Maps, Figurative Symbols, and Songlines

When I think of symbols, I default to a rather literal sense of them. In my Introduction to Anthropology class, I put up the symbol for radiation, say there is nothing inherent in that symbol to tell us what it is, rather we put meaning on it – the symbol then tells us, beware of radiation. And thinking about early symbolism is often presented in a similar way. Pigments from Bombos caves, those must have been used to indicate group and individual identity. Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functional jokes meets Geertz’s system of symbols…

But when I write, I am often trying to feel my way, to find a way to express and configure and connect. Not always – good science writing requires trying to express complicated ideas in a literal way, but that is often helped along by metaphors and comparisons. And when I take a photo, it is not the meaning of the photo that captures me, but the composition and trying to catch a moment that works within larger constellations of happenings in my life and the lives of others.

A graduate student of mine sent me this article, Thinking in maps: from the Lascaux caves to modern knowledge graphs by Anne-Laure Le Cunff over at Ness Labs. It opens:

“What do hieroglyphs, flowcharts, road signs, and knowledge graphs have in common? They’re all thinking maps. Humans have been thinking in maps since the very first symbolic communication systems.

While thinking in maps may first bring to mind the idea of cartography, a map does not need to be geographic—it can be any symbolic depiction of the relationship between elements of some physical or mental space, such as themes, objects, or areas.

In the December 2007 edition of Philosophy of Mind, Professor Elisabeth Camp, whose research has focused on forms of thoughts that do not fit standard models, wrote: “Thinking in maps is substantively different from thinking in sentences.””

And immediately I am struck by how my approach to symbols is one based in “thinking in sentences” – symbols tell me things. Figurative renderings, not so much. But any symbolic relationship between elements could count… That opens a much wider field for how to think about symbols and cognition in the past and the present.

The songlines of indigenous Australians operate more in this figurative realm, as stories and maps and music all together. Nganyinytja, a Pitjantjatjara woman, tells us:

“We have no books, our history was not written by people with pen and paper. It is in the land, the footprints of our Creation Ancestors are on the rocks. The hills and creek beds they created as they dwelled in this land surround us. We learned from our grandmothers and grandfathers as they showed us these sacred sites, told us the stories, sang and danced with us the Tjukurpa (the Dreaming Law). We remember it all; in our minds, our bodies and feet as we dance the stories. We continually recreate the Tjukurpa … ”

These ways of knowing help inform novel ways of thinking about how education can and should work, cultivating this long-existing and robust civilization, and even game design.

This figurative relationship is illustrated so well in this video with Elwyn Henaway demonstrating how the patterning works.

Now back to the original article:
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Neuronal Systems as Networks

I want to cover two different open-access papers here, both of which represent advances in how we can study and understand how the brain achieves complex outcomes using different levels of interaction, from neurotransmitter systems, to connections among brain areas, to how networks work as systems. The first is a neuroscience-heavy paper, the second more on philosophy of science and complexity. So a good pairing!

Dynamic coupling of whole-brain neuronal and neurotransmitter systems by Morten L. Kringelbach et al.
Abstract:

Remarkable progress has come from whole-brain models linking anatomy and function. Paradoxically, it is not clear how a neuronal dynamical system running in the fixed human anatomical connectome can give rise to the rich changes in the functional repertoire associated with human brain function, which is impossible to explain through long-term plasticity. Neuromodulation evolved to allow for such flexibility by dynamically updating the effectivity of the fixed anatomical connectivity. Here, we introduce a theoretical framework modeling the dynamical mutual coupling between the neuronal and neurotransmitter systems. We demonstrate that this framework is crucial to advance our understanding of whole-brain dynamics by bidirectional coupling of the two systems through combining multimodal neuroimaging data (diffusion magnetic resonance imaging [dMRI], functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI], and positron electron tomography [PET]) to explain the functional effects of specific serotoninergic receptor (5-HT2AR) stimulation with psilocybin in healthy humans. This advance provides an understanding of why psilocybin is showing considerable promise as a therapeutic intervention for neuropsychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, and addiction. Overall, these insights demonstrate that the whole-brain mutual coupling between the neuronal and the neurotransmission systems is essential for understanding the remarkable flexibility of human brain function despite having to rely on fixed anatomical connectivity.

A key section explaining their basic modeling:

Specifically, the bidirectional coupling of the neuronal and neurotransmitter systems was modeled in the following way: For the placebo condition, we used a standard whole-brain model to simulate the neuronal system, i.e., modeling spontaneous brain activity at the whole-brain level (measured with blood oxygen level-dependent [BOLD] fMRI), where each node represents a brain area and the links between them are represented by white matter connections (measured with dMRI). For the psilocybin condition, we mutually coupled the whole-brain neuronal and neurotransmitter systems by including an explicit description of the neurotransmitter dynamical system and the mutual coupling with the neuronal system. This was done by modeling the dynamics of the neurotransmitter system through simulating the release-and-reuptake dynamics, where the serotonin receptor density of each brain area is measured with PET. The neurotransmitter dynamics are then in turn coupled with the neuronal activity through the firing rate activity of the raphe nucleus, source of the serotonin neurotransmitter.

And how they made that model statistically tractable:

We fitted the mutually coupled whole-brain model using our framework of describing a brain state as an ensemble or probabilistic “cloud” in a given state space (29). This cloud is of course not clustered into discrete states (30), but it has been shown that clustering can nevertheless be useful in providing so-called “metastable substates” that can significantly distinguish between brain states (31, 32). A brain state is determined by a collection of metastable substates, i.e., of time-varying pseudo-states resulting from the clustering process (33⇓–35).

And their conclusion:
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A Re-Opening: Some Reflections on the US

So I am coming back to the blog that started it all. Here are two related pieces on the US and higher education, but with a broader framing.

First in the New York Review of Books, What Kind of Country Do We Want? by Marilynne Robinson

When schools and hospitals close, the value of everything that is dependent on them falls. Austerity toward some is a tax cut for others, a privatization of social wealth. The economics of opportunism is obvious at every stage in this great shift. And yet Americans have reacted to the drove of presumptive, quasi, and faux billionaires as if preternatural wealth were a credential of some kind.

All the talk of national wealth, which is presented as the meaning and vindication of America, has been simultaneous with a coercive atmosphere of scarcity. America is the most powerful economy in history and at the same time so threatened by global competition that it must dismantle its own institutions, the educational system, the post office. The national parks are increasingly abandoned to neglect in service to fiscal restraint. We cannot maintain our infrastructure. And, of course, we cannot raise the minimum wage. The belief has been general and urgent that the mass of people and their children can look forward to a future in which they must scramble for employment, a life-engrossing struggle in which success will depend on their making themselves useful to whatever industries emerge, contingent on their being competitive in the global labor market. Polarization is the inevitable consequence of all this.

The great error of any conspiracy theory is the assumption that blame can be placed on particular persons and interests. A chord is struck, a predisposition is awakened. America as a whole has embraced, under the name of conservatism and also patriotism, a radical departure from its own history. This richest country has been overtaken with a deep and general conviction of scarcity, a conviction that has become an expectation, then a kind of discipline, even an ethic. The sense of scarcity instantiates itself. It reinforces an anxiety that makes scarcity feel real and encroaching, and generosity, even investment, an imprudent risk.

And then Bashing Administrators While the University Burns by Gabriel Paquette in The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

At my university as at many others, public and private, we are, out of necessity, in a market for students. And that market is shrinking because of demographic trends and accelerated by Covid-19. To sustain our institutions, we must adapt. Otherwise, we are doomed.

Denunciation, recrimination, and grandstanding are pit stops on the road to oblivion. This is not to say that faculty criticisms of university leadership are unfounded or invalid. But they are a dead end unless accompanied by the constructive aim of collective betterment. The allure of mounting the barricades is almost irresistible, but what’s the point if we all end up guillotined? What use is rehearsing old grievances if students balk at further indebtedness, and our revenue models collapse?

I anticipate one of two scenarios in the coming years. In the first, the familiar feuds persist, and the university edifice crumbles, with old enmities slight consolation for those who remain amid the ruins. In the second, instinctive self-preservation and mutual interest incite faculty-administrative cooperation, institutional moribundity is reversed, and a new university is erected on the foundations of the old.

Delusions, odd and common: Living in the prodrome, part 2 (originally 10 January 2011)

(We are republishing ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 1 January, 2011. Comments have been pasted in at the end of the post from the original.) 

Author Rachel Aviv talked at length with a number of young people who had been identified as being ‘prodromal’ for schizophrenia, experiencing periodic delusions and at risk of converting to full-blown schizophrenia, following some of the at-risk individuals for a year.  In December’s Harper’s, Aviv offered a sensitive, insightful account of their day-to-day struggles to maintain insight, recognizing which of their experiences are not real: Which way madness lies: Can psychosis be prevented? (Freely accessible pdf available here.)

Psychiatric Research by Ted Watson

Aviv’s piece was really moving and inspired this post and an earlier one. The first part (Slipping into psychosis: living in the prodrome (part 1)) provides some sense of Aviv’s interviews, especially the story of ‘Anna,’ a woman who feared that she, like her mother before her, might be losing her grasp on reality.  In addition, the earlier post covered the controversy surrounding the attempt to formalize a diagnosis in the DSM-V of ‘prodrome’ and the ethical problems created by trying to identify who is at risk of ‘going mad.’

This post is my more speculative offering, contemplating the relation of the content of delusions to the cultural context in which they occur. How do the specific details of delusions arise and how might the particularity of any one person’s delusions affect the way that a delusional individual is treated by others?  Are you mad if everyone around you talks as if they, too, were experiencing the same delusions?

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Florida Governor: Anthropology Not Needed Here (originally 11 October, 2011)

(We are republishing ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. Daniel originally published this on 11 October, 2011. Comments have been pasted in at the end of the post from the original.) 

Anthropologists have been singled out by Florida Governor Rick Scott as not being needed. On the Marc Benier show, Gov. Scott said:

We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.

The American Anthropological Association issued a swift response to Gov. Scott, and the news that he thinks anthropology majors are not needed.

As an association, we are a group of over 11,000 scholars, scientists, and professionals who are dedicated to studying humankind in all its aspects, including through archaeological, biological, cultural, medical, and linguistic research… Perhaps you are unaware that anthropologists are leaders in our nation’s top science fields, making groundbreaking discoveries in areas as varied as public health, human genetics, legal history, bilingualism, the African American heritage, and infant learning.

As reported by the Orlando Sentinel, anthropology has become Gov. Scott’s primary example of an area where he believes public spending should be cut.

Tax revenues are expected to be lower than expected, forcing the state to prioritize where it spends dollars. Along those lines, Scott repeated a statement earlier this week by saying the state should spend less on education programs that aren’t related to current workforce demands, singling out anthropology.

“We’re spending a lot of money on education, and when you look at the results, it’s not great,” the governor told a luncheon crowd of the Northwest Business Association in Tallahassee. “Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”

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Slipping into psychosis: living in the prodrome (part 1, originally 5 January 2011)

(I am republishing ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 5 January 2011. Part 2 is here: Delusions, odd and common: Living in the prodrome, part 2 (originally 10 January 2011).

How might it feel to sense your own sanity eroding? Would you realize it? How might you sift the phantoms from physical reality, daydream from delusion, the irrefutable from the implausible? Or, as author Rachel Aviv puts it,

When does a strong idea take on a pathological flavor? How does a metaphysical crisis morph into a medical one? At what point does our interpretation of the world become so fixed that it no longer matters “what almost everyone else believes” [part of the definition of ‘delusion’ in the DSM]? Even William James admitted that he struggled to distinguish a schizophrenic break from a mystical experience. (Aviv 2010: 37)

Aviv wrote in the December issue of Harper’s MagazineWhich way madness lies: Can psychosis be prevented? (UPDATED: The original is now locked, but you can download a pdf of the story here. Thanks, Deidre!)  As Aviv told me in an email, the story arose, in part, out of following young patients at clinics who might be in the prodrome to psychosis, the early stages of experiencing intermittent breaks from shared reality that might lead up to schizophrenia.  Based on interviews with patients and clinicians, Aviv explores how both seek to cope with the warning signs that someone may be sliding toward a definitive break, or ‘conversion’ as it is termed in psychiatry, bolstering the individual’s sense of self and reality against corrosion.

The piece is a powerful, troubling, and thought-provoking read.  Aviv explains:

It is impossible to predict the precise moment when a person has embarked on a path toward madness, since there is no quantifiable point at which healthy thoughts become insane. It is only in retrospect that the prelude to psychosis can be diagnosed with certainty.  (36)

What I particularly appreciate about Aviv’s account is that she writes extensively about the nature of the delusions themselves, about the flow of delusional ideas, their relation to the collapse of a clear sense of self, and the challenges facing an individual who begins to feel the implausible welling up in everyday reality.  She writes that much of psychiatry has tried to get around the specificities of the delusions — Who’s putting thoughts in your head?  How are you being watched?  What sort of ghosts or angels or aliens are following you?

Patients and some clinicians alike have a vested interest in discrediting the content of delusions, dismissing the ideas as errant chemicals or glitches in brain function.  But as Aviv so clearly demonstrates, the specificities of the delusions are both what the patients struggle with daily and the source of the leverage that some of them find to fight off further drift into idiosyncratic worlds.  The delusions matter, both because patients search in them for signs of their truth or unreality, but also because the details of the delusion, not just the fact of having them, arise from our shared reality.

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The last free people on the planet (originally 9 Feb, 2011)

(I am republishing ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 9 February 2011.) 

In small pockets around the world live isolated indigenous communities, groups that, even though they have had run-ins with their neighbours or Westerners, prefer to avoid or resist any further contact.  Although we sometime call them ‘uncontacted,’ a more accurate description is probably ‘voluntarily isolated’ or ‘withdrawn’ or ‘evasive.’ Many of these groups have tragic histories of encounters with outsiders — too much ‘contact’ — where they fought to preserve their isolation and, usually, came up much worse off than their more numerous intruders.

Survival International reports that about one hundred groups around the world prefer to be left alone. They refuse to become enmeshed with their neighbours, to give up their ways of life and languages, or to find some way to earn the local currency or trade goods.  All have made it abundantly clear their wishes: stay away.

The BBC is the gift that seems to keep on giving to Neuroanthropology this week.  The striking footage below of an ‘uncontacted’ tribe, from the BBC Human Planet series (‘Jungles’ episode), was shot from one kilometre away using a stabilized zoom lens from a small plane [Another video from Survival International added in 2019 due to broken link].  Like the previous clip I featured on undersea fishing, this footage of remote Indian communities near the Brazilian-Peruvian is haunting, especially with the running commentary provided by Brazilian José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, an expert in the groups living in this area.

The footage shows people who refuse to come in from the forests. On the BBC footage, Meirelles says, It’s important for humanity these peoples exist… they’re the last free people on this planet.’

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The man with 1000 children: the limit of male fertility (Long, slow sexual revolution part 2)

(I am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 5 April 2014.) 

By Greg Downey; (long read: 5500 words)

Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif succeeded to the sultanate of Morocco after his brother fell from a horse and died in 1672. Twenty-six when he became the Sharifian Emperor, Moulay Ismael “the Bloodthirsty” — as he was called — went on to expand his holding in a remarkable reign. His armies conquered neighboring territories and fought off the Ottomans (eventually forcing them to recognize Moroccan independence), and the emperor went on a building spree to make Meknes a rival to Versailles, with French engineers to help.

Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, anonymous engraver 1719 (public domain)
Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, anonymous engraver 1719 (public domain)

Moulay Ismael also had a prodigious capacity for cruelty. He legendarily ordered that the walls of Meknes be decorated with the heads of 10,000 enemy soldiers. He also sponsored the Barbary pirates, who engaged the states of Europe in a protracted and costly low-grade war, drove the American colonies to form the first navy in North America, and pushed the English and Spanish from Moroccan territory.

But Moulay Ismael is probably best known to history because of his prodigious capacity to reproduce. The emperor had a thing for children,… well, for having sons, that is.

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The long, slow sexual revolution (reposted) with nsfw video

(I am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 10 January 2012. I have also included at the end some of the most substantial comments from the comment thread.)

A while back, Bora Zivkovic directed me (well, …all his Facebook followers) to the word, ‘sapiosexuality’: the tendency to become ‘attracted to or aroused by intelligence and its use’(thanks, Bora!).

Ironically, although the term may be a bit of a joke, the idea that intelligence is a species-specific aphrodisiac has more than a shred of evolutionary plausibility. Moreover, ‘sapiosexuality’ is a crucial point of reference in the contemporary discussion of human sexual selection, especially to break the stranglehold that Victorian social mores and sexist assumptions have on popular understandings of human sexual evolution.

I was reminded of the term ‘sapiosexuality’ after teaching my annual introductory course on human evolution. Student evaluations are in, and over and over again, student comments lead me to think that, in order to change popular understandings of evolution, we need not simply better data, but also better stories. Especially when tired, old tropes are repeatedly trotted out again in a popular discussion of how ‘evolution’ has shaped ‘human nature,’ even when the data is showing the opposite, we should wonder if evidence alone can ever overturn rusted on bad interpretations. Continue reading

Newtown and Violence – No Easy Answers

(I [Greg] am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg (dot) downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. Daniel originally published 7 December 2012.)

I just dropped my two young children at elementary school. They were bright and smiling, one off to practice handbells for a Christmas concert, another to chat with friends before the first bell.

Neither noticed the police car newly parked beside the school. Neither had a penny for my thoughts, of what it must have been like for those parents in Newtown, dropping off beloved children and then not having them only a few minutes later.

Now at my computer, I think of the Connecticut State Police Spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance, the man who has guided us through much of this tragedy. I remember his assurance on Friday that the police were doing everything to find out not only what happened, but why.

But why.

No Easy Answers Continue reading