Archive for the ‘cognition’ Category
[ by Charles Cameron -- on caterpillars, butterflies, psyche and the alephs of Georg Cantor, with a glance at the vertiginous idea it might be "boxes all the way up and down"... ]
Let’s get the science — which is quite fascinating — taken care of first. Here’s our best current visualization of how a caterpillar, after crafting its cocoon, prepares to become a butterfly:
Words can sometimes tell us some things that images can’t — or explain things to parts of us that simply cannot comprehend them visually — so here for parallel processing is an account of part of the same business from Scientific American:
How does a caterpillar rearrange itself into a butterfly? What happens inside a chrysalis or cocoon?
First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. But the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess. Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on. In some species, these imaginal discs remain dormant throughout the caterpillar’s life; in other species, the discs begin to take the shape of adult body parts even before the caterpillar forms a chrysalis or cocoon. Some caterpillars walk around with tiny rudimentary wings tucked inside their bodies, though you would never know it by looking at them.
Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth.
It’s just possible that the bear’s ability to “die” in the winter and “be reborn” in spring gave use the original cirumpolar bear cult — and more generally, a propensity to believe that resurrection from the dead might be a physical, existential human possibility.
Humans watch animals pretty diligently — my old friend and mentor Wallace Black Elk once told me:
We watch the deer, and when they’re sick they know which plant is their aspirin: they eat that green medicine, and drink water. So we have deer medicine. We don’t need the mass-produced kind.
I don’t have the exact quote, but he also observed somewhat wryly that scouts from pharmaceutical companies used to watch him and see what medicines he used, in much the same way…
And if there’s any natural process that humans have watched with equivalent metaphysical interest to that which they may have shown in observing the bear’s pattern of hibernation and return, it would have been the process of metamorphosis in butterflies — whose name in Greek, psyche, is also the word for soul.
WB Yeats had a sense of the butterfly transcending both day-to-day human logic and death itself, when he wrote in his poem Tom O’Roughley:
‘Though logic choppers rule the town,
And every man and maid and boy
Has marked a distant object down,
An aimless joy is a pure joy,’
Or so did Tom O’Roughley say
That saw the surges running by,
‘And wisdom is a butterfly
And not a gloomy bird of prey.
adding just a few lines later:
What’s dying but a second wind?
What I’d like to do here is to take us from the plodding science of linear thought to which Yeats was (among other forms of linearity) objecting, towards the science — and poetry — of complexity, of nuance.
And I’d like to do it by skipping a couple of thoughts like a stone across water, inviting you to watch the ripples…
These are the leaps that connect the dots.. the creative leaps. And some leaps, it seems to me, are bigger and more demanding than others.
Is the leap from cocoon to butterfly in Hutching‘s quote really quite a huge leap? It certainly keeps some of our best scientists busy uncovering its hidden secrets. And the leap from butterfly to tornado, that Lorenz made? That would appear to me to be a larger leap, requiring a different mode of perception. And skipping from Hutchings to Lorenz, can we skim our stone of thought even further?
Putting two and two together is one thing: imagining “aleph null” for the first time, as Cantor did, that would be something else altogether. From two to four, I’m tempted to say, is a quantitative leap, while the imaginative leap from four, ten, or ten thousand to the alephs is qualitative.
How should we recognize and connect widely separated — yet deeply entangled — dots? What would prove to be the richest and most profound of creative leaps? Is there a move that will take us not just out of this box into the box it came in — but out of a whole matrioshka nest of boxes?
Those are the questions in my sandbox about now.
When we next meet, I’ll try to tie them in with this diagram that Adam Elkus recently pointed us to —
and with Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game for good measure.
[ by Charles Cameron -- always we need the rapid response, always we need the slow, thoughtful understanding ]
It’s almost axiomatic, isn’t it, we need two brain speeds, two types of intelligence, two modes of analysis, to handle the moment and the times we live in. Both.
Chevra Hatzolah Israel has the immediacy of Twitter, Cheryl Rofer and Aaron Stein the longer view from the Globe and Mail. Both.
Cheryl Rofer, a good friend of this blog, “supervised a team developing supercritical water oxidation for destruction of hazardous wastes, including chemical warfare agents, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory” — bio from the Globe and Mail article. I don’t want to pick and choose excerpts from her piece, I’m certainly no expert on her topic — but as things heat up in Syria, the considerations she describes offer us significant background.
Read her insights as posted two days ago in Syria’s chemical weapons pose a decade-long problem for the world.
[ edited 45 mins later to add: ]
Blake Hounshell’s post a few minutes ago for FP, That awkward moment when … Israel launches airstrikes in Syria, begins to bring the two strands of thinking together — Israel attacks, but cautiously…
Syrian state TV is claiming that Israel hit a “research center,” while opposition Facebook pages are saying that several elite units on Mt. Qassioun, overlooking Damascus, were the targets.
Because it’s so difficult, not to mention risky, to destroy chemical-weapons stocks from the air, the next-best thing is to take out Assad’s means of delivering them. And Mt. Qassioun is reportedly where many of the Syrian regime’s best missiles are kept.
That’s a lot less worrisome.
As the “fog of war” slowly clears, the longer and slower insights will prove to be the more reliable and enduring.
Last summer, eminent sociobiologist E.O. Wilson published an article in Harvard Magazine:
….By using this power in addition to examine human history, we can gain insights into the origin and nature of aesthetic judgment. For example, neurobiological monitoring, in particular measurements of the damping of alpha waves during perceptions of abstract designs, have shown that the brain is most aroused by patterns in which there is about a 20 percent redundancy of elements or, put roughly, the amount of complexity found in a simple maze, or two turns of a logarithmic spiral, or an asymmetric cross. It may be coincidence (although I think not) that about the same degree of complexity is shared by a great deal of the art in friezes, grillwork, colophons, logographs, and flag designs. It crops up again in the glyphs of the ancient Middle East and Mesoamerica, as well in the pictographs and letters of modern Asian languages. The same level of complexity characterizes part of what is considered attractive in primitive art and modern abstract art and design. The source of the principle may be that this amount of complexity is the most that the brain can process in a single glance, in the same way that seven is the highest number of objects that can be counted at a single glance. When a picture is more complex, the eye grasps its content by the eye’s saccade or consciously reflective travel from one sector to the next. A quality of great art is its ability to guide attention from one of its parts to another in a manner that pleases, informs, and provokes
This is fascinating. My first question would be how we could determine if the pattern of degree of complexity is the result of cognitive structural limits (a cap on our thinking) or if it represents a sufficient visual sensory catalyst in terms of numbers of elements to cause an excitory response (neurons firing, release of dopamine, acetylcholine etc. ) and a subsequent feedback loop. Great art, or just sometimes interesting designs exhibiting novelty can hold us with a mysterious, absorbing fascination
Later, Wilson writes:
….If ever there was a reason for bringing the humanities and science closer together, it is the need to understand the true nature of the human sensory world, as contrasted with that seen by the rest of life. But there is another, even more important reason to move toward consilience among the great branches of learning. Substantial evidence now exists that human social behavior arose genetically by multilevel evolution. If this interpretation is correct, and a growing number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists believe it is, we can expect a continuing conflict between components of behavior favored by individual selection and those favored by group selection. Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in
greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole
First, while I am in no way qualified to argue evolution with E.O. Wilson, I am dimly aware that some biological scientists might be apt to take issue with Wilson’s primacy of multilevel evolution. As a matter of common sense, it seems likely to me that biological systems might have a point where they experience emergent evolutionary effects – the system itself has to be able to adapt to the larger environmental context – how do we know what level of “multilevel” will be the significant driver of natural selection and under what conditions? Or does one level have a rough sort of “hegemony” over the evolutionary process with the rest as “tweaking” influences? Or is there more randomness here than process?
That part is way beyond my ken and readers are welcome to weigh in here.
The second part, given Wilson’s assumptions are more graspable. Creativity often is a matter of individual insights becoming elaborated and exploited, but also has strong collaborative and social aspects. That kind of cooperation may not even be purposeful or ends-driven by both parties, it may simply be behaviors that incidentally help create an environment or social space where creative innovation becomes more likely to flourish – such as the advent of writing and the spread of literacy giving birth to a literary cultural explosion of ideas and invention – and battles over credit and more tangible rewards.
Need to ponder this some more.
I am about half finished with the first book by creativity in education guru Sir Ken Robinson, who also has a new book out called, The Element. Technically, I have been reading a large volume of books, articles and research regarding creativity and creative thinking lately for a project, but most of those are academic in nature while Robinson is writing for mainstream audiences. I may or may not review it here, but it is clearly argued and Robinson is an effective popularizer.
The biography of Wild Bill Donovan is timely. If the idiosyncratic and at times improvisational OSS, staffed by gifted amateurs, eccentric adventurers and white-shoe, unapologetically elite WASPS, was something that would be impossible to exist in today’s rancid political climate, there are elements in that legacy that are in short supply in today’s modern and highly technological IC.
Ironically, many of the pioneers in creativity research that developed that field within cognitve psychology in America were themselves disproportionately veterans of the OSS.