Thursday, February 26, 2009

Permanence & Change

I recently had the opportunity of visiting a church 600 years old. It was not one of the a grand cathedrals of Europe. It's belfry does not stand tall, rather a watch tower than a church tower. The nave is low-slung, husky and blends with the neighboring houses. The choir is the oldest part of the building, dating back to the 14th century. The nave was newly built after a fire in the 15th century.

St. John at Kronberg, home of the epitaphs.
The subtle edifice reveals its hidden treasures, once the visitor steps inside. Here, we meet four couples who lived around A.D. 1500. The people sculpted in stone wear outfits strange to us today and radiate stern austerity, but their likenesses bear faces of such vivid expression as if the couples wish to speak to us.

The ladies and gentlemen were the protectors of the church and rulers of the castle on the hilltop above. They are depicted in their best years of life. The men stand on lions as symbol of prowess, the ladies on hounds as symbol of loyalty.

Though the artisans were bound by convention and strove for conformity, lending the sculptures profound grace and serenity, the realism of renaissance is undeniably visible. The clothing is featured in meticulous detail. The faces are shown in fine features. The couples represent two generations. Below I discuss examples for each.

These people lived in uneasy times. The men are geared up in military outfits. They are clad in chain mail and full armor, fitted with all attributes of utility, i.e. the hooks for the lances, the chin guards, the unadorned helmets with large visors meant for use and not for show. The ladies are portrayed in devout poses with heads slightly tilted to the side, eyes gazing downwards. Their hands are clasped in prayer. They wear gowns and bonnets.

The first generation:

The elder generation lived an epoch of uprisings. The reformation had just begun. The knight's helmet is exaggeratedly large. He strikes a belligerent pose, leaning on his sword, his head cocked up in defiance. The protected chin juts out. His lips are pressed tight. He radiates determination, ready to counter any challenge. He is standing close to and in front of his wife ready to protect her from any harm. Despite of her austerity, she exhibits an outgoing, joyful, liveliness. Though her angular, high bonnet covers the scalp entirely, the keen observer notices beautiful tresses of hair masterfully wound in stylish rolls behind her high temples. The young woman smiles with full lips. She wears a tight exposed shirt with a deeply cut v-shaped neck.

With the next generation, facial expression and demeanor have turned more melancholic and pious. Reformation has left its indelible mark. The Lord of the castle stands well apart from and unattached to his Lady. His head tilted in devotion, he gazes straight at us. His hands are clasped in prayer. The face bears a full-lipped mellow expressions, sedate, meditative. He is a role model of a God-fearing leader.

In a portrayal of similar piety, his wife is clad from head to toe in wide, flowing gowns that do not permit the smallest peek at the body underneath. The round bonnet is held with a scarf, tightly framing her face, concealing all hair. The happiness and lightness of youth is absent from her face. Hers expresses the grave responsibility and worry of a matron in the middle of her life, as if in forbearance of the grief to come with a war over the right belief that would ravage the land for thirty years until only one fifth of the populace was left.

The next generation:

Despite the stenciled, figurative style, the couple of the first generation shows touching signs of a special relationship. Though lord and lady strike the expected poses - he martial, she devout - conventions were broken in small ways. Little gestures can project deep meaning. Clad in the iron glove of his armor, his left hand touches the gown of his beloved, beautiful wife. He was known for his quick wits. His first wife had died. This was his second. He loved her dearly. Then as now, love defies convention, is coveted for eternity. Life may have changed over the centuries, the sentiments of life have not.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!
The lord's protective hand.

  • The most illuminating, comprehensive accounts I found on the evolution of private life in Europe from the Romans to modernity are published in a series of formidably illustrated and expertly written volumes entitled "A History of Private Life" edited by Paul Veyne, Phillippe Ariès, Georges Duby, and Arthur Goldhammer.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Theory of Mind II: H.M.'s Memory

In the first installment of this series posted on Dec. 31, 2008, I argued the importance of language for a Theory of Mind. In this installment, I discuss a role for memory.

On Dec. 2, 2008, Henry Gustav Molaison, passed away at the age of 82. H.M., as he became known to scientists around the world, developed seizure activity after an accident at the age of 9 and began to suffer from severe bouts of epilepsy from the age of 16. Since his seizures recurred progressively more frequently and gained in intensity, turning unbearable at the age of 27, the middle temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex was surgically removed from both hemispheres, including parts of the hippocampus and the amygdala.

After surgery, Henry would experience only two other severe seizures in his life, but was a changed man forever. He developed profound amnesia, becoming the subject of intense scientific study for the rest of his life and, since he dedicated his body to science, beyond.

He was well-mannered, could speak eloquently and execute daily routines of hygiene, dress and nourishment. He could mow a lawn and do small household chores. He retained memories of some major historic events before his surgery. He could remember where is family was from. He remembered his name, but he did not know how old he was. He could recall immediate events instantaneously and could judge against internalized references. That is, seeing himself in a mirror he would exclaim: "I am not a boy!" However, he was not able to remember persons or events from the day before and could not make any plans for tomorrow, as if he lived in permanent presence every day anew.

The eminent British psychologist Brenda Milner and her colleagues could demonstrate in elegant series of tests that H.M. was able to learn subconsciously procedural skills involving so-called implicit memory, but could not retrieve declarative explicit memory of episodes in the past. The hippocampus was implicated in the latter type, playing a crucial role in the processing of our conscious thoughts. H.M. retained a sense of self, but could not remember who he was. He had lost a distinct piece of his identity, an essential ingredient of his mind. His neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville, who strongly opposed this type of surgery after this devastating outcome, and Brenda Milner published their first observations on H.M. in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry in the late 1950s (Scoville and Milner, 1958).

In 1985, the Swedish neuroscientist David Ingvar published a remarkable essay in the now defunct scientific journal Human Neurobiology on the role of memory and the areas in prefrontal cortex known to be involved in the processing of memory at the time(Ingvar, 1985). About 1970 he, Niels Lassen and others had successfully assembled a scanning device at Bispebjerg Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark, with which local cerebral blood flow in human cerebral cortex could be mapped non-invasively using radioactive xenon-133 gas as tracer (Lassen, 1985), while the participants were exposed to sensory stimuli or were executing tasks. The Bispebjerg Hospital was set to become the first institution where functional brain imaging would become routine.

In collaboration with Drs. Seymour Kety and Louis Sokoloff at the National Institutes of Health, Drs. Lassen and Ingvar helped pioneer methods used to demonstrate that local cerebral blood flow changes commensurate with metabolic and electric nerve cell activity under normal physiological conditions. Based on this discovery, colleagues at Bispebjerg Hospital would be able to demonstrate later that visual mental imagery, e.g. the navigation of visual scenes in front of the mind's eye, activated many regions of cortex that are ordinarily engaged in the processing of visual input (Roland and Friberg, 1985). They would be able to identify cortical areas activated during the retrieval of memory. One compelling discovery Dr. Ingvar described in his essay in Human Neurobiology was that the same regions in the frontal lobes of cerebral cortex that were activated when people remember episodes in their past were also active when they were asked to make plans for the future. He concluded that there can be no planning of future actions without memory of the past. He called this process forming memories of the future.

Dr. Ingvar's insights inevitably posit that any human invention, any creative process, any idea we form of something unprecedented from mere mental concept to actual implementation hinges on our declarative memory. Indeed, with this wonderful gift we can make dreams come true. Hence, declarative memory must constitute another pillar of a Theory of Mind.

Related Posts

  • On occasion of H.M.'s passing, informative reports appeared in The New York Times on Dec. 4, 2008 (Bendict Carey's article entitled "H. M., an Unforgettable Amnesiac, Dies at 82"), and in the Economist on Dec. 18, 2008 ("Henry Molaison, a man without memories, died on December 2nd, aged 82").
  • National Public Radio's Weekend Edition broadcast a segment on H.M. by Brian Newhouse's with the title "H.M.'s Brain and the History of Memory" on Feb. 24, 2007.
  • In support of Dr. Ingvar's hypothesis, Hassabis and others (2007) observed that amnesic patients with hippocampal damage were unable to imagine future experiences.
  • Joshua Foer tells us about constructing memory palaces in his latest book with the title "Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything" just published by Penguin Press, New York. Building memory palaces constitutes an intriguing strategy for retaining excellent memories and may possess profound bearing on a sharper mind. The method was developed in the classical age and rediscovered during the Renaissance. Perhaps, the extraordinary explosion of creativity in the arts and the sciences during that period depended on such strategies to memorize facts in a time when books were still inaccessible to most (03/08/11).
  • Ingvar DH (1985) "Memory of the future": an essay on the temporal organization of conscious awareness. Hum Neurobiol 4:127-136.
  • Lassen NA (1985) Cerebral blood flow tomography with xenon-133. Semin Nucl Med 15:347-356.
  • Roland PE, Friberg L (1985) Localization of cortical areas activated by thinking. J Neurophysiol 53:1219-1243.
  • Scoville WB, Milner B (1957) Loss of recent memory after bilateral hippocampal lesions. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiat 20:11-21.
Example for the Memory of the Future at Work: Treehouse
Son's Idea
Dad's Implemention
Humans perfected this method over generations!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Method, Mind & Spirit

Today, we commemorate the 200th birthday of Charles Robert Darwin. On Feb. 9, The New York Times published a collection of articles to celebrate this occasion and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most influential work entitled "On the Origin of Species". On Feb. 11 and Feb. 12, National Public Radio's Morning Edition devoted segments of almost eight minutes to Darwin's work and life.

Confronted with forms of life on the Galapagos Islandsthat seemed in shape related, yet diverse, Charles Darwin concluded that two rules best explain his observations.

Variation: The first rule required that each creature contained the information for its species' blueprint known as Bauplan to German scholars. The blueprints needed to be permanent, passed down to a great extent conserved through the generations. This permanence would achieve the regularity of Bauplan observed within a species. Yet, the blueprints needed to be mutable, allowing variation of form such that the species may be resistant against or take advantage of emerging novel conditions in its environment.

Selection: The second rule stipulated that the variations of Bauplan within a species would guarantee that the best adapted form survived, procreated, and eventually evolved into an entirely new species.

Applying the two rules in due diligence on the material he collected, Darwin was able to construct a tree of life. Darwin's Theory of Evolution was born.

Darwin provided us with hypotheses that could be tested with comparisons of the fossil record of past life forms, in as much as they were open to experimentation in laboratories as well as in contemporary natural environments. We have gained enormous insights from these studies into the fashion with which life may fit into the history of our planet and the history of the universe. His theory of evolution helps us to explain where we are coming from and where we may go to, using the scientific method.

The scientific method constitutes a natural extension of our innate playfulness and curiosity. Our mind is very sensitive to the extraordinary. It bothers us. We immediately wonder why things seem different, and thus we experiment unrelentingly with cause to unravel the mystery of effect, until we arrive at satisfactory explanations. Without this gift, we would not be here today. The scientific method requires that cause and effect are reproducible, that experimental conditions can be adjusted to influence results in a predictable way, and eventually that any theory emerging from experimentation is mutable, that it can be replaced with an improved theory, if our assumptions prove irreconcilable with our observations.

By contrast, faith is unrestrained, boundless, free from experimentation. Faith, thus, constitutes a complement to the scientific method. Hence, attempts at setting articles of faith against the scientific method are bound to end in futility.


  • The Economist provides an interesting statistic in an article on today's acceptance of Darwin's ideas on Feb. 5.
  • The Tennessean's Bob Smietana posted an insightful article entitled "Darwin still Divides Believers in the Bible" on the possible reconciliation of Darwin's theory and faith on Feb. 14. The comments are of note.

The trip with which the journey began:

Friday, February 6, 2009

Moving into the Front Row

“A little while and I will be gone from among you,
Whither, I cannot tell.
From nowhere we came;
into nowhere we go.
What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”

Chief Isapo-muxika,

in memory of my mother, 11/06/1922-12/31/2008.