🔴 Fathomless Eyes

“… a submissive, sorrowful contemplation of the great irremediable things …”
Caption source: Jerusha McCormack (2013): Poem on the Mountain: A Chinese Reading of Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli’ http://bit.ly/1AzmRTu


🔴 Fathomless Eyes: Neurobiology of the Gaze

Jan 7, 2015

“Love pierces the heart through the gaze of the eyes”

– Medieval http://bit.ly/1z2LeMn


I can’t stop looking at James Spader’s face. I’ve noticed I am not alone in this… It’s as though there were 1000 masks, each one capturing *perfectly* an emotion you didn’t even know existed but that you instantly recognize, and he moves flawlessly from one to the next, sometimes donning several in a second. There must be a name for what he does – micro-acting? I think I saw “close camera acting” somewhere. Anyway, he has nailed it. I am riveted.

Range of emotions as Liz tells Red she's quitting Task Force

Range of emotions as Liz tells Red she’s quitting Task Force

So what explains this fascination? Well, it turns out, there is a scientific explanation… There is a gene – a SNP, actually, which is a fragment of a gene – that has proliferated in the Western world (somewhat less so in the East) that has been dubbed the “love gene” or the “bonding gene.”  Inheriting the “GG” version of this SNP (named rs53576) makes people’s faces especially fascinating, and that’s just for starters. (I had 23andme do my genome so I know I have the GG version.)

SNP rs53576 is related to the hormone oxytocin (http://www.snpedia.com/index.php/Rs53576) , which has played an outsized  role in human evolution. There are three variations of this SNP (as you get one from each of your parents) so the possible combinations are: GG, GA and AA. About 40% of Westerners have the GG version which is the ‘highly social’ version. About 45% of us have the AG version and about 15% have the AA version. Studies done in China, Korea an Japan indicate somewhat higher percentages of the “A” versions.

Until recently oxytocin was thought to have mostly to do with female reproduction, childbirth and nursing etc. But now it is known it is involved in much more:

“[R]ecent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin’s role in various behaviors, including orgasm, social recognition, bonding, and maternal behaviors. This small nine amino acid peptide is now believed to be involved in a wide variety of physiological and pathological functions such as sexual activity, penile erection, ejaculation, pregnancy, uterine contraction, milk ejection, maternal behavior, social bonding, stress and probably many more….” http://1.usa.gov/16ykIyB

[O]xytocin supports affiliative behavior,… increases generosity, trust, eye gaze, and the ability to infer the affective mental states of others, …parent-child bonding behaviors, feelings of romantic love and trust, and empathy and subsequent generosity toward strangers. [O]xytocin interacts with the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis to attenuate the stress response, which has pervasive influences throughout the body and the brain. Notably, oxytocin has been shown to induce potent physiological anxiolytic effects, by decreasing cortisol levels, inhibiting cardiovascular responses to stress, and attenuating amygdala responsivity to emotional stimuli. http://bit.ly/1r9zvc3

This may sound like the label of a 19th Century patent medicine, but the research is compelling http://bit.ly/1GrvJ1l. Oxytocin was likely directly involved in the increase in modern human’s brain and cranium size, and the social relationships which provided for an extended period of childhood in which culture-based learning could take place http://bit.ly/1xr5zu4. It is also implicated in the organization of humans into bands or clans for defensive (or offensive) purposes. Through some awesome miracle, oxytocin even helps GG men to be monogamous (http://bit.ly/1wb8nK2 http://bit.ly/1vMg2Pa http://bit.ly/1AcN61K http://bit.ly/13ikESr http://bit.ly/1uJZUsd). Ladies, if you don’t want a guy who runs around, hang with a GG. (Do you think within the next 10 years, getting each other’s genome data before you get married will be a common as a pre-nup?)

Red confronts Fitch about Berlin

Red confronts Fitch about Berlin

Only about 15% or so of us don’t have at least one G. I figure they’re the lizard people (just kidding). Or Wall Street bankers (not so much kidding). Oxytocin predicts child-rearing sensitivity, relations between the sexes, and is hugely involved in sex itself, along with other hormones. But most centrally, oxytocin is involved in our commitment to the long-term relationships which are essential to raising human children to participate in a culture..

Certain other mutations of the oxytocin gene may have been instrumental in the development of humans in other ways: there’s one that leads to increased “novelty-seeking”, and another which is associated with the size of one’s social network http://bit.ly/1sm9MxW, which likely allowed humans to evolve from small hunter-gatherer bands to larger social organizations based on farming.

Chances are if you’re reading The Blacklist fan sites like this one, you’re GG. And that’s a good thing, even though there are other markers on the OXYR gene which code for conditions including depression and other conditions for GG individuals raised in the absence of a nurturing childhood environment http://1.usa.gov/175bwSu. The most recent research absolves the hormone oxytocin itself from playing a role in these conditions http://1.usa.gov/1BLh8ey. But this may explain why the incidence of these conditions is higher in the West than countries like China http://bit.ly/1I6cSur.

In short, oxytocin is an important molecule.

Several recent articles (here http://bit.ly/1xr5zu4, here http://bit.ly/1Ggjv9G, here http://bit.ly/1zNvOIq and here http://bit.ly/1tKyKB6) argue you can pretty much describe human evolution in the last 50,000 years in terms of oxytocin’s impact. In terms of Western civilization, it may help explain our sense of history, and our sense of tragedy (and the unique sense of irony that derives from it). http://bit.ly/1AzmRTu

“[R]esearch on human social behaviour suggests that natural selection has favored the processing of social information in primates, including humans, which culminates in the detection of intentions and dispositions of … members of the same species. This key concept of human brain evolution, referred to as the ‘social brain’ hypothesis, proposes that a major driving force that ultimately led to the evolution of large hominid brains was the increasing complexity of ancestral social environments.” http://1.usa.gov/1uiYQMM

I’m also convinced James Spader is GG (at least one study has shown that people can pick out the GGs “in seconds” http://bit.ly/1tJtuhV). For one thing, he loves dogs. http://bit.ly/1tCKV9Q. There’s a lovely story from a 1990 interview about a pet dog named Louie that he and his wife Victoria had before they had kids. http://bit.ly/1G5lVK7 There are other clues, too, having more to do with people, but that’s another blog….

Did I mention that people with obsessive-compulsive disorder have high levels of oxytocin and many researchers have noted that there are certain similarities between OCD and someone who is obsessed with a lover, devoted to their family or very protective of a child or pet (http://bit.ly/134UD8X http://bit.ly/1wiuYUY http://bit.ly/1x4dVHY and http://sciof.us/12Blh8b). My experience with having children is that you spend the rest of your life worrying about every little thing that might harm them. You can see the social value or this.

As humans have evolved, their methods of identifying friend vs foe, kin vs non-kin, my infant vs your infant, has become less based on scent and more on visual cues http://bit.ly/1Bkj8u4, particularly regarding the visual perception of each other’s faces. There have been numerous studies showing that when you administer oxytocin to human subjects, they are drawn to people’s faces – in particular, their eyes (http://bit.ly/1ueZxpm http://bit.ly/1GaXI5j http://bit.ly/1vNFbHv). This allows us to assess whether we can trust the other person, something that is critical for a functioning society (or at least for one not based entirely on fear). http://bit.ly/1GaXI5j http://bit.ly/1xr5zu4 http://bit.ly/1tKyKB6 http://bit.ly/1tJtuhV http://bit.ly/1ssPygx http://bit.ly/1BbujFp http://bit.ly/1C25UFm

A music box Red has built brings back memories for Liz

A music box Red has built brings back memories for Liz

So say you’re a person swathed in oxytocin (a GG, that is), innocently going about your life. What medium but television does a better job of putting smack dab in front of you the faces and eyes of other human beings? – especially now that we have the Internet and all the technologies that can magnify that experience. We don’t just “watch” an episode once a week, but re-watch it, check scripts, tease out hidden clues, capture screen shots, gifs, audio. It’s like candy to a baby or cocaine to an addict.

Here’s a great example from commenter FlimFlamB at WSJ Speakeasy’s blog on The Blacklist when the last scene of the mid-season finalé (The Decembrist) was a tight close-up of Red’s face. The subject: eye twitches http://on.wsj.com/1ranJJc (this was part of a lengthy exchange):

Last thing, about the eye twitch, I’m trying to list the scenes when Red does that. It’s not always as obvious as in the last episode s02e08. But for now, what I noticed is that he does the eye-cheek twitch when he’s upset. When things are not going the way he wants, when he’s not controlling the situation. That kind of scene.

Eye twitch

Eye twitch

Some examples of twitch scenes:
ep 8:23min – Red when Sam says “she deserves the truth”
ep 8 40min discovers the girl through VICAP (Jolene)
ep 9 11:50 Red discovers Anslo face
ep11 08:30 looking at Luli in the tomb (3x !) + 1 at 11:35 end of the song after killing the 3 people who worked for Anslo including the man whw was working with apple man
ep 13 after killing Diane (I guess for what she said and remembers him, not because of the fact he killed her)
ep 15 – when Red discovers Jolene followed him everywhere

Every nuance, every unexpected twitch or glance, every subtle gesture is captured, remarked upon, debated. And the showrunners, knowing people respond this way, know they can develop characters in greater detail and create plots with twists and turns and overturns in ways that weren’t possible even 10 years ago. It speaks, in fact, to The Blacklist’s credit, that it led on Netflix views http://uproxx.it/13BVDS6 last year, is high up on iTunes’ charts http://bit.ly/1zysAuS and often leads its competition in the percent of viewers watching on their DVRs http://bit.ly/16vkF6E. It is one of the most remarked-upon series on Twitter http://bit.ly/12bK02G. It also ranks high in live broadcast viewers http://bit.ly/1zyzVdM.

The Executuioner.

The Executuioner.

Max Winter wrote an unusually good analysis for IndieWire last winter on The Blacklist: “Why James Spader Is the Perfect Star for the Increasingly Unreal Medium of TV” http://bit.ly/1yBfjyG:

Spader is occupying, with unusual elan, a historical moment in TV watching and reception: he is with us as TV becomes an almost entirely private personal phenomenon, in which viewers develop relationships with characters and plotlines that they cannot quite shake, sometimes to an almost humorous degree, and in which viewers choose which shows they wish to watch at length—and at how much length. It is indeed significant, then, that Spader’s breakout role, his turn as bully Steff in “Pretty in Pink” notwithstanding, was in “sex, lies and videotape”.… Fast forward 25 years: many viewers these days watch television long after its air date, and with utter control over the conditions of viewership. In 1989, when the film was released, the VCR, as we know it in its home-friendly form, was less than 10 years old, and rapidly gaining in popularity. By starring in such a film, Spader associated himself indelibly with what has become a dominant mode of viewership: what I want, when I want it. The binge watch.

Below are some snippets from an interview James Spader gave recently that I found interesting not only for his responses, but also for how the interviewer framed her observations and questions:

[Video clip of Red’s first encounter with Lizzie in the Pilot]

● CG: I love watching your face during this show, so nuanced.
JS: I mean, that’s a trick, you understand [the extreme close-up]

● CG: Okay, no, it’s not a trick, your still making things –
JS: Oh no, there’s things going on. There’s definitely things going on. I was very lucky. Someone once, when I was very, very young, just starting out as an actor (said) “a camera doesn’t just see your face. It looks through your eyes and into your head. And that’s true, I think. The camera cannot, though, decipher what you’re thinking. It can only see THAT you’re thinking.
And an audience projects an awful lot. So part of the trick of working as an actor is to be comfortable enough to just live and think and breathe in front of a camera and the camera takes care of a lot of the rest of it.

● CG: Do you have an idea of what you want the audience to be thinking, while they’re watching your face?
JS: No, if you don’t make any attempt to show the audience anything, then the audience wants to look further and further and further and further… And I think that’s what that character does – he doesn’t show a great deal, but he draws you to look further in….

● CG: …Watch The Blacklist. It’s on –
JS: Have you seen it?

● CG: Yes! That’s how I know about your face –
JS: Did you like it?
CG: Yes, I liked it very much.

[emphasis added]
NBCNewYork/TalkStoop with Cat Greenleaf: James Spader on Acting Advice and New Show http://bit.ly/12nIdY (9/2/2014)

See, he’s not trying to make it easy for us! Quite the opposite. He’s the master of this craft.

Spader: “When viewers respond well to a character, there’s a natural tendency for them to say, ‘I want to know more. I want to know everything.” But I say, “’Well, you can’t. It would ruin the character for you. You just must trust me in terms of that.’” http://bit.ly/1sKfatM

Trust? Never mind.

The January 2015 issue of National Geographic has a feature on The First Artists http://bit.ly/1xsSjVO. It features the paintings in the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc 200 or so kilometers north of Marseille, France. In addition to cave paintings of fearsome predators and elegant prey…

In Hohle Fels, Conard’s team recently uncovered some objects whose messages are so sexually explicit they might require a parental warning. One is a carving of a woman with exaggerated breasts and genitalia, found in 2008. At least 35,000 years old, the Venus of Hohle Fels is the most ancient figure yet discovered that is indisputably human. (Two much earlier figurines from Morocco and what is now Israel may be natural rocks that vaguely resemble the human form.) Earlier the team had found a polished rod of siltstone, about eight inches long and an inch in diameter, with a ring etched at one end—likely a phallic symbol. A few feet away from the Venus figurine, Conard’s team uncovered a flute carved from a hollow griffon vulture bone, and in Geissenklösterle Cave found three other flutes, one made of ivory and two fashioned from a swan’s wing bone. They are the oldest known musical instruments in the world. We don’t know whether these people had drugs. But they clearly had the sex and rock and roll.

In other words, not long after the ‘oxytocin revolution’ gene took place 50,000 years ago, we also find the emergence of a form of art that two French archeologists describe as unexpectedly cinematic:

In his book La Préhistoire du Cinéma, filmmaker and archaeologist Marc Azéma argues that some of these ancient artists were the world’s first animators, and that the artists’ superimposed images combined with flickering firelight in the pitch-black caves to create the illusion that the paintings were moving. “They wanted to make these images lifelike,” says Azéma. He has re-created digital versions of some cave images that illustrate the effect.”

Now, this is an interesting theory http://bit.ly/1BnkP9m. The sketches in the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc 200 or so miles north of Marseilles are about 36,000 years old. We know that for well over a 100,000 years, humans had been scratching marks on eggshells and stones, could devise spear heads, hooks and awls from stone and bone, and knew how to mix pigments for adornment in Africa. http://1.usa.gov/1C7HlnI.

35,000 year old cave paintings at the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in France. National Geographic Jan 2015

35,000 year old cave paintings at the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in France. National Geographic Jan 2015

But Azéma is describing ‘social’ art, drama – possibly a shamanic ceremony. The “out of Africa” migration is dated to around 60,000 years ago; the oxytocin “A”-heavy contingent turned East toward China from the Middle East around 50,000 years ago; and the proto-Europeans had settled in modern day France and Germany by 40-45,000 years ago. The earliest cave paintings date back that far http://bit.ly/1BnkP9m. Although, the NatGeo article raises the question, of the 36,000 year old paintings of the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, “How did such human accomplishment come to be, so long ago, seemingly out of nowhere?” – it does not attempt to answer it.

The latest research indicates a threefold migration of humans into Europe, the first around 45,000 years ago, of hunter-gathers, followed around 9000 years ago by farmers from the Middle East. Until recently (last September, in fact), it was assumed that farming reached Europe by the adoption by the earlier hunter-gatherers of farming technology from nearby cultures. But, no: there was a second migration. Genomic analysis has identified yet another influx 4000-6000 years ago, from Eastern Eurasia http://bit.ly/1GYCc23 (Sep 2014). People it seems, have moved more readily than ideas. This implies group cohesion, and an ability to lead and be led.

Azéma’s interpretation fits with that of eminent prehistorian Jean Clottes—the first scientist to enter Chauvet, only days after its discovery. Clottes believes the images in the cave were intended to be experienced much the way we view movies, theater, or even religious ceremonies today—a departure from the real world that transfixed its audience and bound it in a powerful shared experience…. Thousands of years later you can still feel the power of that show as you walk the chambers of the cave…. [Y]ou can almost make out the thrum of ancient music, the beat of the dance, as a storyteller casts the light of a torch upon a floating image, and enthralls the audience with a tale.”

In fact Azéma’s depiction fits well into the theory of the evolution of the “social mind.” It is a small leap to assume that what oxytocin did to transform interpersonal, kinship and clan interactions affected artistic and religious expression, as well, to become more social, more dramatic, more cathartic and potentially more transformative – potentially, as well, more dangerous. The Celtic Druids knew the power of narrative to challenge the timid, dispatch the proud, celebrate the hero and elevate the outcast http://ow.ly/G8EVW.

What other sort of experience might unite a group of people behind a vision, to leave their homes and move to places unknown but rumored or imagined? Or to take up arms or lay them down, other than ritual, story, drama? – the most social of the arts.


Selected Anthropological Sources:

NatGeo: The First Artists http://bit.ly/1xsSjVO
// Jan 2015

ScienceNews: Avant-garde cave art http://bit.ly/1BnkP9m
// 12/29/2014

ScienceNews: Year in review: Old humans reveal secrets http://bit.ly/1HdsQ4x
DNA analyses rewrite stories of ancient times
// 12/17/2014

Science: Three-part ancestry for Europeans http://bit.ly/1GYCc23
// 9/5/2014

Dkos: Ancient Ireland: The Druids http://ow.ly/G8EVW
// 9/1/2013

Palomar: Early Modern Human Culture http://bit.ly/1x4Aw7O
// ©1999-2013

NIH/JAnat: The evolution of human artistic creativity http://1.usa.gov/1C7HlnI
// Feb 2010


Note: For the full Annotated Bibliography I compiled on ‘Reading Faces, Oxytocin and OCD,’ follow this link: http://bit.ly/12ZWgEP

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