Archive for December, 2010

Hand to Mind

December 31, 2010


  The drawing above, by Santiago Ramon y Cajal, appears in the spectacular new book: Portraits of the Mind.  It is a fascinating tome leavening a narrative of the development of neuroscience with extraordinary images of milestones along the way.

  The exquisite quality of many of the images conveys a sense of wonder in three different regards: of the brain’s incredible intricacy; of the genius of the techniques invented to make that observation possible; and of the incredible talent employed in a variety of media bearing witness.

  Jonah Lehrer writes in the forward: “Keats knew that truth exists in a tangled relationship with beauty, and nothing illustrates that poetic concept better than these scientific images.  Their empirical power is entwined with their visual majesty.”  Yep.

  Nobel laureate (1906) Ramon y Cajal has been called the father of modern neuroscience.  Using a technique developed by his contemporary and co-Nobel recipient Camillo Golgi*, he found that the “fundamental organizational and functional units of the nervous system are individual cells” – neurons.  This ‘Neuron Doctrine’ supplanted the Reticular Theory which had held that the nervous system was a vast unorganized, unstructured, tangled net.

  The work above depicts axons wrapped around a neuron.  Specifically those of a thalamus.**  The draftsmanship is stunning – one gets a sense of three dimensions by the manner in which he manipulated the quality of the axon lines about the bulbous soma and its dendrites.  The axons have come from other neurons with messages.  The interaction is exquisite. 

  I was so moved in contemplation that a particular drawing of Albrecht Durer’s came to mind.  Look at the Head of Dead Christ below and see how his fine touch gave Christ’s beard a wondrous 3D tactility. Jordan Kantor wrote of the work that: “Through the miracle of Durer’s facile hand, the charcoal itself almost becomes the dead body of Christ”.***

  From vastly different perspectives, but with similar apparent simplicity, two great men have managed to take our breath away in  meditation on the nature of mind, man, and the human condition. 

*They didn’t like each other, didn’t work together, and spoke ill of each other during their acceptance speeches.

**Interestingly, Ramon y Cajal’s work showed that neurons and their parts differ from one part of the brain to another.  “Each part of the brain bears its own signature architecture of axons”.  The breadth of shapes and sizes (as depicted by R y C) is amazing.

***Durer’s Passions, Harvard


December 24, 2010


  Yup, just as you thought, the above image is evidence of a universe previous to the one in which we now find ourselves.  In a recently published paper, Roger Penrose (cf 12/18/09) and Vahe Gurzadyan theorized that these concentric circles are vestiges in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) of the cataclysmic end of the preceding cosmos in the collision of two supermassive black holes.

  A young universe is characterized by very significant homogeneity.  With time however, it becomes less uniform, objects coalesce, and (with luck?!) life appears and evolves.  Many cosmologists agree so far. 

  The new theory suggests (I think) that at the later stages of a universe, particles all become massless.  As they do, they begin to constitute black holes.  Ultimately, since massless particles must move at the speed of light and thus time would stand still, the universe becomes infinitely small.  The black holes explode, collide, and voila, big banged, the whole thing starts over again.

  Not surprisingly, other researchers posit different explanations for the recently discovered rings pictured above. Physics blogs are atwitter.  In the last entry I read on one however, Gurzadyan and Penrose say that: “…the low variance circles occur in concentric families, and this key fact cannot be explained as a purely random effect.  It is however a clear prediction of conformal cyclic cosmology”.

  Now, what really interests me is the relationship between the nature of the universe thus described and the nature of consciousness as described by Alan Wallace and others*.  They posit that there is a ‘substrate’ unstructured consciousness from which individual psyches arise and evolve.  “The human mind emerges from the unitary experience of the zero-point field of the substrate, which is prior to and more fundamental than the human, conceptual duality of mind and matter.”

  The substrate is layered above a “Platonic world of abstract realities that can be discovered by human investigation, but are independent of human existence”.  This concept has been advocated by respected physicists such as Wolfgang Pauli and “stems from an awareness of the unreasonable power of mathematics to describe the nature of physical processes.”

  Furthermore, Roger Penrose and many if not most others agree that “mathematical realities are not determined by physical experiment, but arrived at by mathematical investigation.  You don’t have to look far to find how math underpins our universe.

  Now for the best part.  Wallace describes how experience of the  Platonic archetype realm can be achieved.  The process begins with deep meditative contemplation of an archetypal form such as the concentric circles above.  No matter what you think by now, you have to admit it is interesting (and cool!) that patterns such as that atop this latest meander of mine can be found throughout our universe and at any scale.

*cf Post of 12/10/10 Nope I haven’t recently eaten any

**Hidden Dimensions, The Unification of Physics and Consciousness, B Alan Wallace, Columbia 2007

***To read about the Penrose/Gurzadyan theory of conformal cyclic cosmology start with the article on page 101 of the December 4, 2010 Economist.




December 17, 2010

     Whether or not you buy the notion that magic mushrooms played an important role in the evolution of human consciousness, you must agree that the density of interconnections in our neural circuitry underpins the richness of our thinking.

  OK.  What could cause a reversal, a diminution, a loss of ‘stars’ in our cerebral constellation, a trend backwards toward the synesthetic threshold?   Television.  And it won’t take generations for evidentiary manifestation.  Just as DDT decimated avian populations within a generation, so is the boob tube laying waste to a wide swath of our individual and collective brainpower.

   US students were “mediocre”, faired poorly in a just released assessment of fifteen year olds across the planet.  Another recent report showed that Americans’ scores on a commonly used creativity test fell steadily from 1990 to 2008, particularly among our youth.  Time spent in front of screens was given as a primary cause.

  Not only do couch potatoes’ muscles wither and minds lose dimension while bellies grow, the attendant self isolation wreaks wider havoc.  Society’s collective consciousness attenuates along with the density of its interactions. 

  An article in the May 22 WSJ posited that: “Where population falls or is fragmented, cultural evolution may actually regress”.  For example, 10,000 years ago the 4,000 residents of Tasmania became isolated by rising sea levels.  They then “constituted too small a collective brain to sustain let alone improve the existing technology” and apparently lost the ability to fashion tools, clothing and fishing equipment.

  Reflect upon this the next time driving through a neighborhood and you notice that nearly every large window is illuminated by that familiar glare.  Or the next time in a big box store the walls of which are filled with incredibly expensive and huge television sets.  With $500.00 alters upon which to rest them available nearby.

  Most TV programs are either inane or pandering.  Not great art. Reminds me of what Iris Murdoch wrote about bad art: It’s “the soft, messy self-indulgent work of an enslaved fantasy.” 

  The other evening there was a prime time network program about losing weight.  How can there be viewership sufficient to satisfy advertisers?  We should feel insulted.  Newsflash – there is one and only one way: EAT FEWER CALORIES THAN YOU BURN!

  Jeesh. Who is going to fix stuff here in the States some years hence, let alone invent it? 



Hope I Get Some Of These On My Buche De Noel*

December 10, 2010


  The mushroom pictured above is an amanita muscaria, also known as fly agaric.  The variety has an etomycorrhizal (a specific sort of symbiotic) relationship with conifers (of which  more later) and are hallucinogenic.  Some believe that they and their relatives played a role in the evolution of human consciousness.  

  At the end of the last ice age our ancestors left the jungle for grasslands and began to pursue the animals they found grazing thereupon.  Growing on and around the animals’ dung were varieties of hallucinogenic mushrooms which great great (etc) grandpa also consumed.

  The presence of this fun stuff in the early human diet led to important neurological manifestations chief among which was synesthesia, a blurring of the boundaries of the senses.  This opened the door for the development of language and the flowering of humanity nature.

  About 10,000 or so years ago, the climate changed again, drastically reducing the geography upon which mind altering foodstuff could thrive.  The party over (but not lost to our collective unconscious), our ancestors reverted to the innate brutality of primate society.

  Why is this pertinent now?  As I mentioned above, certain sorts of mushrooms often grow near coniferous (Christmas!) trees and thus and otherwise have been linked to atavistic traditions of the holiday season.  Possibly, original catalyzing agents in fact.

   More recent of our forebears would watch reindeer find them by the trees, eat them, and then prance about euphorically.  Village shaman would enter a yurt dwelling at night through its smoke-hole and leave some of the fungi in stockings by the hearth for later employment in religious practices. 

  That the amanita natural design scheme is similar to Santa’s is obvious.  The white gilled, white spotted, and usually (but not always) deep red mushrooms appear widely throughout popular culture.  Including Christmas cards, Christmas tree ornaments, and, well, Disney’s version of the Nutcracker in Fantasia.

  Finally, “Rudolph the red nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose.  And if you ever saw him, you would even say it glows… [O]ne foggy Christmas Eve Santa came to say, Rudolf with your nose so bright won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”. 

  Who could make this stuff up?  Rest my case.  On Prancer!

*Yule log.  A rolled holiday cake upon which are placed mushrooms made from meringue.

The Outdoor Cure

December 3, 2010


  There is an impressive new indoor climbing facility not far from where I live.  Visited it recently with youngest daughter and had a blast.  Vertical kinesthetics always provide their own special sort of joy.

  Daughter has been frequenting one in the Bay Area and was quite a bit more fit than her pencil pushing old man.  She cruised up and past the overhangs to the fifty foot summit with grace and ease.  Climbing is one physical endeavor that is gender neutral. 

  The sport’s most groundbreaking feat to date – the first free ascent of the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite NP – was accomplished by a woman.  Lynn Hill.  Women know right off what it takes most men a long time to figure out, that finesse trumps brute strength.

  Anyway, the new wall incorporates a few hand sized cracks which up to this visit I’d seen in nature, but not plastic.  Either way, that sort of feature provides considerable security.  Slide your hand in, cup it, pressing fingers and hand heel to one side and knuckles to the other, and you have a multidirectional bomb proof purchase.

  Only trouble is that after a bit of upward progress thus effected the backs of your hands tell a tale of woe.  Especially if you’re out of practice and uncalloused.  (There’s a short such climb in Yosemite named “Meatgrinder”)  Oh well, I was visited by a waves of ouch and masochistic nostalgia as I slid my hands into my pockets later on.

  We had great fun, but it is not the same thing as being outside – somewhere between a video game and the real thing.  That thought occurred a few days ago when I came across an article in the 11-30-10 Science Tuesday section of the NYT titled “Head Out for a Daily Dose of Green Space”.

  Turns out that there is something called “outdoor deprivation disorder” and we learn that its “effects on physical and mental health are rising fast”.  The diminished importance given to physical activity and the natural environment has led to a diminished populace young to old.  Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, vitamin D deficiency, osteoporosis, etc, etc.

  Not to mention the most important thing of all – the state of one’s mind and the experience of living.  Depression, stress, attention deficit disorder, are included in what one researcher called “diseases of indoor living”.

  Even regarding our present topic.  I’ve been repeatedly astounded to learn that gym rats visit other gyms within miles, within sight even, of world class natural outcrops completely unaware and uninterested.  You tell me which situation would constellate one’s neurons most spectacularly – the one above or the one below. 

 *The building in the background is IM Pei’s National Center for Atmospheric Research