pyramidal neurons in mouse cerebral cortex expressing green fluorescent protein

We often compare the human body to a machine. That metaphor is a product of the Industrial Age. Food becomes fuel, your digestive system is a kind of engine and so on. In this Information Age, we often compare our brain to a computer – memory, storage, files not found and so on.

We have also compared the way the brain makes decisions to forms of government for a much longer time. If you use that metaphor, then you have to ask if our brain is a democracy or dictatorship, or some form not as familiar to us.

The democracy or dictatorship of the brain is the topic of an article by Ari Berkowitz. He tells us that back in 1890, psychologist William James argued that in each of us “[t]here is… one central or pontifical [nerve cell] to which our consciousness is attached.” Then, in 1941, Sir Charles Sherrington argued against the idea of a single pontifical cell in charge. He suggested that the nervous system is “a million-fold democracy whose each unit is a cell.”

Berkowitz has a book, Governing Behavior, that covers experiments on “decision-making architectures in nervous systems” and they show forms from dictatorship, to oligarchy, to democracy. Yes, a single “dictator neuron” can take charge of complex behaviors, but not in all cases.

But there is always a danger in using and extending metaphors.

To answer the question of which form is most like our brain, you need to accept that the brain is not like the countries that cover our planet. Perhaps, our brain should be compared to Earth with multiple forms of government (or architectures) simultaneously, rather than to one country/government. Thank goodness we have some dictatorships in that gray matter that can act quickly without consulting others or (and this would be frightening) forming a committee to consider all the possibilities.

Many studies have been done on non-human brains, and it is also dangerous to extrapolate what happens in a monkey or mouse brain to our own. But that’s what scientists do, often out of necessity.  So, we know that more “democratic” circuits, such as the ones that control eye movements in monkeys, are compared to decisions determined by a tally of “votes” from a large “population” of neurons.

Nervous systems are not restricted to using one set of procedures at a time. Evolution allows them to use whichever ways are most effective and combine multiple forms of “government simultaneously.” I’m not sure we would say that the governments of the Earth have been able to operate with multiple governments in a similar harmony.

reddish moon

This month’s Full Moon slipped past without a post, but I viewed it from a beach on July 19. A friend called to say, “Look outside at how red the Moon is tonight!”

There are several Full Moons that allude to the reddish color of the Moon. It is a characteristic of autumn full moons because they appear nearly full and rise soon after sunset for several evenings in a row. If you see them when they are low in the sky, shortly after they’ve risen, there is more atmosphere between you and the Moon than when the Moon is overhead and that extra air makes the moon look reddish. You’ll notice that a red moon will fade to  white as it rises higher in the night sky.

This month, we often call it the Buck Moon because bucks begin to show antlers.  A farmer might know this as the Hay Moon, and Thunder Moon has also been used due to the frequency of hot days with lightning and thunder.

The Celtic name is the Moon of Claiming, which is intriguing, but I have never found a good explanation for that name.

A Medieval name for the July moon was the Mead Moon because the hives were rich with honey and the time was right to make that honey wine.

Bog_huckleberry

Huckleberry is a name used in North America for several plants and berries. (It is the state fruit of Idaho.) We use the name for several edible berries that appear in mid-summer. The name ‘huckleberry’ is a North American variation of the English dialectal name variously called ‘hurtleberry’ or ‘whortleberry’ for the bilberry, which is almost identical in appearance to our blueberries. What people call huckleberries can be small berries with colors that may be red, blue or black.

Huckleberries were traditionally collected by Native American and First Nations people along the Pacific coast, interior British Columbia, and Montana for use as food or traditional medicine.

But the word “huckleberry” has a number of non-berry usages. Most people have heard of the novel by Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThat was a good summer read of my youth, and I thought that drifting down a river all summer sounded pretty good. I was pretty naïve in my reading of this pre-Civil War South. White runaway kid Huck Finn  joins fugitive adult slave Jim and they both “escape” down river. Nowadays, the novel is one of the most challenged and banned books for its “racist” language. You can view Twain’s novel as an indictment of the unenlightened thinking of his time, or as a classic coming-of-age novel. It definitely is one of the of the most influential books in American literature.

Ernest Hemingway was a fan. He said (in Green Hills of Africa) that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

On a much lighter side, you may know the cartoon character Huckleberry Hound. According to Wikipedia, as a slang term, the small size of the berries led to their use as a way of referring to something small, in a more affectionate way. The word shows up in the popular song “Moon River” and “I’m your huckleberry” is a way of saying that one is just the right person for a given job.

There are many American Indian names for the Full Moons because different tribes in different places focused on different signs in nature for their area and way of life. If you are an observer of nature, many of the Indian names will make sense:
Abenaki –Grass Cutter Moon
Algonquin –Squash Are Ripe Moon
Cherokee – Corn or Huckleberry Moon
Choctaw –Little Harvest Moon, Crane Moon
Comanche –Hot Moon
Cree –Moon When Ducks Begin to Molt
Dakota Sioux –Moon of the Middle Summer
Haida –Salmon Moon
Hopi –Moon of the Homedance
Kalapuya –Camas Ripe (the bulb of the camas lily was a staple food to the Kalapuya)
Lakota –Moon When The Chokecherries Are Black
Mohawk –Time of Much Ripening
Ponca –Middle of Summer Moon
Potawatomi –Moon of the Young Corn
Shoshone –Summer Moon

This Full Moon was for many Americans a Corn Moon. Roasting ears of corn was part of the “Green Corn Dance” or festival for Indians in the southwest. The Colonists called it the Corn Tassel Moon, so we can see the stage that corn was in for Northeastern settlers versus Southwestern Cherokee.

Let us not forget that for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere July is the Wolf Moon, Old Moon, or Ice Moon of winter. That is a cooling image to keep in mind as my ice cubes melt in my glass of iced tea and I type this during a 100 degree heat wave here in Paradelle. I suppose that I really should make a huckleberry moonshine cocktail though.

Nighthawks500w

Solitude is not loneliness. Though both might be defined as that internal feeling that comes from a lack of companionship, solitude is usually a choice and may have positive benefits, while loneliness is viewed as negative and usually not a choice.

I wrote yesterday about a kind of solitude beside a pond that appears in writing as both negative and positive. Solitude can be fertile and a way to boost our creative capacity. Loneliness is empty and destructive.

Thoreau, a transcendentalist beside Walden Pond, might have viewed loneliness as a kind of depression, melancholy, or a restlessness of the soul.

Olivia Laing explores in her book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, the loneliness of being in a populated place like a  city – or being alone in a crowd.

river

Laing also wrote a book that talks about that beside-the-water solitude: To the River, In that more Walden-ish book, she walked from source to sea along the Ouse River where 60 years before Virginia Woolf had drowned herself. But that’s just one small bit of that Sussex river’s history.

And in another of her books (which I have not read yet), The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, I suspect solitude and loneliness both have a place.

But her discussion of this city loneliness and some of her word images, such as someone standing by a window alone at night high above the city street and people, made me think of many paintings by Edward Hopper.

Edward Hopper’s now overexposed and often parodied Nighthawks is a painting I thought of before Laing even brought it into her discussion, where she says:

There is no colour in existence that so powerfully communicates urban alienation, the atomisation of human beings inside the edifices they create, as this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city, the city of glass towers, of empty illuminated offices and neon signs.

That diner is a sealed chamber,”an urban aquarium, a glass cell.” Laing makes the psychological physical.

What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.

Laing feels that true loneliness,is “an especially American trait (or privilege, or curse, depending on who you are)”, and one that may be best described not by words but through art. That’s an idea also found in “Loneliness Belongs to the Photographer” by Hanya Yanagihara.

“At the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books.”
― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

And that river talk makes me think of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It,” his novella (made into a movie too – but read the novella). I find some hopeful comfort in this retired English professor who at 70 was still “haunted by waters” and wrote this small classic.

The novella is usually collected with a few other stories and together they cover his beloved fly fishing, logging, fighting forest fires, playing cribbage, and being a husband, a son, a brother and a father. It has sold more than a million copies, so it connects with something in many people.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”  – Norman Maclean

When I think of a pond, I imagine a small lake. However, when I visit my friend’s cabin on a “pond” in Maine I see a large lake. Relativity in water sources.

I came across a book recently titled Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett which was published last year by a small press in Ireland.  Not a book organized around a narrative, it contains twenty stories most of which are also not narrative.  An odd psychological collection where we enter the narrator’s world of fragmented segments, questions and moods.

One reviewer said it was “a work of fiction that will make you feel pleasantly insane.”  That name-dropping review by Jia Tolentino sets the bar high by saying that the collection “…recalls works by Knut Hamsun and Samuel Beckett, in which characters are more obviously forced into states of isolation… the cottage hymns of Katharine Tynan, the pure formal eccentricity of Emily Dickinson, and the dread-laced, detonating uncertainty of W. B. Yeats” – and that the book is a “photonegative of Walden.”

walden

Walden Pond

Though that collection is not about ponds, it did make me think of Henry David Thoreau who will be best remembered for two years he spent beside a pond. Is Bennett’s narrator like the self-reliant Thoreau. No, though solitude plays a part in both stories, H.D. looks to find  place in the natural world and the narrator of Pond seems to be disconnecting from the world.

Henry David Thoreau lived on the shore of a pond for two years starting in the summer of 1845 and eventually wrote about it in Walden; or, Life in the Woods. In that small piece of woods that he made famous (land owned by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson) Thoreau unintentionally sparked a respect for nature and more than a few people on an environmental path.

His pond was Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts which is a kettle hole formed by retreating glaciers 10,000–12,000 years ago. As I have written earlier about Thoreau and Walden Pond, many people often imagine his life there as one of a hermit, he was actually quite social with regular visitors. I was very surprised and amused to learn long after I first read the book that he made frequent visits into town and to his nearby family home to get some of his mom’s cookies.

But he did isolate himself from society with the intention to write about it with greater objectivity. His experiment in simple living and self-sufficiency wasn’t one of survival and wilderness, though compared to the majority of us living today it seems to be a very radical undertaking.

This video was made at Ikeguchi Laboratory in Japan a few years ago and resurfaces online every once and awhile.

It shows 32 metronomes that are started, all out of sync. As the video progresses (it’s only 4 minutes, but you can jump a bit if you get anxious),  they shift and then synchronize themselves.

Magic trick? Nope.

It’s that science that is magic – physics. The video shows that transfer of force can align the metronomes over time.

Transfer of force?  You give a toy car a push. It rolls across the floor on its own. It hits another toy car halfway across the room with some force.  Wait. How could it exert a force? The only reason it moved was because you pushed it.

After you pushed that first car, a force was transferred to the car. When it had that collision, it exerted a force on the second car. That force came from the hand that pushed it. Forces are transferred.

And yet, the metronomes syncing is still kind of magical. Most of the science I like best has some magic to it.

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