[NetBehaviour] Collective Health as a Really Beautiful Artwork

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Tue Mar 31 16:39:25 CEST 2020

Hi Cassie!

I reviewed the links Ruth forwarded about your project and it looks really fascinating.  Do you know Francisco Varela's book, The Embodied Mind (1991)?  I just bought it and have only read the coverslip and the table of contents.  🙂  But he has the interesting phrase, "Enactive Cognitive Science."  Ideas like that for me relate a lot to art, writing, any creative expression, as well as to networks, neuroscience and Varela's interest in Buddhist concepts.

Another book I've been reading for a year or so is Olaf Sporns' Networks of the Brain.  It's from 2010, and proposes a new approach for neuroscience based on "network thinking," that is, to view the brain as a network of networks of dynamically interacting processes that reconfigure in many ways, rather than as a car engine with certain parts that do certain functions.

My main interest is art and writing, and I have very much a layperson's knowledge of science.  So in trying to learn more, I am looking for connections between Varela and Sporns' ideas.  Therefore I opened the Sporns book this morning to check his references to Varela, of which there are four.

Opening the book at a random page, 110-111, I found this:

"Small Worlds Everywhere!
"The seminal paper by Watts and Strogatz (1998) first presented evidence for small-world organization of neural systems (see chapter 2).  The paper reported that the clustering of the neural network of C. elegans was significantly increased relative to equivalent random networks,while its path length remained approximately the same.  Only very few additional examples of structural cellular networks have since been examined for small-world attributes.  A study of the medial reticular formation by Humphries and colleagues (Humphries et al., 2006) provided an example of small-world connectivity in the vertebrate brain at the cellular scale.  Humphries et al. did not find evidence for a scale-free organizaton of the network's degree distribution.  In general, the high density of local or short-range connections in many nervous system structures, together with a small admixture of long-range connections, should favor a small-world topology.  Synthetic connectivity matrices that combine these two types of profiles exhibit high clustering and short path lengths (Sporns and Zwi, 2004).  Some early quantitative studies of cellular circuits of mammalian neocortex show the presence of small-world features and suggest an important role for inhibitory connections in maintaining dynamic balance (Binzegger et al., 2009).  Networks constructed from physiological recordings have begun to reveal clusters and hub nodes within functional cellular networks of cerebral cortex (Yu et al., 2008) and 'superconnected hub neurons' in hippocampus (Bonifazi et al., 2009).
"Soon after the paper by Watts and Strogatz was published, small-world attributes were also described in cat and macaque cortex (Sporns et al., 2000a; Hilgetag et al.,2000), and their existence has since been confirmed in all studies, without exception, of the large-scale anatomy of the mammalian cortex (Bassett and Bullmore, 2006).  An interesting question concerns the cross-species comparison of network attributes--for example, those indicating the presence of a small-world network.  Has the 'small-worldness' of the mammalian cortex increased over evolutionary time, or does it covary with brain size?  Cross-species comparisons of small-world attributes are made difficult by the use of incompatible anatomical partitioning schemes and by a general lack of structural data for many species.  A possible experimental avenue is the acquisition of connectivity data sets from brains of different organisms using a consistent methodology, for example, high-resolution diffusion MRI of post-mortem whole brains (Weeden et al., 2009).  Network analysis might then address the question of whether small-world features have undergone any kind of evolutionary trend (see chapter 7)."

My apologies for typing out so much; it seemed to make so much sense when I read it first, though much of it eludes me from a science standpoint.  Part of it is coincidence, because I also only very recently (this past week) read some of Watts.  But I also just like the general gist of this kind of writing about how brains/minds work.  I certainly don't understand it all, but I think it might have relevance for art and writing.

To try to wrap up, here are Sporns' references to Varela:
p.188--"The role of phase synchronization in perception and cognition was further explored by Francisco Varela and colleagues, who stressed the transient nature of coherence and functional integration (Rodriguez et al., 1999; Varela et al., 2001).  Perception of faces, but not of meaningless shapes, was associated with intermittent periods of long-distance synchronization.  These transient episodes of coherence are a reflection of the brain's metastable dynamics (see chapter 12) and of an ongoing process of coordination among widely distributed populations of neurons.  The work of Bressler and Varela, among others, strongly suggests that large-scale integration is a dynamic process that is essential for perceptual and cognitive performance and that time-dependent networks of phase synchronization unfolding within the anatomical substrate of the cerebral cortex are one of its key mechanistic ingredients.  We note that the repertoire of functional interactions between brain regions is significantly expanded by a variety of asynchronous (nonlinear) interactions that are not captured by linear measures of functional connectivity."

p.255 -- Chapter 12, "Dynamics: Stability and Diversity" starts with a quote from Varela:
"A singular, specific cell assembly underlies the emergence and operation of every cognitive act.  In other words, the emergence of a cognitive act is a matter of coordination of many different regions allowing for different capacities: perception, memory, motivation, and so on.  They must be bound together in specific grouping appropriate to the specifics of the current situation [...] and are thus necessarily transient. [...] A specific CA [cell assembly] is selected through the fast, transient phase locking of activated neurons belonging to sub-threshold competing CA's.  -- Francisco Varela, 1995."
"Fransciso Varela advanced a set of ideas that squarely aimed at characterizing mental states on the basis of physical events occuring in brain networks (Varela, 1995; see figure 12.1).  He envisioned brain dynamics as the ongoing operation of a "transient coherency-generating process" that unified dispersed neural activity through synchronous relationships.  The transience of the process is essential because it allows for "a continual emergence," an ongoing dynamic flow in a cognitive-mental space.  According to Varela's theory, coherent patterns are assembled and dissolved depending on changing conditions of input or task demand, and their configurations corresponded to sequences of mental states experienced at each moment in time.  The brain's ability to self-organize and undergo transient state dynamics is crucial for its capability to simultaneously satisfy momentary demands posed by the environment and integrate these exogenous signals with the endogenous activity of brain and body.  Integrated brain activity forms the neural basis for the unity of mind and experience."

I don't think I can type the other two references on pages 305-06 and 308.  Let me check -- well the first at least is shorter:
p. 305-306:
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela extended the idea [that "another way neural states can cause other neural states is through the environment, as a result of bodily movement that causes changes in sensory inputs"] in a different direction, describing the brain as a "closed system in which neuronal activity always leads to neuronal activity," either through a network of interacting neurons or through linkages between sensors and effectors that extend through the environment (Maturana and Varela, 1980, p. 127).  By acting on the environment, the brain generates perturbations that lead to new inputs and transitions between network states.  Environmental interactions thus further expand the available repertoire of functional brain networks."

Finally p. 308:
"Simon's 'ant on the beach' and Braitenberg's 'vehicles' illustrate the inseparability of brain, body, and environment.  Complex behavior is the result of their interaction, not the end product or readout of centralized control.  The coupling between brain, body, and environment has become a cornerstone of the theoretical framework of 'embodied cognition.'  The rise of embodied cognition acts as a counterweight to more traditional approaches to artificial intelligence (AI), first developed in the 1950's, that emphasized symbolic representations and computation.  According to embodied cognition, cognitive function is not based on symbolic computation but rather is shaped by the structure of our bodies, the morphology of muscles and bones, hands and arms, eyes and brains (Varela et al., 1991; Thelen and Smith, 1994; Clark, 1997; Lakoff and Johnson, 1999).

So after all this typing, I thank you for the motivation to look these things up!  I hope they fall somewhat under the category of your request for brain information.

To tie this more to other themes in your project, I would just add a few more concise items:

  1.  Networks of the Brain is a really good book about network neuroscience.  It was recommended to me about a year ago and has been really informative.
  2.  The idea of health and medical practice is really important I think, not just because of the pandemic but because of the ancient roots of medical culture, such as in Buddhism (which some consider a medical theory) as well as Greek tragedy (as in this interesting if not perfect essay by Jacques Jouanna, "Hippocratic Medicine and Greek Tragedy," 2012,https://brill.com/view/book/9789004232549/B9789004232549-s005.xml
  3.   I appreciated the reference for eye strain exercises, very helpful!
  4.  Your message about self-care was very relevant too.  I think this is part of the Hippocratic ethos as well, possibly, or could be interpreted that way.  A lot of complexity here maybe but ideally not non-navigable.
  5.  The idea of decentralized agency in your project and the Hologram process/structure/concept/method.  I think this matches also with Hippocratic theory if there is such a thing.  I have been thinking of something like "#TakeTheHippocraticPledge," how nice that would be if people were talking about such a thing, etc.
  6.  Note on Boundaries: it helps me to think of these sometimes like a cell membrane, not an absolute barrier but meant to be a place of transit and communication.  Perhaps they are necessary in some ways to networks, because networks are not a homogeneous mass or monolith but require a mix of individual and group.  So, a kind of balancing act?  A profound topic I think, maybe since even the first cells existed.
  7.  Note on Trust: I think this is also perhaps a balance, a place where creative enactive dynamism is important.  In the Watts article about game theory and networks I read yesterday, I think trust is called "h", which ranges for an agent from h=0 (always cooperate) and h=1 (always defect).  Another topic like Boundaries of great complexity, a highly complex system one might say.  However I do think that living species (and computerized game theory) have often found cooperation sustainable, which is encouraging I think, worth working at.
  8.  Note on Abuse:  This has a lot of variations and contexts as well, almost infinite perhaps.  How to find a working method is a major challenge, and like Boundaries and Trust relates I think to the sphere of "implementation complexity."  Also to ideas of justice, ethics, and all that follows from those.  It also relates to the game theory idea of "defectors," i.e., agents in a game-system who use a strategy of exploiting the weaknesses of cooperators.  Maybe some of this is subjective too, as in, one person's defector is another person's freedom-fighter; but that may be too glib.  Overall I have found the Hippocratic ethos very helpful here; the original text is very archaic but it basically says "don't prey on your patients."  It's not always easy or simple to know how to put that into practice, but the point of the Oath is to promise to try your best and basically set a standard of what you won't do.  So the "golden rule" could be relevant here too.  Maybe also helpful (if problematic to say the least) is the idea of forgiveness.  In Buddhism it is sometimes said that "forgiveness doesn't mean saying the harm caused was OK; it just means letting go of revenge."  That is far from a universal panacea but it is something I think about sometimes.  Also, the fact I recently learned that Panacea was a Greek deity invoked in the Hippocratic Oath!  The Jouanna article discusses the deities so I wonder if that relates to the Greek peer-to-peer medical culture you mention.

In any case, no need at all to read all this or respond directly, and certainly not "right away."  It's kind of a book report or bibliographical fragment really just to add to the project.  Full of errors and omissions too I'm certain, many of my own biases and blind spots.  However I'm happy to discuss these or other totally unrelated topics as appropriate and as time permits, depending on relevancy and the organic evolution of the project, and maybe even happier to hear differing views, other threads, aspects totally unrelated; such things provide essential oxygen which I too often lack!  🙂

Very best regards and best wishes for the project,


From: Cassie Thornton <futurething at gmail.com>
Sent: Tuesday, March 31, 2020 3:12 AM
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Cc: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Subject: Re: [NetBehaviour] Collective Health as a Really Beautiful Artwork

I'm here Max! Would love to discuss with you anywhere!

On Mon, Mar 30, 2020, 10:39 PM Max Herman via NetBehaviour <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org<mailto:netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>> wrote:

Hi Ruth,

This looks like an incredibly profound and relevant project, which addresses some of the most serious issues we face.  Looking forward to seeing it develop and evolve!

Perhaps this is partly a question for the artist, but does discussion on the list make sense?  Or, would participation/feedback within the work itself be more to the purpose?

All very best and great work bringing the project into C-Ovid-19 format!


From: NetBehaviour <netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org<mailto:netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org>> on behalf of Ruth Catlow via NetBehaviour <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org<mailto:netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>>
Sent: Sunday, March 29, 2020 10:21 AM
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org<mailto:netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>>
Cc: Ruth Catlow <ruthcatlow at gmail.com<mailto:ruthcatlow at gmail.com>>
Subject: [NetBehaviour] Collective Health as a Really Beautiful Artwork

Dear All,

Cassie Thornton is currently on residency at Furtherfield to work on her collective healthcare artwork called The Hologram. This is part of our 2020 Love Machines programme (most of this is currently in the Covid-19 mutation tank- more on this another time). Some of you have already been talking with her.

Her newsletter introduces the project and links to the research that informed the project - drawing on Greek integrative healthcare and social solidarity movement  that grew up in response to the refugee crisis in the Agean

I urge you to sign up to the newsletter and I hope that some of you will want to add your experimental and network-curious gifts to the work.


Co-founder & Artistic director of Furtherfield & DECAL Decentralised Arts Lab
+44 (0) 77370 02879

Furtherfield disrupts and democratises art and technology through exhibitions, labs & debate, for deep exploration, open tools & free thinking.

DECAL Decentralised Arts Lab is an arts, blockchain & web 3.0 technologies research hub

for fairer, more dynamic & connected cultural ecologies & economies now.


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