Saturday, February 14, 2015

Coupling and Human Community: Miscellaneous Notes on the Fundamental Physical Foundations of Human Mind, Culture, and Society

Another working paper is available:


Abstract: Coupling exists when two or more individuals interact in such a tightly coordinated way that we may consider them to be, effectively, a single system. The coupled system has a state space that is smaller than the total state space of the individual members and has fewer degrees of freedom. Coupling is considered in a variety of situations – music, conversation, and sports – and in relationship to the brain. A number of thought experiments are considered along with a variety of different disciplines.

Introduction: Coupling is Fundamental to Human Community

This miscellaneous grab bag of posts is as fundamental as anything I’ve put online. By coupling I (suppose I) the interaction of two or more people in such a close way that we can most effectively analyze them as a single system in which some signal paths go between individuals while most are within the nervous system and bodies of the coupled individuals. I devote two chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil to this, the second, “Music and Coupling”, and third, “Fireflies: Dynamics and Brain States”, and it is the foundation for much of the rest of the book.

Some excerpts from that book are included in these posts, as well as excerpts from my notes. Some posts consist of an abstract or two and some commentary; others work up an argument. But there is no argument in the working paper as a whole, just snapshots and vignettes.

Since there is no overall argument, there is no logical arrangement, but it didn’t make sense to arrange them chronologically either. In the following arrangement the first four posts more or less cover the territory. The other sections are loosely thematic. The short descriptions should give you some idea of what’s going on.

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Taken as a group, these are perhaps the most important four posts and pretty much cover the territory. The first is purely anecdotal while the next two are more conceptual; the third, in particular, is substantial, not so much in itself as in the material it references. The fourth is again anecdotal and retains to the same kind of material as in the first, percussion.

Musician's Journal: The Magic of the Bell: An anecdote about four musicians in rehearsal and how, through precise coupling their interaction produced audible sounds that no one of them was playing. In effect, the interactions between the four individuals in this post are not so different from that of the many (hypothetical) bees in the next one.

The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Group Intentionality: This is built on a passage from Beethoven’s Anvil where I consider work that’s been done on synchronized applause where the activity is analyzed as a case of coupled oscillation. I amplify this passage with some old notes where I speculate about the neuro-muscular underpinnings of synchronized applause.

Cooperation, Coupling, Music, and Soccer: This post compares the state-space argument for coupling that I argued in chapter 3 of Beethoven’s Anvil with research based on the so-called degrees of freedom problem identified by the Russian psychologist, Nikolai Bernstein, in the 1960s. In Beethoven’s Anvil I argued that the state-space of a music-making group is no larger than the state space of any one member. Michael Riley et al. demonstrate that people interacting on a common neuro-motor task experience dimensional compression so that they have fewer degrees of freedom than they would have when considered individually.

Time after Time: Music and Memory in the Group: This is about the peculiar way that individual players in traditional African percussion ensembles depended on the group to be able to remember and execute their individual parts. “The drummer cannot access motor patterns in his own brain and body without help from others.”

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These posts are all about the brain. The first two are thought experiments while the third is a review article covering a variety of neuroscience experiments. The last is more philosophical in tenor and is about the relationships between neurons in different (interacting) brains.

The Busy Bee Brain: A Thought experiment in which I imagine that the brain consists of millions of bee-sized brains yoked together in a single physical envelope. The point is that each bee’s brain is a quasi-autonomous agent, pursuing its own goals, but that pursuit is constrained by the activities of the other bee brains. The point is that something we normally think of as a single, if very complex, system, the brain, can also be thought of as a large number of tightly coupled systems. If that is the case for the inner workings of a single brain, then it is not so much of a stretch to think of different brains as being similarly coupled into a single system.

Brain-to-Brain: A Thought Experiment: A thought experiment on why it would not be possible to physically yoke two brains together, neuron to neuron, and expect them to be able to exchange thoughts.

Brain-to-Brain Coupling: The abstract of a review article with this key sentence: “We argue that in many cases the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain via the transmission of a signal through the environment.”

Relations, Neurons, Culture: In this post I suggest that the interactions between two neurons in different brains can become like that between two neurons in the same brain if and only if those two brains are coupled. Such interactions are central to the operations of culture.

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If you think of an infant as a parent’s puppet, or the parent as the infant’s puppet, then the second of these is rather similar to the first.

Jabba the Hut, or, How We Communicate: This is another thought-experiment, but one based on a real phenomenon. Jabba the Hut is a creature from the Star Wars films and was played by a a large electromechnical puppet. The puppet was controlled by a small team of operators, each of whom was responsible for some aspect of its physical movement. They coordinated their activities through TV monitors so that the joint effect of their actions was the illusion of an autonomous creature, Jabba, acting in a coherent fashion.

Boundaries and Knowing: The Ontogenetic Roots of Animism? Another anecdote, this about the interaction of an infant and its mother. Infants are moved and carried about by others; to what extent does the infant in effect think of these others as extensions of their will? How is the distinction made?

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Think of these as more or less about conversation.

Synch and Society, Two Articles: A Synthesis and Review and a Study of Applause: Two abstracts, one of an article that reviews the literature on human interaction synchrony and the other is a study of applause.

Entrainment in human conversational turn-taking: When engaged in face-to-face conversation, humans are entrained to one another’s rhythms, the central phenomenon of coupling.

Brains Couple When People Talk: A short except from a Scientific American blog reporting research showing that “when two people converse, their brains become coupled.”

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Here we’re dealing with groups as observed from the outside without close attention to the (temporal) details of their interaction.

Baboons Decide, Beethoven 9: On the one had we have the activity of a group of baboons as they interact to arrive a decision on where to travel. That is analogized to the tentative introduction of themes at the opening of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Thinking Together, One Mind or Many? How is knowledge distributed among a body of practitioners? How is the kind of work output of small groups related to the size of the group? I conclude this short post with a question: “Some activities allow the participants to function as though they were of one mind. Others cannot support such functioning. Why?”

Supercolonies, or, What’s a society? Excerpts from Mark Moffett’s work on ant supercolonies. Ants don’t recognize one another as individuals and can live in large unified colonies consisting of as many as billions of individuals.

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