Sunday, October 20, 2019

Reading The Human Swarm 5: Night-time action and brain-to-brain coupling [Shazam!!]

Ch12 of The Human Swarm, “Sensing Others” starts off with two dynamite paragraphs. I say they’re dynamite because they speak to two of my hobby horses, a relatively recent one, and one that goes back to my graduate school days. Let’s dig in (p. 161):
Spend time among hunter-gatherers and you realize sleeping through the night is a modern idea. On my trip to Namibia, I listened as Bushmen conversed under a chiseled Milky Way in voices elaborate as birds, full of clicks, twang, and twitter. Their huts were barely visible in the flicker of family fires as they shared both traditional tales and evens of the day with gusto and moments of dramatic acting. When the sun was up their conversations centered on daily business. Nighttime was story time, with tales conveying the big picture of a proper social life and affirming people’s connections with the greater society.
That’s my recent hobby horse, and it is grounded in my own behavior. While I’m basically an “early to bed, early to rise” guy, in recent years I’ve noticed that in creative phases I may get up once or twice in the night and work (creatively) for an hour or two. Some posts:
Moffett’s second paragraph is about brain-to-brain communication:
Years later their animated storytelling came vividly to mind as I stood behind Uri Hasson, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, while he hunched over a computer displaying a series of brain scans. Hassonhad been observing the cerebral activity of people watching a movie. The snippets he played were open to interpretation: some viewers might suspect the husband in the film was unfaithful while others might conclude the wife was a liar. When Hasson looked at scans of the viewers’ brains, he found they differed accordingly. If, however, audience members talked to each other as they watched a video, their cerebral cortexes synchronized: the same portions of their brains lit up when they began to follow the story line with a unified point of view. Hasson calls this mind-to-mind coupling “a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world.” The pleasure the Bushmen expressed that starry night must have come from such a melding of minds.
Moffett sites an article I’d posted here at New Savanna in 2013, Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world. I’ve posted a number of articles by Hasson. More generally, I’ve got a good many posts on the topics of coupling and synchrony (you’ll find there’s a fair amount of overlap between those two topics). There is now a large and growing literature on the neural activity of people interacting with one another.

My interest in this topic goes back to my graduate school days, when David Hays got me interested in the work of William Condon, who’d taken high-speed video of people intereacting with one another and observed that their movments where synchronized on a scale of 10s of milliseconds. This then became the central conception of my 2001 book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, where I devoted the second and third chapters to developing the dual notions that, 1) tighly coupled synchronzed movement is central to music-making, and 2) and music-making is central to human society. I developed these ideas in the context of Walter Freeman’s conception of the nervous system as a complex dynamical system.

Now I’ve got to get back to reading Moffett’s book. More later.


  1. I first met Bill Condon in 1069 at the U. of Pittsburgh. He was a teacher/supervisor for three years of my training. I last saw him at Boston University in the early 1980's. He had enormous influence on his students but not so much apparently on a larger audience. Besides his basic modesty any idea why?
    A few years back I read somewhere that Bill's name had only been searched for by two people: Malcolm Gladwell and the late neurologist Norman Geschwind. If true, sufficiently impressive.

  2. I have no idea why and, yes, it's a mystery to me as well. As I said, I found out about him through David Hays; that was in the mid-1970s. FWIW, Hays thought his work deserved a Nobel. I've heard that (some) roboticists interested in robots interacting with humans know of his work, but I don't have citations to offer.

    However, here's a 2007 MS Thesis, Interaction Synchrony Between Mother and Toddler During Book Reading (PDF), that cites Condon. And here's a 2011 article, Mother and infant coordinate heart rhythms through episodes of interaction synchrony (PDF), that doesn't mention him at all. In my quick bit of searching (5 minutes or so) I've mostly seen the topic raised in the context of mother/child interaction; sometimes Condon is referenced, sometimes not. My tentative conclusion is that the idea is out there, but Condon himself seems all but forgotten. He does, however, have a Wikipedia entry.