Wednesday, September 07, 2016


Maybe it isn’t an accident that I’m reading Lakoff at the same time as this wonderful fat book about “The Silk Roads” which is Frankopan’s account of how the merchandizing trails that developed across the middle of the Eurasian Continent, connecting Eastern and Western thought for the first time and developing into the institutions of Christianity/Rome, Judaism, Buddhism and the latecomer, Islam.  Institutions, battling among them for dominance and wealth, froze differences into confrontations defended, if necessary, in battle, and also stopped fertile collaborations at the basic level.  Each claimed a logical system (often with internal variations) and tried to maintain it.

What followed in Europe was trouble, disease and darkness.  But the search for a new way of living led to the Enlightenment based on science which in a secret way reached back to the pre-institutional cultures celebrated in the time of the Silk Roads, when Islam was emphasizing mathematics and science.  Combined with the Greek and Roman ideas that persisted, this became the Enlightenment. That’s my over-simplistic and only partially informed understanding.  

The Enlightenment emphasized the individual human mind with the goal of order, truth, and (let’s be honest) white male dominance.  Democracy itself was a product of this approach — at first meant only to apply to white males of property, which snuck back to the Empire idea of landed gentry and the entitlement of homelands.  This was enforced with stigma, which Lakoff doesn’t discuss.

Either as a result or as a cause, this view of what an ideal human being should be — cold, fact-based, logical, acting on principle, dominating (Mr. Spock)— has gripped us all for centuries.  Now it is challenged by its own scientific method, which has discovered that humans are not what we thought they were at all.

George Lakoff, a professor of linquistics, thinks, writes, collaborates, and lectures.  A remarkable lecture is on YouTube at https//  It’s entitled “How Brains Think.”  The lecture was given in Budapest which is fascinating in itself if you look into the history of that city.  Beginning as a Celtic settlement, it has been ravaged again and again by Mongols, Ottomans, Romans and Hungarians, but has only become more beautiful and meaningful.

So here’s Lakoff’s description of the Enlightenment assumption about individuals.  Reason is what has importance.  Reason is conscious, dispassionate, logical, has direct contact with the reality of the world, is universal and abstract, and is based on self-interest.  (These qualities are meant to separate us from animals, who cannot reason.  Being like an animal is assumed to be bad and must be overcome.)

The rest of the lecture walks us through the growing scientific knowledge that proved all this was wrong.  Lakoff takes us through his own acquisition of concepts, year-by-year.  What is proven is hard to grasp because it is so surprising.


At least 98% of what the brain does is unconscious, located in the deeper and more central parts of the organ, and based on pre-existing fixed neural structures starting with the genetic structures that the fetus forms in about the sixth month of gestation.  This is tiny but physical.

A female (following the plans on the X chromosome that are lacking on the Y chromosome) develops 4 kinds of cones in her eyes.  Men only develop 3 (the familiar cyan/yellow/
magenta) and therefore can NOT see some colors that most women can.  This is related to color-blindness in which some people can’t see certain colors, but that’s an anomaly.  The diff between male and female is genetic and gender-based.


Nothing in the brain can develop unless it evolves from what is already there because it simply can’t be included in the pre-existing structure.  


Brain structure evolves by use.  Whatever happens over and over is more permanent than an occasional passing glimpse.  Whatever happens first dominates anything the happens at the same time.  This is partly what is discussed as the evolution of the brain.


But there’s more.  One of the earliest parts of this evolved structure is “space cells” that record movement, borders, directions, drop-offs, walls, and containers.  A baby sitting on the floor putting one thing into another, dumping it out, putting the same things back in, is teaching her “space cells” by connecting it to real world sensory actions.  The space cells are in one part of the brain, but the muscle cells of hands are in another.  The brain will connect the two with an “axon,” a long strand that carries information in electro-chemical code.  The structural diagram that forms then will become the basis of orderly thinking recorded in grid cells and showing up on connectomes. 

The growth of nerve axons

To an enlightenment mind this is rationality on the level of, say, algebra, but it was unconsciously formed in a baby mind responding to muscles.  It is “exapted”, meaning that it is adapted from pre-existing animal bodies.  If you went back far enough, you’d come to a eukaryotic cell that had to know how to find food and escape danger.  So evolution means as much ransacking one’s innards for something that will work as somehow producing a shiny new bit of function.  Luckily, there’s a vid series for that:  Learning was never so easy nor so visual.  But if I were teaching it, I would ask the students to act it out because muscles make thought.  

Since I’m at least a little bit an enlightenment person, I appreciate knowing the formal term for this which is deictic, which means knowing where you are by knowing where everything else is in relation to you, which is where the adverbs and prepositions get into the story if you’re speaking English.  All languages have deictic terms but not all of them are adverbs and prepositions: some change the basic word, some add a particle to the basic word, some have to be accompanied by a gesture.  To me this is one of the most interesting parts of the lecture.

Another fascinating part is his statement that all morality arises from the pleasure loops of serotonin and norepinephrine and so on.  After the ability to sense, move, and understand structure — which is recorded as metaphor joining two physical parts of the brain with the little strands of the connectome — comes the idea of “frames” which are little scenarios of roles and enactments through time.  I would like to know a lot more about this. 

Another part in the lecture that I’ll explore more before writing about, is empathy.  He tells about the monkey rigged up with sensors in its brain to record what the brain did while the monkey performed tasks.  When the scientist did the same task but not hooked up, the monkey’s brain lit up as though it were doing the task.  Seeing it done activates the muscle/thought as though doing it.

But what has gripped Lakoff and some of his associates is the implications of all this for government.  His key is the metaphor of family for government.  If you grew up with a strict, punishing father, you will see the role of the government as keeping order, authoritarian.  If you grew up with a nurturant, protective father, you will want the government to take care of people.  He did not discuss the erratic father, the missing father, the demon father who destroys his family.  This is probably what we REALLY need to know about right now since so many of us have lived it.  How do we “exapt” or bypass what our deepest childhood experiences have taught us?

Are there any other metaphors for government?  What about mothers?  What about the herd, the flock, the school of fish?

No comments: