Wednesday, May 23, 2018


“Skeptic” is a magazine published by the Skeptics Society.  It includes “Science Salon” which is hosted by Dr. Michael Shermer who actually teaches “Skepticism 101” at Chapman University.  (I’m skeptical about Chapman University.)

Dr. Gregory Hickok is the author of “The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition.”  In other words, he tries to figure out how the brain works and through this focus puts “mirror neurons” in perspective, saving them from the pop magpie science promulgators.

The vid links below (Two addresses in case one doesn’t work) is fascinating, particularly because it confirms many things I learned as an undergrad, ’57-’61 in what was then considered a rather frivolous degree in the School of Speech. (Northwestern U, the department is now renamed “Communication Arts”).  I love it when something I’ve believed and acted upon for decades turns out to be not only true, but also significant.  is a shorter URL without the intro.

In my own speech education there was a major idea and a minor idea.  The minor one was in a sub-category called “speech therapy” which includes all kinds of problems people have with actual speaking, the shaping of the tongue in the mouth and so on, but not the perception of sense context which is a brain function.  The major one was the study of acting in the context of theatre, which has a lot to do with imitation in terms of unique situation.

Speech therapy is done in pairs, usually after diagnosis by a school and often with a child who is struggling over the most difficult English sounds, like “l” or “r” which are in the back of the mouth where one can’t see what’s happening or “s” which requires the tongue to make a very small channel for the air to pass through, which is hard for young tongues.  The idea is that the mispronouncers sit across a table from a speech coach who gives advice and demonstrates.  Usually the therapist has some games to play so it’s not too boring.  

Another situation where therapy is common is with foreigners, esp. people whose language-pronouncing had never needed those mouth shapes in the past.  French is notorious (nasal) and so is Japanese.  Chinese is a whole new problem because they add inflection — voice going up or down a scale within the sound.  Diphthongs combine two vowels and are sometimes called “gliding vowels.”  There are special “letters” for print.  Southerners use a lot of diphthongs.

Lisping is a consonant problem.  This vid is an entertaining bit of advice that probably won’t get rid of your lisp, but is worth a laugh at people with a fancy English accent.   There are other vids that help more.  Lisping also has a political overtone, like accusations of being gay.  This vid addresses that whole syndrome in a sensible way.

Dr. Hickok’s original intention was to study the production of speech, but the entire aspect that begins in the brain and is linked to other stages and abilities until the intelligible sounds come out.  All the little knots and frills of brain tissue with names interact in constantly realigning ways that are sometimes age-related.  (Computer maps of the connections are presented with colored filaments.)  There is a window of opportunity when it comes to learning to speak (and eventually read).  Varying but present in pre-schoolers, it is dependent on being with people who speak.  A human can live without speaking but if their brain doesn’t catch on in those early years, it will be nearly impossible to communicate with words.

When people go from one language to another, they are often preoccupied with learning the names of things, but studies of animals who seem to understand speech, like dogs that know commands, suggest that what is learned first is verbs, “doing something.”  It is the dynamics among concepts that we define as “thought.”  Again, it is much dependent on the observation of other people, which is where “mirror neurons” come in.

The major concept from acting is that of managing observation/imitation/shaping by context (both culture and situation)/ and its expression in the whole body vividly enough for an observer to be empathic — to know what is happening in the character.  

Consciousness is a matter of taking in all of the senses, configuring them into concepts, and expressing them in a way perceptible to others.  In reality and when working with vid or film, this can be done with eye shifts and minute muscles, esp. in the face.  This is so complex and so dependent on opportunity to learn by interacting, that things can go wrong, both organically and in terms of managing one’s body systems, which is the work of the brain.

The present premise is that thought can be actually seen by using machines such as an fMRI and is a matter of changes within cells and among the various cells of that seeming jello mass in the skull.  The perceived senses of the moment are the indexes of thought, which is why a certain sound or muscle movement can bring back a recorded moment from the past.  Actors using the Method use this phenomenon to summon up their own indexed moment and using it to depict the character — memory is their key to expressed empathy.  

Hickok presents the surprising theory that it is not the side-to-side variation between the brain lobes that seems so obvious, but rather the top/bottom contrast, which is based on brain management difference.  The “superior temporal focus” and the “dorsal stream system” are Hickok’s name for two webs of interconnections among brain cells.  There are many of these distinct neural networks in the brain, all of them crucial to the understanding and expression functions, but studied so recently that it’s hard to find information about them.

  This url gives us a clip:  “Two principal higher visual pathways have recently been described, namely the dorsal stream and the ventral stream.  The dorsal stream passes between the occipital lobes and the posterior parietal lobes. This brain unit serves the functions of appraising the whole visual scene, and (along with the frontal lobes) attending to elements within the scene. It facilitates immediate visual guidance of movement through the scene, by interacting with area V5 (or the middle temporal lobes MT), the area of the brain responsible for processing perception of motion. The dorsal stream system is automatic and unconscious. It is ‘on‐line’ and is not memory based. Damage in this brain territory is associated with a range of visual behaviours. . .”  The url goes on to provide a table of clues to whether a child has a problem with this double network.

Two factoids stick with me.  Only 12 out of the 27 adults tested actually had detectable “mirror cells” (though primates have them) which might explain difficulties with communication, a kind of inability to perceive.  The other is that successful narrative, esp. fiction, is that story kindles empathy for other people, even if they are only imagined.  This has major political and artistic implications.

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