Friday, March 07, 2014


Daniel Dennett is a philosopher and looks prophetic, which suits him fine.  He was the tie-off speaker on HeadCon ’13: What’s New in Social Science.  This is at, filmed last summer under a lovely awning on a California lawn.  Younger people had previously analyzed and organized amazing new research on what it is to be human.  Incredibly minute and specific work on the organic brain is meshing with the new understanding of culture and cognition.  Dennett’s startling way of saying what I’ve said here before, that the brain is community of cooperating one-celled animal, is calling it the “termite colony captured in the skull.”   

He’s talking about “non-Darwinian” evolution and economies, which I take to mean non-organic, the memes.  He speaks of “foible manipulation.”  One stumbles onto a gimmick and exploits it.  In my own terms, it’s being an energetic seventh grade kid who looks for crevices and advantages in all limitations of his behavior, from things to find out, to things he or she can make the body do, to ways of controlling adults.  In the latest form of computer metaphor, the brain is a collection of apps.

Now -- if that doesn’t make you feel too crawly -- I’m going to jump to another study that is “termite by termite”.   By now many of us realize that there are many tiny structures in the brain that have different functions, like the hippocampus manages memory and the amygdala manages both fear and pleasure -- so on.  Now comes the entorhinal cortex, which contains the grid-cell navigation system.  This is a tool for both cognition and navigation, “where you are” in both senses.  

So it must be the source of all those diagrams in books that explain stuff like the structure of sentences as well as being the source of our love of treasure maps, as though we are always “seeking the way to the treasure.”  It also codes a map of one’s memories.  It is an early system that gets knocked out in Alzheimers, resulting in the first symptoms of forgetting and getting lost.  The connection to Alzheimers means it has a high priority for study.

One of the more interesting little exercises at retreats is to ask people to draw that map of “where they’re at” and the history of how they got there, and then to explain it to their neighbor.  This would be even more interesting if one could make it multi-layered by using a computer program or sheets of clear plastic to make overlay maps from different time periods or the interaction of different maps, say one of intimacy versus one of economic achievement.

It turns out that neurons as individuals are of different “kinds” of termite with different duties.  This linked article lists and explains (now that we can detect them) kinds of neurons, “apps.”

“Place cells” are in the hippocampus, GPS notations of where the creature is.  Over time this becomes a dynamic map, constantly updated and not dependent on landmarks, like the GPS screen in a car.

“Head direction cells” record which way your face is, well, “facing,” regardless of what your body is doing.

“Grid cells” are right next to the hippocampus and constantly triangulate location.

“Border cells” signal when a creature is next to a wall or edge.

Quoting the scientists:  “The collective significance of these findings is that the reactions of the neurons can be matched to what is found in the external world. It is still too difficult to trace other types of complex thinking to their sensory origins. Where information is combined across sensory systems, the firing patterns of the neurons involved are too diffuse for us to detect patterns and relationships to what is happening in the external world.”  . . .  

“So by focusing on something more accessible, such as the way space is represented in the brain, we can begin to understand how the brain computes itself, and how external inputs from the senses get into the primary sensory cortex.”

Navigation is one of the earliest skills of the “animal,” a skill a plant does not need since it cannot travel.  Now we have come so far that we are making maps of the brain from the outside, seeing what its topography is and how the electrical messages travel along it.

More quoting:  “The brain’s GPS—its sense of place—is created by signals from place cells to head direction cells, border cells, grid cells, and cells that have no known function in creating location points. Place cells not only receive information about a rat’s surroundings and landmarks, but also continuously update their own movement—an activity that is actually independent of sensory input.

Now the scientists are looking at “speed cells” that tell the creature how fast it is moving.  Also, decision-making cells “The neurons involved in this decision-making can be found in the prefrontal cortex, which connects to the hippocampus via a small nucleus in the thalamus.” 

Let me “ground” these ideas with homely examples.  My father grew up on the prairie where travel was via grid systems, dividing flat terrain up into squares like a chessboard -- and he was a good chess player because he understood the patterns that alternating squares present.  My mother grew up in Southern Oregon hill country in the headwaters of the Willamette Valley.  She understood valleys and ridges, landmarks like big trees or patterns of horizon or watercourses.  When my family traveled across the continent, sometimes my father knew where we were -- other times it was my mother.  He knew soils and learned geology.  She knew plants and understood art of a representational kind.  

When it was time for me to start kindergarten, I was escorted to Vernon School once, a checkerboard problem: five blocks up Sumner, two blocks north on 20th.  I couldn’t remember when to turn north, so I sat down on the curb and wept.  Along came some “big girls” who rescued me.  The last time I went back, a half-century later, I was also confused about when to turn because the trees had aged out and died, the houses had changed, so my landmarks didn’t work.

My father liked to be “on the move,” and one of our favorite occupations on a balmy Sunday evening was to “go get lost.”  Because of his prairie childhood, he found all elevations significant and since Portland was a river valley with volcanic cones and the West Hills, he was pleasantly baffled by the roads that went round, up and over, plus the experience of looking out over the lit city.  The seduction of the “Other.”  If he became a little too confused, my mother knew where we were.  We could see from the top of Rocky Butte or from Skyline, what the layout was.  

When it was time to teach new animal control officers how to follow the maps of Portland so they could go efficiently to the addresses of complaints and emergencies, I found that some of them understood terrain and some did not.  Some only learned by rote, a serious handicap.  In fact, they were people who functioned by obedience rather than by figuring things out, which was a disadvantage in such a free-form job.

Note the love of landscape.

What I’m saying is that when one studies brain function “apps” one is looking at function in the world, how the termites build thought patterns that control everything, and then how their conclusions and actions create a new map overlay that adds depth to the genomes.  Those who have the REAL advantage are those who seek uncharted territories, regardless of what dragons may dwell there.  Those who stick to the maps only have one version of reality.  It might not work.

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