More and Less Exciting Things
Some things are universally more exciting to animals than their opposites. Light is more exciting than darkness, red coloration is more exciting than blue, everything is more exciting than nothing, and movement, speed, long flowing forms, spikiness, upwardness and outwardness are exciting relative to stillness, solid and round objects, smoothness, downwardness, inwardness and holes.
What, was he sad, or merry?
Like to the time o’ the year between the extremes
Of hot and cold, he was nor sad nor merry.
— Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
∘ Brain Heat
∘ Brains Versus Computers
∘ Liquid Crystallinity
∘ Other More and Less Exciting Things
∘ Combinations Versus Mixtures
∘ Imperceivable Mixtures
∘ Works Cited
Various types of simple excitement such as anger and sexual arousal correspond to higher brain temperature in animals, heat which must be accompanied by physical increases in brain fluidity, disorder and molecular motion. Such changes in the brain explain why, in angry and sexual contexts, we spontaneously make reference not only to heat but also fluidity, disorder and speed which doesn’t actually exist in any way in the outside world, also how both the sender and receiver of such signals tend to understand them in a similar way, and why, oppositely, low excitement is so often associated in language with lower temperature, solidness, order and stasis. We reference heat, fluidity, disorder and speed in the business of being arousing and the opposites to calm each other down. We insist, metaphorically, that arguments involve physical destruction, fluids like spit, blood and urine, speed, upwardness and outward motion which they do not. Meanwhile, disagreements are resolved with words of nonexistent solidness, order, stillness, downwardness and contraction. We insist that excitement is like high temperature, wetness, splashing, floating, upwardness, flying and outwardness and that depression and boredom are the opposite without any conspicuous cues in the world we experience to support the connections. The way references to these qualities occur in language shows the existence of mutual, preexisting ideas about when and how they should apply, because there’s nothing consistently and outwardly hot, warm, cold, wet, dry, regular, random, fast or slow about so many of the situations we apply them to. The qualities are sometimes perceivably present, but not reliably so, and not sufficiently to serve as a reasonable explanation for why we agree about them as conventionally as we do.
It’s been argued that we must have learned many of the above given associations by observing each other’s behavior, but it’s more likely we know them as a consequence of the way basic components of the brain approach a fluid state due to heat generated by the firing of neurons and approach a solid state when they relax and cool down. A pair of mental categories, one in which more exciting things are thought of as being related to each other, more so than they are to their opposites in the other, less exciting category, seem to result. Angriness, sexual desire and excitement are, to some extent, the same thing as brain heat, fluidity, disorder and motion while boredom, disinterest and sleep are the same as brain coldness, solidness and stasis. When we have an exciting experience we unconsciously apply to it several of the physical characteristics of an excited nervous system, and likewise on the less exciting side. When we encounter perceptual things reminiscent of internal, physical excitement we automatically apply to them, to some degree, the qualities associated in the more exciting mental category which they don’t already exhibit and vice versa.
Finding something exciting is not the same as liking it; arousal isn’t the same as finding something beautiful, and less excitement is hardly unlikable, but what we prefer, on average, are perceptual mixtures of simple, more and less exciting qualities. Animals of all kinds choose mixtures of the qualities given over combinations of qualities from within the same category of excitement, and thus sexually selected ornaments throughout the animal kingdom reflect the same bias for complex mixtures of simple opposites that human culture does. Humans are biased to select for them in language, art, myth and culture, all of which are permeated with examples, provided only that one assumes any of the qualities in one category can serve as an interesting opposite to any of those in the opposite category. Brains select for them subconsciously in hallucinations, hypnagogic images and dreams, which is why so much art made based on this kind of content happens to fit our taste. They appear to occur at higher rates in dreams than any other phenomenon, making up a significant portion of the fantastic material dreams contain, and further indicating the brain selects for them, unconsciously, by default.
Although it’s been assumed that brain temperature is fixed within a tight range, and it is, it fluctuates rapidly by 3 or 4 degrees Celsius during normal behavior (Kiyatkin 2005). That the street drug Ecstasy, or MDMA, which produces a feeling of euphoria in humans, causes a small but rapid and sustained increase in the temperature of the brain (Brown and Kiyatkin 2004), and a more rapid increase than that for muscle, is aligned with the concept of excitement relating to brain heat. The authors warn that the use of this drug coupled with exciting social interactions, like partying, especially at high ambient temperatures, can cause death by pushing brain temperature above its lethal limit, as was the fate of most of the most highly aroused, hardest partying rats in the experiment. Methamphetamine also produces a persistent temperature spike in the brain, greater than for body muscle, up to 4 degrees Celsius for up to 4 hours in rats (Brown et al. 2003). The authors found that methamphetamine combined with social interaction, which itself increases rat brain temperature by 1.5 degrees Celsius, can push the brain to its temperature limit of about 41 degrees Celsius and kill an animal.
The way humans describe how such drugs make us feel also tells us that they heat the brain. We typically describe being high as hot, fluid, disorderly, bright, red, fast, high-pitched, elevated, expansive and outward, compared to being sober, as in “California sunshine,” “sloshed,” “juiced,” “wavey,” “idiocy oil,” “following the cloud,” “jet fuel,” “liquid X,” “acid,” “stewed,” “it’s all a blur,” “blow,” “spun out,” “crack,” “crackhead,” “crackhouse,” “tossed,” “tipsy,” “the spins,” “ripped,” “wasted,” “smashed,” “trashed,” “bombed,” “lit,” “reds,” “speed,” “running drugs,” “high,” “high as a kite,” “spun out,” “tripping out” and “in orbit,” which tells us both that uppers increase brain temperature and that brains take on a relatively fluid and disorderly form when we take them. Thus, to some extent, it seems possible to predict the thermal effects of drugs, emotions and many other things on the brain based on the way we characterize them linguistically.
Brains Versus Computers
Brains may handle information in somewhat the same way as a computer, but a brain is materially semi-dynamic and semi-disorderly, as a result of being semi-fluid, and therefore a computer, or a solid, static, metallic information system is not a good analogy. It’s long been known that brains vary in temperature, throughout the sleep-wake cycle for instance, but brain temperature has been considered more like a curious side effect of other brain functions, rather than an integral aspect of sensation, cognition and preferences. The brain is like a liquid crystalline thermometer rather than a computer. The physical condition of the matter making up a brain is flexible in a way that a computer is not. It’s capable of expansion and contraction and surviving periods of existence in conditions of more and less fluidity and solidness or higher and lower excitement. We describe our brains and minds as being flexible and variable with respect to temperature, fluidity, speed, brightness, regularity, straightness, vertical situation, color, length, size, and other things, and behave as though it makes perfect sense for us to do so. We say regularly, collectively and unaccountably of our brains or minds that they are blown, warped, buzzed, buzzing, bending, scattered, collected, light, bright, heavy, blank, dark, concentrated, torn, spinning, expanding, exploding, twisted or otherwise flexible in a physical sense. In a way that’s similar to how we desire lower temperatures when we get too hot, desire heat when we get too cold, and feel satisfied with warmth, we find too much fluidity, disorder, speed or motion unpleasant and want to reduce the level of these things in our minds and environments, while also being displeased with extremities of solidness, order, slowness and stasis, which we feel a desire to disrupt.
Something universally similar about animal brains is required to explain universal animal preferences such as those for complex mixtures of higher and lower pitch (e.g., song, music, language), bright and dark coloration (e.g., courtship coloration, art, flags), disorder and order (e.g., music, poetry, games), motion and stillness (e.g., dance, animation, games) and fluidity and solidness (e.g., fountains, poems, paintings, idioms). Such mixtures are suspiciously brain-like, reminiscent of its complex liquid crystalline structure and comparable to the properties of a system situated at and fluctuating about a point of transition between a liquid and crystalline phase.
Cocchi et al. (2017) describe a universal system of cognition in terms of complexity theory and phase transitions, and seem to suggest that brain randomness, order, fluidity, structure, and fast and slow flow play an extremely important role:
“Chief amongst these is the notion of criticality, an umbrella term that denotes the behaviour of a system perched between order (such as slow, laminar fluid flow) and disorder such as the turbulence of a fast-flowing fluid, (Shih et al., 2015). A critical system shows scale-free fluctuations that stretch from the smallest to the largest scale, and which may spontaneously jump between different spatiotemporal patterns. Despite their apparent random nature, the fluctuations in these systems are highly structured, obeying deep physical principles that show commonality from one system to the other (so-called universality).”
They say also that psychological disorders probably correspond to physical transitions in the matter of the brain away from a state of mixed fluidity and order: “Conversely, brain disorders, as diverse as epilepsy, encephalopathy, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may correspond to excursions from such an optimal critical point.”
The notion of simple phenomena like flow, order, disorder or speed governing our state of mind is reminiscent of early philosophers holding the view, with great conviction, that in the apparently inanimate there must be a certain, small amount of life. More recently, Rinne (1930) said liquid crystallinity fills the gaps that seem to separate us from the inorganic:
“It is customary to draw the boundary between living organic and inorganic matter so that crystals represent the highest form of inorganic material and low organisms form the beginning of the organic world, with a definite and deep physiological gap between the two categories. In my opinion, this gap does not exist, since the sperms, which are undoubtedly living, are at the same time liquid crystals.”
Esther Leslie (2016) points out a relationship between liquid crystallinity, language, social systems and art in Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Fluid Form. She proposes a certain kind of psychological elasticity, asking:
“What if a mode of thought were in intimate connection with phases of matter, which also emerge historically, or come to be known at historical moments? What if the hard form that is crystal, in periods of its prevalence, produced thought that is crystalline? What if an abundance of liquid made thought fluid, or if its absence made thinking desirous of fluidity to combat its parchedness?”
Assuming it’s true that thoughts of solidness invoke those of fluidity it’s reasonable to suspect thoughts of things related to fluidity such as heat, disorder and motion invoke those related to solidness such as coldness, order and stasis, and that other perceptual extremities are similar. For instance brightness could generally cause animals to feel a desire for darkness, loudness could provoke in us a desire for silence, high-pitch for low-pitch, upwardness for downwardness, outwardness for inwardness, length for roundness, or roundness and containment could make us desire relatively exciting things like their opposites spikiness and freedom.
Other More and Less Exciting Things
In the course of exploring the structure of language with respect to heat, fluidity, disorder, motion and their opposites it becomes clear that we treat other phenomena similarly, in that we tend to put them into more and less exciting categories and create alternating sequences of them for amusement. Evidently exciting things, based on an analysis of English idioms, include at least heat (e.g., fire, the sun), fluidity (e.g., liquids, water, milk, tears, saliva, blood, smoke, air, clouds, flowing forms, long hair, long tails), disorder (e.g., destruction, breaking, cracking, strangeness, tilted-ness, asymmetry), dynamic motion (e.g., moving, running, spinning, racing, jumping), brightness (e.g., light, fire, the sun, redder and whiter colors), upwardness (up, above, the sky, heaven), outwardness (e.g., out, far, distant, outward body parts and motions), projections (e.g., spikiness, horns, hair, tails, lips, similar to outwardness), length (e.g., thin, tall, long lines, hair, tails, horns), higher-pitched sounds (e.g., screaming, whistling, whining, hissing, alarms, sirens, singing, treble), multiplicity (e.g., many things, copiousness, numerousness, abundance, large numbers, diversity, swarms, groups), extremities (e.g., hands, feet, wings, fins, the fringes, similar to outwardness and projections) and also various things we seem to have assigned an excitement level based on how they exhibit the qualities in question versus their opposites coldness (e.g., ice, frozenness, snow, ice cream), solidness (e.g., solids, stone, rocks, crystals, earth, diamonds, gems, bones, shells, teeth, horns, wood, glass, metal), order (e.g., straightness, flatness, simple shapes, roundness, symmetry), stasis (e.g., stillness, stoping, sleeping), darkness (e.g., no light, bluer and blacker colors), downwardness (e.g., down, below, underground), inwardness (e.g., in, near, home, the heart, mouths, penetration), entrances (e.g., holes, containers, mouths, doors, similar to inwardness), roundness (e.g., rounder objects, shortness, spheres, circles, points, balls, dots, heads, eyes, pupils), lower-pitched sounds (e.g., drums, thunder, bass), singularity (fewer things, one thing, small numbers, unity) and centrality (e.g. moderation, mediation, hearts, similar to inwardness).
Combinations Versus Mixtures
As the qualities related in the category of higher excitement are increased in stimuli or added to expressions the result, on average, is more excitement for the perceiver. One can imagine, for instance, a long, flying, swirling, swarming, thronging, screaming, spiky, expanding, bright, red, yellow, shining, cracking, burning, spitting and unholy phenomenon having an essence of excitement greater than that of a singular, round, solid, dark, shrunken and silent object lying motionless in the bottom of a hole. Animals recognize each other as something in between, and prefer to be stimulated by mixtures of opposites rather than combinations of categorically related stimuli. We prefer, for example, to experience lower-excitement downwardness in a mixture with exciting, higher-pitched sounds, disorder, fluidity, and/or dynamic motion, and would rather not experience high-pitch in combination with an elevated vertical position, disorder, fluidity and/or dynamic motion. We would rather experience an object with a dark upper section and a bright lower section than the other way around, and motion mixed with darkness instead of brightness. We like round things to be decorated with higher-excitement phenomena, same with entrances, and find stimuli with more than one (but not too many) spherical features or entrances intriguing. We find lines and crosses more exciting than circles and often prefer for the rounder parts of a thing to be located above the linear ones. Animals often rearrange their bodies to display more exciting features at higher positions when they intend to be unpleasant, and do the opposite when they intend to be pleasant. We move the lower and central portions of our bodies dynamically and semi-chaotically (as in dance) when intending to be pleasant or attract a mate, but move the upper portion and extremities dynamically and chaotically (as in flailing) to be unpleasant, indicating that the former, representative of a the mixtures dynamic — down, disorder — down, static — up and order — up are generally more appealing than the categorical combinations dynamic — up, order — down, static — down and order — down.
Many of the given high excitement qualities correspond to defensive adaptations in animals and plants such as bright red, orange or yellow coloration, fluids or fluid-like patterns (spit, venom, blood), spikiness (thorns, horns), multiplicity (swarming, schooling, herding), upwardness (snakes, jumping antelope) and rapid movements while complex mixtures of more and less exciting things are more characteristic of animal bodies overall, sexual ornaments, flowers, songs and dances and other features under selection to be pleasing for animal sensory systems. According to Stevens and Ruxton (2012): “One of the most immediately apparent things when inspecting the range of warning signals in nature is just how common it is for them to be red, yellow and black.” In most of the cacti the plant itself is green but the spines are either red, orange or white. Bright fluidity helps certain horned lizard species that spray blood from their eyes defend themselves against canine and feline predators (Middendorf and Sherbrooke 1992).
Humans also combine things on the more exciting side as a way of getting attention, as in sirens, which normally incorporate at least high-pitched, dynamic sounds, bright lights and redder colors, and we use the more alarming colors white, red, orange and yellow very generally to warn of danger. In human language and behavior expressions of anger are often combinations from within the more exciting category (e.g., spitting is fluid and outward, screaming is high-pitched, dynamic and disorderly, flipping someone off combines upwardness and length, throwing arms up is upward and outward, pointing is outward and spiky) while expressions of low arousal, sadness or submission correspond to less exciting qualities such as downwardness and stasis. The scariest characters in stories and film tend to look more like scary animals than the ones we find similar to ourselves and amusing. Monsters are usually relatively long, spiky, bright, high-pitched and wet. They have long teeth, horns or spikes all over their bodies, combining colors from one end of the rainbow while screaming, hissing, flying or breathing fire.
The consistency, among humans, other animals and plants with which the same or similar simple qualities are used to convey danger is very difficult to address traditionally because it requires an improbable, very large set of independent evolutionary events leading to the same simple biases against the same set of perceptual qualities. It raises the problem of how it came to be that the many, unrelated predators from which prey are protected by these particular qualities came to be in agreement about disliking them with so little variation. The adaptationist program has to address predator prey relationships one at a time and unrealistic convergent evolutionary psychology scenarios in which predators worldwide have evolved to share not just one or two unlikely psychological correspondences but a large set of the same ones worldwide. This can be resolved by assuming a set of preexisting biases disfavoring combinations of more exciting things. From this perspective there’s no need for warning signals to initially or persistently be coupled with something actually deadly or harmful to a predator. Brightness, length, fluids and spikiness in themselves should provide some level of protection.
Meanwhile, expressions of approval or desire like greeting and dances are more complicated and more likely to be constructed of mixtures. Love poems, for instance, are unexpectedly likely to be made up of sequences of alternating references to liquids and crystals, fluids and solids, destruction and order, movement and stillness, day and night, red and blue, flying and falling, leaving and returning and all imaginable indiscriminate arrangements of these and other more and less exciting things.
There are patterns in the way we refer to animals, in artistic expressions and otherwise, showing we collectively consider them to be more exciting than inanimate, solid objects, and some to be more exciting than others. Cats, dogs, birds and snakes, for instance, are more common in references to sex and anger, and probably more likely to be found in containers or coupled with order and roundness in idiom, art, mythology and dreams than animals widely considered less exciting like pigs, cows and chickens. Moderation and intrigue can seemingly be created in stories and expressions by contradictions involving mixtures of more and less exciting animals, such as pigs and a wolf, or a pig and a spider, less exciting animals in more exciting circumstances, such as a cow jumping over the moon, or more exciting animals in less exciting circumstances such a cat or a rabbit in a bag or a hat.
We make a distinction between certain body parts and others, apparently on the basis of length versus roundness, color, outward versus inwardness, and the amount of motion we perceive them to undergo during interactions. Relatively long, outward, flowing and dynamic body parts like hair, tails, fingers, hands, legs and feet are treated as more exciting than the rounder, more static, inward and central parts. Crevices and holes such as necks, armpits, mouths and genitals we treat as unexciting and in need of decoration or disruption with contradictory features such as bright coloration or long, thin phenomena. Thus in humans the longest finger is more provocative than the thumb, and long hair is more exciting and provocative than short hair and long horns, tails and feathers are associated with sex throughout the animal world. Our use of the expression “the bird” for flipping someone off is an indication of the fact the we find both length and birds exciting, but also flipping. Disorderly overlapping finger arrangements are used to mark deliberate dishonesty and as gang signs, while extending the thumb or shaking a hand with the thumb and shortest finger extended are friendly, fun signals, and a static round fist implies camaraderie, in many contexts. It’s unusual to think of long hair, feathers and tails as fluid-like, attractive parts of organisms, selected for as such by mates, rather than assuming they serve some function we don’t understand, but the way we refer to these features idiomatically indicates that we should do so, as Aristotle does in his explanation of hair and length as a consequence of heat and fluidity in the brain:
“No animal has so much hair on the head as man. This, in the first place, is the necessary result of the fluid character of his brain, and of the presence of so many sutures in his skull. For wherever there is the most fluid and the most heat, there also must necessarily occur the greatest outgrowth” (Aristotle and Ogle 1882).
Aristotle saw ornamental body hair in humans as being related to fluidity because it has a fluid-like appearance, and to heat because we relate fluidity to heat and excitement by default, psychological realities which themselves appear to be the cause of long, flowing ornaments evolving in Animals throughout the Kingdom. Animals choose to mate with others of their kind who exhibit exciting features as a sort of compensation for what we all perceive as less exciting roundness and inwardness, so that round parts, like the top of the head, and crevices and holes in the body like armpits, mouths and genitals are adorned with flowing hair, tails and an assortment of other protuberances in numerous insects, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals with no respect for taxonomic boundaries. Such ornaments evolve to exploit universal preferences that arise from the special, liquid crystalline physical situation of the brain, within constraints imposed by differential survival and other processes. The decorations themselves are not what animals find likable, but rather the contradiction, complexity and familiarity they generate when coupled with the body parts they embellish.
Importantly, the less exciting, disruption-inciting appearance of roundness and inwardness can be compensated for by any of the more exciting qualities, not only those that are perceivable as opposite outside the brain. Inward body parts can be made more exciting by protrusion, a perceivable contradiction in that in and outwardness are observable opposites, but length, flowing forms and/or brightness can be substituted for protrusion to achieve the same result of likable moderation.
Categories of the Mind gives examples of how humans consistently associate things in the more and less exciting mental categories with each other culturally and metaphorically. Mixtures in Popular Expressions contains a few hundred examples of mixtures in language. Examples of some mixtures of simple opposite qualities occurring in animal body coloration can be found in the story Painted by Nature. Information regarding the observation that animals, sensory systems and brains are thorough, intricate mixtures or fluidity and solidness, presumably the cause of our appreciation for similarly structured mixtures in aesthetically selected phenomena, can be found in The Physical State of Life and Liquid Crystallinity in Living Systems.
Aristotle, and William Ogle. Aristotle on the Parts of Animals. Translated, with Introduction and Notes, by W. Ogle. Kegan Paul & Co, 1882.
Brown, P. Leon, and Eugene A. Kiyatkin. “Brain hyperthermia induced by MDMA (‘ecstasy’): modulation by environmental conditions.” European Journal of Neuroscience 20.1 (2004): 51–58.
Cocchi, Luca, et al. “Criticality in the brain: A synthesis of neurobiology, models and cognition.” Progress in neurobiology 158 (2017): 132–152.
Kiyatkin, Eugene A. “Brain hyperthermia as physiological and pathological phenomena.” Brain research reviews 50.1 (2005): 27–56. Leslie, Esther. Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Fluid Form. Reaktion Books, 2016.
Middendorf III, George A., and Wade C. Sherbrooke. “Canid elicitation of blood-squirting in a horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum).” Copeia (1992): 519–527.
Rinne, F. “Sperms as living liquid crystals.” Nature 126.3173 (1930): 279–279.
Shih, Hong-Yan, Tsung-Lin Hsieh, and Nigel Goldenfeld. “Ecological collapse and the emergence of travelling waves at the onset of shear turbulence.” Nature Physics 12.3 (2016): 245–248.
Stevens, Martin, and Graeme D. Ruxton. “Linking the evolution and form of warning coloration in nature.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279.1728 (2012): 417–426.