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April « 2009 « Plebian Design: Blog

Archive for April, 2009

Mirror Neurons Part I: Watching is Moving

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal, especially of like species. They have been observed in primates and most probably exist in humans. I’ve known about mirror neurons for some time now, but have only recently been hit over the head with the scientific, artistic, and personal significance of their discovery.

They form a deeply beautiful network of silent movement among living creatures. They presence implies that, even in stillness, we move with the living world around us. They make us living seismographs on which the moving animal world perpetually and silently plays itself out. We move with those around us, not merely seeing others doing, but essentially doing with them. We move in synchronicity, dancing our own internal interpretation of a common dance.

The processes of evolution has tangled and cross-wired our sensory systems; mirror neurons are yet another piece of evidence pointing toward our inherent metaphorical nature. Watching another move means moving with another. Sight as movement.

A set of very distinct human feelings likely arise from this automatic neural transcription. Gallese, a co-discoverer of mirror neurons, has proposed a theory of embodied simulation, wherein mirror neurons form the bases for empathetic experience. We know what it feels like to be someone else in a deeper sense than we could have ever imagined. Every day, we are constantly putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes; in fact we putting ourselves in their entire bodies.

(I can’t help thinking about every time I’ve ever cringed watching a groin shot on America’s Funniest Home Videos.)

Despite the lack of evidence, I am intrigued with Ramachandran’s speculation that mirror neurons were responsible for the great leap in technological sophistication that occurred around 40 thousand years ago. He proposes that they could have allowed accidental cultural mutations to spread quickly through the population by facilitating imitation learning. He speaks of mirror neurons allowing us to read and understand another’s intentions, thus developing a sophisticated theory of other minds.

Rizzolati, a co-discoverer of mirror neurons, talks about them enabling humans to mime—and possibly understand—the lip and tongue movements of others, which could provide a means for language to evolve. There is a linguistic theory that posits the evolution of language from isomorphisms where, for example, the sounds created by upward placement of the tongue correspond to words with upward connotations. I could imagine mirror neurons being responsible for the initial mappings of such movements from the world onto the musculature of our mouths.

The operation of mirror neurons in our experience presents an entirely new kind of understanding of interpersonal relationships, one to which the entire body—not just the mind— is an integral part. Theories of consciousness that forgo mind/body dualities begin to make much more sense to me in light of mirror neurons. The body becomes a vital stage in our interpersonal experience.

The concept of mirror neurons provides a real physiological basis for the metaphor of resonance between individuals. As early as the 1933, dance critic John Martin proposed a theory of muscular sympathy or metakinesis in which audience members played the movements of the dancers out in their musculature. It turns out that this phenomenon is probably real.

Perhaps one day mirror neurons will receive sensory status; a sixth sense of movement perception among living creatures.

Doodling or something like it

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

recursion

recursion

I have recently adopted doodling as my morning and evening meditation, something away from my computer. That said, I’m still typing this blog post at 2 AM. Computers and connectivity have their issues for sure. How do we balance focus this global connectivity with our local and physical environments?

I like exercise in the morning but this is Boston and the weather is still a barrier to entry for me. Looking forward to warmth. Speaking of which, I will someday put together a post about warmth.

some other doodles here.

Why is science important

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

A blog post from the Time Warp blog, about why science is important in our culture. Is it important? Why? How do we best communicate that importance?

Church is Our Classroom: Part II Trinity Church

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Easter Sunday, 2009
Trinity Church, Boston
Episcopalian

It was Easter Sunday and we wanted to be blown away. So we chose Trinity Church. It is a Boston landmark, doubled in stature by its crumbling reflection on the side of the Hancock Building, the tallest skyscraper in the city. My fellow anthropologist, a non-practicing Jew, had never been to a Catholic mass and so I was looking for something to knock his socks off. My girlfriend advised me that Episcopalian mass would be a close approximation, and Trinity is the biggest, badest cathedral in these parts.

Upon exiting the vestibule into the main cathedral, I could not help but fall awestruck. I kept imagining the experience of a peasant coming in from the field, into the most grandiose ornate structure—maybe the only piece of architecture—for hundreds of miles. How could this building not be a miracle-birthing womb? Even today, among modern feats of architecture, a cathedral of such enormity can evoke chills in the heart of the most frigid atheist. Believer or not, that curious vibration of fear and awe gets you in the bones.

It was Easter and the orchestra was pumping. Horns, chorus, and the seat-rumbling pipe organ, all in step. I got to thinking about the holiness of reverb. Could the spiritual-visceral pleasure it induces come from its being a sign of open space, of fortified shelter? A sort of emotional echo location. That led Jeff to ponder our emotional reaction to echoes as related to the acoustic fingerprint of caves.

Really, what would it all be without music? The positive feedback loop of art and religious ritual, about which I have been reading, is so apparent. It’s an impressive cycle; music inspires, inspired by the music of inspired believers. And so on.

As the church slowly filled up and we sat waiting for mass to begin, I panned the pews of backs of heads before me. Shiny white bald-domed daddy, kid, kid… kid, mom. Church—especially Easter—is a family affair. One by one, hair gave way to face and heads began to turn toward the back of the Church. Had we been impalas grazing in the pews, our heads would have turned like dominoes after the first few. But no, this wave of head turning was trickling and tentative. An amazing little demonstration of the interplay of epigenetic and cultural forces. I really want to turn my head, but it might be rude to stare at the guy behind me or I don’t want to be a sheep and do like everyone else, but wait, I can’t resist, what are they all looking at

The clergy and posse entered with pomp. The entire congregation stood and sang Hallelujah in unison. It had an almost chummy, Das Boot feel to it. It was one of those tunes that everyone knew real well. The orchestra screamed and the rafters shook. One of the altar girls held a twenty foot pole with streamers on top, which she moved in a figure eight pattern high above. I felt a quiet comfort in her patterned geometric movements.

Part way through the mass came a moment where half the congregation remained standing while the other half sat, a divergence in the details of ritualistic practice among worshipers. Subtle as it was, this split was telling of the evolution of ritual within a religion, of its temporary status.

Reverend Anne B. Bonnyman gave the homily. I realized the power of this ritual, to interpret the ancient texts of the bible in contemporary terms. It is a descendant of the most ancient story telling traditions; this is how myth is spread, via the mouths and ears of people. She incorporated humor, poetic repetition, metaphor, and abstraction in her speech.

Shortly after I whispered to Jeff that receiving Communion might be overstepping our bounds as unbelieving visitors, he pointed to the page in the bulletin proclaiming all visitors welcome to receive the Holy Communion. So we joined. I suddenly flashed back to that self-conscious march to the altar from my youthful Catholic church-going days. In my zeal to drink the Lord’s blood, I accidentally sipped from the dipping cup. (Catholics don’t dip, they just sip.) It tasted like a port, but could have just been what wine tastes like after three hundred people dip their fingers in it.

There is a curious lack of emotion in the sound of a thousand Episcopalians reciting prayer. This has always been a strange aspect of mass for me. Group prayer can sound oddly like a lifeless going through of the motions. This quality is reminiscent of the trance-like chants of some American Indian cultures. At the same time, this is not the case with the more boisterous houses of worship of certain Christian sects.

The strongest flashback came for me at the end of mass. The exit was always my favorite part. Not so much that it was a sigh of relief because it was finally over, but a pleasantness in the weekly ritual of walking out past the girls I had crushes on in their Sunday dresses, the jovial look on my dad’s face, the shaking of hands, the act of passing from the solemn darkness of the church out into the warm Sunday sun, an exhalation and return to life. The communal bonds sewn by the mass were so visible in this moment.

This visit convinced me that we were on the right track, that just showing up to Church is rewarded with deeper understanding; that religious details read in a book will never jump off the page and inhabit the imagination like these same details experienced in the first person.

Church is Our Classroom

Friday, April 17th, 2009

If we ever want to turn our classrooms into churches, we must first make church our classroom. Before you vehemently counter that our classrooms should not be turned into anything like a church, allow me to explain. We are at a point in history not only where the scientific method can shed light on the origins of religion, its adaptive value in our species’ evolution, the efficacy of its rituals, its neurological bases, and so on, but where religious fruits can grow in scientific soil.

Religion is often called upon by scientists to adjust its theology to new scientific discoveries. This bending process happens at a snail’s pace, so slow that most of the time it doesn’t even look like it’s happening. It is time for science to step into the classroom of religion; not just to empirically take note of its place in cultural life, its modes of teaching and dissemination, its leveraging of emotion, and it’s long journey from evolutionary origins to culture, but to apply the knowledge gleaned to itself.

The pursuit of turning science and evolution into a new religion is easy to misconstrue. Jerry Coyne writes, “Scientists fear that if evolution became anything like a religion, it would be abandonment of its main tool for understanding nature: the resolution of empirical claims with empirical data.” There are strategies, however, for attaching emotion to scientific empiricism and for making it special by leveraging our innate aesthetic response, without compromising its core principles.

Efforts are underway. The science museum. The integration of art into the classroom. Sesame Street. 321 Contact. Seed Magazine. Carl Sagan. Discovery Channel. Time Warp. PBS. Unweaving the Rainbow. (Stay tuned for links.)

It is not the monotheistic conception of God that we must find in evolution and science, but the spiritual realities that our hominid ancestors discovered. Perhaps it is better phrased as finding spiritual realities in science or imbuing science with a mystic glow. Einstein felt it. Carl Sagan felt it. Francis Bacon, too. E.O Wilson sees it.

In ethological terms we realize that science is a baby, born only 500 years ago. On top of that, it is one of the most unintuitive modes of thought. The first stirrings of religion can be seen as long as 100,000+ years ago. It was in this early period that the myth was born as an effective compressor of emotional information.

The new myths must tell the awe-inspiring stories of science. The new hymns must breathe the true depth of our history into our bones. Religious rituals incorporated artistic activities into a highly effective positive feedback loop. The new rituals can use art in the same way to create emotional involvement in science; not to incorporate emotional involvement into the scientific method, but to link emotion -  to quote E.O. Wilson, the modication of neural activity that animates and focuses mental activity - with the mental activities of science.

In our personal efforts to understand religion, we recently embarked on a church tour. Each Sunday, we will visit a different church in the Boston / Cambridge area. Part anthropologist / part student, we enter with open minds, observe, and participate in holy rituals. It is a vital piece of our conversation with religion, art, and science.

Can science assuage the existential anxieties that religion has so adeptly adapted to deal with? If it is to ever come close, science and evolution must be made to inspire the deep sense of mystery and wonder that the world’s religions have articulated for thousands of years. The way to find these spiritual realities in science is the same way religion found them, through art and ritual.

art process evolution

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Two quick links of great artists and their descriptions of the musical process.

Leonard Bernstein:

Glenn Gould:

It’s interesting to see how much process plays into both of these elements, as well as metaphor, connecting to some of Dissanayake’s work on the process of artmaking and the metaphorical mind.