Chs. III & IV – Theoretical Reflections on the Function of the Nervous System as Foundation for a Theory of the Organism & Modification of Function due to Impairment of the Organism

Epoché (IV), 16. 7. 2020

A synopsis of our reading of The Organism by Kurt Goldstein

III. “Theoretical Reflections on the Function of the Nervous System as Foundation for a Theory of the Organism” (pp. 95-114)


IV. “Modification of Function due to Impairment of the Organism” (pp. 115-132)

Abridgment by: Sebastjan Vörös
[his outline and commentary of the whole book can be found here

Chapter III: Theoretical Reflections on the Function of the Nervous System as Foundation for a Theory of the Organism

The Nervous System as a Network. The Course of Excitation in Such a System

The following theoretical reflection is based on the view that the nervous system (NS) – not only of invertebrates, but also of vertebrates, including human beings – constitutes a network in which ganglia are inserted at various places and that is related to the external world by means of the sense organs and the movable parts of the body. This network represents an apparatus that functions as a whole. From the analysis of the performances of the organism the following laws governing the course of excitation may be deduced:

(1) The NS is never at rest, but in a continual state of excitation. This is in opposition to the common view that NS is an organ at rest, in which excitation arises only as a response to stimuli. However, it was overlooked that NS is continuously under the influence of stimuli and continually excited (even in the apparent absence of external stimuli, it is exposed to the influence of internal stimuli). The events that follow a definite stimulus are actually only an expression of a change of excitation in NS (94-5).

(2) A given stimulus produces changes in the whole organism. Actually, however, effects do not appear everywhere but usually only in one more or less extended area. How come? According to Goldstein, in a system as extensive as NS the changes in response to a stimulus do not take place everywhere simultaneously and to an equal degree. They appear earlier and with greater intensity near the point at which the stimulus is applied than in regions further from the point of the stimulus application. Goldstein calls this the “local near effect” (96).

(x) Distribution of excitation through the spatial and functional “near effect”

It is known from experiments on animals that the excitation process in NS suffers a “decrement” (or a “metabolic gradient”): the intensity of the excitation decreases with the distance from the point of stimulus application. The interposed ganglion cells are especially significant for the distribution of the excitation (96).

The destruction of ganglion cells results in three sequelae:

(1) In a preparation deprived of its ganglia stimulation results in more intense excitation.

(2) The preparation does not react in the normal, localized area alone, but over a wide region, with a more homogeneous energy distribution.

(3) The stimulus effect is of greater duration (97).

These changes can be understood if the ganglion is considered as a structural enlargement of the system of functional elements. Because the ganglion enlarges the system it is, in the first place, suited to effect a channeled distribution of new energy through the enlarged network.

This wider (enlargened) distribution results in [1] reduced strength of excitation per given area (in a preparation containing ganglia the strength of the stimulus effect is weaker). Further, [2] it prevents the otherwise rapid distribution of the excitation over more distant parts. Put differently, it causes a relative limitation of the extension of the changes, with a markedly strong excitation in the “nearer part” – and thus a more localized effect. Finally, [3] the ganglion causes a decrease of excitation at the point that was first stimulated – at this point, an equalization takes place between the higher excitation level and the lower excitation level in the rest of NS (97):

“Thus, on the one hand, [2] the ganglion slows the flow of excitation from one part of the system to the whole system, which causes, so to speak, a piling up in one part of the system. On the other hand, [1] the ganglion reduces the increase of the excitation in this part of the system by enlarging it, ultimately [3] causing a slow equalization of the differences in excitation. The [@2] first effect induces the appearance of the decrement, the [@1] second reduces the effective value of the decrement, while the [@3] third favours the equalization of the effect at various levels in the different parts of the system and thus reestablishes a state of equilibrium, the ‘average state excitation’” (97-8)

(x) The significance of adequate anatomical structures

The “near effect”, however, is also determined by the more or less greater appropriateness of the stimulus for the various parts of NS. The latter show varying degrees of adequacy to the different types of stimuli, on account of the organization of the respective organism and on account of the individual differences in receptivenesstoward various constellations of stimuli (example: the eye is more receptive to light, the ear to sound waves, etc.). In a part that is especially adapted to receive a stimulus, “effective”changes (= easily recorded effects) are produced; the same stimulus will not elicit a response in a less well adapted or inadequate part – there, it remains “subliminal”.  Goldstein terms this effect “functional near effect”:

“Those parts that are better adapted to receive a given stimulus, are functionally homogeneous, and therefore exhibit the ‘near effect’ must not necessarily be in local proximity but can be spread over distant parts of the nervous system. An adequate stimulus that impinges on any point can thus become effective at very different, widely separated regions, whereas other parts of greater local proximity but of different adequacy remain relatively untouched.” (98)

The change in these disparate systems may not be equally strong and simultaneous: for instance, in the nearer part, the equalization may have already begun, whereas in the more distant parts, the effects may have just started. Once stimulus can thus affect performances having temporal sequence.

Goldstein concludes that we can differentiate between near effects of varying degrees. The degree is determined by:

(a) the greater or lesser local proximity to the onset of the stimulus;

(b) the greater or lesser adequacy of the stimulus for the part of the system involved.

Parts that functionally belong together have a specific structure acquired through specific “practice” (98-9). 

Goldstein refuses to undertake an explanation of the origin of these structures. In general, he points out that the question is related to (a) the problem of the so-called origin of speciesand to (b) the problem of the specific pattern that the organism acquires during experience. In this light, the structure is best understood as the result of a process of adaptation of the organism to the environment (99).

(x) The processes in the “distant parts”. Figure-ground formation

The pattern of excitation that occurs in the system as the result of a stimulus cannot be sufficiently characterized by noting merely the state of excitation in the “near part”. The rest of the system, the “distant part”, is also in a very definite state of excitation (99).

Examples: part/body: Movement in one part of the body is accompanied by a change in the posture of the rest of body. When, in a response to stimulation, one part of our perceptual field becomes prominent, the entire field changes in support of the perception proper. 

Goldstein points out that simultaneously with each near change a corresponding changes in distant parts take place. The latter is in a certain sense antagonistic to the former, and is required for both (a) the maintenance of the balance of the entire system and (b) the accurate execution of the required performance. A reaction at one point is the more accurate the more it stands in the foreground” as compared with the “background” (= rest of the organism):

“In other words, a reaction at one point of the organism is more accurate the more precise the relation is between the near process (‘the foreground process’) and the process in the rest of the system (‘the background process’).”

Goldstein concludes that this configuration of excitation is the basic form of the functioning of NS (100).

It is important to add that the F-proces doesn’t necessarily comprise only narrow areas, but may also include wide areas of the organism, depending on whether greater or smaller part of the structures of the organism is required to deal with the task at hand.

The formation of F/G-processes is of varying difficulty for the organism. The analysis of pathological cases reveals that the F/G-formation is the more difficult the more precisely a definitely circumscribed formation has to stand out from the ground, and the more isolable elements it contains in a characteristic formation. The difficulty varies according to its familiarity: in the adjustments that have been experienced frequently, the formation of F occurs more promptly and is firmer. The adjustments acquired in childhood seem to be particularly stable (100). 

These factors determine the “functional significance” or “valence” of each single performance. It depends on valence whether, in case of impairment, one performance can be executed better than another performance of “higher” or “lower” value. In general, when the performance capacity of a substratum is impaired, the execution of separate actionssuffers first and foremost, while the more “general reactions” that correspond to a less clear F/G formation are still possible. We see further that a differentiation within the performance especially suffers – the performance loses its precision and discreteness of shape of the contributing “single elements” (101). 

(x) The distribution of excitation depends on the condition of the organism as a whole

There is a continuous alteration as to which “part” of the organism stands in F and which in B. The F is determined by the task the organism has to fulfil at any given moment, namely, by the situation in which the organism happens to find itself and by the demands with which it has to cope:

“The tasks are determined by the “nature” of the organism, its “essence”, which is brought into actualization through the environmental changes that act on it. The expressions of this actualization are the performances of the organism.Through them the organism can deal with the environmental demands and actualize itself. The possibility of asserting itself in the world, while preserving its character, hinges on a specific kind of ‘coming to terms’ of the organism with the environment. This has to take place in such a fashion that each change of the organism, caused by the environmental stimuli, is equalized after a definite time, so that the organism regains the ‘average’ state that corresponds to its nature, which is ‘adequate’ to it. Only when this is the case is it possible that the same environmental events can produce the same changes, that is, can lead to the same effects and to the same experiences. Only under this condition can the organism maintain its constancy and identity. If this equalization toward the average of adequate state did not occur, then the same environmental events would produce diverse changes in the organism. Thereby the environment would lose its constancy for the organism and would alter continually. The organism would be in a continual state of disquiet, would be endangered in its existence, and actually would be continuously ‘another’ organism. This, however, is actually not the case. On the contrary, we can observe the performances of the organism show relatively great constancy, with fluctuations around a constant mean. If this relative constancy did not exist it would not even be possible to recognize an organism as such; we could not even talk of a specific organism.” (101-2)

(x) The distribution of excitation depends on the condition of organism at the onset of reaction

This kind of coming to terms of the organism Goldstein calls the basic biologic law. The effect of a given stimulus can, for instance, vary, as it depends on the condition of the system at the moment of exposure to the stimulus (= “starting situation”)This phenomenon becomes especially pronounced in the vegetative system.

Example: adrenaline: small amount of adrenaline lowers the blood pressure; this becomes more pronounced if the tonus of the vascular muscles is higher [Cannon, Lyman]; apparently, a vessel that is narrower has a greater inclination toward dilatation than the one that is wider [Hess] (102).

The Equalization Belongs to the Excitation Course

It was mentioned that, under certain conditions, the stimulus effect can be reversed. This, as it turns out, can be understood for if we take into account that the stimulus effect is represented not only in the change of excitation but also in the equalization of that change. The organism tends never to remain, beyond a certain time frame, in a state of tension that lies above the “adequate mean”. Goldstein believes that this is the result of the fact that each stimulus, in addition to bringing about a given effect, initiates a return of the state of excitation to the mean. Therefore, the same stimuli are less effective when the condition of excitation of the organism is below the mean than when it is at the mean. However, in a condition of abnormally high excitation the same stimuli have the opposite effect, namely, of reducing the excitation toward the mean. (Goldstein goes on to present several facts from the field of the vegetative system that, in his view, support this hypothesis) (103).

Example: adrenaline & stomach: adrenaline increases the tonus in the stomach when the muscle is relaxed, but decreases it when the muscle is contracted (104). 

(x) Equalization toward an “adequate” average level in an “adequate” time: A basic biological law

Goldstein draws the following conclusion:

“These facts indicate that in the stimulus effect relation we are not dealing with a performance that is strictly caused by the stimulus alone but that the simultaneously occurring processes prevent too great a deviation from the ‘mean’, that is, the resulting performance is part of a total process that regulates the course of excitation so that it never deviates in an inadequate way from the mean. Since this process assumes essential importance for the maintenance of normal life, we may be well justified in calling it a biologically basic process.” (104)

Both the excitation and the equalization require time: any change in the temporal course of excitation changes the excitation as well as the equalization. The temporal relation between the stimulus and the reaction is usually regulated in such a was that new stimuli become effective only after the equalization has taken place in accordance with the situation. If, however, equalization has not yet taken place, i.e., if the new stimulus follows the preceding one too rapidly, we obtain an effect of the new stimulus, which differs from the effect normally obtained by the same stimulus. A different effect, then, is the result of an “inadequate” stimulation (104).

The “basic biological law” determines the process of a stimulated substratum. This law corresponds to the manner of functioning throughout the organism: whenever the organism is exposed to stimulation it responds in this way (105).

(x) The equalization process and the milieu of the organism. The catastrophic reaction

Goldstein contends that only such events that make the equalization possible can be said to belong to the milieu of the organism, exist for it as a stimulus, and lead to the experience of definite contents. However, not everything that happens in the outer world belongs to the milieu of the organism: the events that come to prove themselves as stimuli are those with which the organism can come to terms in a manner such that its existence (i.e., the actualization of the performances that constitute its nature) is not essentially disturbed. Put differently, this adjustment (= coming-to-terms) must permit equalization that is peculiar to the individual nature of the organism. Events in the outer world that do not permit this do not become effective in the normal organism, except when they are of abnormal intensity. In this case they lead to the phenomenon of the shock of the whole organism, a phenomenon which endangers its continuity as the system and that I have therefore called catastrophic reaction (105). 

Again, we must make a clear distinction between the surrounding world in which the organism is located and the milieu that represents only part of the world (= the part that is adequate to it): 

Each organism has its milieu, as Jakob von Uexküll has emphasized. Its existence and its ‘normal’ performances are dependent on the condition that a state of adaptation can come about between its structure and the environmental events, allowing the formation of an ‘adequate’ milieu. This is normally the case for a living organism.” (106)

How does this process take place? The organism responds, at first, to any stimulus acting on it by “turning-to movement” toward the stimulus source. This is followed by further reactions that lead either to the acceptance or rejection of the stimulus object. Note that the organism must always first come somehow into “contact” with the stimulus object before it can turn away from the object; however, in general, reactions of acceptance and rejection are essentially the same kind of behaviour, only their direction is different. Whether acceptance or rejection happens depends on the degree to which the stimulus object is adequate to the entire organization of the organism in question (106).

(x) Distribution of excitation corresponding to the “all-or-none law”

Goldstein notes:

“Any change in the organism has the tendency to continue for a while in the same direction (tendency of perseverance) and to reach a definite state. This tendency is relatively independent of the strength of the stimulus. The processes do notrun in a continuous flow but go from one ‘preferred’ condition to another. All stimuli are used more or less according to the ‘all-or-none-law’.” (106)

What is the “all-or-none-law”?

“[T]he all-or-none law postulates that, relatively independently of the intensity of the stimulus, those reactions occur that correspond to the best utilization of the part of the organism at the time, to wit, ‘preferred’ utilization.” (106-7)

From this it follows that various reactions can take place, depending on whether an organ is exposed to the stimulus in connection with the whole or in “isolation”. This, in turn, means that various effects may count as the expression of preferred utilization, effects that may superficially seem as a deviation from the all-or-none law, as long as one regards a single situation and its resulting effect as the “normal”. Thus,

“the validity or the nonvalidity of any biological law can never be proved through simple comparison of actual, single phenomena but only through careful analysis of their relation with the respective total situation.” (107)

Goldstein further emphasizes that this all-or-none law is equivalent to the law of pregnanz (Max Wertheimer). The end to which each process normally tends is determined by its significance for the essential tasks of the whole organism (107).

If we assume that every reaction is determined by the nature or “essence” of the organism, the question arises: What do we mean by the term “nature”/“essence”?Similarly: How do we arrive at the knowledge of this “nature”? The procedures of natural science cannot yield other than isolated facts in the physical and physiological realm. Yet Goldstein makes it clear that he has no intention of abandoning this principle of natural science. But how, then, are we to get to the understanding of the “whole”, given that the latter cannot be grasped through the simple summation of such piecemeal results? Before we can answer this question, we need to inquire more closely into the inadequacy of “part phenomena” and methodological procedures that have brought these “parts” to the fore (107-8).

Discussion of the Physico-Chemical and So-Called Physiological Facts

Goldstein notes that what is usually understood by physico-chemical or physiological investigation/theory is equivocal. The process that is regarded as the ideal by physiologist is to examine the organism by physical and chemical methods to form a conception of the functioning of the organism on the basis of results thereby obtained. Such investigations are usually called physiological, and one contrasts the investigation of physico-chemical processes within the living organism with investigations of physico-chemical processes outside the organism (108). 

The reason why theories based on such methodological postulates enjoy such great esteem is probably the extreme exactness of the results obtained and the belief that this method can convey a particularly direct insight into the events in the living substance. Now, there are fervent devotees of this method for whom it is a foregone conclusion that life processes can ultimately be reduced to physico-chemical processes and to whom the fact that no such account is available as of yet is merely due to the incompleteness of our present state of research. On the other hand, we find skeptics, who do not believe that life can be comprehended by the physico-chemical facts alone, yet still consider such facts as the necessary epistemic fundament (109). 

Goldstein finds the entire view suspect, and wonders whether anything at all that would clarify the performances of the organism could, in fact, be discovered by the physico-chemical method:

“Could not the application of physico-chemical methods possibly mean, in principle, […] a destruction of the organism, and could not the onset of the experiment alter the activity of the organism in such a way that we always obtain a modification of its normal functions that deviate irreparably from the normal processes? […] Is it not altogether a mistake to talk about physiological facts where it would be more correct to say that we are dealing with physics and chemistry applied to a living object, but not with a physical and chemical research of life processes?” (109)

According to Goldstein, even those authors who are skeptical of the physico-chemical approach regard the physiological method as the only firm foundation by which to obtain laws governing the processes in the organism (109-10). In this regard, Goldstein mentions such disparate authors as von MonakowPavlov and Stein, who all favour physiological over psychological data. Stein is particularly interesting in this regard because of the special value he ascribes to the method of chronaxie, in light of which he believes that he is able to get a better understanding of the processes of the organism through the physical (especially electrical) method than would be possible through a simple analysis of behaviour (be it somatic or psychic). However, as Goldstein points out, even in these (= chronaxiemetric) findings, we are not dealing with direct manifestations of the activity of the nervous substance, but only with expressions of the nervous system or of the organism under specific conditions, namely, under the definite demands as are exerted by stimulation through the electric current.They overlook the fact that the laws of the course of excitation in the organism, which they have thus derived, represent only inferences from experimentation (110). 

In Goldstein’s view, chronaxie investigations cannot furnish a better understanding of the course of excitation in NS than the analysis of other performances. After all, we are also dealing in these experiments with performance experiments. Thus, life processes (in general) can be conceived properly only when this understanding is derived from the investigation of performances(111). 

According to Goldstein, Stein’s investigations demonstrate that the physico-chemical methods do not actually achieve any more than the “phenomenological analysis” (by this expression Goldstein means the description of kinds of behaviour): the chronaxie investigations, so to speak, confirm the findings that the investigations of perception have yielded. Neither of the two methods of investigation is better than the other, except that the chronaxiemetrical investigation is more precise in administration and offers the possibility to represent results more clearly. It is true that, as suggested by Stein, it is not possible to arrive through psychological findings at theoretical understanding in the sense of physics and chemistry. But one can, in this way, very well arrive at a theoretical understanding in the sense of “physiology” (113).

(x) The compatibility of Goldstein’s theory with the anatomical facts

Every theory of the functioning of the organism needs to be brought into accord with the known anatomical facts. However: what really are these facts? In addition to certain open empirical and theoretical questions, what is particularly significant, is that it depends on the method of investigation how the “facts”, the anatomical structure of NS, present themselves to us. How do we know to what extent the structures which have been explored are not artifacts? We can doubt altogether that the anatomical structures described in histology are at all essential for the functioning of NS. One could, for instance, ask whether the functioning elements of NS are really so-called neurons. And one would, in fact, probably be justified in stating that this generally adopted view is probably not correct in its exclusiveness. There is, Goldstein says, a plethora of unanswered questions in relation to this and similar issues, which makes all theories of the functioning of NS, based on so-called anatomical facts, highly problematic (113-4). 

In this regard, Goldstein makes two points

(i) anatomy cannot supply a completely firm basis for the theory of nervous function;

(ii) however, any theory of nervous functioning should attempt to do justice to the anatomical facts (as we know them at present).

As to (ii), Goldstein believes that his theory is fully compatible with the prevailing anatomical evidence (114).

Chapter IV: Modification of Function due to Impairment of the Organism

Goldstein opens this chapter with the following words:

“If we wish to understand the nature of part processes, the best approach is the study of phenomena found in diseased persons. Here we are dealing with performances that take place in isolated parts, because all damage severs parts from the organism, or to put it more precisely, divides the organism into parts. A circumscribed injury to the neural  substratum modifies the excitation process in two ways: (1) by directly affecting the functioning of the substratum concerned and (2) by isolating the excitation spread in one part from the excitation in the rest of the nervous system.” (115)

The “Dedifferentiation” of Functioning in the Impaired Substrate

(1) and (2) are not independent from each other, but we can separate them provisionally (for practical purposes). Thus, we find injuries which predominantly affect the substratum itself, and injuries which chiefly affect the substratum’s relation to the rest of the organism (115). 

(x) Impediment and retardation of the excitation process. Defective equalization. Abnormal stimulus bond. “Dedifferentiation” toward greater homogeneity

The (1) injury of the substratum always entails a loss of ganglion cells, and therefore tends to affect those events that exist through the interposition of ganglia. This will lead to: (i) an encumbrance and retardation of the course of excitation, (ii) a dedifferentiation in structural organization, and finally (iii) a defective equalization (115-6). 

When a substratum, which is directly stimulable by the outer world (e.g., a sensory area) is injured, we find (@ i) a raised threshold: responsiveness is reduced, requiring stronger stimulation, and at the same time is retarded. In this condition, (@ iii) increased intensity and duration of stimulation may still lead to normal or even to abnormally strong and lasting sensations due to retarded equalization (as in the case of “blinding”). The (@ ii) dedifferentiation manifests itself in the reduced differential thresholdlowering of visual acuityvagueness or diffusion of contours, and defective localization of stimuli. It also shows itself in defective power to differentiate between qualities (e.g., in colour perception). Corresponding phenomena can be found in the motor field and in the field of reflexes.

In this case, functional disturbance usually affects performances of circumscribed areas of the body (116).

(x) The effect of isolation

Many symptoms are principally the (2) effect of isolation. Isolation creates essentially the same changes as those mentioned above. In addition to dedifferentiation, we find changes of performance due to abnormal stimulus bonds, particularly “forced responsiveness – abnormally strong effect of the stimuli, abnormal dependency on the quality of the stimulus, and extension of the stimulus effect with respect to space and time, etc. Finally, we find a strange phenomenon, which consists of alteration between opposite reactions: under certain circumstances, we have abnormal preservation, under other circumstances, a great liability (116-7).

Dedifferentiation Exemplified by Phenomena of Lesions in Various Parts of the Nervous System

(x) Symptoms of isolation in the spinal cord

All the above phenomena can be observed, when the spinal cord is cut at any level (= direct damage to the substratum): loss of performances “localized” at the level of the damage, reduction of threshold of excitability of the proprioceptive reflexes, an increased reaction, abnormal duration of movement, and permanent spasms (117)

(x) Explanation of the Babinski phenomenon as the effect of dedifferentiation of motor performance. The nature of flexion and extension performance

Example: Babinski phenomenon: According to Goldstein, BB-Ph is a particularly good example of this. (a) Classical interpretation: disinhibition of the dorsal flexion (= plantar extension) (in adult human beings this is supposed to be an inhibited reflex response). (b) Goldstein: concept of inhibition = meaningless. The “reversal” of reaction (from plantar flexion to dorsal flexion) can be better explained by a change in the relation of the distribution in excitability between flexors and extensors (this, apparently, is supported by the investigations of chronaxie) (118). 

How exactly does a lesion of the pyramidal tract (= “cause” of the BB-Ph) produce this change of the normal ratio of excitability? Flexors are usually more sensitive to excitation than extensors, which is an expression of carrying out the most important activities for human beings, namely the voluntary actions. In this, brain plays an essential role (118-9). 

The reversal of the excitability ratio between flexors and extensors corresponds to the diminution of voluntary actions in damage of the cortical motor system and coming to the fore of automotive reactions. Here, the organism is no longer able to adjust itself to previously normal stimuli; they now represent a danger. Therefore the organism reacts to them with protective automatic defense or “flight reactions” (119).

In pyramidal tract lesionsflight reactions to stimulation of the sole show in withdrawal of the whole leg. In human beings, this withdrawal may represent itself only in a rudimentary form (= dorsal movement of the big toe), while in animals it manifests itself in the withdrawal of the whole leg: “In other words, animals react with a greater part of the bodyhuman beings, only with an isolated movement.” The more an organism is conditioned to react with highly specialized movements, the more also its flight reactions will consist of more isolated movements, etc. (119).

Thus, we come to the result: “the Babinski phenomenon is to be understood as an expression of the change of the excitability ratio because of a dedifferentiation of the motor system that brings flight reactions and, with them, sensitivity of extensor muscles abnormally to the fore”:

“The normal plantar reflex and the Babinski phenomenon thus represent different forms of the organism’s coming to terms with a stimulus (in this case plantar stimulation) under different conditions of the whole organism.” (119)

From the preceding analysis, Goldstein draws the following general conclusion:
To each performance belongs a specific distribution of excitability in NS; to performances in a certain state of dedifferentiation corresponds a definite change of distribution of excitability. If a stimulus becomes effective, it is responded to by a reaction commensurate with the excitability predominant in that state of dedifferentiation. Under normal conditions, for instance, we find a dominance of flexor performances, etc., whereas in a lesion of the pyramidal tract, there is a dominance of extension, concomitantly with the prevalence of flight reactions, etc.:

“Thus, neither one of the responses to the plantar stimulation, be it the normal or the pathological, represents a reflex or a disinhibited reflex; both represent the different ways in which the organism, under different conditions, utilizes the stimulus: The so-called reversal of reflexes is not really a reversal of a fixed reaction, but in both phenomena, the ‘reflex’ and the ‘reversal’, we are dealing with different performances that have nothing to do with each other.” (120)

(x) Other phenomena in plantar stimulation due to isolation by disease

How do we know if the said hypothesis is plausible? Goldstein enumerates two criteria: (a) If the cause of the Babinski phenomenon is, in fact, a reversal of the conditions of excitability, we should expect to obtain the dorsal flexion of the big toe under other conditions as well (and not only in lesions of the pyramidal tract). On the other hand, (b) even in lesions of the pyramidal tract the Babinski phenomenon must disappear if the relation of the excitability between flexors and extensors is changed in favour of flexors. Both assumptions, Goldstein maintains, can be proved by facts. 

Example: Babinski phenomenon (cont.):

(ad a) Dorsal flexion can be found in lesions unrelated to the pyramidal tract: in cases of peripheral paralysis, paralysis of the sciatic nerve, or in lesions of the anterior horn having specific localizations. 

(ad b) In lesions of the pyramidal tract, dorsal flexion disappears or changes into a plantar flexion (so-called “reflex change”), if we modify the relation of flexor-extensor excitability, e.g., by changing the posture of the leg (flexion in hip and knee), of the body (ventral position), or of the head (as demonstrated by Walsh) (121). 


(x) Abnormal excitation spread under isolation

What are some other phenomena evidencing the effect of the isolation of parts of the spinal cord? Abnormal spatial diffusion of the stimulus manifests itself not only in an increase of the area that becomes receptive (as noted above) but also in the wider spreading of the effect in the motor field. That is to say, the motor figure formation is thwarted, the distinction between figure and ground becomes less articulate (121).

Based on empirical research on (of all things) leg stimulation, Goldstein presents certain facts that are in need of explanation:

(a) The weaker the excitation, either because of the weakness of the stimulus or because of injury of the substratum, the more do homogenous and ipsilateral reactionspreponderate. This can be explained because homogenous and ipsilateral reactions are simpler(require less “figuration”).

(b) Weaker stimuli lead to an extensor reaction, and stronger stimuli lead to a flexor reaction. Again, this can be explained because extension is simpler (122).

(x) The alternating reactions. Rigidity and lability in the figure-ground process as expression of isolation of an apparatus

In cases of cross-section lesions, one finds that the plantar stimulus is responded to by alternating movements of both legs (resembling “walking movements”). According to Goldstein, these indicate the lowered stability of the figure formation and the resulting increased lability of the processes (123).

It was already mentioned that a certain ground process accompanies each figure process. In performances of the normal organism, the total organism forms the background against which the figure process, taking place in a circumscribed area, stands out. But the entire organism does not form the background in a homogenous way. For instance, in the execution of the movement, the “ground process” in the motorium is probably more closely related to the figure than other processes (= outside of motorium). But the whole system always participates to some extent. In the same way, the equalization process involves the whole organism, but here too, not all “parts” are included in the same manner (123-4).

However, the stimulus reaction changes if it takes place in relatively isolated parts of the system. In such cases, we observe either (i) an abnormal perseveration and rigidity of the figure (as in the case of spasm) or (ii) an abnormal alteration between opposing phenomena.

Example I: afterimage-effect: In cases of afterimages we obtain an abnormal aftereffect, but also a repeated change of opposite colour sensations.

Example II: Kohnstamm experiment [wikipediayoutube]: If, with the arm hanging loosely, one presses the hand against the wall so that the deltoid muscle is strongly innervated, and then gives the arm free space of movement, one experiences the arm rising by itself. If the subject, during the experiment, succeeds in isolating the arm as much as possible, one experiences an alternating movement, the arm rising and falling several times.

Example III: stimulation of the labyrinth: what follows is nystagmus (“dancing eyes”) or arm tonus reactions.    

All these are cases in which the excitation takes its course in relative “isolation”. We feel that these events take place almost against our will: while they occur in our body, we have really nothing to do with them. The isolation becomes particularly clear if we succeed in bringing one of the phenomena in closer relation to ourselves. Then the character oflability decreases or disappears completely. If, for instance, we ask a patient with nystagmus to fixate on an object, the nystagmus is reduced (124-5).

The phenomenon under discussion becomes particularly clear if we look at ambiguous figures, e.g., in the well-known drawings of Edgar Rubin. Depending on our attitude, one or other part of the total configuration becomes the foreground, and accordingly two entirely different figures can alternately arise (e.g, two dark faces vs. a light vase). When we take a passive attitude, then a fluctuation between figures becomes very pronounced. But the fluctuation decreases, the more the entire organism participates in the activity of focusing on one or the other part of the drawing. This is also the case if we try to regard the figure not merely as a picture but try to perceive the faces or the case as real objects. Not everybody succeeds in this, but if one does, the alternating fluctuation disappears entirely. This process can be facilitated by adding some lines which enhance the character of concreteness and vividness (as demonstrated by Mary R. Harrower) (125).

Apparently, under normal conditions, any figure formation determined by a stimulus has the whole of the organism as its background. If figure formation loses its stability, then the outer stimuli become abnormally effective, in an inadequate, “random” fashion. If they are very strong, an abnormal fixation of one figure ensues. If, however, such a figure cannot be formed, the “ground” processes may press forward and become figure (125). 

The F/G relationship can explain the appearance of lability, but not for the appearance of directly antagonistic performances. How could we account for these? The more the F/G process is restricted to smaller areas, the more do the local effects become similar, representing opposite stages of one and the same process. If lability occurs in a circumscribed section of that sort, it must manifest itself in the alternation of opposite relations. This is particularly clear in the pathological or experimental isolation of certain parts (example: alternating flexor and extensor movements occur if the spine is transected) (126). 

(x) Alternating processes and rhythmic performances

Now, these alternating movements are not a normal, but an abnormal event, and shouldn’t be (pace Wilhelm Trendelenburg) confused for the normal, stepwise movement observed in walking. The latter, according to Goldstein, is not determined by the (relatively isolated) periphery, but by the whole of the organism and is therefore dependent on the total situation. Thus, we need to carefully distinguish between (a) pathological “alternating processes” (characterized by “machinelike promptness”) and (b) normal “rhythmic processes” (characterized by flexibility and irregularity) (127).

(x) Symptoms of isolation in the cerebellum

In cases of disease of the cerebellar cortex in men, characteristic symptoms have been found in the form of the so-called deviation, the “past pointing”, the tendency to fall, etc. Goldstein contends that, upon close inspection, it turns out that we need to reject the assumption that this is the result of the loss of certain centers of coordination and equilibrium in the cerebellum. Instead, we are lead to the assumption that these are instances of abnormal stimulus reaction in subcerebellar mechanisms, because of the loss of the cerebellar participation in the reaction. This becomes particularly evident when we realize that the phenomena do not present an irregular disturbance of equilibrium but a systematic change of certain performances. These phenomena, Goldstein claims, become intelligible if one regards them as the reactions of special apparatuses functioning in isolation from the cerebellum. The resulting performances show specific characteristics due to isolation: abnormal stimulus bond, abnormal aftereffect, etc. (128-9).

Cerebellar coinnervation of the subcerebellar motor mechanisms particularly favours theflexor and adduction movements. Through these movements the stimuli are checked(the “turning-to reaction”). These stimuli are not only kept in check, so that they cannot become effective independently of the total constellation, but are integrated with the latter. This is what allows us to, say, stand erect, keep one arm lifted forwards, etc., without continuously and consciously counteracting the change of posture caused by the varying external stimuli.

However, when this cerebellar coinnervation is impaired, the isolated subcerebellar mechanisms are exposed, to an increased degree, to the effect of peripheral stimuli. This manifests itself in one-sided lesion, and leads to a deviation of the stretched-out arm, to the tendency to past pointing, etc. 

The cerebellar symptoms, then, are the expression of a dedifferentiation of the motor performances of the organism, which manifests itself in a decay of flexion and adductionand an increase of extension and abduction performances (128).

(x) Symptoms of isolation in the cerebral cortex

All the phenomena of direct injury to the substratum and of isolation appear equally clearly in cortical lesions in the form of changes of the mental processes.

First, there is the so-called retarded effect of stimulus: Here, one speaks of a retarded responsiveness – of a difficulty in assuming a psycho-physical set. It can be observed in perception as well as in motility, thinking, etc. A considerable amount of time is required for a perception to become consolidated; however, once a stimulus has produced an effect, then the effect can become abnormally strong due to the stagnation of excitation in the circumscribed area because of the isolation. Simultaneously, an increase in duration and a diffused distribution may occur over a larger area, which finds the expression in a lack of precision in the figure formation (= defective F/G formation). This may be the reason [example] a cutaneous stimulus is followed by an abnormally diffused sensation, which at the same time is incorrectly localized by the patient. It would seem that the more circumscribed this sensation becomes, the less correct the localization – as if the energy were not sufficient to enable the proper total figure formation to occur with the two necessary aspects: setting into relief and referring to a definite place (129).

Because of the isolation, certain figure formations may be of abnormal firmness and rigidity. This explains the strange observation that patients, in certain tasks, create the impression of performing abnormally well: “patients, who are otherwise severely disturbed, may react in a simple reaction experiment with unusual promptness and regularity once they have ‘warmed up’ to the task”. This unusual promptness is abnormal and is caused by isolation, which precludes interference by other stimuli (131).

(x) Abnormal distractibility and abnormal stimulus bond as expression of defective F/G-events.

Often, one finds (i) abnormal alternations and (ii) abnormal bonds (“forced responsiveness”) side by side. Analysis reveals that both phenomena can be related to theimpairment of F-G formation(ad i) As long as a “correct” performance has not been accomplished, the patient seems to be affected by any stimulus, to be highly distractible, and to have difficulty in concentrating. (ad ii) However, as soon as a good performance has been accomplished new stimuli no longer seem to be effective: the patient is inattentive with regard to them. If confronted with a new task, which he cannot perform, he keeps on repeating the old performance – he perseverates, as it is called (131-2).

(Black bean aphids (sl. črne fižolove uši, Aphis fabae) on Austrian leopard’s bane (sl. avstrijski divjakovec, Doronicum austriacum). To obtain enough proteins aphids need to ingest a large amount of sweet sap, causing distortion of the shoots and stunted plant growth. They excrete the excess sugary fluid in form of honeydew droplets which are harvested by the ants. The latter defend the aphids against their predators and parasites (e.g. parasitic wasps). Honeydew is also collected by the bees that produce forest honey – they frequent the aphids that reside on the leaves of different tree sprecies.)


The following topics were pointed out during the discussion:

I) Goldstein’s concept of dedifferentiation opposes the mainstream paradigm. Describing numerous phenomena, he demonstrates the changeable nature of facts. Classical medicine often offers a diagnosis based on the injured substrate(s) – the functions are thought to be centered. Regarding an injury as a dedifferentiation, however, presumes that a specific, stable figure on the ground disintegrates, which further obstructs the formation of the organism’s global configuration. The injury artificially isolates a part of the system which functions as a net. A net with a malfunctioning part collapses, resulting in the appearance of symptoms.

II) We observed that Goldstein’s meticulously compiled empirical records are sometimes not clearly integrated into the theory he is proposing. Should we regard this as a shortcoming? We think not. After a decade of his work with the patients Goldstein wrote The Organism in mere three weeks. The monography intends to introduce a new outlook at matters in neurology and psychology, radically differing from what was established. He had no model to build his theory upon so it is understandable that, in establishing his own net of basic concepts, he was not always concise. Such is often the case with the founding works – despite the authors’ endeavour to be precise, many of the questions they tackle are left unanswered. As examples we mentioned Kuhn’s manifold definitions of the paradigm shift and the works of Galilei, Kopernik and Descartes. An opposite example might be Pascal who wrote in a both radical and coherent manner.

III) What is the nature or essence of an organism according to Goldstein? 

The essence of an organism cannot be summarized by a Platonic idea. It is not something fixed, but instead manifests itself every time the organism copes with the world (its ‘quasi-negative’ environment). To comprehend the nature of an organism we must observe its life form (i.e., the figure-ground form) in a moment of its encounter with the world. We can then notice the formation of the dynamic-morphogenic parameters for its self-actualization. To illustrate that, let us draw a comparison with how we decipher the essence of a musical piece. We cannot find it if we mathematically analyze the piece. We can neither count on our sentiment alone. The essence unveils itself at the very moment the piece is performed.

Only insofar as the organism is open to the world it can receive stimuli and afterwards equalize back toward the mean. Precisely because of this openness it is possible for the organism to differentiate between relevant and noxious stimuli. Otherwise it would live in a constant state of chaos – and the inability of a life form to maintain itself results in death. To speak of an organism would thus be pointless. One of the interpretations of the organism’s nature/essence implies that an individual is defined by the characteristic(s) that distinguish it from the others/the world. We assume for these characteristics to be the organism’s preferred behaviours and their corresponding stable states of the living form. A healthy individual possesses several distinct normative states and can shift between them in accordance with the all-or-none law. If it comes up against a considerable change in its circumstances it moves from the current stable state to another stable state. It does not waver in the phase of catastrophic reactions between them – as long as the organism is willing to face the forthcoming challenges, it is capable of such a leap. On the other hand, a pathological organism holds onto the only more-or-less stable state that remains. Every deviation from it results in a catastrophic reaction. Similar performance can be observed in children, but they are nevertheless able to self-actualize since their curiosity pushes them to cope with the unfamiliar. Self-actualization is a tendency toward perfection – it enables one to manifest according to their capabilities, even though they might not be aware of having possessed a certain potential. This can be illustrated by the systemic change that occurs in the course of psychotherapy when the patient learns to manage a specific insecurity. Being able to actualize in a previously inconcievable way, it is easier for the patient to tackle their other potentials as well.

John McDowell tried to seal the schism existing between the concepts of “ethereal” mind an the world “describable by the physico-chemical laws”. He distinguished between two ways of describing the phenomena: a) the realm of law to describe the world and b) the space of reasons to describe people (since it is presumed that people act in accordance with reason). With a similar intent as McDowell, Merleau-Ponty proposed three orders: the physical, vital and human. A distinct order to describe the animal vitality is needed since the animal behaviour is describable neither as following the reason nor as conforming to the regularity of physico-chemical laws. It instead follows a natural normativity which emerges within the living beings. An organism responds to its environment and the world in specific ways that simultaneously enable its perseverance and self-actualization. To acknowledge with what is relevant for a specific organism we have to describe it with elaborate care, omitting our tendency to draw conclusions in the light of linear causality. 

Goldstein equates the organism’s sphere of life with its “comfort zone”. Self-actualization happens on the brinks of it, i.e., when the organism (reasonably or not) fears for its life. In order to transcend this fear it needs to act, and therefore it expands its sphere of life. 

IIIa) We mentioned Plessner’s inquiry into the differences between how living and inanimate phenomena are interpreted. Goldstein, however, suggests that the nature/essence of an organism is not ontological. He does not seek for the foundation of existence but for the foundation of knowledge. The essence of an organism can be characterized as the knowledge [Urbild] that helps the biologist to understand a specific organism in the context of the applied theoretical model. Biological knowledge is, at its core, a function of life: the theoretical models in biology are intended for the organism (i.e., the biologist) to come to terms with its environment in an adequate way. 

→Therefore, Urbild could be taken for the foundation of knowledge when we describe the phenomena (cf. discussion on Ch. I, question c). Goldstein does not tackle the epistemological subject further as he considers his discourse to be methodological. Searching for a foundation of knowledge suitable for the descriptive biology, he leaves aside questions like a) how to formulate the categories of understanding in accordance with the approach described above, and b) how that would shape the ontology of the subject matter. These were only taken up later by Merleau-Ponty and Canguilhem. 

IV) By investigating the brain Goldstein aims to observe the constitution of the milieu. Is that a worthwhile endeavour? It depends on the approach one takes. Goldstein suggests that the structuration of the figure-ground in the nervous system follows the organism’s intention toward the accomplishment of a certain task. Regarding a specific anatomical structure to which it may pertain, he favors the nerve fibril theory. In his time, there was a heated debate between the anatomists and the histologists about the concept of a structural unit in neurology. The topic remains disputable to this day. In predictive coding, brain is considered to be a net with certain domains that bear specific functions. It operates as a predictive system on a global scale. Another branch of contemporary cognitive science, as well as the prevalent opinion of general public, still supports the concept of compartmentalized brain. This might be a result of an erroneous reasoning which projects the conceptual base of the used methodology on the research subject. Namely, to describe in manner of belonging together (cf. discussion on Ch. I, section III) is to relate the components of an artificially separated phenomenon. For example, the coloured patches in fMRI images are commonly misinterpreted as the discrete areas of neuronal activity. An fMRI image, however, is a composite of the detected changes in cerebral blood flow versus the blood flow in the subject’s resting state. It is a tool to be used by the performing neuroscientist but it bears no fathomable meaning otherwise. Similarly, Sergey Levine writes about the persistence of frame problem in cognitive science.

Levine also writes about machine learning. A typical procedure in AI was to construct and program the robots on the basis of a currently accepted definiton of learning. Nowadays, scientists use an opposite method, hoping to get an insight into learning by observing the robotic activity. Problem remains since the capability for recognition requires for the individual to have an Umwelt. The environment the robots interact with could hardly be dubbed as such – their world consists of algorithms. Yet this remains inadequately questioned in the cognitive sciences, since the AI currently has the upper hand.

Questions to consider

a) Is it possible for the specialists who enter the field of cognitive sciences to attain the polymathic attitude? Currently there seems to be no efficient model to enable an individual to surpass the confines of their specialization and the aloofness between the disciplines therefore persists. Nevertheless, the “coercion” into finding a universal language might well be worth the effort.

b) If we used Urbild as a tool for description in sciences in general i) how would the categories of understanding then be formulated, and ii) how would that shape the ontology of the subject matter?