Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
February 2019

The Rhythm is Gonna Get You

"The more charmed we have become with our individual psyches,

the less adept we have become at understanding the psychology

of nations, peoples, religions, and political movements."

- Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind

Our linear, cause effect way of thinking about the world has been very successful. But we've now got other tools that can lead to an even richer and more accurate picture. Using the wrong metaphor leads to the wrong mental model of how the system works, and shifting mental models is the most difficult part of teaching and learning. Consider these examples.


Take a frog or turtle heart out of the animal, and it continues to beat on its own for up to an hour. The same is true of the individual muscle cells that make up the heart. Dissociate them and plate them in a Petri dish, and they will still contract, individually. Keep them fed and they'll beat for days, each a tiny dancer in that little plastic mosh pit. Note, however, that they don't beat together. That requires a pulse of electricity from outside.

This state of each against each can also happen in an intact heart muscle. It's called fibrillation. Instead of smooth waves of electricity spreading from the sino-atrial node, organizing the heart into orderly contractions that pump blood efficiently, the heart writhes, in the words of James Gleick, "like a bag of worms." The point of a defibrillator is not to jump-start the heart muscle like a spark plug igniting fuel in an engine (the linear way of thinking about it), but to resynchronize the rhythms of the still-beating heart cells. This synchronizing to an external signal is called entrainment.


The electrical activity of neurons is also rhythmic. Each cell type has a rhythm, determined by the specific combination of ion channels in its membrane, which flicker open and closed to let charged ions across in waves. Hook those spiking cells together with synapses, and you get circuits that also spike rhythmically. One cell in the circuit might dominate the rhythm, or they might take turns, or they might influence one another to create some emergent rhythm that is not obvious from looking at the cells individually.

We know that the fetal nervous system is full of spontaneous activity. Calcium waves sweep across the developing retina, very much like the waves that synchronize heart activity. These waves map the retina, letting the individual cells know where they are in the map, and thus which of their neighbors they should hook up with synaptically. More accurately, the cells have already hooked up more or less randomly, based on rough chemical gradients, and the calcium waves let the cells know which of the current synapses they should remove and which they should keep. It's a mechanism consistent with our knowledge of natural selection, operating on a different scale.

Where it gets controversial is in applying these dynamics to conscious human behavior. In Jeff Warren's The Head Trip, lucid dreaming researcher Stephen LaBerge believes that the fundamental rhythm of human consciousness is the oscillation between the cerebral cortex and the thalamus. This loop runs continuously during both waking and dreaming. The difference is that during dreams, the thalamus shuts off the information coming in from the outside. Under those conditions, the components of the sensemaking loop run a little wilder, hopping from memory to memory and fantasy to fantasy, whichever is most active. One might even say that the mind is fibrillating, writhing like a bag of worms. In other words, while we are awake, the external world entrains the ongoing activity of our brains. Reality intrudes on our internally generated fantasies. Rather rude of it to do that, really. Of course, some of us are more gifted at ignoring reality and maintaining our fantasies than others . . .


I've written in earlier columns about the Gottman lab's work on couples dynamics, and mentioned family dynamics in an evolutionary context, how interpersonal loops can reinforce specific behaviors. But what about bigger groups, including people who never interact directly? Strauss & Howe's book The Fourth Turning details a model of American history that is fundamentally constrained by the time it takes individual humans to mature, a unit of approximately 20-25 years. They arrange four of these units into a generational cycle, for which they use the Roman term saeculum. Mythically, these four units are analogues of the yearly seasons

High Awakening Unraveling Crisis

Spring Summer Fall Winter

and of the four "seasons" of the human lifespan.

Child Adult Middle-Aged Elder

According to Strauss & Howe, being born during one of the seasons tends one towards a particular personality type, statistically. The driver is not astrological influence or direct mind-to-mind coupling (to use the physics term) but the "wobble" in human parenting behavior that comes from synchronous difficulty. During a Crisis, humans on average sacrifice our own development in order to over-protect our children. That's the bump on the attractor. During an Awakening, those same over-protected kids tend to under-protect their own children, making them less attached and more vulnerable to self-medicating through risky behaviors like drugs, alcohol, sex, crime, and violence.

With the Crises far enough apart, as they were in ancient times when humans lived in smaller and more isolated groups, these oscillations in parenting behavior would damp over time, making the cycles less disruptive than they are now. They say we've been at maximum human change rate, with shocks coming faster than the saeculum can damp them out, for about 500 years now. Most of the shocks are now more or less ignored by the saeculum. Only during a specific critical period (a Crisis), when the generations align in the pattern below, can large-scale social change happen in a productive way.

Child Artists Young Heroes Middle-Aged Nomads Elder Prophets

Unfortunately, these large-scale changes tend to be pretty wrenching, because at other stages of the cycle changes tend to be resisted. Similar events happening during other seasons don't spark big changes, something that has thrown off the linear-thinking futurists again and again.

Sparks of history--sudden and startling events--can arise in any turning. Some sparks ignite nothing. Others ignite epic conflagrations. Which ones ignite? Studying the sparks of history themselves won't help answer this question, because what they are is far less important than how a society reacts to them. That reaction is substantially determined by the season of the saeculum--in other words, by the turning in which they are located. Sparks in a High tend to reinforce feelings of security; in an Awakening, argument; in an Unraveling, anxiety. Come the Fourth Turning, sparks of history trigger a fierce new dynamic of public synergy. p. 257

S&H chronicle seven of these roughly 80-year cycles since the late Medieval period, and claim that American history shows them more clearly than anywhere else in the world.

They further claim the last of these great cycles of the saeculum culminated in the Crisis period containing the Great Depression and World War 2. The postwar period (1945-65) was a High, a time of conformity and great deeds like the moon landing, followed by an Awakening (1965-85), a time when young people refused to go to war or take proper care of their kids, because they were busy "finding themselves" spiritually. The latest Unraveling was scheduled to end in 2005, meaning that yes, we're in a Crisis now, and if we survive, we should be out of it by 2025. However, they point out that the Civil War, the Crisis of the 5th saeculum, was so bad, and came so close to destroying the nation, that a generation was essentially skipped, and the cycle shortened. So there's some flexibility in their model.

Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov have somewhat similar ideas and wrote a book called Secular Cycles, trying to define them more quantitatively than S&H, using a variety of different metrics. Difficult work, and ongoing. Were Bush and Obama presiding over an extra-long Unraveling, or was 9/11 the early beginning of a Crisis? I'm not qualified to say (on their website, S&H mark the turning point as the financial meltdown of 2008). I'm pretty sure we're in a Crisis now, though, with the election of a wrecking-ball president and the possibility of a Constitutional Convention growing (with overheated rhetoric on both sides). Is Bob Mueller the Smedley Darlington Butler of the 7th saeculum? Only time will tell.

Randall Hayes, temporally an under-parented, get-er-done Nomad of Generation X, is supposedly due to take over societal decision-making any day now.



What can I say? I'm a child of the 80s, musically.

Lilla, M. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. The New York Review of Books. New York, NY (2016).


"The best way to understand nonlinear patterns is to see them." I totally agree. The financial examples here might not be the most interesting ones, but they are extremely clear.



"Nonlinear dynamics is the branch of physics that studies systems governed by equations more complex than the linear, aX+b form. Nonlinear systems, such as the weather or neurons, often appear chaotic, unpredictable or counterintuitive, and yet their behaviour is not random."


Or on a spinach leaf?


Beating at 2:14, if you're in a hurry.



Scroll down to "Animations" and look at the middle one on ventricular fibrillation.

Try to ignore the terrible puns.

Gleick, J. Chaos: The Making of a New Science. Viking. New York, NY (1987).


Anton's gloopy cells-with-eyes are one of my favorite bits of this animation. Check out December 2018's IGMS interview with him.



This is a slide show, not a paper, so not much explanation. Just take a look at the pictures for a general idea.



Warren, J. The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness. Random House (2007).

Out of print, but highly recommended if you can find a copy. Jeff's website summaries are good and interesting teasers, but they in no way replace the book.



It may be more complicated than that, since the ongoing activity is . . . well, active.


March 2017, "JFH: a Scientific Obituary"


July 2017, "World's Finest"

Strauss, W. and Howe, N. The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy--What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny. Broadway Books, New York (1997).






This is way clearer than most of the vocab-heavy descriptions out there.


With, again, four types.



"The republic has undergone a wild stress test but despite new lows, Donald Trump's presidency has also seen a democratic renaissance."



"Some commentators have referred to an unlimited convention as a 'general convention.' This usage is incorrect. A general convention is a conclave to which states from all regions of the country are invited--as opposed to a partial or regional gathering. A convention for proposing amendments is necessarily general, but may be limited or unlimited as to topic. If unlimited as to topic, it should be referred to as unlimited, open, or plenary."






Part of the "Pulp History" series, which I clearly need to check out more thoroughly.

Read more by Randall Hayes

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