The next step after the emergence of the cell is autonomic action. Single-celled organisms are active, after a fashion. Ants are living action machines, with no brains to process feeling as we understand it. Our autonomic actions, such as breathing and heartbeat, predicate what follows.
Life invites us to act. Most of us work or go to school, have responsibilities and spend much of our time serving others. Even those who live a meditative life must practice their teachings, not to mention eat and do those things necessary to survival. Our actions are the means by which we give back some measure of good and experience it for ourselves. However, before we get to ethical action, we need some building blocks.
The three domains of ethical Being correspond roughly to three regions of the brain. The brainstem, which develops first, is the primary but not exclusive seat of autonomic action, such as breathing, eye movements, blood pressure, heartbeat and swallowing. Many areas of the brain are activated in anticipation and experiences of pain. In significantly premature neonates, mother’s voice and heartbeat sounds appear to enhance development of the auditory cortex in the neonatal brain, strongly suggesting that the brain is building neural connections in the cerebral cortex at that stage of development. The medulla oblongta and pons, in the brainstem, control autonomic breathing but the cerebral cortex can exercise control over voluntary breathing. Consciously directed breathing control techniques can produce desirable changes in parasympathetic nervous system activity (autonomic) and the central nervous system, and improve emotional control and psychological well-being. We can exercise control over our eye movements. Autonomic swallowing is controlled from within the medulla oblongata but we can choose when and whether to swallow. After a few months outside the womb, a child may be able to bring food to his mouth but not yet handle a fork or a pair of chopsticks with any efficiency. These skills develop gradually, and what starts in the brainstem does not remain confined to the brainstem.
Autonomic action and purposeful action are profoundly different from each other. Doing advanced mathematics, making music, taking political action, mating behaviors and many other human activities are substantially processed well above the brainstem.
The difference between autonomic functions and purposeful actions can analogized but not perfectly compared to the different approaches to life that we take in early childhood, versus the approaches we take in adulthood. In infancy, the midbrain brain and cerebral cortex have not yet developed sufficiently to produce or recognize an emotion like those associated with loyalty; over time our emotions develop and become more complex. In the first two years after birth, the brain develops quickly. Still, in infancy and childhood, most humans are not yet capable of performing advanced calculus; by adulthood and with the development of the cerebral cortex, that capability may be present. A newborn infant can be seen largely as a creature of the brain stem, acting with some emotion and little thought. Throughout childhood, learning progresses and that order shifts, so that by adulthood, the dominant model is to think first, process our emotions, then act. By adulthood, our actions are informed more fully by the parts of the brain that process thoughts and emotions, as well as by those that allow us to act purposefully. Autonomic actions are neither ethical nor unethical. Very young children are not held to be responsible for their actions in the law. Purposeful actions have an ethical quality but before we get to those, we are well-advised to consider their foundations in the brain. Early child development theory recognizes that children learn by acting, and so do we adults; yet many of our actions, both as children and as adults, are informed by our thoughts, sensations and emotions, rationally and reflectively considered.
Life-in-Being invites us to act purposefully. Most of us work or go to school, have responsibilities and spend much of our time serving others. Even those who live a meditative life must practice their teachings, not to mention eat and do those things necessary to survival. Our actions are the means by which we give back some measure of good and experience it for ourselves
Action is the culmination of ethics, so in Ethical Culture many of us say “deed over creed.” I have always thought that too general a statement, literally interpreted. It is true that words without actions are empty; however, actions without thoughts are reckless, and actions uninformed by emotion are rudderless. To employ a Christian metaphor, the Father principle (thought) and the Mother principle (emotion) produce the Son (action), who comes into the world, dirties his hands and builds a life. You need not see it that way but you can. The religious, spiritual, ethical and moral life at its best is not a struggle for dominance of one domain or point of view but a constant striving to bind them together into a coherent whole. Felix Adler was reacting to the unsubstantiated elements in religion, emphasizing that Ethical Culture was a religion of ethical responsibility and action.
Brain development makes it possible for us to build roads, nurture others and create civilization. By adulthood, the necessary foundations are in place. We decide what to make of them.
Long before human beings evolved, other organisms were busy. Early in the evolutionary history of animals, organisms were essentially all action. Ants, for example, have no brains as such, mainly a smaller organ, which biologists call the mushroom body. These tiny mushroom bodies house no emotional center and no thought processes as we know them. To say the least, we have no reason to suppose that ants are self-aware. Ants are almost purely organic action machines.
Perhaps the single greatest work on this fascinating species is Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, The Ants (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1990). This massive work won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. I offer it as part of a human(ist) narrative because it tells a part of the story of our evolutionary history and because it illustrates how these tiny creatures, virtually without thought or emotion, function effectively because they can act.
Despite having one of the most rudimentary information processing mechanisms in the animal kingdom, ants are "among the most highly social of all creatures," according to the front flap of the hardcover edition, which goes on to say: "The study of ants has produced many basic insights into the origins of altruistic behavior, the use of chemicals (pheromones) in communication, the functioning of caste systems and division of labor, and other important phenomena of social organization."
The point is that seemingly complex behaviors can be products of little more than a few chemicals and a precursor to a brain. The authors also explain how ants comprise the database that allows myrmecologists (biologists who study ants) to study "biological organization." On page 3 of their hardcover edition, they write: "Although it is virtually impossible to dissect a higher organism into its constituent parts for study and then put it back together again, alive and whole, this can easily be done with an insect colony." The authors go on to explain how dividing ant colonies can replicate the process of mutation, allowing scientists from entomologists to human psychologists to gain additional insights into the means and background of social organization and other behaviors. While caution is in order regarding any comparison between ants and humans, a study of the story of ants does provide valuable information for understanding animal behaviors such as social organization and the evolutionary process that makes it all possible.
This magnum opus is superbly written. Review after review praised it for its accessible narrative style. May this brief and meager introduction induce the reader to peruse this marvelous account of a small part of the story of life on Earth.
- cell division
- plant growth
- fish spawning and feeding
Ballet is one highly sophisticated form of action, along with other forms of dance.
- Jennifer Homans, Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet (Random House, 2010).
- Henry Alford, And Then We Danced: A Voyage Into the Groove (Simon & Schuster, 2018).
- Laura Jacobs, Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet (Basic Books, 2018).
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Gunther K. H. Zupanck, Behavioral Neurobiology: An Integrative Approach (Oxford University Press, 2004), approaches neuroscience through the brain's drive centers.
Documentary and Educational Films
- Lord of the Ants
- Ants: Nature’s Secret Power
- Ants: Little Creatures Who Run the World
- Of Ants and Men
- Empire of Ants
- Army Ants
- City of Ants
- World’s Biggest and Baddest Bugs
- Wild War of Insects
- Killer Ants
- Facts About Ants – Secret Nature
- Nature’s Power
Caterpillars and Butterflies:
- Facts About Spiders
- National Geographic Super Spider Documentary
- The Amazing World of Spiders
- The Spider Hunter
- Deadly Scorpions
- So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. [The Bible, Genesis 2:19-24.]
- "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." [The Bible, Genesis 3:19.]
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
“Music can powerfully evoke and modulate emotions and moods, along with changes in heart activity, blood pressure (BP), and breathing.” There are several kinds of autonomic action. This section will focus on six of them, as they are expressed in music, and as music influences our autonomic actions.
The rhythm of the beating heart is audible in the second movement (Adagio) of Beethoven’s Symphony 4, and in the second movement (Andante) of Faureé’s first sonata for violin and piano. Zoltán Pongrácz composed a work for electronics, called Mariphonia, in which the sound of a heartbeat is apparent several times. Jazz artists have used the heartbeat as a foundation for their work, as on Pharoah Sanders’ album “With a Heartbeat” (2003) (50’); in keeping with jazz traditions, the musical references are subtler in Whit Dickey’s “In a Heartbeat” (2004) (62’) (listen closely to the bass), and Kerry Politzer, “In a Heartbeat” (2022) (57’) (focus on drums and bass). Some New Agers advocate using a slow heartbeat for meditation, and also Reiki, yoga, healing and spa. Others observe that the sound of a heartbeat tends to soothe babies, who recently were close to their mother’s heartbeat. A failing heartbeat is discernible in the opening bars of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the fourth and final movement (Adagio lamentoso - Andante) of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (“Pathetique”), and in Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklärung) – listen especially to the bass drum, less than a minute into the work. Listen to the shift from the dominant key of B-flat Major in the fourth movement (Alla danza tedesca – Allegro assai) to C-flat Major in the fifth movement (Cavatina) of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13: musicologist Stephen Whiting surmises that the shift to a darkened mood reflected Beethoven’s heart problems. Whiting’s colleague Zachary D. Goldberger hears the same dynamic in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26, though he admits that the sadness in the work may reflect only a metaphorical heavy heart.
In 1980, Kate Bush made a cheesy video of her song “Breathing”, in which she presented herself as a fetus in the womb as she sang about breathing out and breathing in. If a fetus breathed in, it would intake amniotic fluid, and drown. By analogy, if wind musicians and singers relied on autonomic breathing alone to perform, they could not produce music. They use controlled inhalation and exhalation, and breath control, to play their instruments and sing – most of their breathing is purposeful, not autonomic. Rafael Mendez went so far as to perfect a special breathing technique that allowed him to perform Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo on trumpet, for more than four minutes, without noticeably inhaling – that was an example of purposeful breathing at its finest. Rahsaan Roland Kirk played wind instruments through his nose, quite purposefully. Sometimes, wind musicians make breath sounds part of the music; that, too, is purposeful. Musicians and composers cannot treat breath in the same ways as they treat heartbeat. Attempts at making quasi-music videos for sleep that involve breathing are not as effective as similar videos in which the main sound is the heartbeat. However, Hans Zimmer used breath sounds on his soundtrack to the film “Interstellar”. It can be done but it is not as commonly composed or performed as is music about the heartbeat: breathing is too integral and central to music-making to allow that.
Making music about brain waves would be challenging, because no one hears them. Buttressed with scholarly research and support, New Age advocates make music that they claim produces alpha waves, such as by releasing Serotonin, which stimulate the brain and aid in its development. Mozart’s music has been shown to influence brain activity (in large part, perhaps, because researchers focused their attention on his music), as have Indian classical ragas. Neurologist Oliver Sacks recounted how he listened to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, while undergoing a real-time MRI study of his brain activity – the study confirmed his experience that Bach lit his brain up like a holiday tree, which Beethoven left it quiet. Composers can write music that stimulates the brain – produces feelings ranging from serenity to anger – but music about brain waves is not common.
However, there is some music about creatures whose entire being is essentially a set of brain waves:
I am not aware of any music about autonomic reflexes. Sometimes we can hear a stomach or the intestines rumble or gurgle. Most people do not call that music. Perhaps there is music about digestion. I will admit, I did not spend much time looking for it.
Now, you could say, we arrive at the heart of the matter. There is a vast body of music about sexual arousal. We may seek it out, or seek to create conditions that will produce or stimulate it but arousal itself is an autonomic function. Bawdy blues singer Bo Carter was straightforward about it, Mae West teased about it, Britney Spears sold it, Engelbert Humperdinck mastered it, Michael Jackson was brilliantly casual about it, and Tom Jones overdid it.
Felix Mendelssohn, A Midsummer Night’s Dream , Op. 61, MWV M13 (1826) (approx. 45-56’): Shakespeare had nailed it, and Mendelssohn set it to music. Four young people, two men and two women, venture off into the woods, and fall asleep. The fairy Puck sprinkles dust in their eyes, causing them to be hopelessly infatuated with the first person they see. The Queen receives the same treatment, and becomes enamored of an ass. It is a perfect metaphor for raging hormones. Best recorded performances are conducted by Paray in 1959, Klemperer in 1960, Previn in 1977, Ozawa in 1993, Harnoncourt in 1993, d’Avalos in 1994, Chailly in 2013, Gardiner in 2017, Iván Fischer in 2017.
Benjamin Britten, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 64 (1960) (approx. 124-151’), is Shakespeare’s play as an opera. Audio-only recorded performances are by McNair, Asawa & Lloyd, Colin Davis conducting, in 1976; Bowman, Jones, Watson & Herford, Hickox conducting, in 1993; and Piau, Zazzo & Yerolomou, Ono conducting, in 2015.
The sex drive is at the heart of perhaps the majority of operas, especially these three – and it does not end well:
- William Walton, The Bear (1967) (approx. 45-50’): “Popova is a widow, remaining faithful to the memory of her late husband, Popov. Her servant, Luka, remarks upon her affected sorrow. Smirnov, one of Popov's creditors, appears. During the course of the story, it becomes clear that Popov was promiscuous and unfaithful to his wife. Smirnov and Popova begin to quarrel, to the point where both aim loaded pistols at each other. However, neither can fire, as they have fallen in love. As the opera ends, Luka looks on in disbelief at the new lovers.” Here are links to audio performances by and Jones, Opie & Shirley-Quirk, Hickox conducting; and Sinclair, Shaw & Lumsden, Lockhart conducting.
- Thomas Adès, Powder Her Face, Op. 14 (1995) (approx. 116-121’): “The opera charts the life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, whose husband memorably divorced her on 88 counts of adultery.” Here are links to an audio recording with Gomez, Anderson, Morris & Bryson, Handley conducting; and an audio-video recording with Tabernig, Favaro, Burgi & Iturraldi, Ayub conducting.
- Alban Berg, Lulu (1937) (approx. 168-171’): “Lulu presents a complex portrait of a destructive femme fatale coveted by all men. At once executioner and victim, perverse and innocent, she resembles Manon and might well say, like Carmen, ‘that she never lied’, always following her instincts.” Performances are by Stratas, Mazura & Minton, Boulez conducting, and the same performance in better sound but audio only.
- Nebala, “Lustuz Laþu Wōþuz Alu” (2022) (66’): “Each word in the album title represents sex in some way or another. Lustuz represents lust and desire. Laþu (or lathu) represents broken hearts and unrequited love. Finally, Wōþuz Alu (or woduz alu) represents ecstasy.” “The album invites the listeners to dive into Old Norse Mythology. Nebala in Proto-Germanic means ‘the void’; the void through which all life originates. Sexuality is the essence of all life form. Through this album Nebala initiates sexuality into a space of sacredness. The title ‘Lustuz Laþu Wōþuz Alu’ alludes to 3 stages of sexuality, fertility and love: Lustuz: The desire to merge with the other and the romantic idealism of young love.”
- Randal Despommier, “A Midsummer Odyssey” (2022) (2022) (34’): “The chemistry between Despommier and Monder brings out the best in Gullin's intriguing tunes. They interact beautifully and create an intimate but bracing sound full of life but tinged with a note of chilled reserve.”
- Honoré Daumier, The Hauler of a Boat (1856-60)
- Salvador Dali, Portrait of the Cellist Ricard Pichot (1920)
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Claude Renoir Painting (1907)
Music: songs and other short pieces
A blog post presents “16 songs with a heartbeat”. See the post for notes about where the “heartbeat” appears:
- Prince, “Sex in the Summer”
- Muse, “Follow Me”
- Huey Lewis & the News, “The Heart of Rock & Roll”
- Seduction, “Heartbeat”
- Mark Ronson & Katy B, “Anywhere in the World”
- Florence & The Machine, “Cosmic Love”
- OneRepublic, “Feel Again”
- Michael Jackson, “Smooth Criminal”
- Metallica, “That Was Just Your Life”
- U2, “Beautiful Day”
- Nine Inch Nails, “Closer”
- Gerard McMann, “Cry Little Sister”
- Massive Attack, “Teardrop”
- Deftones, “Pink Maggit”
- Cole Porter, “Night and Day”, as sung by Ella Fitzgerald
- Pink Floyd, “Eclipse”
- Herbie Hancock, “Heartbeat”, provides an entry from the jazz world.
This source list twenty songs about breathing. Below and the titles and links to the ones that best present the idea musically. Notice the forward incorporation of a heartbeat in several of the tracks:
- Jordan Sparks, “No Air”
- Tame Impala, “Breathe Deeper”
- Mario, “How Do I Breathe”
- Green Day, “Still Breathing”
- The Weeknd, “Take My Breath”
- The Police, “Every Breath You Take”