Mental Ether

Action at a Distance, Change Over Time, the Mental Ether and Why my horses stomped the ground and bobbed their heads as I brought them their evening buckets of sweet-molasses grain.  

I’m re-reading Gleick’s biography of Newton in the hopes of getting a better handle on Calculus without having to confront the math directly. Calculus is the study of gravity (action-at-a-distance) and motion (change-over-time) and the reason I want to understand it on a conceptual level is because in my model emotion is energy in motion and stress is “emotional mass” that displaces the body/mind continuum. Stress as the equal/opposite inverse of emotion, enables the laws of motion and tends toward keeping an animal single minded and on track and capable of adapting to the object of its attraction. Just as a body at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by an outside force, and a body in motion remains in motion unless acted on by an outside force, and every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the inverse relationship between emotion and stress computes out of these laws of motion complex social systems and just about everything else that passes for animal cognition in research experiments.

One individual attracts the emotion of another at a distance, just like objects of mass displace the time/space continuum and create the virtual force of gravity. Feelings have an arc that changes over time, just like an object in motion moving under the influence of gravity. Calculus is therefore central to the nature of emotion. Not coincidentally it’s been proven that animals have an inborn calculus module embedded in their cognitive systems (“Math Instinct”) and all of the above is consistent with Dr. Wolpert’s research at Cambridge which demonstrates that the brain evolved in order to facilitate motion with all higher cognitive functions being based on this simple module. If you’ve ever found yourself saying you were moved by a song, book or movie, even though all the while sitting motionless in a chair, you know what Wolpert is talking about.

The chapter on how Newton formulated his theory of Gravity and the laws of motion has reminded me once again of the centrality of physical memory to how an animal perceives reality and how its mind acquires and transmits information according to the calculus of attraction and motion. Newton’s breakthrough also speaks to the problem I encounter when trying to explain to mainstream behaviorists my theory of the dog guided by emotion, in the immediate-moment, as a function of attraction. In other words, that animals learn (i.e. adapt) according to the same principles of energy by which all natural systems evolve to adapt. It’s an interesting paradox wrapped in irony: living in the immediate-moment is counter-intuitively dependent on physical memory. i.e from stuff that happened in the past.

Meanwhile those with a behavioral background resist any mention of the term energy because they think it means that there is literally a beam of energy, a tangible transfer of force, going on between individuals. They think I’m invoking an ancient, mystical view of “vitalism” that works through systems of mysterious occult essences. And this is because they can’t imagine a change occurring in an individual’s behavior over time, or at a distance without thoughts. Modern behaviorism believes that the phenomenon of animal learning, at the very least, demonstrates some comprehension of cause and effect as in when owner holds treat before dog, the dog must be thinking; “If I sit then I get a cookie.” There has to be some kind of mental nuts and bolts whirring away in the brain, something material must be happening in the higher reaches of the central nervous system in order for there to be an acquisition of information and a corresponding change of behavior over time. And while a behaviorist would protest that they do in fact speak in neutral terms, only observing behavior for what it is and without reading anything into the animals’ mind with terms such as reinforcement and associations, I counter that since they are viewing learning as a self-contained phenomenon, moderated to some extent by instinct, this distinction ends up not only not rendering a difference, but compels them to find psychology where none exists. The most important thing to understand about how the animal mind perceives reality and then formulates coherent responses, revolves around the transfer of momentum as the first order of information.

Newton said: “No more causes of natural things should be admitted than are both true and sufficient to explain their phenomena.” To which Gleick adds: “Do not multiply explanations when one will suffice. Newton foresaw the program of modern physics: certain forces, attraction and repulsion, final causes not yet known.”

Whereas modern behaviorism doesn’t heed this advice. All the canine cognition research labs around the world are studying neurology, always trying to boil intelligence down to mental hardware, hormones flowing, neurons synapsing, and as Gleick might say, thoughts pressing against thoughts.

Huygens, Newton’s contemporary, upon first hearing of his theory of gravity and how it obliterated Descartes system of vortices remarked, “I don’t care that he’s not a Cartesian as long as he doesn’t serve us up conjectures such as attractions.” Huygens said this because before Newton, it was thought that in order for one body to affect another at a distance, there had to be direct physical contact between them. It was presumed that energy could only move by way of a mechanical transfer, which Descartes supplied through his vortices. Thus, in order for the Sun’s rays to reach the earth, the two bodies must be connected via a medium; just as air was needed for sound to travel, or water for waves to propagate, there was presumed to be a very, very thin substance that suffused all of space and was responsible for the transfer of force over the distances between celestial bodies. This material was not visible to human senses or instruments, but it must be there and they called it the “aether.” Gleick writes: “Matter was always pressing against matter.”

Gleick: “Ether was a philosophical hedge, a way of salvaging a mechanical style of explanation for a process that seemed not altogether mechanical: iron filings near a magnet arrange themselves into curved lines, chemical change occurs in metals even after they have been sealed in glass; a pendulum swings far longer in a glass emptied of air, but ceases eventually nonetheless, proving that ‘there remains in the glass something much more subtle which damps the motion of the bob.’ The mechanists were laboring to banish occult influences–mysterious action without contact.”

However because Newton’s math in support of gravity was impeccable and made the concept of ether completely superfluous, he was able to overcome this objection even though he himself didn’t understand how action at a distance was possible. Being deeply religious, he was content to ascribe gravity to the hand of God, Who, had impressed it upon the universe as a first principle of nature. It was just the way it was.

After moving to Vermont in 1997, we obtained two horses and kept them for about five years. Their first spring on the farm we let them range at will about the property, blocking the drive and the trail into the woods with a low rail. Why burn gas to keep the fields down when I had two powerful grass burners on staff. I also had this romantic vision of Guinness or Maggie coming to the kitchen window from time to time during the day, I would have left it open sans screen so that they could crane their heads inside for an apple or carrot, a muzzle rub the small cost for their prize, just like our horses used to do when I was a kid. This was one of several romantic fantasies that almost proved the end of me (like the time Guinness snagged his halter on the 500 lb. propane tank behind the house but fortunately the breakaway feature worked before the gas line was ripped from the fittings).

Each evening, to lock them up for the night in the paddock behind the barn, I filled their buckets with grain and walked to the top of a small knoll in our front yard from where Guiness and Maggie could see me from wherever they were on the property, invariably at the far edge of the field, knee deep in the thick lush grass that explodes when the warm weather sets in. The instant I began to shake the buckets, the rattle of hard pellets against hard plastic radiating away at the speed of sound, their heads picked up. Then they began to head toward me with a slow mosey that slowly but surely escalated into a full, all out-dead-run gallop, the ground shaking behind me as I sprinted to the paddock gate. It was exciting, my mini-version of running with the bulls, but I had to admit to myself I was courting a potential disaster. However before my self preservation impulse force me to adjust procedures, deer fly season hit, driving Guinness into the woods be there a trail or not, and that was the end of the free range experiment. So we fenced in the fields around the barn so that during the heat of the day their only recourse from flies was refuge in the cool shade of the bottom of the barn.

But now I observed each evening as I approached their paddock with grain buckets in hand, Guinness and Maggie milling around and pressing against the gate, that they were also pawing at the ground, stomping their hooves and bobbing their heads up and down. A small cloud of dust rose and roiled in the late afternoon sun as once in a while Guinness would nip and air kick near Maggie to create some distance between them. Then, with Guinness near the gate, Maggie slightly behind him, they continued on with their stomping, pawing and bobbing. I asked myself, why do they do that, and a few days later the answer became clear and affirmed once again in my mind the overwhelming influence of physical memory on learning and behavior.

I asked every horse person I came across as to why horses bob their heads and stomp their feet when someone brings them their feed. No one could say. Some said that horses stomp when they’re excited and that this was just an indication they were anticipating something good. The horses had come to associate my approach with feed buckets with the imminent pleasure of molasses sweetened grain. But then I pointed out, as I’ve discussed elsewhere in my understandings of Pavlov, that the term association isn’t meaningful, and that if they are anticipating their feeding, why not just stand there and wait? That’s what we, as intellectual beings that can compare one moment to another, do when we anticipate that something good is about to come to us. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a tendency to pace, crack our knuckles, tap our fingers on the table and in general can’t sit still, but this tendency actually speaks to the underlying animal in us as well as the need to move in my horses.

My answer is that Guinness and Maggie were stomping and bobbing because they were feeling-like-running. They weren’t thinking: “I wish I were running” so I could get to Kevin sooner. I mean it literally. They were feeling as if they were running and if they hadn’t been blocked by a gate, indeed they would be running toward me just like in the good old days of “Little-Pamplona” of Newfane. Now, being behind a gate, the sight or sound of grain coming their way causes them to relive the physical memory of running and they are reduced to running in place because of the gate blocking their way. They have no idea that I am bringing them their grain and moving over time from point a to point b. The sight or sound of their feed accelerates them to the point where the natural response of a horse is to run. They feel this flying surge of energy coming over them, like surfing on a wave causes one to paddle furiously to keep up. It is the act of running along a flying wave to which they give credit for how the grain comes into their mouths. They aren’t thinking or merely associating my arrival with their feed. I am just the trigger of the physical memory of running, and it is running, i.e riding a wave, that wills their feed to them, a linkage not broken just because running is no longer possible. When they are attracted to food, and food is not yet in their mouth to ground out that desire, then they feel accelerated, lifted up on a surge. In other words, it’s just as if there has been a transfer of momentum from me to them, a very real exchange of energy as their emotional mass (stress) becomes converted into flowing energy, E–>UE–>RE. I have invested them with momentum by displacing their minds and calling up the physical memory of motion., just as if they are electromagnetic devices powered up by plugging into 200 volts of electrical energy. Action at a distance and change over time.

With this understanding, it now became possible to convert their immediate-moment experience of being pulled forward, into the equal/opposite experience of being pushed backward. This was necessary because all their jostling, hoofing and bobbing by the gate still made for a dangerous situation, compelling me to wear my steel toed lumberjack boots in case my feet were trampled. My plan was to tap into Newton’s 3rd law of motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, i. e. I was going to tap into the animal mind’s “collected response” to a force of attraction so as to induce a feeling of repulsion, or reverse acceleration.

Since Guinness always “ran” first and took huge air bites at Maggie if she “ran” too close to him in the paddock (again the physical memory of racing each other across the field) in the beginning phase of the retraining I only had to concentrate on Guinness because Maggie would respond in sync. Holding two buckets at chest height so that Guinness couldn’t drop his muzzle into it and get his powerful neck into play, as I opened and squeezed through the gate I immediately thrust the bucket in my right hand to slightly behind his muzzle at mid bob, and this forced him to take a half step back to get in position. But then as soon as he did, I withdrew the bucket in my right hand to behind my hip and out of sight, and immediately extended the bucket in my left hand to again being slightly behind his muzzle on his other side. And again he was prompted to take another half step back. As Guinness backed up, Maggie backed up and slowly, by rapidly switching from bucket to bucket I walked them both backwards until we were deep inside the paddock. I did this for the next several weeks, easily throwing 2300 pounds of excited horse flesh into reverse, and what was most interesting is that they weren’t in any conflict. It went very easy considering how powerful their urge was to get to me, that was not only the most natural way for them to express a state of attraction, but had been going on for five or six weeks of conditioning. Over the next weeks as I conducted this “collecting” process I made my bucket movements more and more subtle. And when Guinness began to automatically move backwards as I got near, I would then only move forward in response to his moving backward. Eventually I was able to effect reverse thrust at greater and greater distances and then cue it up with some triggering words. I used “Get Back–Big Jim–Get Back” since I once heard a farmer at a horse pull contest say “Get Up Big Jim, Get Up” and I always wanted to say something like that to a horse.

A new physical memory in Guinness and Maggie was beginning to displace the old one. Now when they saw me, Guinness and Maggie began to back up, and eventually I could encourage them with “Get Back–Big Jim–Get Back” to go all the way back to the prescribed feeding spots before I entered the paddock. Running in place going backwards was now a feeling flowing into action that produced the sweet feed crunching in their mouths. A force of attraction running forward, became a force of attraction running backward; the same engine driving the horse, only now in a reverse gear, being-collected, emotionally, the equal and opposite reaction to projecting forward. That’s what’s also interesting about calculus, the equations work the same running both forward and backward.

We do not need a mental ether or multiple explanations when one can suffice. Due to emotion and the physical memory of resistance to emotion, there is action at a distance and a change in behavior over time. Given the way the animal mind is constructed, the most basic form of information is a simple transfer of momentum, the individual feels accelerated into action, be it forward or backwards.

And in the greatest of ironies, modern behaviorists who decry Descartes ideas of animal as mechanical automatons, have unknowingly become the new mechanists of our era. They take the brain and genome apart neuron-by-neuron and gene-by-gene with the essence of the mind slipping through their fingers leaving them only with the “dead matter” of neurological hardware, biochemicals, and finally a mental ether to hold it all together in order to account for action-at-a-distance and change-over-time.

We ended up having the horses for about five years until we finally asked ourselves: And why do we own horses and bring them thousands of dollars of hay, water and hot water-soaked feed grain, winter after winter, not to mention vet bills and when no one rides them any more? While they were too high spirited for me to want to get up on their backs, I do miss the mountain of manure they produced for the garden and the sight of them grazing contentedly, and I do intend to get a horse someday that I would want to ride. My aim is a horse with a “Big-Jim” kind of high threshold draft-like temperament, raised and trained gently, and left to grow fat and lazy. My horse is only going to feel two gaits, slow and slower. I’m going to name my horse “Newton” because calculus can teach us just about all we need to know about animals.

Published June 29, 2012 by Kevin Behan
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4 responses to “Mental Ether”

  1. Dr Cindy says:

    Kevin, the last few posts have really helped me. Thank you. next time I visit I’ll ask you how (if we should) to apply this to a dog pelting towards a deer or another dog…(Dog, do this in reverse, please…)

  2. Christine says:

    So then, why do dogs stomp and bark? Reading this comment is what prompted me to wonder: “I let her out of her kennel for a bit today so I could give her a new toy. I thought it would be funny for her to have one that’s nearly as big as she is. She didn’t hesitate to grab it and start playing with it. And then came the barking. When she barks, she stomps her feet and I swear she’s trying to tell me something.” Is it similar to the feeling of running or is it something different, because in this case the dog could easily have run (around in circles, if need be). Or would it be more like a discharge of energy, similar to a sneeze?

    While I’m at it (asking questions), re: you have likened dogs scraping the ground with their feet to running in place. What is it that causes them to feel like running and why do they scrape their feet instead of running?

  3. kbehan says:

    Because the toy is so big, she is experiencing resistance and attributing this resistance to its predatory aspect and therefore the toy becomes a Being in her mind. (Preyful aspect + Predatory aspect = Being. The resistance is what connects the preyful and predatory aspects in her mind via a physical memory, and physical memories are the basis of all “true” feelings////as opposed to sensations/// and so she responds coherently to the toy but just as if it is a living being.) She’s barking because she’s projected her “self” into its form, and it’s not moving, she’s not getting a sensual return on her investment, i.e. the oral urge is backing up. (Barking is a wave, it is the same as running at full speed so she’s getting a feeling of movement from barking.) And she stomps her front feet because due to the resistance, she doesn’t feel connected to what she is attracted to, and the oral urge displaces into the fore quarters since the shoulder assembly is the means of applying force in order to maintain a feeling of connection (which itself is predicated on a sense of forward momentum). This for example is why dogs have stomped on their owner’s chests when they collapse from a heart attack and actually revive them, and someone posted a video of a dog jumping on a trampoline which is the same phenomena, and this is also why gazelles stot when they see a lion. Attraction–>Resistance—>Making Contact with oral urge displaced into the body mechanics. So it would be more accurate to say she is trying to “tell” the toy something, but I suspect she deflects her attention toward you while she’s struggling over this resistance so it would appear that she is trying to tell you something, but what’s really happening is that the physical memories of resistance remind her of you, as unlike humans dogs don’t make distinctions between what they feel, they aren’t confused by context as are we, and so she looks to you from time to time since your motion is what typically resolves these impasses of resistance. It would actually be more accurate to say she is “blaming” you for its resistance, but I prefer to use the term attribute because it’s more neutral.

  4. kbehan says:

    I neglected to deal with the second question. They run in place and scrape up the ground, because they are emotionally rooted to that spot. Emotion doesn’t act on an ideal or an idea, it is focused on something concrete, a material object of attraction. So the dog is having the feeling of being knocked around by its mother, the mother isn’t there, so that place or ground, and especially its own elimination, becomes the emotional focal point. Note that when the dog was an infant, it couldn’t see its mother either, it was quite literally rooted to that spot due to its physical limitations and so that becomes its imprint.

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