Category Archives: Practice

Where does Intelligence Reside?

The one on the left is a wasp, the one on the right is a moth. The question is; Where, how and on what level does the intelligence by which this mimicry takes place reside?

 

If we define intelligence as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills, examples of mimicry like the example detailed in this story (linked below) have always left me wondering how a biological organism would be able to perceive and respond, at whatever level it takes, to recognize and assemble this cloak of deception without some capacity to sense “other minds” as well as a capacity to carry out a morphological change in response to that recognition of what’s going on in the mind of the other species…

For this moth to drape itself in the cloak of a wasp is a remarkable event, which we seem to be able to adequately describe, but our descriptions are certainly not explanations. In terms of explaining the event, what we typically call out, (adaptation, which is a description, not really an explanation) seems inadequate on its own without some kind of recognition of a sophisticated capacity for conceptualization and response embedded in the biological framework going on at some level that produces this sophisticated expression of adaptation. Just thinking out loud here.

https://phys.org/news/2017-02-biologists-years-textbook-wisdom-explanation.html

The Two Primary Drivers of Biological and Social Order

Any coherent unit of order, no matter if it is biological or social from an organism, to a group, to organizations and communities, or nation states are established by two primary behavioral drivers. The first driver is a collection of coordinated activities that establish the integrity of the unit. A group needs a cementing bond to identify “self” from “other”. Self behaviors are aligned around the community. In biological terms, an individual organism is built on a framework of shared genetics and common epigenetics that form a cohesive bond. In the case of complex creatures like ourselves, this coordinated effort extends to specialized organs that coordinate activities to maintain integrity, and the ability to collectively obtain and metabolize nutrients that also maintain the integrity.

In social terms, integrity also has bonds, these bonds may be formed with a set of ideas. It could be the love of a sport, or the behaviors that support the commonwealth of the community. In all cases, the global principle is that there is some form of cohesive glue that establishes and maintains the integrity of the group, thus establishing a metabolism social order.

Behavioral expressions are the way a social group demonstrates and reassures itself that it is maintaining integrity as a cohesive unit. These behaviors are how a group nourishes itself. This can come in the form of ritual behaviors such social nit picking in chimpanzees, or in the case of humans, it could come in the form of uniform clothing, symbols, the wearing of hats, common language, saluting a flags, the saying of pledges, or taking of oaths either formal or informal. These things, and how they are valued determine the strength of the bonds that maintain the metabolism of the group.

The second primary driver of group cohesion is the development of a kind of “behavioral immune system” that has the capacity to reject any behaviors or contend with situations that are perceived to be potentially harmful or destructive to the integrity of the group. This social immune system that provides a defensive group cohesion engine is not unique to humans by any means. In fact, we are but one expression of this global biological driver that is threaded throughout the entire web of biological life from top to bottom. We see its expression biochemically and socially.

Here is one small example of this principle at work in the case of ravens, those that cheat are excluded from the protective network of cooperative birds. Ravens are able to cooperate when, for example, mobbing predators, but they exclude cheaters because they free ride on the assumed risks the others take. Here is more detail on this group cohesion behavior in ravens.

On Bacterial Intelligence And Sociality

Although Eshel-Ben Jacob Died in June of 2015, during his life he was a leader in the theory of self-organization and pattern formation in open systems. He extended this work to include adaptive complex systems and biocomplexity. He studed bacterial self-organization, through a lens that holds bacteria the key or seminal force that can lead to our understanding how larger biological systems work, incluging ourselves.

Microbes are often thought of as reactive participants in the scheme of life. Mindlessly chewing away on food they happen to stumble on without much in the way of insight about the future, how they fit in to the larger biological community, or any other kind of depth perception necessary to navigate with competency toward a more certain future in a sometimes antagonistic and ever changing world, but this is simply not so according discoveries made by Eshel-Ben Jacob. He discovered, among other things that they exhibit population control, have an understanding of the need for biological diversity in order to deal effectively with changing environments, in addition to a powerful range of adaptive tools to negotiate the environment. As it turns out, bacteria may not be simple in any respect, they may merely express their intelligence and social life in different ways, on different scales than we do. This thought provoking lecture, given at google, is well worth a listen.

Mate Selection Expressed on a Molecular Scale

The level of detail through which behaviors are expressed that are aligned with ensuring adaptive advantage extends to the microscopic. In this case a strategy for sexual selection involves the production of some kind of protein or chemical in the ovarian fluid of ocellated wrasses which helps define the acceptance or rejection of sperm based on whether the male that emitted it will be more inclined to tend the nest or not. The idea being that those males more fit to carry on the species will be more likely to breed, enabling the species a better chance to continue forward.

From the article: “Female ocellated wrasses prefer males that build nests and take care of the fertilized eggs as they develop. But there are other types of males that do not provide parental care and compete to fertilize the eggs a female lays in the nest prepared by a nesting male. Small “sneaker” males hang out around the nest and dart in to release large amounts of sperm when a female is spawning. The females, however, seem to have found a way to thwart the sneaker males by giving an advantage to the nesting male’s sperm.”

Among the questions that might ride in the undercurrents of such a fantastically coordinated biological process if we anthropomorphize the situation a bit is; How does the female know that the chemical signature of “sneaker” males is different than the nesters? How was she able to translate this information into a coordinated process to produce a chemical in response that is able to  differentiate between sneakers and nesters and select based on criteria that is advantageous to the female? Regardless of whether or not these are legitimate lines of questioning, the behavioral dynamics expressed through the relational field we call biology certainly is intricate, and whether or not these are the right questions is not as important as recognizing that there is room for questions – plenty of food to feed a passionate curiosity.

To read the full article in Science Daily Click Here

The Evolution of Behaviors

Behaviorism Will Peck For Food

In 1948, B. F. Skinner published a landmark paper illustrating how animals develop superstition. Basically, if an animal is fed at irregular intervals it associates whatever behaviors it happened to be doing right before receiving food with receiving food. After that, it thinks those behaviors are what brings the food. It develops a “superstitious connection” between the unrelated behavior and the food.

This understanding of how connections are developed has been the foundation of behavioral conditioning and behavioral psychology since its discovery. This capacity for false (or true) association based on whatever happens to coincide at a particualr time is stitched onto our perception faculties and consequently, our psychology. People given mild stimulants unbeknownst to them have been recorded associating the effects of the stimulant with the things happening in their local happenings for instance. It is also important to emphasize that while the perception faculties sometimes falsely associate correlations, sometimes these factors are actually causal, and understanding this causal connection can lead to a survival advantage. This is probably why the capacity is seated in our biological makeup to begin with.

Our biological perception tendency to weave coincidental happenings into causal connections (which may be true or untrue) has an enormous implication in terms of understanding ourselves, our culture, our history, and the level of trust we can place on our individual certainties if we apply the information appropriately. It easily explains the reason medicine was stagnated for centuries by such notions as humors. It explains the cultural prevalence and behaviors that flow from beliefs in omens, and may be the foundation for all the world’s superstitions and religions. It may also be a strong if not causal factor in some disorders such as O.C.D. and other destructive compulsive behaviors. It has strong implications on our sociality because of the underlying message of acceptance or rejection we get for adopting certain ideas or behaviors as well. This may also be the foundation of bird song and language itself. The list goes on…

Behaviorism Will Press Lever For Food

While this symbolic association built into our perception faculties has definite survival value in that it is rooted in searching for a cause in order to more intentionally choose specific behaviors that lead toward survival, it is also true that these faculties are not entirely accurate, and come with a downside. This aspect of evolutionary biology, where a benefit comes with a potential downside is not unusual in the least. Evolution in peppered with these cost/benefit aspects, and much of who and what we are is a product of those competing priorities

 

What if relationship, rather than genetics is the dividing line between organisms?

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In the video below, Gershom Zajicek M.D speaks about certain viruses as necessary (obligate) symbionts; meaning we were once infected with a virus that is now in an inseparable relationship with us. The common idea is that viruses are infections, but he argues that they span the spectrum of relationships from destructive, to beneficial and in some cases, necessary for our survival.

Some of these vital viral strings, embedded in our genome provide services such as helping forge the relationship between the uterus and the early stage embryo, the formation of the placenta and so on. Because they offer adaptive advantage they have formed an obligate relationship over time and this is how they get to ride on the wave of relationships we currently call human. One example of the fruits of this relationship is the proto-oncogene which governs cell division. It helps our cells grow and divide in specific and limited ways to form and maintain such things as cells and tissues. In fact, when this process is broken we see cancer.

Among the things Dr. Zajicek proposes is that transposable elements (TEs) and Human Endogenous Retro Viruses (HERVs) are two names for the same phenomenon. Transposable elements are snippets of DNA coding that can communicate one cell to another, or across organisms or species, and changes the way an organism operates. This means they can actively modify biological functions during the lifetime of an organism. This method of evolution may need to be added to the currently understood mechanisms which include , descent, genetic variation, mutation, genetic drift, natural selection, and coevolution.

If HERV’s and TE’s are synonymous, this would have enormous implications not only to evolution, but to many other disciplines such as medicine, ecology and so on. TE’s, for instance, may be in some cases an immune response from one creature to defend against what it perceives to be a pathogen (from its perspective). We would receive this as a disease. There may be vectors, such as bacteria that mediate this process. If we look through this lens, we see the dynamic root of many of our own diseases in the way we relate in the context of the larger biological body of which we are part, and on which we depend for nourishment.

Of course, whether this vision is an ghost due to the lens or a clear image of what is really going on remains to be seen. If we expand the notion Dr. Zajicek proposes on to the larger biological relationship landscape, this would indicate there is an active dynamic and far less than random communication flow by way of meaningful structures, not only within species, but between them. It would mean that species may not be the level at which we should define organisms, but by relationship spanning from antagonistic to obligate. (Necessary). If we were to apply a ven diagram to the biological landscape, we would see many overlaps that violate what we have traditionally considered species. In other words, defining organisms by genetics alone may have blinded us to how the larger, more revealing biological relationship landscape works. 

While we have a long way to go to unravel this Gordian knot we call biology, if this proves true, it would explain quite a bit, have enormous predictive capacity, and if applied properly would have a huge impact on our understanding of evolution on many levels beyond the scope of Mendelian (inherited) genetics.

The Social Side of Science

Michal Schwartz in her office at the Weizmann Institute, in the city of Rehovot. (Photograph by Kobi Wolf )

Some of us have a range of perception that rides imperceptibly on the polite fiction that the scientific community, as a whole, adopts new evidence with open arms. We sometimes ignore the fact that this community, like all communities,  is also a social organ populated with people whose careers and reputations are hinged on the validity of certain ideas. Social acceptance is validity when it comes to social organs, not whether or not an idea is well grounded in evidence. For science, this presents a real problem because the social aspet and the goal of science can be at odds with each other.

The line is sometimes blurred between acceptance and validity and sometimes it is outright deliberately violated for motives other than the advancement of evidence based knowledge. To focus in on motives that beyond ego and social standing there are also some real world implications. Funding channels are greased by the reputations of the respected and this makes respect as much, or more, a currency in the scientific community as evidence. At times this social structural aspect of science is counter to the emergence of evidence as the spear tip of what the scientific community is ostensibly about. Although scientific convention is hard to break, especially in some areas, here is one story of a tenacious person, Michal Schwartz,  who followed the evidence despite the adversity. From my perspective, people like these are worthy of celebration. They probably already have their fill of scorn.

Michal Schwartz, a professor of neuroimmunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, established the role of the immune system in brain health and repair. She is also author of the book, Neuroimmunity: A New Science That Will Revolutionize How We Keep our Brains Healthy and Young. Among the things this book addresses are potential improvements in the treatment for Alzheimer’s, dementia, spinal cord injuries, depression and glaucoma.

Read more about her in Anne Kingston’s article in Maclean’s

The vital link between your immune system and brain health

A Creative and Meaningful Life

0098-Seeds

Biology is built on the model of the seed. The collection of relationships that define each variety of biological life is housed in the seed and echoed through the generations. Anything novel added to the collection of relationships that also adds value is first embraced, then replicated. Over time, only that which contributes to being able to relate successfully to the environment is remembered and practiced. That which does not offer sustained value, eventually, and sometimes suddenly, fades to extinction. Sometimes extinction carries a whole community of relationships, that was otherwise valuable, to destruction.

If we define “creative” as something both new and useful; something that enables a valuable insight or behavior, that was not possible before, we can then use this working definition to see biology as a mechanism for the capture and preservation of creativity. The relationships that define biology as it stands today are a living chronicle of the collected acts of adaptive creativity. They are those collections of relationships that enable us to successfully navigate the shifting tides of environment.

Some of the values of these creative relationships are emerging, some fading from disuse because they no longer serve. Still others are being morphed or built upon to increase our capacity to sustainably navigate the environment. The value of individual traits stems from well they contribute to the whole community of relationships.

Acting as a contributor to the community of relationships that nourishes and sustains life is the definition of a creative and meaningful life. To cultivate some valuable behavior, insight or experience and share it with the whole community of life is the means by which we leave a lasting impression in the wake of our passing. This is the way we can sow lasting seeds.

This is the principle of the seed – the same way we can count the seeds in an apple but we cannot count the apples in a seed, we can count the actions we take to contribute to life, but we cannot count the life in our actions when they offer something of lasting value.

Our Hunger for Novelty

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We get bored with the same thing after a period of time because the novelty wears off. Hedonic adaptation is the term used to describe how things decrease in their ability to stimulate us over time. A strategy for a satisfied life must include being stimulated with a certain amount of novelty in order to be satisfied. Without, it the core of our sense of satisfaction begins to fade and trouble can arise out of that dissatisfaction.

Some of us are not socialized in such a way that we understand and behave in ways that satisfy our hunger for stimulation constructively. We may crave novelty but not recognize how to respond constructively to that hunger. We might expect others to stimulate us and blame and be disappointed in them when they do not feed our need for stimulation. Some of us destructively attempt to satisfy it by clawing at the fabric of our social environment – perhaps causing drama or reacting to drama. (which is basically the tic and tock of the same drama clock) Still others of us may risk danger and or lifestyle stability just because we’re bored and don’t recognize how to feed our innate need for stimulation.

We can also get caught in a destructive spiral of demands for increasing need for stimulation. Addiction is one form of an over stimulation spiral where an increasing spiral of hunger for stimulation can hijack our capacity to function. In these cases our lives become unstable and spin out of control. If we condense too much rapid change (novelty) into our routine we eventually may be unable to satisfy our own hunger for stimulation and cause a corresponding chaos and depression. The bottom line: It’s important to have a routine, but it’s also important to break it once in a while.

The Echoes of Trauma

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There are many “ifs” that contribute to determining what kind of life we’ll have. If we have physical health; – if we’re raised in a social environment that is nurturing; – if we have role models that demonstrate how to deal effectively and constructively with stress; – if we have caretakers that nurture and model nourishing social behaviors toward oneself and others; – if the native talents we have are cultivated and directed toward contributing something of nourishing value in the context of the larger community; – and if we experience a fair amount of stability in our environment; then we have a fair shot at a positive and fulfilling life. Why? Because, generally speaking, we learn how relationships work in our development environment and spend the rest of our lives echoing that relationship “language”.

Our brain is a social organ that tunes our local biological functions to deal with the particulars of the environment it perceives it’s going to exist in. Our body builds its notion of “environment” from external signals. Particularly significant are the environmental cues we receive in the womb, at birth, and in the early formative years of life and later in adolescence. Not all of us get dealt a hand that inclines us to a high probability for success.

The perfect developmental environment is rare. The fact is, some of us are reared in an atmosphere laced with trauma and part of our developmental equipment is a biological profile that is inclined to have a well developed response to trauma. Fear is the primary response and the “fight or flight” behaviors that flow from fear shape our experience of life.

Trauma can be classified into two broad categories as situational or generational. There are also two types of intensity; single blow trauma (an acute sharp short duration type) and repeated trauma (a prolonged and repeated type):

Situational trauma stems from circumstances beyond control that either erode or explosively destroy the expectation of stability and/or manageable circumstances in life. Situational trauma can be acute or chronic in nature. Acute examples are things like a random shooting, a car accident, a house fire or a sudden death. Chronic situations can be a protracted health decline, a livelihood in jeopardy or other long term stressors.

Once trauma depletes or destroys of our sense of security, our body learns to replace the calm confidence we need to cultivate nourishing social bonds with fear. We develop defensive and protective behaviors that take many forms to compensate for the fear. Our reality becomes more reactive and stressed as a result. Our reaction to trauma can spiral into a self reinforcing prison of defensive and/or aggressive behavior cycles that trap us in a circle of stress.

Sometimes situational trauma is both acute and chronic like an accident with long term consequences. It can also be any number of life circumstances which influence our biology to divert large amounts of energy to protection and defense. In other words, our lives can be defined by overreaction to what is actually going on in the moment so we never get to live in the moment – we never get to simply smell the roses or enjoy a sunset because we are on edge. Trauma rewires our brain on a fundamental level. This rewiring can significantly change the face of what we experience for the rest of our lives.

Generational trauma is trauma of the institutional kind; it is a social tradition built of micro and macro traumas woven into the fabric of everyday social experience. Wars or severe environmental hardships can be the original source, but the response behaviors have become institutionalized as part of the culture. Because of our social nature, trauma can become a contagious way of life rooted in the social structures of families and communities. This generational and communal kind of trauma often takes the form of abuse, passive and active aggression, relational instability, destructive forms of acting out, addictions, toxic over protection, distortions of reality as a hiding place and magical thinking, hoarding, destructive enabling and relationships defined by broken promises that are embedded in the social climate.

Trauma shapes our view of the world. It may be that the notion of individual property rights arose as a defense out of historic traumas such as famines and the need to hoard in order to survive harsh winters, droughts, ice ages and the like. The common thread about culturally instilled trauma is that the social environment communicates clearly that nothing is certain – that abundance and stability are illusions and nothing can be counted on unless some extreme measures are taken. A harsh edge can develop in a person or culture that suffers trauma.

In our early years our brains attempt to assess and prepare us for the social landscape we will need to eek out a living. If our brain sees a climate of abuse and betrayal, it wires itself to live and function in that kind of environment. Toxic social settings of all kinds can damage and destroy the potential we have to negotiate our adult social environments in nourishing and effective ways. They can trap us beneath the threshold of our full potential. There is also a preservation effect as we project and perpetuate what we expect from reality onto our social landscape. We can become trapped in world where our vision is limited by our own prejudices. This can induce cycles of stress that not only come from external sources, but that we learn to cultivate ourselves.

The plain reality is; not all of us get what we need to realize a fulfilling and satisfied life. We may know people who walk upright and seemingly function in the adult world, wielding adult responsibilities, yet possessing the emotional frailty, nearsightedness, temperament, and crude self centered social skills of children. These are the descendants of trauma: People who live and cultivate circumstances characterized by defense and aggression on a regular basis. We can be structured to unknowingly reject anything that could bring stability to our lives so that our body can be prepared for the chaos we project on our future. We might reject those capable of loving us and are instead attracted to those that will reject us. The fact that this kind of behavior often brings the chaos we fear goes unnoticed. Instead the chaos we induce is seen as proof that our fears were founded. Our reality can become increasingly reactive perpetuating the trauma.

Trauma can wire us to live a life frozen in a state of stress. We may change the superficial paint job, but the emotional cycle repeats. Strings of failed relationships, addictions or destructive attachments to people and behaviors that destroy intimacy and stability become the norm. We simultaneously pass along our particular brand of reality and behavioral coping mechanisms to those unfortunate enough to come within our toxic sphere of influence. In effect; we unwittingly become the very toxin that once damaged or destroyed us.

Our biology is geared to deal with fear in specific ways. One common understanding of stress behavior is called the fight or flight response. This is when we instinctively avoid or confront fearful situations. Another lesser known strategy is called the “Tend-and-Befriend” response. This involves responding to fear by cultivating a protective social layer. This tend and befriend response is arguably another form of defensive flight.1 In all cases, we respond by either defensive or offensive behaviors. We might also blend these strategies bouncing between fight and flight or combining the two, but the foundation of stress responses are centered on fight and flight.

Trauma can lead to things like behavioral addictions and a wide variety of autoimmune diseases like arthritis, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and so on. A host of mental disorders like PTSD, anxiety and panic disorder are also part of the realm of possibilities. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is yet another party favorite of unresolved trauma. With an uncontrollable compulsive focus on things that do not resolve, but avoid the trauma, OCD is a classic avoidance (flight) technique.

Eating disorders are another common part of the behavioral repertoire of unresolved trauma. Cycles of conflict are also common to sufferers of unresolved trauma as is the practice of developing relationships based on an unhealthy demand for protection. Hoarding and becoming emotionally dependent on people or groups as protectors is sometimes seen. Conflict, avoidance or tend-befriend behaviors are a common thread that runs through the behavior and experience profile of unresolved trauma sufferers.

The fight response is often expressed through a compulsion to have excessive control over others, hyper competitive personalities, narcissism, hyper-dominance, or an inordinate drive to control in any other form as a means of cultivating the illusion that we’re in control is a fight response. Fighters often attract “flighters” (tend and befriend is a form of flight). The fact that our compulsions are in control often goes unnoticed by us. Response to trauma acts as a seed that produces more traumas.

The work it takes to rewire our brains to effectively deal with reality on reality’s terms is not easy. It is also not something a sane person would recommend we attempt to undertake ourselves if we have experienced life altering trauma. It is also unwise to attempt to get help from someone who shares the same pain. Unless an individual has experienced a resolution and is living a stable life, they are not fit to be healers even though they are often enlisted by trauma sufferers.

The potential for remedy does however start with a recognition within us that there is a problem. This recognition is the starting place. If we examine the relationship landscape of our lives and see repeating patterns of stress and out of control situations, or the erosion of relationships and activities that are necessary to sustain our life, this is a sign we need help to work through these residual echoes of trauma. As has been said in many ways; “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

The echoes of trauma are not typically something we can think our way out of. Remember; trauma rewires our brain to relive stress. Our brain becomes seasonally habituated to produce the chemicals that drive the defensive and aggressive behaviors associated with fear. Establishing the discipline to act our way out of trauma with behavioral and environmental changes is very difficult without outside help, and arguably it is also unnecessary. There are people well trained to guide others out of the prison trauma can lock us in.

Words can help us recognize, but they cannot typically bring resolution to trauma. We are not human knowings, we are human beings, and being is what needs to be re-sculpted to bring a resolution to self defeating behavioral drives that arises out of the soil of fear. Resolution takes action. The help of an experienced guide to deal with the real situation is essential because the echoes of unresolved trauma will reverberate for a lifetime as well as spread.2 The alternative to dealing with embedded fear is to relive the trauma over and over.

Here are some useful articles on dealing with the aftermath of trauma:

References:

2Here is some additional information on how trauma rewires our brain.

http://soundmedicine.org/post/childhood-trauma-leads-brains-wired-fear