Universal knowledge

Updated: Feb 22

“What an odd thing it is to see an entire species—billions of people—playing with, listening to, meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call ‘music.’”

-Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia (2010)

“Some kind of aesthetic activity is apparently a feature of all the 3,000 or so distinguishable cultures that are to be found on the earth’s surface. This suggests strongly that art grows out of some fundamental characteristics of the human nervous system.”

-Berlyne, Aesthetics and Psychobiology (1971)

The importance of temperature to living systems clearly must relate to the fact that organisms, in our substance, occupy a physical state of matter intermediate between solid and fluid. It would not be especially surprising if temperature, disorder and fluidity are involved with the workings of the animal mind. Variable environmental temperature has been a major selection agent in the evolution of all species. Temperature related adaptations include thermoregulatory systems, hibernation, migration, hair, feathers, burrowing, sweating, panting, huddling, sun basking, blubber, heat absorbing and dissipating structures and colors, fire survival substances in vegetation, and many others. Temperature changes may take lives directly by melting or freezing components of cells, slowing or speeding metabolism and movement, or (Zeidman 1949) altering tissue elasticity. In humans higher ambient temperatures are associated with increased social (Anderson 2001) and mental disorder (Chan et al. 2018). Temperature regimes may determine phenotypes (Shine et al. 1997), influence shape (Smith et al. 1984), or behavior (Pepper and Hastings 1952), sex ratio (Bull 1985), regulate cell division rate (Terry and Edmunds 1970) and alter sexuality (Reisman and Cade 1967). Temperature can influence the relative fitness of organisms (Birch 1953), and, in turn, the structure of ecosystems. Temperature influences metabolism, growth, development, reproduction, and food supply in aquatic insects, largely determining their distribution (Merritt et al. 2008). It can alter the properties of signals (e.g. cricket, grasshopper and tree frog courtship vocalizations, firefly flashes) and signal preferences (Doherty 1984). In some cases signal and signal preference are altered with temperature in such a way that, for instance, warmer females prefer the signals of warmer males, and colder females prefer those of colder males (“temperature coupling”). Temperature sensitivity is exceptional in being common to all living things, at all scales, throughout the evolution of every population.

The primary functions of the human brain must be survival and reproduction. But the brain gives rise to a lot of phenomena which are very difficult to understand in terms of these tendencies. It may not be possible, by any means, to put together a brain which functions as such physiologically, cognitively and otherwise with utility to the user without incidentally introducing some amount of originally non-functional noise, or psychological by-products.

Brains must mix the characteristics of solids and fluids in order to maintain their structure, capture and move energy and particles, carry impulses, and incorporate all other life supporting physiological or behavioral functions. They must contain in some physical and chemical way the need for water, the need for nutrients, fear of danger, the desire for sex, and all other concepts related to survival and reproduction. At the same time the brain must somehow embody abstract animal preferences. Even though many of our preferences have no apparent explanation in terms of survival, we know they exist because we have shaped our environments and behavior to reflect them. Certain types of preferences and behaviors may be indirectly selected for through the evident physical prerequisite that solidness and fluidity, along with their properties, combine in the construction of an effective brain. Preferences and behaviors that do not contribute in any obvious way to survival, or which greatly exceed in their magnitude that which would serve any apparent fitness-related purpose, might often be explained as such by-products.

Things that humans and animals do universally include those we can understand directly from a survival perspective, such as eating, swimming, walking, hunting or fighting, but others remained mysterious despite the success of Darwin’s natural and sexual selection theories. Preferences for flowers over leaves, songs over noise, dance over movements which are sensible in terms of utility, and an appreciation of multi-coloration are among the things that seem to have remained the same in the psychology of animals throughout evolutionary history. Other mysterious universals include the tendency to fluctuate between conscious and unconscious states, feeling repulsed by combinations of bright colors and fluidity and a preference for dark fluidity and bright solidness. The universality of these traits requires that whatever explains them applies to the brain of every animal. The question is what could possibly be the same about the brain of every animal, of every size from insects to whales, independently of the particular evolutionary experience of any species, in order to account for the fact that we all consistently like the same, strangely particular things such as singing and dancing? Humans enjoy singing and dancing themselves in addition to admiring others doing it. Given how many animals sing and dance, and that singing corresponds to an increase in brain temperature, enjoying these things, both perceptually and the performance of them, should be the null hypothesis. The liquid crystalline physical condition of the brain is the only thing all animals share consistently enough to account for that of our preferences.

Expressions reflecting associations between the given qualities and combining them within categories in ways that seem to make unconscious, physical and logical sense, and those involving life-like contradictions between the categories, tend to be invented, remembered and repeated, so that languages contain information about universal psychological and physical realities. It's not true that animals are born without information or preferences for some types of stimuli over others. It becomes obvious, to the contrary, that we have a deeper understanding than should be expected concerning physical opposites such as hot versus cold, fluid versus solid and disorder versus order. Animals have innate knowledge of these dualities, the opposites that make them up and their physical relatives, so that physical facts can be discerned from the products of animal preferences or the preferences themselves. 

In order to discover that people, or animals, find disorder more exciting than order one can either conduct experiments or consult the widespread evidence of this to be found within language, poetry and other cultural practices, like the disorderly words we describe jokes with, the way we laugh at disorder, or the way we arrange the objects in our surroundings to reduce the appearance of disorder far beyond what is necessary for our survival or conveniencestraightening, flattening and shortening crooked, protrusive and long objects in order to relax. Experiments could show that a randomly waving bright flowing object, such as a flag, combined with elevation is more exciting than a flag at the bottom of a pole or a solid, elevated, unmoving rectangle, but this is also evident in various ways in human culture such as our general use of waving and flags as signals, lowering flags on sad occasions, and the way that flag decorations are so often drawn with fluidity added to make them more fun. The way that fireworks mark important occasions indicates that the combination of upwardness and brightness is exciting, similar to various experiments showing people react faster to elevated and bright things. The appreciation for fireworks is widespread, and they're interesting from a thermoaesthetic perspective if aerial fireworks tend to be low-pitched (up/bright—low-pitch) compared to ground-based aesthetic pyrotechnics, such as firecrackers, or bang snaps, also known, according to Wikipedia (2021), as "Devil Bangers, Throwdowns, snap-its, poppers, whack-pops, poppies, pop-its, snappers, Snap Dragons, whip'n pops, Pop Pop Snappers, whipper snappers, fun snaps, party snaps, pop pops, whiz-bangers, cherry poppers, pop rocks, snap'n pops or bangers." In order to discover the sequence of colors within the visible spectrum one can split light through a prism, or observe that the colors are arranged in the same pattern in the coloration schemes of numerous, unrelated animals, a state of affairs more easily explained by a single physical mechanism acting in all brains instead of independent, gradual genetic events and processes arriving at a preference for rainbow patterns across many different species. Given that liquid crystals exhibit rainbow coloration it's reasonable to assume the brain can contain information about color without learning it through a process of making associations perceptually. While it could be determined that a brain is liquid crystalline by making the observation directly that brains can be either melted or frozen, while crystals can only be melted and fluids can only be frozen, the same fact is observable in the frequency with which fluidity is mixed with solidness in language and aesthetic culture, including the most famous paintings. While measuring brain temperature through cycles of wakefulness and sleep can show that sleeping brains are colder, the way we talk about being awake or asleep tells us the same thing. Arguably, Aristotle called the brain liquid crystalline almost 3,000 years ago in On the Parts of Animals (Aristotle and Ogle 1882), saying: 

“That the brain is a compound of earth and water is shown by what occurs when it is boiled. For, when so treated, it turns hard and solid, inasmuch as the water is evaporated by the heat, and leaves the earthy part behind. Just the same occurs when pulse and other fruits are boiled. For these also are hardened by the process, because the water which enters into their composition is driven off and leaves the earth, which is their main constituent, behind.” 

He also called brain cooling the cause of sleep:

“It is the brain againor, in animals that have no brain, the part analogous to itwhich is the cause of sleep. For either by chilling the blood that streams upwards after food, or by some other similar influences, it produces heaviness in the region in which it lies (which is the reason why drowsy persons hang the head), and causes the heat to escape downwards in company with the blood. It is the accumulation of this in excess in the lower region that produces complete sleep, taking away the power of standing upright from those animals to whom that posture is natural, and from the rest the power of holding up the head.” 

The way we talk about dreams suggests that the brain is hotter during the dreaming phase of the sleep cycle, which then provides an explanation for the disorderly and dynamic movement of eyes in dreaming sleep. It stands to reason that information would be stored in the mind in a relatively solid, compact, orderly physical form. Without doing any experiments to try and confirm this, though, one can see that it's true from the way we talk about knowledge, and also that we think of learning as a somewhat more exciting, fluid, expansive and disorderly process, which is reasonable from a physical perspective. It's possible to discover that humans have innate knowledge of order and fluidity by consulting the reality that simple geometric shapes and melting forms are so common in idiomatic language, art, or hallucinations. Oliver Sacks (2012) describes the prevalence of fluidity and simple geometric shapes in hallucinations: “And there is a strong tendency to elaboration: hallucinatory figures often seem to be wearing ‘exotic dress,’ rich robes, and strange headgear. Bizarre incongruities often appear, so that a flower may protrude not from someone’s hat but from the middle of their face. Hallucinatory figures may be cartoonlike. Faces, in particular, may show grotesque distortions of the teeth or eyes. Some people hallucinate text or music. But by far the commonest hallucinations are the geometrical ones: squares, checkerboards, rhomboids, quadrangles, hexagons, bricks, walls, tiles, tessellations, honeycombs, mosaics.” Sacks says as well that hallucinations are probably “as old as the human brain.” The brain, of course, is much older than humans, and to the extent that hallucinations are more fundamental than human consciousness it would have been possible for an animal to observe, and appreciate, simple geometric shapes long before geometry. The idea that hallucinations belong exclusively to humans is probably no more realistic than thinking only humans have dreams, or only humans sleep. None of this is meant to place value on one approach or another for gathering information. Direct observations and experiments are more valuable in drawing correct conclusions than cultural anecdotes, no matter how closely the anecdotes comply. The fact that it’s possible, to any degree, to determine physical relationships by observing the products of animals decision making is of interest here, rather than whether or not one should do so.

Patterns of interaction among molecules have important effects on scales much larger than the scales on which the molecules themselves interact. It’s conventional to understand the macroscopic, physical behavior of a given nonliving thing in terms of the behavior of its smaller components. Gasses flow, mix and are compressible because they consist of widely separated particles interacting very weakly. Solids do not flow or mix, and are not easily compressible because they consist of particles in contact interacting very strongly. A liquid, by comparison, flows moderately, mixes moderately and is only slightly compressible because it consists of particles in relatively loose contact interacting in a relatively moderate way. There’s no reason to assume that organisms are a complete exception to this rule. Life, a liquid crystalline phenomenon, should behave to some extent as a mixture of the characteristics of solids and fluids.

Brian heat

Works cited

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Berlyne, D. E. Aesthetics and Psychobiology. Meredith, 1971.

Birch, L. C. “Experimental Background to the Study of the Distribution and Abundance of Insects: III. The Relation Between Innate Capacity for Increase and Survival of Different Species of Beetles Living Together on the Same Food.” Evolution 1(1953): 136-144.

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Doherty, John A. “Temperature coupling and “trade-off” phenomena in the acoustic communication system of the cricket, Gryllus bimaculatus De Geer (Gryllidae).” Journal of Experimental Biology. 114 (1985): 17-35.

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Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. Vintage Canada, 2010.

Sacks, Oliver. Hallucinations. United States, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012.

Shine, Richard, et al. “The Influence Of Natural Incubation Environments On The Phenotypic Traits Of Hatchling Lizards.” Ecology, vol. 78, no. 8, 1997, pp. 2559–2568., doi:10.1890/0012-9658(1997)078[2559:tionie];2.

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Terry, O. W., and Leland N. Edmunds. "Phasing of cell division by temperature cycles in Euglena cultured autotrophically under continuous illumination." Planta 93.2 (1970): 106-127.

Wikipedia contributors. "Bang snaps." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Nov. 2020. Web. 5 Feb. 2021.

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