Winter Campfire Update

by Carl Strang

In November I will begin a new weekly winter series, on lessons from travels that reflect on local natural history. Today’s post updates the first winter series, from two years ago. Called the Winter Campfire, that series offered ideas on science and spirituality. Today’s notes come from the past year’s scientific literature relevant to the Winter Campfire material. In that series I touched upon quantum and relativistic physics, sensory physiology, and brain development and function. The following notes add some information in those areas.

Nicholas J Hudson. Musical beauty and information compression: complex to the ear but simple to the mind? BMC Research Notes, 2011; 4: 9 Abstract excerpts: “The entire life-long sensory data stream of a human is enormous. The adaptive solution to this problem of scale is information compression, thought to have evolved to better handle, interpret and store sensory data. In modern humans highly sophisticated information compression is clearly manifest in philosophical, mathematical and scientific insights. For example, the Laws of Physics explain apparently complex observations with simple rules. Deep cognitive insights are reported as intrinsically satisfying, implying that at some point in evolution, the practice of successful information compression became linked to the physiological reward system. I hypothesise that the establishment of this “compression and pleasure” connection paved the way for musical appreciation, which subsequently became free (perhaps even inevitable) to emerge once audio compression had become intrinsically pleasurable in its own right…I hypothesise that enduring musical masterpieces will possess an interesting objective property: despite apparent complexity, they will also exhibit high compressibility.”

According to an interview in an associated ScienceDaily article, Hudson has found that while random noise compresses only to 86% its original size in computer programs, present-day popular music commonly compresses to 60%, and Beethoven’s third symphony, in contrast, compresses to 40% despite its apparent complexity. The relevance of all of this to the Winter Campfire material is the recognition that our experience is created from the bits of sensory information our brains receive. We need to hold lightly to the assumption that reality is as we seem to perceive it.

Costas A Anastassiou, Rodrigo Perin, Henry Markram, Christof Koch. Ephaptic coupling of cortical neurons. Nature Neuroscience, 2011; 14 (2): 217 DOI: 10.1038/nn.2727   They have found evidence supporting the idea that, in addition to synaptic transmission, brain cell activity forms many overlapping electrical fields whose patterns can provide for communication. Furthermore, such fields may be subject to influence from external electrical field stimuli. The term “ephaptic coupling” in the title refers to communication among neurons through the field rather than through synapses. These fields are especially strong in the memory-forming hippocampus and in the neocortex, where long-term memory is stored. The relevance to the Winter Campfire essay is the connection to the holographic model of brain function.

J. J. Hudson, D. M. Kara, I. J. Smallman, B. E. Sauer, M. R. Tarbutt, E. A. Hinds. Improved measurement of the shape of the electron. Nature, 2011; 473 (7348): 493 DOI: 10.1038/nature10104    The electron is a sphere so perfect that, if it were the size of the solar system, the difference from perfection would be within the width of a human hair. This was determined by failing to find wobble in a molecule that would have been present if there had been asymmetry in electrons. The goal is to seek out possible differences between electrons and positrons that might explain why antimatter vanished and a residue of matter was left in the early universe. This expands upon the nature of matter and energy, addressed in an early chapter in the Winter Campfire series.

Tomohiro Ishizu, Semir Zeki. Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (7): e21852 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021852    From an account in ScienceDaily. They found that a particular region of the brain, the medial orbito-frontal region of the cortex, becomes active when a person experiences beauty, both from visual art and from music. The medial orbito-frontal region is part of the reward/pleasure center. Experiences of sights which subjects identified as ugly did not produce activity in any particular brain region. As expected, activity in visual regions also increased when the beautiful stimuli were visual, and in auditory regions when sounds were provided. In addition, visual beauty produced activity in the caudate nucleus in the center of the brain, in proportion to how beautiful the subject found the object. That brain area has been associated with romantic love in other studies, and thus suggests a connection with such love and beauty. I find myself focusing on the results that point to the subjective nature of beauty. I hold to my statement that one potential Way of spiritual development is to expand the range of what one regards as beautiful.

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