From a past post, then, I thought that adults can be both sentient and conscious (as I assume you are now), not sentient but conscious (as in REM dream sleep), unconscious but sentient (as in highway hypnosis), and unconscious and insentient (as in deep sleep). Infants in their sleep patterns develop some control over these 4 states, thereby creating more discrete and adaptive functioning modes.

Now Dr. Roffwarg has studied the complexities involved in REM sleep as it prepares the developing mind for learning and then helps to maintain the mature mind’s capacity. From my perspective, early REM helps the developing self and MEMBRAIN exert control over sentient functions, the ones dedicated to perceiving the external environment and moving on to life sustaining activities. With this control comes the ability to be conscious, i.e., mindful, of non-sentient information such as memory and symbols. Thus, ‘priming’ for learning means the integration of perceptual information with intentional formation (and its displaced information), and ‘maintenance’ means the rhythmic resurgence of autogenic impulses over sentience while the sentient flow is much reduced. This would be another essential part of sleep: quieting the soma and its need for sentient processing of the welter out there, so that the information rising into the more mindful layers is self-generated. Which brings up the subject of meditation, but enough for now.

so is this kid dreaming or what?

so is this kid dreaming or what?