Monthly Archives: June 2010

Catnip: A Case for Affective Self-stimulation as a Fundamental Behavioral Drive

I am of the opinion that phenomena like catnip orgies are best modeled in terms of dynamic systems theory. According to this line of thought,

intentions are seen as grounded in neural patterns. The autonomous nervous system constrains the path of future firings as long as the pattern or [Resonant Cell Assembly] lasts. (Some intentions entail long strings of firing patterns, yielding coherent complex behavior, as in the intention to play a game of basketball.) Sensory input continually feeds into the system along the way, either reinforcing the settling into a pattern or shocking it out of a pattern into a chaotic zone in which other patterns strive to emerge. Decisions are precisely the brain’s falling into one pattern or another, a falling that is modeled as the settling into a basic of attraction that will constrain neural firing in a pattern. There is no linear causal chain of input, processing, and output. Instead there is a continuall looping as sensory information feeds into an ongoing dynamic system, altering or reinforcing pattern formation; in model terms, the trajectory of the system weaves its way in and out of a continually changing attractor landscape whose layout depends upon both the recent and the remote past of the nervous system. (Protevi, 2009, p. 18)

With this in mind, we can understand cat behavior in terms of the catnip chemicals perturbing the intrinsic homeostatic dynamics of the cat-system such that it triggers a cascade of self-stimulating behaviors. It has been hypothesized that the active chemical in catnip mimics a sex pheromone for cats. And because the neural substrate of sex behaviors is likely based in pleasure pathways, we can assume that the experience of smelling catnip is intensely pleasurable, perhaps orgasmic. We can then argue that pleasurable self-stimulation is a fundamental drive for mammals. The pleasure-pathways are so directly attuned to behavior that any perturbation of the pleasure-equilibrium is bound to set off a behavioral cascade that seeks to amplify pleasure by whatever means available until equilibrium is reestablished.

Moreover, we can generalize from these behaviors to a wide array of self-stimulation in human behavior e.g. sex, drug/food addiction, masturbation, etc. It is only the top-down control networks of adult cognition that allow for the inhibition of self-stimulation. That this might be so is evidenced in how autistic children are largely driven by self-stimulation (known as “stimming“). Without the possibility for reflective self-control, autistic children are more or less locked into repetitive behavioral loops that focus on affective self-stimulation. Accordingly, the theoretical insights of dynamic systems theory may help scientists better understand the mechanisms of self-stimulation, leading to new behavioral therapy techniques.

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Heidegger and Zen

Heideggeroids are known for their word play and inability to generate concrete expressions. This is especially true of scholarship on division II of Being and Time and later Heidegger. I’m sometimes suspicious that the scholar I’m reading has no idea what he or she is talking about. Accordingly, Heideggeroids usually substitute bad neologisms and jargon for a clear understanding of the phenomenon.

A Heideggeroid might respond by saying they are only following the Master’s lead. But Heidegger can be excused for his cryptic writing style because he understood the phenomenon to be described. Because he had such an intuitive understanding of the subject matter, he also realized the difficulty of capturing the rich manifold of human experience in the web of language and concepts. And not just any web, but one deeply embedded with metaphysical presuppositions that had long since oozed into the vernacular understanding by means of leaky philosophical systems. All his life then, Heidegger struggled with the same problem that has faced Zen for centuries: how do you think about thoughtless experience?

Rigorous phenomenology reveals that reflective, thinking consciousness sits on the surface of our total cognitive system. The idea of a vast, subpersonal ocean of mental activity is well-accepted by theorists today. Moreover, meditaters have understood since its original development that the thinking mind is part of a greater whole.This idea was also “in the air” during Heidegger’s time (through psychology and psychoanalysis). Indeed, one could say that the “they-self” is Heidegger’s attempt at describing unconscious processes in nonpsychologistic terminology. However, if we admit that the nonconscious mind is a legitimate form of human mental experience, albeit not filtered through language and socially constructed concepts, how do we include it into our phenomenology?

Close study of the mind reveals that it is the unconscious libidinal energy that grounds the rational, self-reflexive ego. Without the emotional undercurrent of the unconscious, the thoughts that float on top would lose their connection to the ongoing stream of bodily experience. You can see then the dilemma that phenomenology faces when confronted with the fundamental reality of the they-self.

It is my opinion that Heidegger, inspired by contact with the Eastern world and his own experience with nature, was a deep meditater. Indeed, I think any phenomenologist will miss the boat entirely unless they are thoroughly trained in meditation. Meditation allows you to fall into the thoughtless they-self without forgetting about the experience. This is the difference between a trained phenomenologist and a layman. Both are equally prone to falling into the they-self, but the phenomenologist expects it and is ready for it. The layman does not “wake up” or “return” to consciousness and then ponder about the time lost. The layman will not exercise the metacognition necessary for noting his return from the they-self, he will simply think a thought and then return to his absorption in the world. The phenomenologist however will not just return from his fall, but realize that he has “found himself”. The layman is never aware of his lostness in the way the phenomenologist is.

I suspect Heideggeroids are in the same position of ignorance. They read Heidegger’s words and learn how to string his neologisms into semi-coherent sentences but they fail to grasp the original, wordless experience of absorption. Because they do not understand the full target of phenomenology, they wind up sounding strange and esoteric in their speech and writings. But it’s time to wake up from this lostness into jargon. Heidegger already did the heavy phenomenological lifting for us. If we are to continue the task of phenomenology then, I think Heideggerians would profit more from heavy meditation rather than reading the Master. After all, a return to the “things themselves” does not mean a return to dusty German texts; it means a return to the primordial phenomenological datum: lived experience in all its manifold richness.


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Favorite links – 6/24/10

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James on Philosophy

Philosophic study means the habit of always seeing an alternative, of not taking the usual for granted, of making conventionalities fluid again, of imagining foreign states of mind.

-William James, “The Teaching of Philosophy in Our Colleges”

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The Hypothetical Evolution of Hallucinatory Self-regulation

I just reread Julian Jaynes’ chapter on the brain in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and it’s really fascinating. He raises some incredible questions. First, he notes that almost all important brain functions are represented bilaterally in the brain. This makes evolutionary sense because functional redundancy is a survival skill in the event of injury. But curiously, language is not bilaterally represented yet it is perhaps the most important function in human existence, separating us from the animals. We would not be human without it, as feral children sadly demonstrate. Moreover, the left hemisphere is often called the “dominant” hemisphere because most people are right-handed, and thus have a left-hemisphere dominance in voluntary control (and there is even a right eye field dominance).

There must be a good reason then why something as important as language wouldnt have been bilaterally represented during evolutionary development. We know from lesion studies that if we take out the Wernicke’s area in the left hemisphere during childhood, the whole mechanism of language will transfer to the right hemisphere. So it isn’t that the right hemisphere corresponding to left language areas is incapable of bilateral language redundancy, it’s that it must subserve some other function that is even more valuable for us than language. Jaynes asks, what is this function? His answer:

The selective pressures of evolution which could have brought about so mighty a result are those of the bicameral civilizations. The language of men was involved with only one hemisphere in order to leave the other free for the language of gods. (103-104)

This is Jaynes’ hypothesis of the “bicameral mind”. The bicameral mind is based on the metaphor of a divided house, like two selves housed in one brain (similar to split-brain patients). On the right side is the god-complex, grounded in the right temporal cortex. It’s function was to solve problems by synthesizing complex information and relaying linguistically-coded behavioral instructions to the other side, the mortal-complex, grounded in the left temporal cortex. The gods obeyed and the humans heard. And to hear was to obey. This function substituted for voluntary will in our preconscious ancestors.That this might be true is evidenced by the fact that the temporal lobes have their own private communication channel: the smaller anterior commissures. Moreover, articles like these:

show that the neural substrate for schizophrenic hallucination is the the right temporal cortex, as per Jaynes’ theory.

Accordingly, we might be able to tell the following “Just So” story. First, emphasize that the first complex societies were authoritarian through and through, or at structured by a rigid social hierarchy. Moreover, we could assume that the development of narrative skills would have been to (1) allow the dominant fathers and chieftons to more easily give complex commands in terms of dense linguistic codes (2) allow people to better remember and recount what their fathers, and their father’s father, had instructed them to do in times of need. This generational chain of command was more important and sacred than anything else. The fathers and chieftons would remember the instructions of their father and chiefton on how and when to plant the crops, how to be brave and fight when the time comes, how to live in the Dorian mode and die a honorable death (so that your fame will live on), etc. At this early point in our social evolution, we can assume that language was represented bilaterally in the brain given its importance for keeping the cultural traditions alive and the social control mechanisms operating smoothly.

Granting all this, we can then hypothesize that a scaffolding effect arose as a result of the linguistic control mechanisms. The scaffold was this: everyday, day after day, our ancestors’ brains would have been directly sculpted by the following habit schema: leader commands, I obey. After so many years, this voice would have sculpted the motor pathways in the brain such that hearing it would always result in obedience, much like modern day hypnosis. Such was life; authoritative to the core. Next, we can suppose that these ingrained obedience patterns might have started “looping” in the brain, like a melody or thought that gets stuck in your head all day. As Jaynes says

Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narrative the situation and so hold his analog “I” in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was capable of, or, as seems more likely,by a repeated ‘internal’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do. (p. 134)

It was the unique behavioral opportunies of enduring-attention that provided the selection pressures for the right hemisphere language centers to be readapted for hallucinatory self-regulation. This would explain why schizophrenia has such a strong genetic component and why it remains with us today despite being so dysfunctional in a modern society (answer: because it was once kept people alive to listen to their voices). New evidence is even indicating that auditory hallucinations are more common in “normals” than previously supposed, especially in children (e.g. imaginary companions).

Now, in our imagined society, linguistically-coded verbal commands from fathers to sons dominated the social control mechanisms of behavior regulation. A son grows up everyday listening to his father command him like a puppet. The father himself grew up obeying his father, in addition to the tribal chief (and so on for centuries). The chiefton dies suddenly. We don’t have a concept of death. His body is lying there motionless but he isn’t giving orders anymore. How can we get the chiefton to command us once more? We take his body and clean it, dress it, and prop it up as if he were doing his normal day to day business. We give him food and drink and all his favorite material possessions, trying to appease his spirit so that he will command us again. Wait! A voice belows. The body speaks again! He commands once more! But now it is different. Now he is directly talking to us, more powerful and more authoritative than ever. We cannot refuse his voice; we cannot stop it from compelling us. The voice is heard even when the chieftons body is not around. We cannot close our ears to the thunderous voice. The gods and demigods are born. True ancestor worship begins. Sophisticated burial rituals to induce commands from dead bodies show up in the archeological record. Such work has routinely discovered disembodied heads and scenes of daily life in burial tombs. Why would they mess with the dead bodies of their leaders? To induce auditory hallucinations. Such began religion and the priestclass. Such began schizophrenia and the bilteralization of language on the left, body-controlling side, and the all-knowing language of the gods on the right side, stepping in to command us during times of stress and crutch decision making. The trigger for hallucination is stress but for most moderns, the threshhold is high. For some, however, it is low, far too low (hence schizophrenia).


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The Authority of the Bicameral Mind

Recounted by Julian Jaynes,

One sunny afternoon not long ago, a man was lying back in a deck chair on the beach at Coney Island. Suddenly, he heard a voice so loud and clear that he looked about at his companions, certain that they too must have heard the voice. When they acted as if nothing had happened, he began to feel strange and moved his chair away from them. And then

…suddenly, clearer, deeper, and even louder than before, the deep voice came at me again, right in my ear this time, and getting me tight and shivery inside “Larry Jayson, I told you before you weren’t any good. Why are you sitting here making believe you are as good as anyone else when you’re not? Whom are you fooling?”

The deep voice was so loud and so clear, everyone must have heard it. He got up and walked slowly away, down the stairs of the boardwalk to the stretch of sand below. He waited to see if the voice came back. It did, its words pounding in this time, not the way you hear any words, but deeper,

….as though all parts of me had become ears, with my fingers hearing the words, and my legs, and my head too. “You’re no good,” the voice said slowly, in the same deep tones. “You’ve never been any good or use on earth. There is the ocean. You might as well drown yourself. Just walk in, and keep walking.” As soon as the voice was through, I knew by its cold command, I had to obey it.

The patient walking the pounded sands of Coney Island heard his pounding voice as clearly as Achilles heard Thetis along the misted shores of the Aegean. And even as Agamemmon “had to obey” the “cold command” of Zeus, or Paul the command of Jesus before Damascus, so Mr. Jayson waded into the Atlantic Ocean to drown. Against the will of his voices, he was saved by lifeguards and brought to Bellevue Hospital, where he recovered to write of this bicameral experience.

Who in the history of literature does Mr. Jayson’s hallucinated voice remind you of? The booming, fatherly voice, the absolute moral judgement, the “You should fear and obey me” attitude? Atheists and skeptics often ridicule religious people for being weak-minded in light of rational evidence that gods and demigods do not “really” exist. But clearly, Mr. Jayson did not have a choice in obeying his god. It was not a matter of choosing to believe; it was simply about giving in to the command of the dominant authority. Giving in to authority and letting the patriarchal male dominate through admonitory verbal judgement is fundamental to human behavior. It’s how social relations were governed for hundreds of thousands of years (and to this day remains a powerful tool for mass social control as indicated by hypnotism, meteoric dictators, and religious sermons).

Is it any surprise then that the phenomenon of religion is pervasive enough to warrant speculation about “god genes”? It was the internalization of admonitory judgement through schizoid hallucinatory control mechanisms that catalyzed the unique human phenomenon of ancestor worship. As the ancestors became surrounded in myth and lore, they were internally constructed and experienced as the first gods and demigods. The god complex, grounded by the right hemisphere’s synthetic problem solving skills, dictated commands in time of stress and crutch decision making. It was our alliance with the gods that made our amazingly rapid cultural evolution possible. But as society grew more complex, the social control mechanism of bicamerality grew weak in comparison with the control mechanisms of written language (Hammurabi’s code, the Torah, etc.), bureaucracy, and the priest class. As the gods’ power and influence faded, humans resorted to sortilege, divination, prayer, and oracles to get in contact with what was once so direct: the will of the gods.

And as great civilizations crumbled under their own weight and scattered in response to cataclysmic events, a new self-control mechanism was selected for on the basis of a fundamentally plastic neocortex: consciousness. Linguistic constructs such as the “I/Me/Mine” complex allowed for the generation of a psychological distance between our physical behavior and the autobiographical self or “narrative center” that holds our folk psychological stories in place. The psychological space catalyzed the development of what’s now called “working memory”, “executive function”, “thought-control”, “introspection”, “short term memory”, etc. It was this ability for metacognitive control that gave rise to self-regulating concept-schemas like individual responsibility, agency, freewill, and having a “soul” or “mind”.

Right now Micah Allen and I are co-writing a article on google wave for Frontier‘s special topic issue on consciousness and neuroplasticity. Here is our extended abstract:

Recent research has demonstrated that throughout development the brain exhibits a natural ability to change in response to experience at both structural and functional levels. This plasticity is expressed through both the formation of new neurons (e.g. Maguire et al 2001) and the redeployment of functional connectivity (e.g. Torrerio, 2010). Although plasticity is also found in lower animals, research suggests that it is prefrontal connectivity between regions that differentiates humans from apes (Schoenemann, 2005). Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex, particularly the default mode network (DMN), retains this plasticity well into early adulthood (Gogtay et al, 2004; Raichle, 2001). Social-cognitive functions then, are not stable in preadolescence, and we argue that it is this unstable connectivity that enables the development and utilization of narrative consciousness.

Accordingly, we argue that the high-level cognitive operations typical of human behavior crucially depend upon our ability to evaluate and synthesize experience through narrative scaffolds. Such narrative practice depends upon the plasticity of social cognitive brain mechanisms and can be seen as a recently evolved capacity dependent on tool use (Tylen et al, 2009) and language (Jaynes, 1976). We suggest that it is precisely these culture-centric functional connectivity mechanisms that underlie conscious human narratizing within an “interiorized” workspace or “global theater” (Baars, 1997). Moreover, it has become apparent that exposure to narrative practice in childhood has a special impact on cognitive development (Hutto, 2008). We will argue that these findings provide support for the narrative or social-constructivist approach to consciousness (Jaynes, 1976; Dennett, 1986, 1991). It is our view that a proper consideration of the brain’s phylogenetic and ontogenetic plasticity alleviates any skeptical worries (Block, 1995) about the conceptual coherence or empirical plausibility of consciousness as a social construct.

To further support our argument we review recent evidence that demonstrates highly plastic brains learn to narratize in childhood from exposure to discourse with others. This protoemphathetic interactivity (Gallagher, 2005; Protevi, 2009) can be seen as the nonconscious cognitive scaffolding upon which the special attitude of self-reflection is constructed, giving rise to consciously sensible (i.e. introspectable) qualities. Furthermore, we will argue that recent research on cognitive scaffolding (Clark, 2003, 2008), internal speech (Morin, 2005), narrative practice (Menary, 2008), and childhood development (Reddy, 2009; Blakemore, 2009) provides ample support for the claim that consciousness proper is a social-linguistic construction learnt in childhood. Last, we review the role of plasticity in default brain networks for narrative and minimal consciousness.

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Possible Congruence of Harman's Withdrawal Thesis with Ecological Science?

For the longest time I’ve had trouble understanding Graham Harman‘s radical thesis of withdrawal. What does it mean for two entities to “withdraw” from each other as they interact? How can we reconcile this idea with complete causal closure? Doesn’t gravity, for example, affect an apple through-and-through? It wasn’t until I read the following passage from Varela and Maturana’s interesting little book, The Tree of Knowledge (1987), that I made sense of it as a general ontological requirement.

Ontogeny is the history of structural changes in a particular living being. In this history each living being begins with an initial structure. This structure conditions the course of its interactions and restricts the structural changes that the interactions may trigger in it. At the same time, it is born in a particular place, in a medium that constitutes the ambience in which it emerges and in which it interacts. This ambience appears to have a structural dynamics of its own, operationally distinct from the living being. This is a crucial point. As observers, we have distinguished the living system as a unity from its background and have characterized it as a definite organization. We have thus distinguished two structures that are going to be considered operationally independent of each other: living being and environment. Between them there is a necessary structural congruence (or the unity disappears). In the interactions between the living being and the environment within this structural congruence, the perturbations of the environment do not determine what happens to the living being; rather, it is the structure  of the living being that determines what change occurs in it. This interaction is not instructive, for it does not determine what its effects are going to be. Therefore, we have used the expression “to trigger” an effect. In this way we refer to the fact that the changes that result from the interaction are brought about by the disturbing agent but determined by the structure of the disturbed sysem. The same holds true for the environment: the living being is a source of perturbations and not of instructions.

Now, at this point the reader may be thinking that all this sounds too complicated and that it is unique to living beings. To be exact, as in the case of reproduction, this is not a phenomenon unique to living beings. It takes place in all interactions. And if we do not see it in all its generality, it becomes a source of confusion. (p. 96)

Basically, Varela and Maturana are saying that we can only think about objects in terms of unities that are structurally determined in their organization. All changes in a system are changes of structure, which can be the result of intrinsic structural dynamics or triggered by interactions with everything else. Moreover, Varela and Maturana claim that this feature of structural unification undergoing change applies to  the scientific description of all interactions because otherwise we couldn’t make sense of how and why object unities breakdown (a car is the most obvious example).

While I might be mistaken, this sounds remarkable like Harman’s thesis of objects withdrawing from each other as they interact. Harman seems to claim that every object-object interaction is characterized by each object retaining some “inner core” or “subterranean essence” while nevertheless interacting or “translating” on a “sensuous” level. I’m a visual thinker, so I always had trouble conceptualizing how this process of withdrawal works. But now I think my problem was with the specific term withdrawal, which is actually a misnomer if I am understanding Harman, Varela, and Maturana right. From what I gather, a better description of object-object interaction might go as follows: when an object interacts with another object, both objects need to retain their internal structural unity during the interaction in order for it to be considered an object-object perturbation or “translation”. If there was not a retention of unified structure, we wouldn’t be able to talk about the interaction in terms of two, separately organized unities. Without a separation of unitary structure (i.e without being “operationally distinct”), the structural changes become merely changes of the state of one system rather than changes as a result of the perturbation or translation between different objects. Varela and Maturana also point out that another possibility of object-object interaction is destruction, whereby one object destroys the organization of the unity of another.

One could say that my eyes have now been opened to the relevance of object-oriented philosophy to developments in ecologically oriented cognitive science. I still have trouble with how Harman argues for his thesis, but now that I have at least “translated” it into a familiar conceptual domain, I think I can finally accept some kind of generality of withdrawal for all possible object-object interactions. There’s gotta be a better metaphor than withdrawal though. It’s far too “spooky” for my likening. I’m also not convinced that this was Heidegger’s greatest lesson. But like I said, my eyes are now open to new possibilities of relevance.


In response to my comment about Heidegger’s greatest lesson, Harman asks

Well what on earth are the other candidates?

My reply:

One of Heidegger’s greatest lessons was his distinction between the phenomenon and the semblance. In my mind, this was a realist “upgrade” to Husserl’s transcendental reduction. In his surrounding lectures and in BT, Heidegger critiques Husserl’s transcendental reduction for missing the original phenomenon to be described: our experience as embodied entities living on a physical earth, but “worlded” in terms of the categorial (i.e. socially constructed) intuition. Husserl accepted the metaphysics of the “natural attitude” but bracketed realist questions from the ultimate reduction for sake of Cartesian “certainty” and wanting to achieve “apodicticity” . Heidegger recognized the irony (and ultimate futility) of using Cartesian standards of certainty for the investigation of something as concrete as lived experience. This is why he ultimately endorsed a hermeneutic phenomenology that started from within the messy circle of lived experience, rather than from eidetically purified descriptions of transcendental correlation. By introducing the concept of “semblance” into phenomenology, Heidegger provided a means to capture by formal indication the natural attitude’s acceptance of empirical realism without suffering from internal inconsistency (since he can show that his opponents’ positions stand upon the strength of unquestioned assumptions). Husserl would have never said things like:

With circumspective interpretation, the way in which the entity we are interpreting is to be conceived can be drawn from the entity itself, or the interpretation can force the entity into concepts to which it is opposed in its manner of being (SZ 150).

Heidegger is talking about situations like when we see a stick in the grass as a snake or make perceptual mistakes wherein we radically misinterpret the given phenomenon. Fool’s gold is good example. Such language was phenomenological heresy for Husserl, which is why he thought Heidegger was trying to naturalize consciousness like some sort of objective anthropologist.  But by allowing realist concepts like the semblance into his methodology, Heidegger was able to account for the full spectrum of human experience, such as  when “The present-at-hand, as Dasein encounters it, can, as it were, assault Dasein’s Being; natural events, for instance, can break in upon us and destroy us” (SZ 152). Our experience with earthquakes, volcanoes, animals, etc. shows us that there is indeed an objective reality “out there”, ready to stand in our way or assist us (as with the sun, the wind, and the sea). If some hapless fool interpreted an earthquake as a simulation or dream, Heidegger would say that he was experiencing a semblance of the earthquake, not the genuine phenomenon of the earthquake as it is “in itself”. Indeed,”the fact that Reality is ontologically grounded in the Being of Dasein, does not signify that only when Dasein exists and as long as Dasein exists, can the Real be as that which in itself it is” (SZ 212). Surely this is a vast improvement over Husserl’s phenomenological method and deserves attention as a philosophical methodology.


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