Saturday, October 20, 2012

Relations, Neurons, Culture

Caveat: I posted this without proofing. If you catch any typos or things that just don't make sense, please let me know. Thanks.
Anyone who’s been following object-oriented ontology and related matters in the blogosphere knows there’s major controversy over relations. In thinking about that business during the middle of the night I suddenly realized that it provides a way of talking nervous systems in individuals and in groups.
Here’s the basic idea: Neurons in an individual nervous system can be said to be internally related to one another. Two neurons in different individual nervous systems will not be internally related, but they may have external relations if the individuals are interacting with one another. Under certain conditions of interaction, however, neurons in different nervous systems can be said to be internally related is much the same way that neurons in the same nervous system are internally related.
I made that argument in some detail, though not those terms, in chapters 2 and especially 3 (which begins with fireflies and ends with clapping hands) of Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. You can find posts on these and related matters on this blog under the headings of coupling and synchrony.

Now, let’s go through a more leisurely statement of the idea.

Neurons in Nervous Systems: A Small World

The neurons in a nervous system have direct physical connections with one another and appear to form what’s called a small-world network. The human nervous system—the whole nervous system, not just the brain—has roughly 100 billion neurons. On the average each neuron connects with 10,000 other neurons, but no neuron is more than five or six connections from any other neuron (I’m just guessing there, I don’t think there’s a standard number established for this). THAT’s what it means to be a small-world network, 100 billion elements in the system, none more than and handful of connections from any other.

Each neuron in such a system is connected to any other neuron by a relatively short chain of direct links. Let us agree that, by definition, the existence of such a chain means that the neurons are internally related to one another. When the chain is relatively long, five or six links or more, the relationship will be relatively weak. But even if two neurons are directly connected it would be unusual for one neuron to be able to activate or suppress the other without ‘help’ from many other neurons.

Neurons in the nervous systems of different individuals obviously have no chains of direct connections with one another. Different individuals do interact with one another, however. So let us say, by definition, that neurons in the nervous systems of interacting individuals can be said to have external relations to one another. (And if the neurons are in individuals that aren’t interacting with one another, they don’t have any relationship at all. This case is of no immediate interest.)

Communication and Change

Animals have to communicate with one another for a variety of purposes. And so communication systems have developed. Chemical systems (smell but also taste) are perhaps the most basic. But we have auditory and visual systems as well. The mere fact that two or more individuals are interacting through such systems does not at all imply that neurons in the different individuals are not internally related to one another. Not at all. On the contrary, the point of such communication systems is that they do not require internal relations between different nervous systems.

What’s particularly important about internally related neurons is that they can influence one another through learning. They can change one another’s operations in a direct physical way, in an electrochemical way. Externally related neurons cannot do that. It’s this interaction that gives “teeth” to the notion of internal vs. external relations of neurons.

I’m going to leave that last paragraph as a bare assertion for now. But it needs to be argued. Later.

Coupling through Synchrony

What I argued in Beethoven’s Anvil is that when the actions of two individuals are precisely synchronized with one another at a scale of 10s of milliseconds their nervous systems are coupled into a single physical system such that neurons in one nervous system can be said to be internally related to neurons in the other nervous system. This connection is mediated, not simply by neurons, but by some physical connection that is external to the two nervous systems.

If the communication is through sound, then the external channel will be through the motor system (to produce the sound) and the auditory, which perceives. If the communication is through movement or posture, then the external channel will be through the motor system (to produce the movement of posture) and vision and/or hapsis, to perceive it.

Once two or more nervous systems are so coupled the neurons in the two systems can influence one another through learning. They can change one another’s operations in a direct physical way, in an electrochemical way. Such a coupling of different individual nervous systems is now functioning as a single system of internally related neurons.

THAT’s what culture does for humans. It provides the terms of the coupling.

Music and Beyond

Beethoven’s Anvil is about music, and I make this argument at length and in some detail there. Music and dance provide the most basic case because the nature of the coupling is most direct and obvious. Just how to generalize to all of culture is not obvious to one.

Consider language. We know that when individuals are talking with one another that their vocal channels are coupled in the proper wall to establish internal relationships. But the vocal channel only carriers a chaini of signifiers. What about the signifieds and the meaning they convey? I have some remarks on that in three posts on cultural evolution and language (Language Games 1, Speech, Addendum on Language as Game, and Language Games 2, Story Telling). More work is needed, obviously.

What about writing? Jane Austen wrote at one time and place. I read her at a different time and place. Does that put neurons in my nervous system in an internal relationship with neurons in her nervous system, despite the fact that her nervous system in long dead? I’m not even sure that’s a sensible question. A more sensible and sophisticated question would go like this: You read Pride and Prejudice a year ago, I read it a week ago; we’re now emailing back and forth about the book. Are neurons in my nervous system internally related to neurons in your nervous system through our asynchronous electronic correspondence (through the electronic medium is irrelevant, we could just as easily be exchanging letters by snail mail)? If so, what role does Pride and Prejudice play in that interaction?

I don’t know. But I think it’s a good problem to work on. Hell, it’s a great problem.


  1. You might be interested in Sperber's article,several decades old, "Conceptual Tools for a Natural Science of Society and Culture"

    In it, he talks about "Cognitive Causal Chains", "Social Cognitive Causal Chains" and "Cultural Cognitive Causal Chains".

  2. I think it (the textually mediated/enacted coupling) is basically a matter of skill.. the more books one reads the more that person develops a sensitivity to the individual rhythms (which is coterminous with style imo) of different authors. William Gass refers to something like this when he writes (in relation to G Stein and literary art in general) that "art is in the music. w/o music words fall to earth in prosy pieces. w/o the music there is only comprehension and comprehension may be analysis or interpretation or philosophy but it is not art. art is the mind carried to conclusions ahead of any understanding by the music - the order, release and sounding of the meaning. not just bc/ of a little alliteration, the pitter-patter of metrical feet, a repetition like a chant, or rhyme concealed the way Poe's letter was -in plain view- but bc/ of complex conceptual relations made audible"
    I am not sure about the conceptual part, but I do think that some texts are indeed better than others in eliciting a level of intimacy and resonant attunement