Friday, August 13, 2010

Mode & Behavior 3: Music, Language, and Beyond

Introduction and Recap

In the first post in this series I introduced the concept of behavioral mode through a brief analysis of the situation Shakespeare scrutinized in Sonnet 129, “The expense of spirit.” The central point was that our thoughts and memories are realized in neural tissue that is sensitive to neurochemical state. What you can think about and remember depends on the chemical state of the tissue that, in effect, is doing the thinking. Lust and moral reflection are facilitated by different neurochemical substrates, making it difficult to achieve a coherent and consistent point of view on one’s own activity.

In the second post I located modal control in the reticular formation , as modeled by Warren McCulloch in 1969. The reticular formation is a phylogenetically old structure, one with extensive connection to and from the rest of the brain. It is, therefore, in a position where it can affect the operational state of the entire brain. This implies, in turn, that the brain is subject to control from ‘below’ as well as from ‘above’ (in a so-called executive often located in the frontal lobes).

In McCulloch’s view behavioral mode is affects the state of the entire brain, with some areas more active than others as appropriate to the mode. David Hays and I took his conception and related it to the brain imaging studies that were then becoming more common (the late 1970s and early 1980s). Those studies showed that activities such as speaking or doing arithmetic corresponded to patterns of differential arousal across the whole brain rather than to arousal of discrete and independent cortical ‘modules.’

The human modes

But how are these specifically human modes – speech, calculating, writing, etc. – regulated? It seems unlikely that they are driven primarily from below, by the reticular system. Nor is it obvious to me that they are regulated in any simple way.

In Beethoven’s Anvil, and recounted in this review-essay, I argued that a form of proto-music making preceded speech in human phylogeny, and that it arose more or less spontaneously and fortuitously is small groups that started synchronizing their movements and so coupling their nervous systems (cf. this post on synchronized clapping). Whatever mode the group members were in, that’s the link between the specifically human and animal sociality. Perhaps such synchronization is possible from within a number of animal modes, after all, we use speech for a variety of purposes, simply reporting events, emotional expression, directing the activity of others, and so forth.

The hallmark of music-making and of speech is the fact of neural coupling between nervous systems, of synchronization. It is the fact of that coupling, I suggest, that stabilizes the brain’s mode. One brain supports another; the brains of individuals in a group become mutually reinforcing. In Chapter 9 of Beethoven’s Anvil I argued, in effect, that the specifically human aspect of our sociality is grounded in this neural coupling and so is not simply an amplification or extension of higher primate sociality. It is, rather, a new form of sociality. With the emergence of full-blown language, the entire human life-world becomes reconstructed in, inscribed in, this specifically human social realm, giving us the world of myth, folktales, ritual, taboo, and so forth.
[Subsequent to writing Beethoven’s Anvil I discovered the work of Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest (Harvard 1999), who also argued for specifically human sociality, though he didn’t ground it in music or neuro-behavioral coupling.]
And one aspect of the life-world that receives specific attention is its modal structure. Thus we have the Winnebago Trickster tales with stories of defecation and wandering, of eating and adventuring, of courtship and childbirth (Paul Radin, The Trickster, Schocken 1972). And taboos governing what’s to be eaten, who can say what to whom, and so forth, through a long list.

The larger question is: just how many specifically human behaviors are modal in this sense, how many differentiated and stable patterns of cortical arousal are possible? I surely don’t know. Speaking and music-making appear to be modal, with some overlap in cortical involvement (cf. the review in Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals). Does food preparation require its own mode? What about carving wood? Or throwing pots, weaving? All of these activities requires concentrated attention if it is to be done well, that suggests to me that they may be modal. If so, then the number of specifically human modes may be legion.

Note that only some of these modes require neural coupling with others. One can prepare a meal or throw a pot alone. Though such activities are often done in the company of others, and that may often involve chatting, the company and the chatting don’t seem intrinsic to the activity itself.

Still other modes: reading & meditating

And then we have reading, writing, and arithmetic. The first two piggy-back on speech in a fairly direct way, though it would be a mistake to think of written language as a mere transcription of spoken language. It is a different medium of communication and thinking. I suspect that arithmetic too piggy-backs off speech, though in a different way. It depends on the symbolic capacity of speech, and on syntax, though in limited and carefully constrained ways. But it also piggy-backs on the physical acts of manipulating collections of small objects (e.g. counting stones) and marking.

What of meditation in all its various forms? In some forms, one may be in a group, chanting with others, or even dancing with them. Other forms are solitary, where one may, again, chant, or focus on a painting or diagram (e.g. a mandala), or pay no attention whatever to the external world. The ultimate object of such activity seems to be to reach a state that is very elusive and not particularly stable, so much so that one can meditate for years without every reaching such a state, if ever. But, as they say, the benefit is in the journey.

Now, what is so very interesting about these two families of specifically human modes, is that they reached their highest development in two different families of civilizations. The written and calculating arts were known, of course, in both the East and the West, as were various meditation practices. But meditation reached its highest development in the cultures of India, and cultures influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, while the written and calculating arts became most highly developed in the cultures of Europe starting from roughly the 14th or 15th century CE.

What Next?

We now live in an era of globalization where cultural cross-fertilization between East and West is accelerating. Such cross-fertilization, of course, has ancient roots. What is newly significant is the accelerating density of culture-crossing activities. These are facilitated by technologies of transportation and communication. And those technologies of communication have their own modal imperatives. Motion picture technology may have been invented in the West, but motion pictures have been thriving in both the East and the West since early in the 20th century. Television too. And then computers and the web.

Western medicine has begun to adopt meditation even as neuroscientists, East and West, have been studying the meditating brain. While one might be tempted to imagine that some grand historical synthesis is afoot, I rather suspect, and I certainly hope, that the future will be more interesting than that. The synthesis of East and West, that sounds like a 19th century dream to me, taking one form among, say, Western theosophists and the like, and a rather different form among, say, Japanese industrialists.

What is more interesting is the possibility of new modes of activity, new forms of art and science, of engineering and poetry, of body movement and culinary accomplishment, of contemplation and action. The same instrumentation that allows us to observe the brain in action, after all, can be harnessed to biofeedback loops giving us control over that action. When you start imagining that hooked into computer networks linked to 100s and 1000s of people all over the world, that’s surely something new, something beyong those old 19th century laments about East & West, those dreams of conquest, or even of synthesis.

Are we ready for, not A new world, singular, but countless New Worlds, plenipotently plural?
In the next post in this series I will return to earth, though I’m not sure about just when and where or about what.

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