Monday, January 14, 2008

IV. Instincts and Culture

In discussing various features of the human brain, I have not forgotten the destination I have set out for: the issue of human instincts/universals of human behavior. But it has to be established that our brains do have various structures that have definite effects on our behavior and in making us who we are before we can take the step into asserting the existence of human instincts. We have, according to E. O. Wilson (actually, George P. Murdock, whom Wilson is quoting), identified at least sixty-seven cultural universals so far:

age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethno-botany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire-making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift-giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool-making, trade, visiting, weather control, and weaving. (Wilson, OHN, 160)

Each of these, in various forms, can be found in every culture, throughout history. My guess is there are many more than just these (again, the above calculation suggests around 250). In Natural Classicism, Frederick Turner adds combat, gifts, mime, friendship, lying, love, storytelling, murder taboos, and poetic meter to the list of sixty-seven. And in The Culture of Hope, and in Beauty, he gives a list of what he calls neurocharms (208-210), many of which could also be considered cultural universals, since they are found in every human culture. Many of these, such as narrative, selecting, classification, musical meter, tempo, rhythm, tone, melody, harmony, and pattern recognition can be found in other animals, including chimpanzees, gibbons, and birds. Others, such as giving meaning to certain color combinations, divination, hypothesis, metaphysical synthesis, collecting, metaphor, syntactical organization, gymnastics, the martial arts, mapping, the capacity for geometry and ideography, poetic meter, cuisine, and massage (which would be a development of mammalian and primate grooming rituals, which humans also engage in, as any couple can tell you), are uniquely human.

The existence of these instincts has some implications for art and literature. When Turner points out that both humans and animals ritualize “mating, aggression, territory, home-building, bonding, ranking, sexual maturity, birth” while only humans ritualize “time and death” (9), it is as though he was equally pointing out all the themes one would expect to find in a great novel, play, or epic poem, and which very well may be a list of the themes of all the great works of literature. Turner himself points out that considering all of the cultural universals make it “tempting to propose that a work of literary art can be fairly accurately gauged for greatness of quality by the number of these items it contains, embodies, and thematizes” (26), since “it is the function of [literature] to preserve, integrate and continually renew this deep syntax and lexicon [of cultural universals], while using it to construct coherent world-hypotheses” (26).

In a more directly evolutionary sense we may wonder where these universals came from. How did these specific strange attractors – rules of human actions – arise to generate all of the world’s various cultures? And are they universal? And would these universals not restrict human action, giving us less freedom (do they not argue for our behaviors being determined)? Every culture in the world, throughout all of human history, has had religion. Does this restrict the expression of any culture or individual? Hardly. It has led to a very large number of expressions. The forms of religion have varied: various monotheisms, polytheisms, pantheisms, nature religions, the promises of various utopias, earthly and transcendent, not to mention individual interpretations of each religion, showing how much variety one can get in unity. I will deal with more specific issues of religion in a later chapter, but let me suffice it to say that even atheists have found religions to replace the transcendental ones: Marxism, Freudianism, etc. People like Sartre have given up Christianity only to embrace the secular religion of Marxism. One would be hard pressed to find a single individual who did not have faith in something or someone. And one simply cannot find a single example of a culture without some form of religion.

But where do these instincts, or deep behaviors, come from? The natural place to look should be in the way the mind works, meaning, how the brain is structured. The deep structures of our brains have given us language, culture, and, as I argue, art and literature. But where does the brain get this tendency to create deep structures? The mathematics I have shown are highly suggestive in general terms, but what about the specifics? Why would evolution create instincts? And what is the relation of all of this to culture? Why would I consider something called “cultural universals” to be instincts?

Wilson observes that “For (anthropologists), a culture is the total way of life of a discrete society - its religion, myths, art, technology, sports, and all the other systematic knowledge transmitted across generations” (Wilson, 141-142). If we take away the details, we can see this definition is true not just for humans, but for most social species with long life spans. Bonner uses this definition of culture when he says that “culture involves communication between individuals of the same species, and therefore culture and society go hand in hand” (159). In a sense we observe each other into the same culture. Elephants learn, in part, how to be an elephant by watching other elephants. The same is also true of cetaceans and primates. They gain information through observation, and “tradition means a repetition of following out the instructions of the information” (Bonner, 161-2). Culture is maintained through the teaching of tradition, and includes followers of and innovators within that tradition. In their Scientific American article, “The Culture of Chimpanzees,” primatologists Andrew Whiten and Christophe Boesch show different wild chimpanzee troops act in different ways that can only be explained through cultural transmission. Subsequent generations of chimpanzees learn how to do certain things – hammering nuts, pounding with a pestle, fishing for termites (including variations on how to fish), eating ants, removing bone marrow, sitting on leaves, fanning flies, tickling self, throwing objects, inspecting wounds, clipping leaves, squashing parasites on leaves versus using fingers, inspecting parasites, arm clasping, knocking knuckles, and rain dancing (64-65) – that can only be explained by learning, which is, cultural transmission. Indeed, we see behaviors being taught to the young in many species – so what once made humans special, our being taught different things in different tribes, regions, or countries, is now seen to have a parallel in chimpanzees and bonobos. Culture did not start with humans. It started millions of years before humans evolved, and was crucial to our evolving into humans.

One could argue that human culture is much richer than that of chimpanzees. But culture is not a matter of degree. Is a chicken any less a bird than a peregrine falcon? The latter is the fastest bird in the world, a champion flier. Chickens can barely get off the ground. Each one’s wings have evolved to fit their particular lifestyles. Chickens have no need to fly fast; peregrine falcons would starve to death if they did not. So, yes, human culture is richer than chimpanzee culture. But even if humans are completely determined by culture, that culture started in our pre-human ancestors, so if we want to understand who we are as humans, we have to understand how culture arose in chimpanzees and bonobos to see how culture arose in humans.

Chaos theory tells us that all the structures in the universe have deep structures which have universal features. The repeated self-similar patterns of fractals are the memories of those patterns. The patterns of spiral galaxies, snail shells, the layout of seed patterns in sunflowers, and the patterns of eyespots on the decorative feathers of peacocks all exhibit the same proportions as the Fibonacci spiral (Doczi). The Fibonacci spiral (along with the Fibonacci series, and the golden mean ratio – which is, by definition, an irrational ratio, since the golden mean is nonrepeating after the decimal, making it irrational; thus the golden mean is both rational, as a ratio, and irrational simultaneously) is the simplest fractal form in the universe, and repeats the same pattern and proportions regardless of scale. Anything that exhibits the proportions of the Fibonacci series is fractal – meaning all life and all living growth are fractal. One of the features of fractals is the necessary presence of strange attractors, which pull the fractal into shape, while providing enough freedom to result in an infinite number of variations on those shapes. It is these strange attractors that create the deep structures of the universe, from the movement of galaxies to the orbits of stellar globular clusters to every element of the weather to population dynamics to brain structures which, once they become complex enough, result in things such as complex human cultures and languages. Deep structures in the brain are strange attractors, creating both the rules we must go by, and the freedoms those rules give us. Deep grammar, seen as a (set of) strange attractor(s), shows us how we can get such a diverse range of languages, while sticking to the rules of deep grammar. Language is a fractal and a dissipative structure – each language has definite structures, but those structures give us an infinite number of possibilities.

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker points out that “human intelligence may depend on our having more innate instincts, not fewer” (243), and the calculations of complex systems supports this idea. One could easily say that anything one could call universal, in that all human cultures in all places at all times have had them, should rightly be understood as an instinct. This gives us quite a long list of human instincts.

Insofar as instincts are behaviors one must do (i.e., we must language, we must narrate, we must experience beauty), meaning instincts are rules, we find we have many more degrees of freedom by having these rules. More freedom of the mind is the same thing as saying there is more intelligence. More instincts develop because

when an environment is stable, there is a selective pressure for learned abilities to become increasingly innate. That is because if an ability is innate, it can be deployed earlier in the lifespan of the creature, and there is less of a chance that an unlucky creature will miss out on the experiences that would have been necessary to teach it. (Pinker, 244)

The creation of more instincts in humans would have made us more adaptive to our environment, since our being able to innately enter into language, for example, makes our learning language much easier (I would argue, possible at all) than it would be if our minds had to literally create everything tabula rasa. One may object that if we learn at all, what we learn cannot be an instinct. But lions, which everyone would agree have the instinct to hunt, must also be taught how to hunt well if they are to survive. The fact that they also have to be taught what they know (that they have to learn to become who they are) does not negate their already knowing it on a certain level. It is the details that have to be taught. All the instincts, as well as Turner’s

charms involve a cooperation between a biogenetic endowment and a cultural tradition that can activate and shape it. We all have neural organs adaptively designed for the purpose of language, but also require the environment of a specific natural language to awaken them. The same applies to the skills of melody and harmony, of poetic meter and visual representation, of theatrical performance and cookery. (Beauty, 67)

So we can see that there is a cooperation between the instincts built into the brain and the environment in which the owner of the brain finds himself. However, one may also wonder why, if as Pinker says, making behaviors innate is beneficial, that all elements of our behavior are not innate. Why should we have to be taught the details? Pinker points out that

evolution, having made the basic computational units of language innate, may have seen no need to replace every bit of learned information [words, surface grammar, syntax] with innate wiring. Computer simulations of evolution show that the pressure to replace learned neural connections with innate ones diminishes as more and more of the network becomes innate, because it becomes less and less likely that learning will fail for the rest. (244)

The formulas I used earlier suggest another reason: to have all elements of language, including all words, as instincts would require a system with a truly astronomical number of elements. If we have a vocabulary of 10,000 words (quite small), we would need a brain with 1016 elements (N1016 ), which is much more than the 60,000 gene products we find in humans. We would have to have brains over 5000 times larger than we have if our vocabularies were made into instincts. It is much easier and more efficient to have to learn our specific vocabularies. By having an instinct to engage in a larger activity while having to be taught many of the details, we are given new levels of freedom.

The question still remains where these cultural universals – these instincts, these universal rules for human behavior within their cultures – came from. Recent research has shown that not only chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), our closest living relatives, but orangutans too, have culture. Different groups have different ways of behaving, which are passed down, not by genetics, but by learning from watching others. If we take the above list of sixty-seven human cultural universals, I can identify in that list twenty-four which chimpanzees share with humans: bodily adornment, cleanliness training (in some), community organization, cooperative labor (i.e., when they hunt), courtship, division of labor, ethics (see Frans de Waals’ Good Natured), family feasting (a true ritual in chimpanzees), games/play, gestures, gift-giving, government (in a primitive form, see de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics), greetings, hygiene (in cleaning each other of parasites), incest taboos (admittedly a questionable one, since it is clear the Westermarck effect is in effect, but not yet clear that it is also socially transmitted), kin groups, medicine (de Waal, The Ape and the Sushi Master, 254-255), postnatal care, property rights (chimpanzees are very territorial), ritual (see family feasting, above), status differentiation, tool-making, trade, and visiting. And this does not include the cultural differences found among chimpanzee troops (Whiten). I say there are only twenty four, but look at those twenty four. Are we really so much better because we have developed calendars when chimpanzees have developed medicine (albeit far more primitive than human medicine, to say the least, but quite impressive all the same)? Many of those uniquely human cultural traits can be genealogically traced from this pool of twenty four we share with our closest relatives. And I have not even included narrative, which humans also share with chimpanzees – as well as any animal that hunts, particularly with others of its social group. Government too would naturally arise in a species that has status differentiation and the need for rules. We could see religion arising in part from things such as status differentiation and narrative leading to language. The development of religion naturally leads to instincts such as divination and religious ritual (combining religion with feeding rituals could do this – as we see in the Christian Eucharist, eating bread and drinking wine). But rather than dwell on these generalities, I should go into more detail on several of these, particularly those uniquely human, and especially those most related to the arts and humanities. All of these emergent cultural universals are combinations of those cultural universals we inherited from the common ancestor we held with chimpanzees and bonobos. And many are specifically derived from combinations with language. Since language is generally considered uniquely human, we must first deal with how we humans came to language.

Friday, January 11, 2008

III. Beauty and the Brain

The creation of patterns within patterns creates fractal depth, and unity among diversity, showing us that “knowledge of the structural principle of fractal images has led successfully to the discovery of uniformity in the variety of appearances” (Fischer, 67) in nature and, as art is a product of the brain, and the brain is part of nature, in art too. Nature has fractal geometry – the repetitious repetition of repetitions. Great works of art have fractal geometry too, and in the same way that nature is fractaline, not in the repetition of the same fractals, but of the superposition of different fractal geometries on top of each other. Again, uniformity in variety. We again see the use of repetition, of patterns, and therefore, of rhythm, at the most basic levels of nature. And it goes all the way down. Light is made of waves – they are repetitious and have a steady rhythm. Quantum particles (including strings) all vibrate – they have steady rhythms (this quality of vibrating at a steady rhythm is why we use Cesium – which vibrates at a known, constant rate – in our atomic clocks). Crystals all have patterns, planets all orbit in steady rhythms (as do stars in the galaxy) – nature is rhythmical, patterned, all the way down. It has fractal depth. So we should not be surprised to find the use of rhythm in the development of biological organisms, including humans – and our brains. Nor should we be surprised we find rhythms and patterns comforting – and beautiful. This suggests we would expect our art to be patterned, rhythmical, since both the creator and the audience finds patterned, rhythmic art beautiful. The problem of boredom keeps artists innovating, creating new patterns, suggesting new rhythms, that can potentially help us to see new things in the world, helping us to better adapt to and learn about the world.

Rhythms and patterns in animals are expressed not only within the body, but in many of our behaviors. Rhythmic behavior patterns are called rituals. Sexual selection has generated rituals in fish, birds, and mammals – and humans are not exempt. Turner goes so far as to say that art comes out of ritual, the differentiating feature being that art is more directly concerned with the beautiful than is ritual in and of itself (16). Ritual originated in sexual selection – particularly in mate selection – since sexual selection tends to create beauty, as we see in the peacock’s tail. This, and the oral tradition out of which literature evolved, have some implications regarding literature in particular. When Turner says ritual “is often . . . the place where society stands back from itself, considers its own value system, criticizes it, and engages in its profoundest philosophical and religious commerce with what lies outside it, whether divine, natural, or subconscious” (8), it is hard to imagine he could not be talking about literature in general, and the novel in particular – as any quick history of the novel and its societal effects shows.

Ritual also implies performance. “In ritual human beings decide what they are and stipulate that identity for themselves, thereby asserting the most fundamental freedom of all, the freedom to be what they choose” (Turner, 8). With art and literature, we engage in world-creation, participate in that created world to help us comprehend the natural world, and communicate this information to others. This is what works of art and literature do: communicate information about possibilities. This is the ethical role of art and literature (this is separate from, but inclusive of, the tragic role of art and literature). Art and literature play vital roles, since “communication [is] the basis of both a social existence and of culture” (Bonner, 97). The creation and appreciation of art and literature are fulfilling because “world creation is hard work, and must be richly rewarded” (Turner, 16) through our feeling of beauty.

The creation of particular structures in the brain, the way the brain processes information, and the loss of neural connections and massive numbers of brain cells, are all part and parcel of what constitutes human thinking, learning, and minding. Our brains are programmed to learn certain things at certain times, and in certain ways. The best, most effective way to learn something is to do it as early, and as rhythmically, as possible. If we want to have an effect on behavior and learning through nurture, we have to understand better our own nature. In order to know ourselves, which has been the constant cry of philosophy – and of the arts and humanities in general – we have to know our biological selves. In doing so, we can become aware of our limitations, and of the rules that govern our behavior, so we can make better use of those rules. If the brain makes use of rhythms to understand the world, is it not best to use this knowledge to better ourselves, to make ourselves more knowledgeable and wiser? Certainly, if, as Doczi says, knowledge is varied, but wisdom is unified – what would make for a more beautiful mind than one full of unified knowledge? We can best teach ourselves and our children more knowledge, and in a more unified manner, by making use of what we do now know about how the brain works and understands the world.

For those in the arts, such knowledge can inform us as to both how to create more beautiful works, and why those methods work. For a work of art to be beautiful, it must have repeated repetitions of its visual elements. For a poem to be beautiful, it must be rhythmical, have repetition of sound and beat. For a work of fiction to be beautiful, it must have repetitions of images and theme-words. And each must have variations which have unity. Symmetry with asymmetry. Repetitive repetitions that are not perfectly repetitive – not identical, but self-similar, to avoid monotony, to avoid boredom, and therefore keep the attention of the audience. But they do have to have the repetitions for us to see them as meaningful – as it is the recognition of repetition, patterns, to which we attach meaning. And insofar as one of the purposes of art is to create new meaning and, thus, revalue all values (Nietzsche), the creation of rhythm, repetition, and, thus, patterns is vital to the creation of beautiful works of art.

A biological understanding of the brain, of how the brain is structured and programmed by regulatory genes, which are themselves affected by their environment, whether we understand that environment to be a direct chemical environment, or an indirect one, generated by interactions of the organism with the world (light hitting the retina, transmitting an image to the brain, which then processes the image, comparing it to other things in the brain it remembers and has meaningful and emotional connections to, so it can classify it and, thus, change the very structure of the brain, so the organism can better deal with the world and other things similar to the new thing it has seen), helps us understand our behavior, and how we can better interact with, and therefore learn from, the environment, so nurture can be better used, interacting with nature. Better understanding of how the brain is structured during fetal development, and later, in infancy, when the brain is still developing, can help us create a better learning environment – one that makes good use of the arts, and which sees the arts, not as mere decoration, but as a vital, indeed, integral part of how we learn and what makes us human.

This approach is further supported if we look at some of the general ways in which the brain functions. In Natural Classicism, Frederick Turner has an essay on the brain sciences. In it he points out that with the left-brain being the primary location of temporal sequencing and short-term memory, and the right-brain being the primary location for a spatial gestalt mode and a memory for “complex locations and images, and with some subjects, for instance dwelling-places, [where] our powers of recall and recognition of spacial patterns are astonishing” (19-20), and the fact that “it is the exchange of information between right-brain and left-brain modes which constitutes the human capacity to make sense of the world” (18), then

In such a perspective plot or story becomes crucially important. The “unity of action” . . . functions as a sort of connected series of rooms, containing places for memory storage. Plot, moreover, with its capacity to organize large units of time, extends the harmonious patterning of temporal periodicities that we find in poetic meter to larger and larger scales, organizing a voluminous body of material and broadening the temporal horizon of memory and expectation. (20-21)

However, I would like to suggest that in longer works fractally-distributed patterns of words could also create a “harmonious patterning of temporal periodicties” over a large scale that works in a similar way to that of poetic meter, the difference being that the music of poetry is rhythmic and expected, while this music of novelistic prose would be chaotically rhythmic and unpredictably predictable. Either way, Turner’s claim does support the idea of plot as something novels should have (and, so students can better learn them, history and science should have too), whether artificial or not, because they are something the brain finds optimally pleasurable and creative of meaning.

Plot not only unites right-brain pattern recognition with the left-brain capacity to deal with large units of time, it also connects those cortical functions in turn with the limbic system and its powerful rewards. It does this by the process of identification. ... Identification makes us feel the character’s emotions as if they were our own. Thus plot promotes and exercises the relations between cortical world construction and limbic reward. (21)

We will soon see that insofar as plot is a form of narrative, we are also programmed to find plot pleasurable, since narrative is the very basis of language, and plots are created by language. Which suggests that plot is not artificial – though artificiality is hardly an argument against its use in art. Turner also points out that symbols work in a similar way, relating “pleasurable emotion or sensation with the higher values” (22). Any work of art or literature should match the different expectations of the brain. The same is true of education, further strengthening the connection between the arts and education.

Since the brain is habituative, “That is, it tends to ignore repeated and expected stimuli, and to respond only to the new and unexpected” (64), a work of art or literature should constantly present new and unexpected things to the reader. Since the brain is synthetic, a work of art or literature must create a complete, new world. Since the brain is “active rather than passive, it constructs scenarios to be tested by reality, vigorously seeks confirmation of them, and painfully reconstructs them if they are deconfirmed” (64), the work of art or literature must construct the kinds of realities that act as tests (of reality, of moral choices, etc.) for the reader. Since the brain is predictive, a work of art or literature must have a certain element of predictability – a novel’s characters, for example, must act in expected ways, and/or a work must have patterns and/or rhythms. Combine this with the habituative, and you get the kind of tension necessary for a work of art or literature to really work well. Further, if a long work of literature, such as a novel, has chaotic word patterns, such a work would be both predictive and habituative too. Since the brain is hierarchical, a work of art or literature must itself be hierarchical – which, in a work of literature, we can see in the emergent meaning from phonemes up through plot. Since the brain is rhythmic, the work of art or literature should be rhythmic, which, again, we see in the fractal patterns of a good work of art, as well as in stylized prose and rhythmic poetry. Since the brain is self-rewarding, it “reward[s] itself for certain activities which are, presumably, preferred for their adaptive utility” (68) and is able to be fine-tuned through external means to increase “mental efficiency,” which “underlies the whole realm of human values, ultimate purposes, and ideas such as truth, beauty, and goodness” (68), the plot/story of a work of art or literature should be one that can both fine-tune the mind and be a source of truth, beauty, and goodness. Since the brain is reflexive, which is how it calibrates itself, a work of art or literature should be repetitive, such as on the word-level for novels, on the sound-level of poems, and on the visual level for art. We see this reflexivity in the very structure of language, such as in our ‘if-then” statements:

The grammar or syntax of human language is certainly unique. Like an onion or Russian doll, it is recursive: One instance of an item is embedded in another instance of the same item. Recursion makes it possible for the words in a sentence to be widely separated and yet dependet on one another “If-then” is a classic example. “In the sentence “If Jack does not turn up the thermostat in his house this winter, then Madge and I are not coming over,” “if” and “then” are dependent on each other even though they are separated by a variable number of words. (Premack, David, “Is Language the Key to Human Intelligence?” Science 16 Jan 2004, 318)

Since the brain is social, the work of art or literature should be about social things, about human social interactions. Since the brain is hemispherically specialized, in order to create “a sort of stereoscopic depth-cognition” (Turner, 70), a work of art or literature should deal with space and time. Since the brain is kalogenetic, from the Greek “kalos” for “beauty, goodness, rightness,” and “genesis” for “begetting, productive, cause, origin, source” (71), a work of art or literature should be a source or producer of beauty and goodness. Since the brain is generative, the work of art or literature should be rule-bound, since “the rules must be followed, or the freedom, the limitlessness, the generativeness, will not come about. And those rules include not only the grammar of language, but also the classical laws of harmony, melody, color, proportion, poetic meter, narrative, rhythm, and balance” (222). Which means a work of art or literature should also include each of these. In short,
the human nervous system has a strong drive to construct affirmative, plausible, coherent, consistent, parsimonious, and predictively powerful models of the world, in which all events are explained by and take their place in a system which is at once rich in implications beyond its existing data and at the same time governed by as few principles or axioms as possible. (71)

Which is a good definition of both a chaotic system and a great work of art or literature.

To take up something I disagree with Turner on, Turner claims that “ordinary prose comes to us in a “mono” mode, so to speak, affecting the left brain predominantly” while “metered language comes to us in “stereo” mode – or even a quadraphonic one – simultaneously calling on the verbal resources of the left and the musical potentials of the right, the fronto-limbic sensitivity to rhythms and cycles, and the sensory-motor specializations of the posterior cortex” (95). While this may be a good definition of much “ordinary” nonfiction prose, it does not necessarily hold true for fiction (and other literary) prose – especially any kind of prose that paints vivid pictures for the reader. The right-brain holism (for plot) and visuals (scenes, imagery) shows us good fiction-prose also uses both sides of the brain, though in different ways. One could bring up the rhythm argument, but if a novel has fractally-distributed-word-patterns, which we would expect from a fractal system, these would be the natural rhythms and cycles found in good fiction that parallel the more standard forms of poetic rhythms and cycles. Also, while poetry may make good use of short-term memory (Turner and Pöppel have shown the optimally three-second lines of poems fit nicely in the three-second short-term memory window), the novel makes use of the right-brain’s long-term memory abilities, as well as its tendency to conceptualize. One must have a good memory to read and understand a novel, so it could be argued that reading novels also helps increase long-term memory.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

II. Instincts, Education, and the Human Brain

We have discussed complex systems in general through much of this work, but we need to look at one particular system, the human brain, in much greater detail if we are to understand art and literature. There has been a great deal of debate, particularly among philosophers, regarding whether or not humans have a basic nature. This argument has historically been religious in nature, and, in the European tradition the argument has been used to justify both the creation of rigid social hierarchies and the inherent superiority of the rulers of the time. Princes often inherited their kingdoms from their fathers, so they and the church that supported them made a connection between ability to rule and genetic inheritance (not to mention the creation of such ideas as the divine right of kings). Rulers were seen as having heritable intelligence, heritable traits that made them inherently better able to rule. This is why John Locke, in arguing for government by, of, and for the people, made the argument for the blank slate – tabula rasa. This would eliminate the argument that one has any inherent ability to rule. If, Locke argued, we were born blank slates, it was the facts of our social situation and education that made us who we are, meaning anybody could be educated into becoming a good ruler. Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, does raise the question of how literal Locke meant us to take his tabula rasa model, but there is little question about how seriously we can take Rousseau when he advocates the blank slate – or of subsequent thinkers, including many postmodernists, when they advocate it. Although Locke saw the blank slate theory as a way to eliminate any argument for tyranny, since Rousseau the argument has been made that if we are blank slates, we are infinitely malleable. And if we are completely constructed by our society, culture, language, and/or history, we can simply educate the people to accept any form of government we want – including tyranny. But whether it is used as a way to argue for or against tyranny, the question still remains as to whether or not it is an accurate model for how the human mind works.

More recent arguments for a blank slate view have taken the brain into consideration, and have involved the idea of neural plasticity. The idea is that neurons can wire and rewire to such an extent that the brain is effectively a blank slate. However, recent research by Kawakami et al shows differences in the subunits (1, 1, and 2) of NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptors affect neural plasticity. “Because the four  subunits differ in distribution and development in the brain, the subunit compositions of the NMDA receptors also differ depending on the brain regions and developmental states,” which is important since “NMDA receptors with distinct subunit combinations differ in physiological and pharmacological properties. Recent studies suggested the possibility that NMDA receptors with distinct properties are distributed to the synapses in an input-selective manner” (Science 9 May 2003, 990).

In early postnatal animals . . . the expression of 1 subunits in the hippocampus is still absent or low, whereas the 2 and 1 subunits are already expressed at a high level. In this case, the asymmetrical allocation of 2 subunits may produce distinct numbers of NMDA receptors in these synapses, resulting in differential ability to express synaptic plasticity. Hippocampal pyramidal neurons, thus, might regulate the development of synaptic plasticity in a side-selective manner by controlling the synaptic allocation of 2 subunits.

The left-right asymmetry is a fundamental concept of brain science. . . . the brian can involve asymmetries not only at a microscopic level of left and right hemispheres but also at microscopic levels of neurons and synapses. (994)
Relative levels of plasticity exist in the brain in different regions, for particular neurons, and even particular sides of neurons. That being the case, plasticity is no argument for a blank slate. Plasticity simply allows for relative levels of flexibility around our strange-attractor instincts – as opposed to the relative rigidity of instincts in most other animals.

Animals have instincts; they allow animals to rapidly adapt in their behavior to the world. If there is a blank slate, one has to learn about the world starting from nothing. It would be like giving someone who has never played or even seen a game of chess – or a similar board, as we have in checkers – all the pieces and the board and telling them to play chess. This person may do any number of things with the board and the pieces – but playing a game of chess will not be one of them. But if we were to tell him the rules of chess (which, while certainly man-made, do now exist independent of any particular human being, as a meme), and show him how, and train him in the proper way to play chess, the best ways to play chess, etc., what we will get will be a person who is capable of playing a truly astronomical number of games of chess. The same would be true of any instinct. No two lions hunt in exactly the same way – but they all hunt.

Consider language (which Pinker argues is an instinct in the appropriately titled The Language Instinct). Without some sort of inherent, inherited brain structure for grammar, all we could have at best is a series of disconnected words. We could not have language. And we certainly could not have children who learn language as quickly as they do. If we took the most optimistic approach, what we would have to do is explain to our children each element of grammar, how sentences are put together, what words mean – before they would be able to use them. But then, how could we explain these things, since we would have to explain it in language, and they would not be able to understand what we were saying to them until they knew language? Perhaps, one could argue, we simply have prodigious memories. But then, how would we be able to generate new sentences? Or understand a sentence’s meaning? If it were just memory, all we could do is mindlessly regurgitate what we heard. Any proposed mechanism to derive general principles from learned language would suggest an inherent trait, and the blank slate model would have to be discarded anyway – and a less accurate model adopted. So the blank slate simply cannot work for learning language. What we have instead are children whose brains have structures that create the ability to map vocally-produced sounds onto narrative structure (something I will get into in much greater detail in the chapter on language). The brain has structures already built into it to accept information from the environment. The environment provides information to the brain, which is able to fine-tune the language centers of the brain so the child learning the new language will be able to use the language being used around him or her. As the child uses the language correctly, they will receive encouragement from the environment (in smiles from relatives, in getting exactly what they want, etc.), further reinforcing those particular language structures in the child’s brain.

If the brain is not a blank slate, we must raise the question of how the human brain is structured, and how the genes and the environment work together to create the brain’s minding function. The latter is an important issue, as those who believe in the blank slate believe we are created by our environment alone – and they tend to accuse those who believe there is a genetic element to behavior of believing behavior is 100% genetically determined. But genes do not act in a vacuum. They must act in an environment every bit as much as the environment needs structures (including genes) to influence. What we actually have with the genes’ relation to the brain is:

one information processing machine (the genome) has spawned another (the brain). Furthermore it has created a machine that can process information in new and different ways, the most striking of which is the difference in the rate of processing. The slow genome has, over millions of years, given birth to the rapid brain. (Bonner, 30)

There is a parallel between the two in that they are both dynamic parallel-processing systems:

The brain processes thoughts, movements, immediate reactions to the environment, in sum all the activities we associate with animals. The genome processes genes by replication, and the genes are responsible for making specific proteins that in turn are required to build the structure of the organism through its entire life cycle. The basic similarity between the two is that they both take in, store, and give out information; the difference between the two is not only that the information differs, but that they are on a different time scale. Reactions of the brain and the nervous system are rapid, while those of the genome are, by comparison, exceedingly slow. (Bonner, 30)

It is the rapidity of the brain’s work relative to the work done by genome that has perhaps led people to consider the brain a system which could not possibly be related to the genome that coded for it. Thus such ideas as mind-body dualism and the blank slate. But both the genetic system and the brain are closely related in that both are dissipative systems, and all dissipative systems “take in, store, and give out information.”
Genes affect the brain in two directly related ways: one is by brain structure and the other is by the direct inheritance of patterns of behavior. These structure-based patterns are sometimes called instinctive or innate; they stand in clear contrast to those behavior patterns that are flexible and, as one goes up the scale of organisms of increasing brain capacity, ultimately lead to learning and inventing. (Bonner, 34)

If we are to understand the minding functions of the brain, including the production and appreciation of art, we need to learn more about how the brain itself works, its biological foundations, how it is structured, and how it is educatable. To understand this, we have to understand how the brain develops, the interactions between genes and environment – with the environment understood both as the chemical environment of the brain and as the organisms’ external environment, which, if we look at the environment in the most basic way, is really nothing more than molecules, light waves, sound waves, temperature differences, and textures. These are what our senses (our sensory nerves) take in (detect) and pass on, through nerve transmissions, to the brain for processing. So we can take appropriate action. “The brain [is] the obligatory intermediate between genotype and behavior” (Dean Hamer, Science 4 Oct 2002, 71). If we are to begin to understand all of this, we have to start with early brain development, how the brain cells are first laid out, influenced by regulatory genes such as the homeobox genes.

The homeobox is a section of many regulatory proteins, sixty amino acids in length, which is strongly conserved among animals, from fruit flies to worms to mice and people. The proteins with the homeobox are used to lay out the animal’s segmented regions as it develops. This is clearest in fruit flies, which are clearly segmented, and which express the homeobox genes in clearly segmented ways. In vertebrates, where the segmentation is less obvious, we see more overlap between and among segments. A good example is in the expression of homeobox genes in the human brain. Deacon shows on 186 how four homeobox genes are expressed over the brain. The Otx1 gene is expressed over the entirety of the brain, Otx2 is expressed over a slightly less extensive area, excluding the hindbrain, Emx2 is expressed over much of the cortex, excluding the midbrain, and Emx1 is expressed exclusively in the frontal cortex.

We share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, including the genes coding for our brain. However, the genes for the human brain are five times more active than the same genes in chimpanzees. It is likely this regulatory increase was either generated by a change in Emx1, which could generate rapid growth in the human frontal cortex, or in regulatory genes that affect Emx1 and other genes important for brain-gene regulation. Since it is generally known that 1/3 of our genes code for proteins expressed exclusively in the brain, there are a wide variety of possibilities regarding which gene(s) were changed. The regulatory genes are easily manipulable (McCrone). If longer legs are needed, animals with longer legs rapidly evolve. In a population of giraffes, there will be a natural variation in genes regulating leg length – some in the population will have slightly longer legs than others. If there is some environmental pressure – leaves lower down being eaten by other animals, for example – then those with more active regulatory genes, resulting in longer legs, will receive more nourishment, survive longer, be healthier, and give birth to more offspring, passing on those more active and therefore longer-leg regulatory genes. While the gene-binding regions of the homeobox and other regulatory genes are highly conserved, the regions that interact with other proteins, with regulatory chemicals, and/or are sensitive to ion concentrations are somewhat more variable and more sensitive to the environment – and it is these sections that are most important for evolution, as they are responsible for truly regulating gene expression, due to changes in structure, which make them more or less effective at binding the DNA, thus regulating the genes they are responsible for regulating.

Most homeobox genes are responsible for broader elements of development, including length and shape of limbs, and broad sections of the brain, such as Emx1's regulation of the frontal cortex, the stimulation of which could be responsible for the massive size of the human frontal cortex, making possible the processing of language, and thus of the full development of more complex culture and of the minding function of the brain. But such broad regulatory effects, while interesting as a way of understanding how the human brain developed as it did beyond those of its more chimpanzee-like ancestors, really do not help us to understand the more nuanced elements of how the brain works, for it to give us such complex behaviors as advanced culture, including the production and appreciation of literature and the arts.

Part of the answer lies in our understanding the rest of the estimated 10,000 or so genes that code for brain proteins – which means there is still a great deal of work to be done by developmental and neuro-geneticists – and their interactions with their environments. Let me give an example of a complex behavior and how it is affected by the brain: left-handedness. This is something I have been interested in for a long time, being a left-handed person. Handedness is not taught – exclusively. Certainly, one’s natural tendency to use one hand over another can be overcome, as history shows us. For centuries, left-handers were seen as “sinister,” and children who used their left hands to write were often punished. Typically teachers would tie their left hand behind their backs in order to force them to use their right hand. As we can see, through behaviorist methods, one’s behavior can be changed – but both the abusive methods used and the unintended consequences (forcing a child to switch hands has been shown to slow learning and further brain development) show us the negative consequences of doing so. But how does this tendency to use a certain hand arise in the first place? Right-handedness appears to be associated with the general uneven distribution of functions in the brain, with language much more localized in the left side than in the right. Since a great deal of the way we think is through language, this would create a tendency to favor the right hand when acting, beyond even the limited handedness seen in some primates -- who we should not be surprised to find handedness in considering the parallels between purposeful sequential action and purposeful sequential language. After the development of writing, such language-affected handedness as which hand to write with would certainly favor the right hand. So where does left-handedness come from? There appears to be two sources of left-handedness – both environmental. One way one can get left-handedness is through birth trauma affecting the brain. As a child is born, the head has to squeeze through an opening slightly smaller than the head. Evolution has solved this problem by making the skull soft and not entirely closed together. During birth, the skull presses in on the brain, increasing the probability that brain damage can occur. Fortunately, the human brain is highly plastic while developing, so the brain can, upon registering damage, redirect brain functions to other areas for further development there, since brain development is incomplete at birth anyway. An easy way to do this is to switch the most important brain functions – including language functions – to the other side of the brain, transmitting this information across the corpus callosum connecting the two hemispheres. Both the brain damage itself and the switching can generate problems, so there is a high percentage of left-handers with learning disabilities and who are mentally disabled. It is approximated that 10% of all births are traumatic in this way, and if the genetic propensity for left-handedness affects 10% of the population, and birth trauma generates switching in 10%, we would expect 18% of the population to be left handed – which we do find.

These percentages do raise a question about genetics and behavior. How can something inherited only have an expression of 10%? We learn in basic biology that we get a gene from each parent, that one gene tends to be dominant, the other recessive, and that, if there is not something specifically selecting against left-handers, we should expect 25% of the population to be genetic left-handers. That is a simplified version that works for only very few traits, and not at all with behavior (or most other inherited traits). Our behavior is affected by the interaction of literally thousands of genes, creating tendencies in behavior, not 100% certainty. We get genetic left-handers not because there is a gene for handedness, but because the development of the brain is affected by the levels of certain hormones – including testosterone. If there is a surge of testosterone production during certain stages of the fetus’ development, the growth of the left hemisphere of the brain will be temporarily arrested. The brain’s right hemisphere, whose growth is somehow unaffected by testosterone levels (perhaps due to a hemispheric difference in testosterone receptors), continues growing, sometimes to the same size (which could create ambidexterity), but more often surpassing the left hemisphere in size, creating more space for brain functions, including language, to develop in. Once the testosterone levels subside, the left hemisphere gets back on track, and continues growing until it reaches its appropriate size. This switch in dominant hemispheres causes the redistribution of functions, and this information must pass across the corpus callosum. This increased activity across the corpus callosum results in it being 50% larger in left-handers than in right-handers, since active neurons are selected for, and inactive neurons are selected against, and die off. In men, this ironically creates brains more closely resembling, proportionally, women’s brains, as women’s brains are more even in size and have a larger corpus callosum. So there is a chemical-environmental cue for left-handedness, though the tendency to create this chemical environment during fetal development is itself inherited – as the high percentage of left-handers in my own family shows.

In developmental terms, the fetus is programmed to create higher-than-average levels of testosterone. The testosterone enters the fetus’ blood stream and is transported to the brain. The brain has testosterone-binding proteins which result in other genes being turned on and off. Many of these genes regulate growth (testosterone is known to regulate growth and affect behavior later in development, especially during male puberty). In this case some brain development pauses for a short period, while other parts (in this case, a whole hemisphere) continue to develop. In a species with hemispheric specialization and an emphasis on one particular brain function found in the larger hemisphere, with more even, or a hemispheric switch in, development, one would expect a redistribution in brain function. If redistribution from one hemisphere to the other occurs, one would expect the retention of a large corpus callosum, since the continued use of brain cells results in their retention (lack of use results in massive cell death in the brain, of those cells not used during brain development, typically after the first five or six years, strongly suggesting when most learning does and should occur). This is indeed what we see, both in women, who already have more evenly developed brains, and in left-handed men. Our brain has structures built into it – especially at certain stages of development – but it is also plastic enough to develop these structures in alternative locations if necessary. What we do not get is the complete loss of a function or tendency. We would expect the necessity of moving functions around to also change the brain’s structures. And if there is a difference in brain structure, one would then expect it to affect behavior. With the stronger connection between the brain hemispheres, and the more even distribution of behaviors between both hemispheres, one would expect to see a tendency among left-handers to be better able to integrate the specializations of each hemisphere – logic with emotion, verbal with visual, etc. In other words, one would expect to see a large percentage of artists, creative writers, and scientists among left-handers. As it turns out, while only 18% of the population is left-handed, about 40% of artists, writers, and scientists are left-handed. In The Left-Hander’s Syndrome, Cohen sites a study that found that among art majors at Boston University, “47 percent were left-handed or mixed-handed, while only 22 percent of the more general students were” (131). He also cites a study that found there was a high percentage of left-handers among players of chess and the Asian game go, as well as among musicians.

Now, nearly half of the art students in an art department being left-handed when only 18% of the general population is left-handed certainly suggests a connection between handedness and behavior – and we have seen the connection between handedness and brain development. This suggests, then, that the propensity for creating art has a neurological basis (though we cannot make the inverse claim that artistic or scientific genius is found only or even primarily in lefties – genius has other elements as well). The increased hemispheric connectivity would make the person more able to perceive the interconnectedness of things in the world, which is precisely the skill needed to be a poet, to create music, or to develop scientific experiments. Left-handers are also known to have better spatial skills (which explains the increased skills in art and chess). These increased abilities would result in increased praise by their parents, teachers, and peers for those abilities, resulting in a feedback loop of encouragement. The natural abilities would get praise, which would make them practice more, making them better, getting them more praise, etc. This is the soul of education.

Education helps us increase our own brain’s complexity. If each student has genetically-based propensities for certain abilities and skills, the best thing for these students is to have the teachers be able to identify these abilities, and encourage them. Let us say we have a student with good spatial abilities. They love to draw. Many teachers discourage their students from “wasting their time” drawing or being creative. Instead, teachers should be encouraging a student’s natural abilities and interests, which could be transferred to other areas. There is a spatial element to music one could transfer from the visual to the audio realm. So the teacher could encourage the student to learn a musical instrument. It is well-established that students who learn to play a musical instrument do better in math. By having a student who likes to draw (because they have good spatial skills) learn a musical instrument, we have indirectly helped them with their math skills too. There is no reason to think this could not also work in the opposite direction, with good math skills leading to better spatial skills through learning a musical instrument. One could also teach students how to read better using these same skill-transfer methods. By emphasizing music, one could transfer this musical skill to the reading of poetry, which has musicality in its rhythmicity. These same skills then get transferred into language skills, as rhythmic poetry could lead to less rhythmic poetry, and, then, to reading prose. If we have a student who has good language skills, the teacher can introduce the student to poetry, and, again, move the student through music, into math and artistic/spatial skills.

Once we have down the basic skills of math, art, and reading, the rest of education becomes much easier, as it is all learned through reading, visuals, and mathematical/abstract thinking. It may seem strange to suggest music is the gateway to learning, until we realize that much of what humans do has a certain musicality to it, specifically in rhythm. Music, poetry, dance, and rituals (both the most profoundly sacred, and the most mundane, as our daily morning rituals) all are rhythmical. Our brains, too, contain rhythms, including circadian rhythms, which affect the daily cycles of most (perhaps all) animals, including us. Our rhythmic brains are designed to pick up rhythms – the rhythms of the seasons, of migrations, of the cycles of the moon, of day passing into night, of menstruation, etc. Any brain thus designed to be rhythmical and to pick up rhythms would be better adapted than one that does not. Further, the harmonies of music approach the Golden Ratio (1:1.618), meaning they are fractals (Doczi, 8-9), since the Golden Ratio is the simplest fractal (as we see in the Fibonacci spiral). Harmonies join (harmony comes from the Greek harmos, to join), and one must join facts to truly have knowledge – and one must join knowledge to have wisdom. All art too should be harmonious – the parts unified. By learning musical harmony, students would become more in tune with the fractal geometry of the universe, and would therefore be more capable of picking up on the fractal geometry of the universe – meaning they would be better able to learn.

The development of rituals, music, and dance (not to mention the combination of these three) work to emphasize our brain’s rhythms, and our ability to pick up patterns and rhythms – and, just as importantly, to notice when rhythms are broken. A breeze causing the grass to wave in beautiful rhythmic (fractal) patterns is comforting. But if there is something breaking that rhythm – such as, say, a large cat that could eat us – we notice it, and focus on where the rhythm has been broken, making it more likely we will see the predator attempting to stalk us. Those who are more in tune with noticing rhythms will be more likely to notice a break in the rhythm, and notice predators soon enough to escape them. Rhythmic rituals, dance, and music are evolutionarily adaptive, as they heighten our ability to notice patterns. So those who create patterns, especially fractal patterns, through the creation of new rituals, dance, and music, would be very useful to a society, as they would add more rhythms to the society, and keeping the rhythms new and fresh, avoid boredom, which could lead to the abandonment of the rituals that were keeping the members of the group alive. The rhythms of poetry and the patterns in paintings would act in the same way. This is one of the reasons artists, musicians and poets arose in the first place – they would have given any tribe they were members of a distinct adaptive advantage. This advantage has not left us, though we have left the savannahs. The world we live in now is full of patterns and rhythms, which art, music, and literature could help us recognize – and help us recognize when those patterns are broken. There are economic patterns – stock trends, business cycles, etc. There are political patterns, behavior patterns – the universe, including the human universe, is full of patterns. The arts help us see the patterns of the universe, by condensing them, emphasizing them, and thus acting as a microcosm (self-similar and scalar) of the universe. By being trained to recognize patterns, we will also be better able to notice things that do not fit into patterns. Art, then, should also emphasize pattern-breaking. This emphasis is why Marquez’ magical realist images, which break the familiar patterns, are so effective and memorable. But they can only do so in the context of art’s pattern-emphasizing qualities.

Anything that emphasizes rhythms is more easily learned, since it patterns on the natural rhythms of the brain. A “rhythmic” education would be the best education we could give a child – the information would be more easily learned and more easily retained (it is easier to remember a song than a piece of prose information one read in a book, particularly as a whole). This is precisely why and how music acts as the gateway to the rest of education.

But these conclusions can only be reached and understood if we have an understanding of the humanities as a product of the human brain and its functions. A strong grounding in the arts and humanities can help us learn better and easier things such as math and, through better reading skills, things like history, philosophy, and the sciences. But this information is itself only understood through a scientific understanding of how the brain works and learns and thinks, of the genetic basis of this, and the various interactions it has with the environment. The issue is not nature or nurture, but nature and environment, in the broadest sense of the word. The brain is genetically programmed to create and notice rhythms – which makes us behave in rhythms – which, because repeated, create memory and meaning – which feeds back into the brain to emphasize the rhythmicity of the brain itself. This natural rhythmicity ends up in a feedback loop. An environment that emphasized rhythm would create more rhythms in the brain, encouraging the production of more rhythmical activity, while an environment with fewer rhythmical elements would act to dampen the brain’s rhythmicity, creating a more “prosaic” culture from the interactions of more prosaic brains.

This brain rhythmicity is a higher-order reflection of the rhythmicity of genetic regulation. I already noted that homeobox genes are segmentally expressed (i.e., in patterns). But they are also rhythmically expressed. Regulatory proteins have to be expressed, not just in the right place, but at the right time. There is a rhythm of development. This helps to create the segmentedness of the body plan – including bones and joints, but also of the brain. The brain itself is segmentally laid out – with a spinal cord leading to a hindbrain, on top of which is built a midbrain, on top of which is built the cerebral cortex, giving us different, hierarchically nested, brain functions. And each of these segments is coded for by very particular combinations (or lack of combinations) of homeobox genes. We get increasing separation – in a literal, physical sense – from our deepest drives (which are found in the hindbrain) and emotions, as more and more is added to the cortex. Language is processed in one location, emotions in another – but the overall processing of a piece of information gets distributed throughout the brain, to make sure it matches up with everything it can match up with, including emotions and memories, making it easier for the brain to remember and create meaning for the new piece of information, if it has something related to it the brain can relate it to. This, again, is suggestive of how one can best learn – through the building of mental networks, emphasizing commonality, and building on emotional connections to what is learned. Learning is facilitated by associating pleasure and other positive emotions to learning, and negative emotions to not learning – a carrot and stick approach. To do this, praise and other forms of positive reinforcement should be used to encourage learning. This is different from many current approaches to make learning “fun,” but which in fact amount to little more than frivolity, and often try to increase “self-esteem,” even when no self has been developed to esteem.

If the brain too fits into this (meta)physical model I have been developing, being hierarchical and scalar, with fractal geometry created by strange attractors, which act as rules for the brain’s layout and functions, and deeply interconnected, then a model of education is suggested. Emphasizing connectivity among information helps us retain knowledge, and creates more triggers for the access of that knowledge, including emotional triggers. What we teach should be hierarchical. One has to build a solid foundation before one can erect the remaining edifices of knowledge. One has to build on first principles, on the way the brain works, on the way we think and believe (we cannot just ignore faith and belief, discarding them as simply irrational, as such disdain for one of the ways our brains mind only cuts us off from educating ourselves). Thus the emphasis on music, on a rhythmic education. But this education must also be scalar. Which is more important: poetry or math, science or music, history or art? What ridiculous questions! Each of these, and many more, including language – foreign and native – philosophy, government, comparative religion and culture, psychology, sociology, economics, business, etc. are vital if we are to have truly educated children and adults. If this seems a great deal to teach our children, you are right – and wrong. Students can learn all of these things, “it is only a question of degrees and quantities. All men [and women] are artistic, philosophical, scientific, etc.” (Nietzsche, PT 65). In the United States, children’s abilities are constantly and grossly underestimated, leading to legions of bored (not to mention undereducated) children, who then get into trouble because they are bored (or find themselves embarrassed as adults on Jaywalking). Children’s abilities are underestimated because of ill-informed theories of child mental development, supported by an education system made up of grossly undereducated teachers, who could not actually teach students what is required if we actually challenged students. The first step in granting children real educations would be to abolish education as a college major. Majoring in weaving would provide a person with more relevant skills to teach children than does an education major. Rather than having future teachers major in education, they should be given a thorough general education so they can actually know something in order to actually teach children something. One cannot teach if one is ignorant.

While this may seem off-topic, it is not. This theory of education through emphasis on rhythm would require a complete deconstruction of our educational system – reconstructed on what we have learned about how the brain thinks and learns. It is time we gave children and adults both fully human educations. To do this, we have to show that what we teach is relevant. It is not uncommon for children to blow off entire subjects because they see them as “irrelevant.” As a grade school student, I blew off math as irrelevant. I saw no reason to learn it, no connection of math to anything I was interested in, no connection of it to the real world. This from a child who was interested in science. The fault was both my teachers’ and my textbooks’. Neither could show me what use there was for math. What did I care about trains going north and south at different speeds? So, despite the fact that 8th grade math taught me nothing new, I failed it (one has to do homework to pass a class). It was not until I took Introduction to Chemistry in high school that I learned the relevance of math. And it was in this class where I was finally able to understand fractions – since they were connected to something real. The problem was that math was taught first as an abstract, then connected (but never in a math class) to the real world. We may be born with an innate sense of counting, and in this sense, number, and of relationships among elements, but we are not born knowing specific arithmetic, geometry, algebra, etc. We cannot go too far in our attributing innate understandings of certain aspects of the world or we will make the mistake of believing in a full repertoire of Platonic Forms (not Plato’s idea of the Forms – the Platonic idea of the Forms – since it seems increasingly unlikely Plato himself believed in Forms, which he certainly undermines in both the Socratic method, where the Form of the thing cannot be found, and in the structure of Phaedrus, while it is the Platonists after him who believed in the Forms). It seems the Platonic idea of the idea giving rise to the perceived world is still in force in elementary education. This is how out of date our educational system is. Since concepts are formed subsequent to observing many similar objects, and remembering the similarities while forgetting the dissimilarities, we can see that this approach is backwards. Perceiving a series of tables gives rise to the concept of table, not vice versa.

Issues of relevance are connected to the issue of perception and concept formation. This is why in my Freshman Rhetoric classes I have my students write an essay in the first few days of class explaining to me the relevance of rhetoric to their majors. Once they see the connection – bringing us to the issue of the interconnectedness of knowledge – they are more interested in the class. Interested students are educatable students. I can then teach my students a wide variety of things relevant to rhetoric, but not always entirely relevant to their major per se, and they will remain interested and educatable. Since I began having my students write this one essay, interest in the class has noticeably increased.

But what about starting with music? We see the relevance as educators, but can we really explain this sort of thing to five- and six-year-olds? Of course not. But fortunately, music provides us with the other element that should be present in education: pleasure. Everyone finds pleasure in music – in rhythms and patterns in general – and the pleasure in music is the draw it has for students. Not only can music lead us into other disciplines, it can also introduce us to different cultures and subcultures. It is the gateway to both knowledge and understanding – if properly used and taught. Combining the fact that knowing music makes math easier to learn with showing students the relevance of math would drastically reverse the terrible situation we find in American students’ math education.

If we can connect the sort of pleasure we get from music and the other arts to learning other subjects, we will see considerably more eagerness from students to learn. We remember well those things with which we have positive associations. “Whether thinking proceeds with pleasure or with displeasure is an essential distinction: the person who finds thinking genuinely difficult is certainly less likely to apply himself to it and will also probably not get as far. He forces himself, which is useless in this realm” (Nietzsche, PT 67). Memory is connected to emotion, and thus learning is connected to memory (but not memorization – memorization is not learning, but the ability to regurgitate equally the meaningless with the meaningful). If we have negative emotions connected to learning, we will avoid it. If we have positive emotions connected to learning, we will seek it out. If we see emotions as strange attractors, memories as strange attractors, and the purpose of education as making the connections which create the complex fractal system around these strange attractors, the issue becomes what kind of complex fractal system we want to create in our children’s minds – if we want to create one that is simple or complex, that has negative or positive emotional associations. One of the roles of the arts – music, art, and literature – would be to create more complex fractal learning systems, with positive emotional connections, from the pleasure we get from rhythm, and the other pleasures afforded us by art. Art, music, and literature should provide us with much of our emotional educations. And things that are rhythmic and fractal would also be much easier to learn, being as they are patterned on the way the brain itself works. One may wonder if this means our elementary school science and history textbooks should be written in something like blank verse. It does only if we want to truly maximize learning.

We can still learn the world’s rhythms through receiving a thorough education in art and literature, which are rooted in rhythmicity (being products of the brain, and the brain, as stated, being rhythmical, one would expect the creations of the brain to also be rhythmical). An arts education will both give us emotional educations – something we have lost in the past century – and help us to see the rhythms and patterns of the world, and thus become more in tune with the world as a whole. Patterns are very important in the composition of a work of art, as they help to bring together the visual elements of the visual art piece, bringing them together in a beautiful harmonious whole. Education should strive to do the same thing. Education should strive to be beautiful, and to create beautiful minds.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Chapter 4: Games and Human Behavior (Universals as Instincts): I. Rules of the Game(s)

Complex systems are made orderly through strange attractors. These strange attractors are the rules by which complex systems are ordered. Each system, to be a system, must have governing rules – though for any particular system the number and kind of rules changes. We get new, emergent kinds of rules with each new, emergent system. A small number of rules create all the atoms, which combine to generate the rules of chemistry. The rules of quantum physics still hold at the quantum atomic level, but the interaction of atoms with each other generates new rules to emerge. One does not get ions in quantum physics – one gets them only from chemical interactions between atoms, whose interactions are able to make use of unstable electron orbits and stabilize them through the chemical interaction, transferring the single unstable electron from the donor (often metal) atom to the electron shell of the acceptor (nonmetal) atom, whose outer electron shell is stabilized by having the optimal number of electrons. A sodium atom is stabilized through its chemical interaction with chlorine by donating its outer electron to the chlorine atom, stabilizing it. If one merely knew of quantum physics, and not chemistry, could one predict such an interaction? Quantum physics predicts the creation of neutral atoms through the combination of electrons, protons, and neutrons. But it also predicts, in conflict with this rule, the increased stability of a full electron shell – with decreasing stability the fewer the electrons in the shell. But how could an atom missing an electron, giving it a positive charge, be more stable? Obviously it cannot, unless it is combined with chlorine, to create a neutral chemical combination, each atom oppositely charged, each with more stable outer electron shells. Chlorine is so much more stable as an ion that chlorine ions are smaller than chlorine atoms, as the addition of the extra electron to the outer shell to complete it makes the electrons orbit closer to the nucleus, in a more stable state. One gets an emergent chemical rule as chemistry makes use of this agonal conflict between maintaining charge neutrality and electron shell stability.

We find the same situation as we move from chemistry into a certain arrangement of organic chemical systems – life. The creation of ions, hydrogen bonds, chemical bonds, and van der Waals forces in chemical interactions generate, in certain kinds of organic chemicals, the ability to self-replicate. Stuart Kauffman goes into great detail in The Origins of Order, particularly Part II of that book, and I recommend this book for those readers who wish to go into the emergence of life from prebiotic chemicals in much greater detail than is allowed by the scope of this work. I, however, shall skip ahead considerably, and only say that while Kauffman is generally correct, considerable work on RNA has been done since 1993 that strengthens the case for RNA or an RNA-like precursor, in combination with small polypeptides, since it has since been shown that it is the rRNA of the ribosome which catalyzes the peptide bonds, not the proteins. So we can talk more strongly about an RNA world as at least a precursor to life as we now know it. In chemical polymers such as self-replicative RNA, the ability to self-replicate is determined by the order of the constituent parts (in this case, ribonucleotides). Any alteration of the sequence pattern affects the polymers’ ability to reproduce themselves. Most were dead ends, but a few could reproduce themselves better. This self-replicative ability was an emergent property of a particular polymer sequence – and abided by its own particular rules, rules which emerged from, yet were still a part of, the rules of chemistry.

Genes provide a template for the rules that give rise to complete cellular systems. Gene combinations and alternative forms of regulation give rise to different cell types (S. Kauffman identifies different cell types as different strange attractors (202) – identifying each and every cell as a fractal). The combination of cell types gives rise to different kinds of organisms, which are structured using rules different from those which organize the cells themselves. Neurons are a kind of cell which are capable, due to their complex structures, of complex interactions with other neurons. In sufficient numbers and concentrations (i.e., in a brain), these interacting neurons lead to complex behaviors (more emergent rules), including the ability to language and be self-aware. We get the accumulation of more and more rules, from more and more complex interactions from more and more constituent parts. The remarkable thing is that though the number of parts increases dramatically, the number of rules increases at a much slower rate. S. Kauffman gives us a set of equations that help us see the relationship between the number of types of parts of a system and the number of rules (strange attractors) generated by those parts, as well as the number of possible expressions a system can generate from those rules. Using these very simple equations, we can see how we can get the level of complexity we find in the universe, starting from perfect symmetry (nothing), and what this suggests for art and literature.

Kauffman shows that for any system with a certain number of components (N), that system will have 2n/2 possible states within the system, but only N/e number of cycles, or possible basins of attraction, where e is the inverse natural logarithm (e=2.718281828449...)

Thus a system containing 200 elements would have only about 74 alternative asymptotic patterns of behavior. More strikingly, a system containing 10,000 elements and chaotic attractors with median lengths on the order of 25000 would harbor only about 3700 alternative attractors. This is already an interesting intimation of order even in extremely complex disordered systems. (S. Kauffman, 194)

Kauffman then shows that such systems are even more organized, since for a complex system:

The expected median state cycle length is about N. That is, the number of states on an attractor scales as the square root of the number of elements. A Boolean network with 10,000 elements which was utterly random within the constraint that each element is regulated by only two elements would therefore have a state space of 210,000 = 103000 but would settle down and cycle recurrently among a mere 10,000 = 100 states. . . . A system of 10,000 elements which localizes its dynamical behavior to 100 states has restricted itself to 10-2998 parts of its entire state space. Here is spontaneous order indeed. . . . The number of state cycle attractors is also about N. Therefore, a random Boolean network with 10,000 elements would be expected to have on the order of 100 alternative attractors. A system with 100,000 elements, comparable to the human genome, would have about 317 alternative asymptotic attractors (201).

And this is about how many kinds of cells one finds in the human body. But more importantly, systems with very large numbers of elements can and do have a very small number of ways of organizing themselves, though the number of ways of expressing those rules may be astronomical. For a system with N=200, the median cycle length, or possible states per system, is 2100 1030, “At a microsecond per state transition, it would require about a billion times the age of the universe to traverse the attractor” (Kauffman, 194). And that is for a tiny system with only 200 elements. Yet the actual different ways such a system would be expressed would be only 47. There would be 47 general forms, with 1030 specific forms. One could see strange attractors (though not these specific numbers I have used as examples, of course) as the different species of animals the “zoological system” could create, and the median cycle length as the number of particular individuals that could be generated.

But let us now use these equations as promised. If I am correct in identifying the universe and everything in the universe as complex fractal systems of these sorts, then Kauffman’s equations should be able to give us the complexity found in the universe, starting with nothing.


N = dimensions = elements of a system
2N/2 = median cycle length (MCL) = possible states per system
N/e = number of attractors
N = median state cycle (MSC) = local dynamic behavior

And, for each new emergent system, constituting all the elements of the previous system:

Nnext = MCL + number of attractors, as MCL and attractors constitute the combination of elements, both the physical components and the rules that made that system.

For those systems that do not use all of the elements from a previous system, such as biology, which only uses certain kinds of chemicals (thought admittedly at least trace amount of most), and emergent human intelligence, which does not use all organisms, but only uses its own cells (and not all of them; though, like all organisms, it needs a full body in which to function, and whose body need a full ecosystem in which to live), N would necessarily be smaller than suggested above. Nnext would work starting from the big bang, up through the creation of strings, while N would have to be derived in other ways for life, human intelligence, and the arts and humanities. But let us see if we can get to either 10 or 11 dimensional strings from N = 0, at the big bang.

For N = 0,
MCL = 20/2 = 1 = singularity of the big bang (so far so good)
# attractors = 0/e = 0

N= 1
MCL = 21/2 = 2 1.41
# attractors = 1/e 0.37 (a fraction, which we would expect in a fractal)
MSC = 1 = 1

N = MCL + # attractors = 1.4 + 0.37 = 1.78
MCL = 21.77/2 1.85
# attractors = 1.78/e 0.65
MSC = 1.77 1.3

N = 1.85 + 0.65 2.50
MCL = 22.5/2 2.38
# attractors = 2.5/e 0.92
MSC = 2.5 1.58

N 3.30
MCL = 23.3/2 = 3.14
# attractors = 3.3/e 1.21
MSC = 3.3 1.82

N 4.35
MCL = 24.35/2 = 4.52
# attractors = 4.35/e 1.61
MSC = 4.35 2.09

N 6.12 = 4-D space, time, matter-energy
MCL  26.12/2 8.34
# attractors  6/e 2.25 = creation of gravity and GUT
MSC  6 2.47

N 10.59 = fractal strings between 10 and 11 dimensions, containing 4-D space, time, matter-energy, gravity, strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, (speed of light?)

MCL  210.59/2 39.26 number of potential string combinations (strange quarks, etc.)
# attractors  10/e 3.9 actual string types (quarks, electron, photon)
MSC  10 3.16

(the  means "about" or "about equal to")

By this point, not all possible states are realized, as they become increasingly unstable at increasing distance from the stabilizing attractors. Starting with only these very simple equations, we get emergence all the way to strings having between ten and eleven dimensions. We can reconcile the 10-D and the 11-D theories, since we see using these calculations that strings have fractal dimensions – which we would expect in a fractal universe. Theories that see dimensions as whole numbers would naturally give us either ten or eleven dimensions. This latter aspect of strings has given people a great deal of trouble. But here we see those dimensions arising naturally from these calculations, once one sees a dimension as being an interactive element of a system. A system with 100 different elements is a system with 100 dimensions. This suggests that one could see quantum strings as systems containing around eleven elements – with these elements being such things as length, width, height, time, and, as I have suggested, various constants, including the speed of light (c). And one might also include other constants, including Planck’s constant (h=6.6 x 10-34 joule second = a constant action, making it a good candidate) bringing us up to ten, and, if I may be so bold as to go further out on this limb, perhaps pi, since in quantum physics h-cross = h/2, or the Golden Mean = 1.618, since we see this function expressed at all scales, including the Fibonacci spirals of spiral galaxies, to bring it up to eleven. But determining what constitutes the dimensions of strings goes far beyond the bounds of this work. I propose these hoping someone more able than I am with the mathematics of quantum physics will investigate the dimensions of strings along these lines, as elements in a system.

J.T. Fraser, in Time, Conflict, and Human Values, proposes that there have been 101000 number of organisms through the history of life on earth (he also suggests we would get a complexity of 10 at the quantum level, which we have shown to be the case in the above calculations, suggesting his numbers may have at least some rough validity). This would mean the MCL for biology would be (to use these very rough numbers) 101000  23000. N 6000, which would be about the number of kinds of generic genes, giving rise to 6000/e patterns of behavior, or over 2000 different kinds of organism, which would itself be contained within MSC  6000 80 different types. Naturally, at this point, we are being highly approximate. However, if we further use Fraser’s numbers, where the MCL for humans = 1010,000, for the number of possible brain states, we get N  60,000, # of strange attractors  2200, which would include all the elements that constitute human behavior, including the number of emotions, universals of human behavior, etc., and MSC  250, which appears to be approximately the number of human cultural universals. These numbers perhaps would not surprise many scientists, but there is still some controversy among – primarily postmodernist – scholars in the humanities. For this reason, we should take a closer look at this step, at the issue of cultural universals, or human instincts. Only if humans have instincts can there be such a thing as an evolutionary approach to art and literature applicable to humans. The existence of such instincts could also explain the very content of our art and literature.