Friday, December 26, 2008

Brain concepts and divorce rates

In my recent book, Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, I argued that one of the root causes of human misery can be traced to the fact that our acquired, post-natal, brain concepts– be they that of a house, a car, a symphonic rendering or a lover - are a synthesis of all the experiences that we have had of that particular attribute. But the individual example – of a car, or a house or a lover - that we experience at any given moment may not satisfy the synthetic concept, thus leading to disappointment and misery.

Disappointment can be defined as a failure to come up to expectation. But expectation with respect to what? A synthetic brain concept of course.

I recently read an interesting account of Japanese divorce rates which seems, on the face of it, to support this view in an important domain. Apparently, Japanese divorce rates have soared in the past few years. Husbands and wives are, seemingly, deeply disappointed with one another.

What is it that has brought this sudden increase about?

According to a BBC report, it is the retirement of the husband in a society where longevity has improved (aided as well by a new law which allows a divorced woman access to her husband’s pension). The retirement creates, according to the report, the opportunity for the married couple to spend more time with each other. Apparently, especially disastrous has been the post-retirement cruises in foreign lands, when the spouses find themselves even closer to each other.

Proximity of course increases the opportunity for experiencing something different from the synthetic brain concept of a lover, or a husband, or a wife that an individual may have; hence increases the opportunity for disappointment as well.

After all, Dante was never disappointed with Beatrice because he virtually never spent any time with her. All he did was to see her on two or three occasions. She smiled at him on one and not the other. She then married a rich banker and died young. He did not experience her long enough to be disappointed with her. Instead he could exalt his brain concept of her. He tells us as much in La Vita Nuova: I shall write of "la gloriosa donna de la mia mente" (the glorious lady of my mind) as no man has written of any woman.

In one version of the famous Majnun-Leila legend, when after a long separation Majnun had the opportunity of seeing Leila, he said ”Be gone from me. My concept of Leila is so much more beautiful than you”. He did not want to experience her!

In one of her love songs, the legendary Egyptian singer, Oum Kalthoum, declares: “I suffer in your presence; I need the mercy of distance.”

Just in case there is any misunderstanding – this is not a Japanese phenomenon at all. According to a Daily Mail report in 2006, there has been a similar tendency in Britain. Also, not all couples who see a lot of each other become disappointed; in a highly variable system there is bound to be a percentage whose brain concept of their lover or spouse is never disappointed But a sufficiently large number do so to make the divorce rates in Western societies approach about 48%, significantly greater than in Japan. Their acquired brain concept of what a spouse or partner should be is, apparently, not satisfied by their experience of the spouse or lover.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Motivations for studying hate

Hate is a very interesting condition and, like love, has no doubt been a major force in shaping human history and destinies. It thus seemed naturally interesting to learn something about the neural processes underlying it, which is why we undertook a study of it, to complement our earlier studies of romantic and maternal love. Our study of hate has still a long way to go, and we plan more experiments in this area in the future.

But there is another reason why I was interested in pursuing a study of hate. I have long had an academic colleague in whom I found nothing but hate, but I found it very difficult to pinpoint the source of this hatred towards me. For, to the best of my knowledge, I had done nothing to harm him in any way, indeed had been friendly and well-meaning towards him.

It must be the colour of my eyes or my manner of speaking, I thought.

And then I found that his hatred was not directed against me alone. It was more general than that – evident in letters he had written to, or about, other colleagues.

So, I concluded that he was just full of hate.

And I was really curious to learn about which parts of his brain become active when he looks at me and others – people whom he apparently hates irrationally (for there is no obvious reason why he should hate us).

Experiences – including unpleasant ones - can also be motivating factors in undertaking scientific work.

I was somewhat surprised by the results that we obtained. Given that hate is commonly irrational – and the example I give above obviously so – I expected to see significant de-activation of frontal, parietal, and temporal cortex, just as with romantic love, where people also commonly take leave of their senses. But, with hate, cortical de-activation was much more confined, in fact to an area which has also been found to be de-activated in cases of obsessive-compulsive disorders.

I have tried to account for this by supposing that the hating person wants to use all his judgmental powers to calculate how to harm the hated person. Indeed, activation of parts of the brain – in particular a structure known as the putamen, which has been linked to disgust and to motor preparation in an aggressive context – would support this.

As I say, there are many more studies yet to be done on brain processes and hate. The original inspiration – from my hating colleague – will be forgotten as more interesting insights are gained.

But it is as well to pay my compliments to him for being – at least in part – the inspirational source for this study.

Do I hate him in return? Of course not! How could anyone hate someone who inspires an interesting study!?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The informed judgment of economists…and the neurobiology of confidence

This week, The Economist publishes a survey of economists’ views on the economy, especially the American economy.

It is, we are told, “not, by any means a scientific poll of all economists” since only 142 of 683 research associates in economics responded.

The Economist asks, “Does their opinion matter?” and answers it by saying that “economists opinion should count for something because…most of them approach policy decisions in the same way. Their assessment of the [presidential] candidates’ economic plans represents an informed judgment …” I take it they mean that most of them use the same facts and use the same, or similar, brain processes to reach their judgment.

What did they find? Well, here it is:

that “Our respondents generally agree the economy is in bad shape, that the election is important to the course of economic policy and that the housing and financial crisis is the most critical issue facing America”

I would have loved to have heard Charlotte Green read this as a news item on radio.

Popular opinion which, of course, is not usually well informed could not have agreed more with the “informed judgment” of the economists, at least on this occasion.

This morning, on the BBC World Service, two highly eminent economists were interviewed. One of them said that this was the worst, most unprecedented, crisis that America had faced in years, that the short term outlook was miserable…or words to that effect. The other said that all things were marvellous, that far from being a crisis, the present situation created new opportunities for, among other things, “moral hazards”. “Moral Hazards”? Well, I am almost sure that I heard it correctly, but I don’t know what the term means. I am not an economist.

The thing that puzzles me about economic advisers is their sense of certainty – communicated in the assurance with which they utter their opinions. Where does this certainty come from? There must be some neural mechanism which weighs all the evidence and reaches a conclusion. But a conclusion must be subjected, I suppose, to another mechanism, one that weighs the extent to which the conclusion is reliable and the extent to which it must remain in doubt. Let us call this mechanism X. Mechanism X could, in turn, be in one of two broad states: call them C for confidence and D for doubt.

Do you suppose that, given how economic advisors have blown it big time on this occasion (according to object criteria), their factor X was not operational? Or that only the C part of it was operational, while the D part was switched off?

Is factor X inoperative in us all when we, on occasions, are certain of a conclusion that turns out to be seriously wrong? What is it that turns off factor C or D?

Subject for future studies. Meantime, we can all put our own confidence either in economists who say that the picture is rosy or those who say that it is gloomy. Does it much matter? Events seem to take little notice of them.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Please do it again, Charlotte...

Charlotte Green is one of the best news readers in the world. She regularly reads the news authoritatively and dispassionately for BBC Radio 4, in a rich, resonant voice that never betrays a trace of emotion or of bias. She is a pleasure to listen to and, through her reading, all the news - good and bad – becomes a sober and unemotional record of events. She makes listening to the news a pleasure, and thus even manages to lessen the displeasure that one may have at hearing about certain events.

Except on one occasion (though I understand there have been others) when she got the giggles. Apparently, someone whispered something in her ear that made her crack up!

And what a pleasure it is to listen to her bursting into laughter, which I have done several times. I have read that many people wrote to the BBC that day, not to complain but to ask them to replay the excerpt, so much had they enjoyed it.

So they should!

Laughter is very infectious, and why it should be so is a most interesting neurological problem. But it also has other, more physiological, benefits. Apparently it boosts the immune system, reduces stress hormones, massages the heart and diaphragm (thus providing some “internal” exercise for muscles) and engenders a “feel good” factor.

Of course, it would be most interesting to find out many things about laughter - why it is so infectious, how nervous activity relating to laughter is communicated to the immune system in such a beneficial way, and through what neural mechanisms it changes one’s subjective state to make one feel good, or better, even in difficult times.

It will take a long time to understand these mechanisms. But, while waiting, we can go on and treat ourselves to a good laugh.

So, instead of sending a birthday or greeting card to a friend, just send them this link on the occasion:

It will make them happy, boost their immune system, exercise their muscles, put them in a "feel good" frame of mind…and cost you nothing.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A forgotten but (perhaps) important experiment in colour vision.

Many years ago, in 1983, I published a paper on colour vision, in which I described an experiment that seemed to me to be important. Although the paper has been cited many times, the particular experiment I am referring to has never, to my knowledge, been quoted by anyone. In fact, even I had forgotten all about it until very recently, when someone made what seemed to me to be an inaccurate remark about colour opponency.

Colour opponency refers to the fact that there are three pairs of colours which have been described as those that “cannot live with each other, and yet cannot live without each other”. They are red-green, blue-yellow, and white black. For, as most people know, when we look at a green surface for a brief period of time and then transfer our gaze to a neutral, blank, screen the colour of the after image is red. A yellow surface will produce a blue after image and a white surface a black one.

One explanation of these opponent effects – the one most often repeated – is that they are due to adaptation in the retina. The explanation here is something like this: that a green surface reflects more green light, leading to the adaptation of the “green” or middle wave receptors. Thus adapted, the activity in the opponent “red” receptors holds sway. The result – we perceive red. The same explanation applies to other opponencies.

The experiment I described was derived from, and an extension, of the colour experiments of Edwin Land. Land had shown that a green surface which is part of a complex, multi-coloured, scene can be made to reflect more red light and yet still look green (though a darker shade of green). This is because the brain undertakes a somewhat complex operation to discount changes the wavelength composition of the light reflected from that surface. This makes sense. After all, a green leaf looks green when viewed at mid-day or when viewed at dawn and dusk (when it actually does reflect more of the long-wave or red light). If the perceived colour of the leaf were to change with every change in wavelength composition reflected from it, then the surface would no longer be identified through its colour.

It seemed to me interesting to take this one step further and get humans to look at a green surface that was part of a complex scene and get that green surface to reflect more red light (twice the amount of red than of green light). It still looked green. Now, by the traditional explanation, the after image should look green, because the “red” receptors, having adapted, would defer to the “green” receptors, which had not been as vigorously stimulated and hence had not adapted. Not a bit of it. The after image was red! I repeated this experiment with other colours and got the same general result. The after image is not related to the wavelength composition of the light reflected from a surface. Rather, it is strongly dependent upon the colour of the surface viewed. Since the colour of a surface, when part of a complex scene, is independent of the wavelength composition of the light reflected from it alone, it follows that the colour of the after image is also independent of the wavelength composition of the light reflected from that surface.

Hence the colour of the after image is constructed by the brain after the colour is constructed. It has nothing to do with retinal adaptation.

But no one has taken the slightest notice of this experiment and, as I said, even I forgot about it. That is a pity. It still seems to me to be an important experiment, but evidently no one shares my view.

Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and the brain's anxiety system

Something puzzles me about fashion design and the brain.

Coco Chanel was undoubtedly one of the greatest designers of the past century, if not the greatest. She liberated women from constraints and allowed them to be both comfortable and elegant. The classical Chanel suit looks good on women of all ages and sizes. More than any other design, it has stood the test of time.

Yves Saint Laurent took this a step further, and used fashion to symbolise the growing power and independence of women, and at the same time make them look good.

But fashion and elegance, it seems to me, have another and perhaps more important purpose – to feel good, something that Coco Chanel especially understood well. This presumably correlates with activity in some reward centre of the brain.

And here comes the puzzle. Chanel and Saint Laurent both used beautiful women for their designs and shows – one might even say “ideal” women, chosen for their grace, and beauty, and sex appeal. Such women, by definition, are “exceptional” in their appearance. Yet many women who pay a fortune to be dressed by couturiers such as these are not in the same league of beauty or appeal. So what is it that makes them spend so much money on clothes designed with “ideal” women in mind?

I suppose that donning such clothes makes them feel good by changing their image of themselves, which must involve a considerable nervous apparatus. I recently saw a woman dressed in the latest, expensive, fashion. Her general physiognomy suggested that she felt good and did not lack in self confidence. Yet to an external observer, the latest designs she was wearing were very ill suited. Never mind, she felt good in them – a subtle change must have occurred in her brain!

I was therefore interested to read a recent paper entitled “I am not as slim as that girl” by HC Friederich and others [Neuroimage, 37:674 (2007)], in which the authors asked female subjects to compare their own body shapes to that of “idealized” women shown and rate their level of anxiety as they viewed these pictures. It turned out that, in addition to brain areas concerned with body-shape processing, there were activations in brain areas whose activity correlates with anxiety, the activations in these areas being proportional to the declared level of anxiety.

This is interesting, but also surprising. I certainly could not tell from my observation of the lady referred to above that she was suffering from any anxiety, far from it. So, perhaps splashing all this money out on a Chanel suit or Saint Laurent trousers really works by reducing the activity in the anxiety centres in the brain. Clearly worth further study.

Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and the brain’s reward system

Those studying reward and punishment in animals and humans often use very simple methods, which turn out to be remarkably effective. In studies of reward and punishment, the subject is instructed to take some action. If the “correct” action (as determined by the experimenter) is taken, there is a small reward – in the form of a peanut or a sugar pellet or a reinforcing sound. If the “wrong” action is taken, a mild electric shock or a disturbing noise is applied. Perhaps as important is this: that when a “wrong” action is taken, often nothing happens – there is simply no reward. That is all. The absence of a reward is itself a punishment.

These are simple but important lessons that those designing public buildings such as airports might wish to learn. The entire design of Terminal 5 at Heathrow shows an abysmal ignorance of the brain’s reward system. Consider this: that when you enter the building, you are ushered to lifts, which have no call buttons. So you cannot even take an action, either rewarding or punishing. If a lift goes by without stopping (punishment), there is nothing you can do – like pressing a button and watching a light come on (reward).

The sign-posting is about the most inept you can imagine. When you arrive and try to make your way to Heathrow Express, there is one arrow pointing forward. You proceed down the hall until you get to the end, and find nothing (punishment). You turn back and, after some searching, find that it was on your left, but there is no filter arrow to indicate it (punishment). Once you get the right direction, a sign tells you that the quickest way to Heathrow Express is by the lift, not the escalator (reward – but read on). So you take the lift and go to the Heathrow Express hall only to find that there are no ticket machines and no ticket counter (punishment) or, if there is one, it is extremely well hidden (Recall that, as a punishment, you would have to pay more to buy your ticket on board the Heathrow Express). So now, you take the escalator back up (remember, lifts have no call buttons, at least on the outside) and go to the arrivals halls, where the automatic ticket machines are located, and then back down again.

This disgrace even permeates the BA lounge. If you follow the sign to access it, you are told to go back to the escalator, retrace your steps one floor down, where you will find the lounge located below. Once you get there, you are ushered upstairs again, where you end up where you started from! I have seen many bewildered passengers wondering what this is all about. The reason is simple. Apparently BAA wants you to visit the shops through this detour! That this is punishment is implied by the fact that premium passengers (those paying upwards of £5000 for a flight) are allowed in without having to retrace their steps, although one would have imagined that they might have more money to squander on shops. In fact, much of the internal architecture of the terminal – emphasizing space – is lost because it is cluttered with shops. Indeed, one gets the impression that the airport is more of a shopping mall than an airport, with passengers a nuisance to be tolerated provided they shop.

The huge new BA lounges are inviting at first. But then, if you want to go to the champagne bar and also have a nibble or two, you will find no food there (punishment). To get the food, you have to back-track some distance – greater or lesser depending on whether you want hot or cold snacks. The best of all is that there are no announcements (punishment) – not that there isn’t an intercom system. There is, but I suppose that they don’t want to be bothered with it. So you have to rely on the electronic notice boards. But these are not everywhere (punishment). There is none (punishment) in the champagne bar, where the tycoons and tycoonettes congregate. I saw one tycoonette who was outraged when informed casually by another passenger that there are no announcements, and she had to walk a good distance to find a board which announced that her flight to Istanbul was closing – in a satellite building which takes some 10 minutes to get to. The poor old dear, she had to gulp her champagne quickly and rush cursing to the nearest exit.

We are told that this is the biggest free standing building in Europe, perhaps the world. You would imagine that such a building – a gateway to the world – would have an inviting and aesthetically pleasing entrance, which could be viewed and admired. Forget it! The front is covered by concrete buildings and fly-overs to deliver those lucky enough or rich enough to use taxis and limousines (at about £80 for a taxi ride to central London, this makes even Heathrow Express – the most expensive railway route in the world – seem reasonable). The only way you can admire the building – if indeed you want to after these punishing experiences – is from the runway, providing you are sitting in the correct position in the plane.

It seems to me, then, that BAA and architects could learn a thing or two by making a greater effort to study the reward and punishment systems of the brain. There is even an Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, founded by John Eberhard, from which they could get some help. There are of course some architects who do this already. Philippe Rahm, in Paris, actually studies papers in neuroscience and incorporates the lessons he derives into his designs. He sets a good example.

This of course will take time. Meanwhile, Heathrow remains the worst airport in the developed world (though you would be forgiven to think that you have arrived in the non-developed world). It is a puzzle that so many want to use it – with its long delays, its inept and rude staff, its designs that are wholly removed from human needs, one would have thought that most would by now have abandoned it or at least protested vigorously enough for something to be done. But I suppose actually getting to London (or getting away from it) must be a bigger reward, worth all these punishments. Terminal 5 is bad, very bad. But it could be worse. You could end up in Terminal 3 or Terminal 4! There are clamours for the monopoly of BAA over British airports to be broken up. I would advocate going a step further – break up the monopoly over Heathrow, and let different companies run the different terminals. That will introduce more competition, which will be a good thing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The incredible Sargy Mann and the amazing powers of the brain

I recently visited the exhibition of Sargy Mann’s latest paintings. It was really a dazzling festival of colour. There were exquisite juxtapositions – brilliant orange against light green, violent red against a nervous purple, a yellow against a calming blue. All the paintings were representations of his wife, Frances.

What is amazing about all this is that these are the paintings of Sargy since he became completely blind. Never in his previous and much admired work has there been such an explosion of colour. He explains that his memory for colour and “for how colours will look together…and even the feel of how much pigment on the brush to mix with how much of another colour” is still very good. But the loss of sight has given him a freedom that he did not have before – a sort of restriction imposed by the reality of the seen world of which he is now free. In deciding to paint a chair, he thought to himself, “…you silly bugger, you won’t be able to see it. You can make the chair any colour you like. This was a breakthrough and of course it applied equally to all other surfaces…” “From then on, I chose the colour chord for each painting intuitively, thinking in an overtly decorative way which, before, I would never have allowed myself to do. It seems that blindness has given me the freedom to use colour in ways that I would not have dared to when I could see”. And what a result! The sighted viewer is intrigued by un-accustomed colour juxtapositions and aesthetically mesmerised by them.

Because those who become colour blind following damage to the colour centre in the brain – area V4 – are often unable to even remember colours or their quality, I assume that Sargy’s V4 is intact and healthy. Nor is his colour experience equivalent to the phantom chromatopsia which I described in a previous blog, and which is also a consequence of retinal blindness, for in that condition only few colours are experienced and they are restricted in space.

Sargy’s paintings in brilliant colour raise very interesting questions about the healthy – indeed vigorous – functioning of a visual area that is deprived of a visual input and must rely entirely on memory. But it also raises another point which I alluded to in my last blog, namely creativity in the absence of all restrictions, inhibitions and censorship. Here we have it from a painter’s own words, but above all from his wonderful canvases, how artistically healthy this freedom is! Finally, it also of course raises the neurological problem of how the prohibition on the use of certain colours, implied in the statement “which, before, I would never have allowed myself to do” works.

I look forward so much to the next batch of paintings from Sargy Mann.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The haunting beauty of Tord Gustavsen’s paintings…and Cézanne

Tord Gustavsen’s sublime jazz improvisations are a sort of musical painting, and not only because, for me at least, they induce a synaesthetic visual impression of vast and lonely spaces and an extraordinary sensuality. I have listened to the lonely notes that introduce At Home and Draw Near time and time again and they never fail to create that visual impression. I do not know whether this is unique to me or whether others share the experience. But Gustavsen discusses visual imagery in his article entitled The Dialectical Eroticism of Improvisation, so I cannot be far off the mark. How one sensory input provokes another is of course a problem that is worthy of study in neurobiological terms. But the article offers a very interesting musical glimpse into the problem of improvisation, coming as it does from a master improviser and raises important issues in the neurobiological study of creativity. And it also raises in my mind some parallels between the characteristics of improvisation in music and painting.

Gustavsen thinks of improvisation as “on-the-spot composing [which] involves a certain amount of on-the-spot analysis”, a process in which the composer is “constantly forming and being formed by” the music being improvised. The composer-improviser is thus changing through the music that he or she is composing. In this, the process is perhaps not vastly different – except in the time scale – from painting. Henri Matisse once wrote, “A Cézanne is a moment of the artist, not of nature…Despite the continual use of the same means, there are different effects; it’s the man, Cézanne, that has changed” (my emphasis). What is the neural process that mediates such a change, which in the case of music must be immediate?

There is, as well, the emphasis on the continual play between whet he calls the micro and the macro levels, while maintaining the unity of the whole work. This is the advice that Denis Diderot gave, advice passed to Cézanne by Piassaro and enthusiastically accepted by the latter: “Nothing is beautiful without unity”, to which Cézanne replied: “I advance… all of my canvas at once, together. In the same movement, the same conviction, I bring into relation everything that is scattered” since “Only from their sum, their relation and interaction, do the objects they define reveal themselves to the viewer”– a description that can equally, and accurately, be used to describe the improvisations of Gustavsen.

In the process of improvisation, the musician may make mistakes or take unsatisfactory steps. “When you disappoint yourself, it is therefore crucial to be able to transform the disappointment into a kind of challenge that can enter into a dynamic dialectical movement towards satisfying totalities”…much as I imagine Cézanne and other painters – when they make a mistake – use the mistake as a challenge to enter into a new dynamic.

Gustavsen is insistent on the critical role of the listener. He writes: “The shaping of a musical landscape takes place in the listener”. Not dissimilar to the (then) controversial view of Cézanne: “I conceive of [painting] as a personal apperception. I situate this apperception in sensation, and I ask that the intelligence organize it into a work”.

There are, of course, many other interesting points in Gustavsen’s article and above all in his music. I have highlighted only some here, to draw attention to the similarity in the creative process. A reading of Gustavsen’s article and his music show the enormous challenge to the neurobiologist who wants to understand the neural bases of creativity – the integration of the micro with the macro within a concept, the use of working and long-term memory, the mobilisation of the emotional and motor brain, the planning and the execution – a lifetime’s work, I imagine.

There is however one element that I missed in Gustavsen’ s article, but which I hear in his music. That relates to censorship – I mean self-censorship. It was Schopenhauer and Wagner who insisted that a work of art should flow “from the sub-conscious”. I take this clumsy phrase to mean that it should be free from the worry that it may not accord with the views or concepts of listeners or from the artist’s inhibitions; I take it to mean, in brief, that it must be free of all censorship and above all self-censorship. As with Ella Fitzgerald’s marvellous modulatory improvisations, or Martha Argerich’s sensational rendering of Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto (and especially its second movement), one feels that (in spite of what he says about the listener), Gustavsen is playing for himself and in the process engaging the listener more. Self-censorship must, possibly imposed by activity in the frontal lobes, surely be one of the greatest enemies of art in general and improvisation in particular. Perhaps this is best summarised in the opening lines of Marcel Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve:

“Chaque jour, j’attache moins de prix a l’intelligence. Chaque jour, je me rends mieux compte que ce n’est qu’en dehors d’elle que [l’artiste] peut…atteindre quelque chose de lui même et la seul matière de l’art”

which in free, rather than literal, translation, can be rendered into:

“Every day, I attach less importance to intelligence. Every day, I become more aware that it is only outside it that the [artist] can… attain something of himself and the only material of art”

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Musical inspiration at a cognitive neuroscience meeting

The Cognitive V meeting in Marmaris, Turkey, organized by Professor Oğuz Tanridağ, had an unusual element, a daily recital.

Now there is nothing unusual about that. Many meetings organize a musical recital to entertain attendees and speakers and perhaps provide a pleasant distraction after an intellectually demanding day.

What was unusual about the Marmaris meeting was the timing of the recital – first thing in the morning, before the lectures and seminars.

This is an ingenious idea. There are many good reasons for listening to music before listening to, or delivering, lectures. They provide, first of all, an inspiration, which is always a good thing. But standards in music are very high and, one hopes, that these very high standards cross boundaries to instill in the rest of us a desire to achieve high standards too. When it comes to giving lectures, very few - or perhaps none - begin to approach the high standards of musical performers. The ums and ahs with which so many of us incessantly infect our lectures, the occasional or sometimes serially wrong order of slides, the film clips that do not function adequately, the excess of slides which we skip because we did not prepare according to the time allotted to us…all these, or their equivalents, would be intolerable in any musical performance. Performers would be booed off the stage for far lesser transgressions than that, as many eminent singers have discovered.

But there is more to music than that. I often listen to a symphonic work before preparing and giving a lecture and learn a lot from it (in preparing my Marmaris lecture and before delivering it, I listened to Beethoven’s Triple Concerto). A symphonic work has, after all, a structure, it has a theme which is developed and recapitulated, or there are variations on a theme, tempi that have to be integrated into the structure, changes in emphasis – all these teach one a lesson in how to deliver a lecture even if one never achieves the high standards of musical performances.

Of course, great artists themselves often fail the high standards that they set themselves, even if we are not always aware of their shortcomings, as we are of obviously faulty lectures. Herbert von Karajan was once asked if his performances, which gave pleasure to so many, gave him true satisfaction. He replied that the performances after which he could say, “This time I got it right” could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

So maybe the idea of having recitals before having the lectures was a pleasant – and highly effective – way of reminding the speakers, musically, to maintain high standards. And it worked very well. It is an ingenious idea that other conference organizers might consider adopting.

As an aside, one of the many reasons for choosing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto before my lecture is that it is beautiful but not in the least emotional, at least to me. Beauty without emotion…now there’s a subject for a future blog.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner...

A great event took place in Berlin last week – the launch of the Association of Neuroesthetics (AoN), the brain child of Alexander Abbushi. The meeting brought together neurobiologists and artists, and a packed house that included even lawyers. The speakers seemed able to talk and address each other with ease. Nowhere was there a hint of the much written about “two cultures” of CP Snow. Hence in his presentation Philippe Rahm, an architect, relied on scientific evidence as the basis for his designs, Olafur Eliasson discoursed on his work which has undercurrents of enormous interest to neuroesthetics – time, uncertainty, ambiguity – while Christine Macel, a curator, also emphasized the element of time in the artists she chose to speak about. Ernst Poppel, a psychologist, gave a talk which sits as easily in a scientific auditorium as in an art gallery. To round up the evening, there was a wonderful reception and dinner at a Berlin restaurant with pre-Weimar rooms – very atmospheric and perhaps symbolic of the new vitality of Berlin. In that setting, scientists and artists seemed to be able to converse with each other with even less difficulty.

It may seem strange that the AoN should be based at the Charité Hospital, among the largest in Europe, and that the driving force behind it, Alexander Abbushi, should be a neurosurgeon by trade. Well, it shows something important in science – especially during our times – that the crossing of boundaries is relatively easy when the interest and curiosity are there. In his endeavour, Abbushi has had strong support at the highest levels of the Hospital but above all from the Director of the Department of Neurosurgery, Peter Vajkoczy. In fact, all this is not any more strange than the meeting at the Italian Academy at Columbia, which I reported about in a previous blog. The Italian Institute, more used to dealing with issues relating to Italian art and humanistic traditions, also had a full house when neuroscientists addressed brain issues that are of interest to the study of art and creativity. The establishment of the AoN at the Charité is perhaps even less strange, and in fact very apt, when one considers that among those who worked there in the past was none other than the great German physicist and physician, Hermann von Helmholtz, the founder of the discipline of psychophysics and an expert on colour vision (Young-Helmholtz theory of colour vision). But Helmholtz was a polyhistor, also interested in the arts and aesthetics, and wrote about music and painting.

So perhaps what Abbushi and his colleagues have done is not to bring in a new culture that would bridge the gap between CP Snow’s “two cultures”. Rather, they have resurrected an approach that goes back to Helmholtz, and before him to Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and even Plato and which has been merely dormant for well over a century.

Well done Alexander, well done Charité Hospital, well done Berlin…and well done neuroesthetics.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Social Synaesthesia and Human Resources

An interesting article in The Times Higher Education by my colleague David Colquhoun has inspired me to write this blog, in which I describe a condition that is well known but, to the best of my knowledge, has not hithero been categorized and named. I call it social synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia is a condition in which one sensory input provokes two sensory experiences. A good example relates to colour, when different musical notes produce in the brain of the perceiver different colours, each colour specific to a note. Several composers reputedly have had the condition. Another example, also related to colour, is one in which different Arabic numerals are perceived in different, and distinctive, colours. It is important to observe that when “normal” people listen to notes, the activity in their brain is limited to the auditory cortex. With synaesthetes, the notes not only produce activity in the auditory brain but also in the colour centre of the visual brain – area V4 – implying that there are direct connections between the two brain centres in synaesthetes but not in “normals”. Obviously enough people have the condition for there to be synaesthesia societies in Europe and the United States.

In truth, synaesthesia may encompass a great deal more. I myself have a synaesthesia that I thought was bizarre until I discovered (after having written briefly about it in a synaesthesia newsletter) that it is not as uncommon as I had presumed. My synaesthesia consists in associating words with distinct personalities that are not easy to describe but which I definitely experience. The first letter of a word determines largely, but not exclusively, the personality. This can lead to extraordinary personality changes. For example, I always associated Calcutta and Bombay with distinct personalities. Now that these have changed to Kolkata and Mumbai, respectively, so have their personalities for me. It is actually a condition that has enriched my life in a variety of ways, and I would hate to be without this “abnormal” condition.

A personality change, brought about by re-naming their profession, is precisely what seems to have happened in the example of Human Resources, which is nothing more than a new name for what was commonly known as the Personnel Department. Human Resources is a grandiose but strangely inappropriate term for the old profession. It implies a deep knowledge of human desire, motivation and action derived from a profound knowledge of the human condition through a study of psychology and world literature. The French, too, have adopted the term wholesale. And how pompous it sounds in French, when applied to the old Personnel Department – resources humaines! I can just imagine some unpublished manuscript by André Malraux, hidden in a Paris attic and suddenly discovered, entitled Les Resources humaines – perhaps a companion novel to his La Condition humaine or perhaps a first draft of it! How hilarious that would be!

These are not mere speculations, for in the case of Human Resources, the change in name from Personnel Department, has actually brought up a synaesthetic change in personality, one that is well worth a neurobiological investigation, given its social importance in regulating the affairs of institutions, including universities. No longer content with dealing with admittedly highly important matters such as salaries and wages and other such-like, the change in name has given them a wholly undeserved confidence and mystique that enables them to be promoted to “senior management” teams and even dictate the number and type of courses that employees, even senior and highly intelligent ones, should take. Some of these courses verge on the absurd, as David has pointed out in his many blogs. Handing such powers over to them constitutes an abdication by the universities of their responsibilities – that of dictating the type and quality of course that a university should offer. This abdication is obviously brought about by the perceived change in the capacities of those who deal with matters belonging to traditional personnel departments through the application of a new term. It constitutes a socially transmitted example of synaesthesia, but one which still requires some re-organization of the brain. Hence the synaesthetic change in personality has also a social dimension, for it obviously induces a change in the belief of others that those who have so renamed and thus reinvented and upgraded themselves have indeed acquired an insight and knowledge that their erstwhile colleagues of personnel departments had not. Nor does it end there. For the synaesthetic change in personality brought about by a name change seems also to have induced a perceptual change in others. Human resources departments are hated and despised by most other members of the institutions that they profess to run and organize, a contempt that is linearly related to their seeming incapacity to understand and handle human resources (now used in its proper context). It is no wonder, as David says in his blog, that some highly successful businessmen think it desirable to do away with them altogether.

From a neurobiological perspective, just as synaesthesia is worth studying to shed light on what kind of connections and processes in the brain are modified to enable one sensory input to provoke another, so it would be really worth investigating neurobiologically how a change in name can alter so radically peoples’ perception of themselves, as well as others perception of them. Perhaps a detailed longitudinal study, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, for the future?

Monday, April 28, 2008

The objectivity of subjective experiences

Perhaps not enough has been made of the extent to which brain imaging techniques are beginning to enrich our understanding of the brain. Most people marvel – and with good reason – at the fact that these imaging techniques demonstrate with fair certainty that specific experiences – for example of colour or of visual motion – correlate with activity in a specific area of the brain. But imaging techniques have gone way beyond and have made what was thought to be outside the realm of objective observation the target of experimental studies, and with huge success. Fear, expectation of reward, the experience of love and of beauty – all of them thought until recently to be unverifiable, or not easily verifiable, subjective experiences - have been shown to have neural correlates specific to them. Hence, to ascertain that someone is in love, I need only show them the picture of their [suspected] lover and note whether there is any activity in the brain areas that have been shown to correlate with feelings of love. In time, no doubt lawyers will be using such evidence in court proceedings.

But there is another aspect to these studies that has escaped comment although its impact may yet turn out to be as great as the demonstration that subjective feelings have distinct neural correlates. The experience of beauty provides a very good example.

In 2004, Hideaki Kawabata and I published a paper showing that the experience of beauty correlates with activity in the orbito-frontal cortex, a part of the brain that is linked to reward. In that study, we showed subjects many paintings – abstract, landscape, portraits, still lifes – and asked them to rate the paintings in terms of their beauty. Different subjects gave different ratings to the same paintings. Sometimes, a painting judged to be of high beauty by one subject was given a low rating by another. Yet whenever a subject a painting in the scanner that they rated as beautiful viewed, there was increased activity in the orbito-frontal cortex. Moreover – and this is the critical point – the increase in activity was directly related to the declared rating assigned to the painting. Hence the subjective experience could be localized and quantified.

Ours is not the only study to show that the activity in specific parts of the brain is often quantifiably related to the declared subjective experience. At least two dozen other studies have shown the same result for different subjective experiences. This, it seems to me, is a major achievement of brain imaging studies. It brings subjective experiences firmly into the realm of measurable science.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The changing brain studied through violence

I have recently read a paper that, I believe, has not received the attention it deserves, at least in the media. It is a study of the re-organiztion of the brain in response to violence. What it is that suddenly triggers a violent behaviour in some individuals is not known with any certainty, but it has long been suspected that exposure to violence leads to increased violence. We have, after all, been repeatedly told that watching violent movies results in individuals who are more readily capable of violence. But why and how?

A paper by Chris Kelly and his colleagues at Columbia Univeristy has far-reaching implications in this regard. They showed volunteer subjects clips of violent films and measured activity in different areas of the brain, using brain imaging techniques. Their results show, in brief, that repeated exposure to violence reduces the intensity of activity in a specific region of the brain known as the lateral orbito-frontal cortex progressively. The implication here is that the more violent movies are watched, the greater the reduction in orbito-frontal activity. This in itself may suggest an adaptation that makes individuals more immune to violence, adaptation being a very common occurrence in the brain. But the study goes further, to show that connections between brain areas must be in a dynamic state, and hence modifiable by experience – in this case the experience of violence – even in adult life. For the orbito-frontal cortex is connected with another brain area – the amygdala – which is known to be responsive to fearful and aggressive faces. This connection seems to be critical in the control of aggressive behaviour. The strength of connections between the two brain areas diminished progressively as violent movies were watched, and led to more aggressive tendencies. The study also strongly suggested that there developed a progressive diminished control over the initiation of violent aggressive behaviour. For there was a concomitant increase in activity within areas known to be critical in motor planning (for aggressive behaviour, among others). This suggests that the connections between the orbito-frontal cortex and yet other regions of the cortex are also in a dynamic state.

It is important to note that the study exposed subjects to violent films over relatively brief periods, each clip viewed lasting seconds rather than hours, as is common for violent movies. Hence, it does not take prolonged exposure to alter strength of connections in the brain, and in this instance, to loosen the inhibition that leads to violent aggressive behaviour.

There is a lesson in this for society, and that is why I am surprised that so little has been made of it by the media. We have discussed endlessly whether the extent of violence shown in Western movies is not damaging our already violent societies. And yet here is a study, which shows that even brief exposure can alter the balance of connections in the brain and tip them in a direction that is not socially advantageous. And there is, perhaps, a problem for legislators too. What if someone can come armed with evidence derived from brain scans to show that the crimes that he or she has committed is the result of altered brain states, induced by watching violent movies? It would be a manner of shifting responsibility. I do not know enough about law to discuss this point, but I should not be at all surprised if defence of this kind surfaces in future hearings of criminal violence cases.

But there is, above all, a great deal of interest in learning that such complex behaviour is held in check by a fine system of balance through the interactions between brain areas and that this balance is so vulnerable – even over very brief periods and even in adult life – to environmental influences. There is much in this work that is of interest for future studies in the neurobiology of aggressive behaviour and violence.

Tristan und Isolde at the Met…..

It has now been established that there is an area in the visual brain that is specialized for registering human bodies or, to put it differently, that is active when we perceive bodies. This should not come as a surprise. The brain has devoted special areas to many features that are important to us, and human bodies are very, very important. Bodies do, after all, give us a lot of information about the psychological state of a person at any given moment; we can communicate much through our body language. And the brain seems to have developed a marvellous system for recognizing at a glance, through the perceived body language, whether one a person is arrogant or diffident, proud or humble, and much else besides. Which brings me to the Metropolitan opera’s recent production of Tristan und Isolde.

To convey visually all that there is in Tristan requires an artistic and dramatic flair that is evident not only in the motion of the singers on stage but also in their inaction, the postures they adopt in the still moments. From this point of view, the Met’s recent and ill-fated production was a disappointment, or at least partially so. The staging was visually stunning in its simplicity and very effective in its use of colour. It descended once into kitsch, when Tritsan and Isolde, having swallowed the love potion and realised their profound love for one another, the lighting turned to red, eliciting laughter from the audience (something which I have not experienced before) and distracting attention from the accompanying music. Both lead singers fell ill and did not appear together except for the final performance. Illnesses prior to or during performances are bound, I imagine, to have a severe negative effect on such demanding singing and acting roles. In the performance that I attended on March 25th, Deborah Voigt had cancelled out owing to her illness and was replaced by Janice Beard. It must be a nightmare to be forced into such a role at relatively short notice and I don’t think that she managed to pull it off. Tristan is a dignified hero, burning with a love so intense that he knows, and is resigned to, the fact that he cannot achieve it on earth. The love potion that he drank in the first Act made him inherit “eternal torment”, he laments in the last act. Ben Heppner, recovering from an illness, was not physionomically up to the role of Tristan on that particular evening. His body language simply did not convey what I believe the music intends him to convey. There was however one glorious moment, and it occurred at the end of Act 2, when King Marke sings his sad and beautiful lament: “Mir dies? Dies, Tristan, mir?” What was deeply impressive in this particular performance, apart from the splendid singing of Matti Salminen as King Marke, was the highly effective way in which body language communicated the psychological state of the protagonists – both Tristan and Isolde. They managed to communicate, through the immobile postures they adopted, as effectively as the music that feeling of unrepentant guilt, forced on them by factors beyond the control of either. It made me wonder about the neural mechanisms that underlie our ability to perceive so much in body language, even when still. Is this result of activity in the cortical area in which activity correlates with the presence of bodies? If so, then this area must be doing a great deal more than just registering the presence of bodies? Or is the activity in that area relayed, or perhaps influenced, by some other cortical area? To have felt what I felt during those moments, I assume that there is some connection with the emotional brain. Interesting questions for future study. At any rate, this one moment was worth crossing the Atlantic to see. Incidentally, I tried to see the live broadcast in London, where it was relayed to many theatres. Guess what, they were all sold out! Now on to Barcelona, for Robert Carsen’s extraordinarily rich – I speak from a neuroesthetic point of view, of course – production of Tannhäuser, last seen at the Bastille in Paris and about which I will blog in the future.

….. and neuroscience at the Italian Academy at Columbia

What were neuroscientists doing giving talks about the brain and its operations at the Italian Academy (, an institution supposedly devoted to Italian studies? And why did they have a full house, with many coming from the humanities? Well, the Director of the Academy, David Freedberg, is a wise man. He was among the first to embrace the field of neuroesthetics and understands that the humanities have much to offer to future studies of the brain, and that neuroscience in turn can help illuminate interesting and important problems in the humanities. The example I give above from Tristan is one among many. And the full house at the meeting he organized is testament to the fact that there are many who share this interest. All honour to David, to Anna Ipata, and to the excellent speakers at the meeting.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The sex life of voles - and the law

Voles are rodents who have a sex life which may be of considerable interest in understanding some expects of human sexuality and in reflecting on some aspects of the law relating to it.

In brief, there are two varieties of vole – the prairie and the montane voles. They differ from each other significantly with respect to their taste for monogamous and polygamous relationships. They have been studied by Larry Young and Thomas Insel in the United States. By and large, prairie voles lead a largely monogamous existence, with apparently the occasional fling. By contrast, montane voles are promiscuous and polygamous. What is it that differentiates these two varieties? Is it morality, or what may pass for morality in the world of vole ideas? (We would, or at least some would, perhaps refer to polygamous humans as immoral). Is it their up-bringing, or is it their biological constitution?

As you might have guessed, the latter seems to be the causative factor and has been traced to two neuro-hormones called oxytocin and vasopressin. These neuro-hormones have many effects but most relevant here is that they are involved in bonding between individuals and are effective in learning and memory in a social context. They are released in the reward centres of the brain when voles (and humans) have sex, which becomes therefore a rewarding experience with the chosen partner. If release of the two hormones is blocked in prairie voles, they too become promiscuous. If, on the other hand, they are injected with these hormones but prevented from having sex, they continue to be faithful to their partners, that is to have a monogamous but chaste relationship. On the other hand, injecting montane voles with these neurohormones does not make of them monogamous creatures, for the simple reason that they do not have sufficient receptors in their brains for them.

There is no evidence that these two neurohormones act in exactly the same way in humans. It would indeed be surprising if they did, given the infinitely more complex structure of the human brain and of human behaviour. But there is good reason to suppose that what applies in these animals also applies, at least in some form, in humans. And humans too can be categorized as being strictly monogamous (or serially monogamous) at one end and promiscuous to varying extents at the other. It would be highly interesting to learn whether (mainly) monogamous humans have higher concentrations of oxytocin and vasopressin, and a richer concentration of receptors for them in the reward centres of the brain, compared to more promiscuous humans. It may be that humans can be divided into several categories – ranging from the strictly monogamous to the extremely promiscuous - depending upon these concentrations. We might even find that there is a straightforward, linear, relationship between the concentration of these neuro-hormones and the incidence of promiscuity.

Which brings me to the law. No doubt the law of divorce regarding promiscuity and adultery has been much liberalised in Western countries. I do not know how the law apportions blame or arranges settlements in these instances. But the demonstration raises, it seems to me, broader issues that are relevant to the law and to how it may be modified through legislation in the future, in light of scientific findings like the one described briefly above, and others like them. For if individuals can demonstrate scientifically that their conduct, however much disapproved of by society and prohibited by law, is the consequence of their biological constitution, then the law would probably ultimately have to take account of that, as indeed it already does in certain instances. It will have to address the thorny question of the balance between biological imperatives and social prohibition. I therefore see a broadening of interest among legal legislators and the judiciary in neurobiological studies that relate to complex human conduct which comes within the province of the law. It is for this reason that, when Editor, I initiated a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on the theme of Law and the Brain. It was perhaps but a small step in a debate which, I am certain, will become increasingly important in the future.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The colour vision of the blind

In my book, A Vision of the Brain, I described a strange syndrome which I named phantom chromatopsia. In all, I have seen four patients suffering from it and have studied two in detail. The syndrome is one in which blind people see colours, usually purple or golden. The colour spreads and fills their entire “field of view”. But they take no pleasure in the sensation. The experience plunges them into a state of deep depression. One patient told me that he often felt suicidal during the chromatopsic episodes.

I accounted for the syndrome by reference to the known organization of the human visual brain. Of the many areas that constitute the visual brain, one – the V4 complex – seemed especially interesting in this context. Described by us many years ago, it is specialized for colour perception and total damage to it leads to the inability to see the world in colour – the syndrome of acquired cerebral achromatopsia. I accounted for phantom chromatopsia by supposing that an abnormal pattern of cellular activity restricted to the V4 complex results in the generation of a colour percept in the absence of an external, coloured, stimulus. The abnormality of the percept – large uniform areas of purple or gold – could be accounted for by the abnormal nature of the internally generated pattern of cellular activity compared to the normal one generated by a coloured object in the field of view.

A very interesting recent result obtained by Dr. Beauchamp and his colleagues at the University of Texas takes this a step further. They found that when they stimulated part of the colour centre through electrodes embedded in the area, the patient reported seeing colours which were not there. And what was the colour? bluish purple!

Still, the correspondence between these new results and the clinical syndrome is not complete, nor would one expect it to be, given that a pathological irritation in the V4 complex is different from a controlled stimulation of only a part of this area. The coloured area projected to the field of view in this new study is limited, whereas the colour invades the whole field of view in the pathological state. Moreover, the subjective colour produced by electrical stimulation was always purple-blue. The authors account for this by supposing that their electrode was stimulating a group of cells specialized for blue – a reasonable interpretation in light of the fact that cells constructing particular colours seem to be grouped together in the V4 complex.

But the main interest of the finding lies in showing that artificial stimulation can result in perceived colour in the absence of a coloured stimulus. This adds further to the evidence that colours are generated in the brain, that the brain does not passively chronicle the colours in the external world but actively constructs them. Isaac Newton saw this long ago when he wrote, “For the Rays, to speak properly, have no Colour. In them there is nothing else than a certain power and disposition to stir up a sensation of this Colour or that” – the power and disposition residing, I believe, within the V4 complex. Edwin Land also put it succinctly – “Colour is always a consequence, never a cause” – meaning that it is the consequence of some activity in the brain (though he did not specify where that activity might occur).

This highly interesting study gives powerful evidence in favour of these suppositions.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Romantic love and madness

Many, especially in the media, have commented about the work we published in 2000, showing the pattern of activity in the brain when those who are "madly and passionately" in love view a picture of the one they love. But there is another aspect of these results which is just as interesting, and which has received much less attention and comment. I refer to the fact that, under the same conditions, that is when a lover views the picture of the one he or she is passionately in love with, large parts of the brain, and particularly in the frontal lobes, become de-activated. The frontal lobes are of course those parts of the brain which have been traditionally associated with higher cognitive functions, including judgment. The clear implication is that judgment is more or less suspended, or at least much attenuated, when we are confronted with the one we love passionately.

In a sense, of course, this is a formal demonstration of what many have written about - the madness of love. We often ask someone who is passionately in love with a person whom we disapprove of: "Have you taken leave of your senses?" Well, in fact they have. And hence it is commonly, though not always, futile for disapproving parents and friends to try and prevent a liaison. The pattern of activation in their brain renders them less judgmental of the person they love than of others. The qualification is critical, for judgment is not suspended; it is only judgment about a particular individual that is suspended, implying a very selective brain procedure where judgment is concerned.

Here then is a possible neural basis for the "madness" of love that poets and writers since the time of Plato have written about. Nietzsche once wrote: "There is always some madness in love. But there is always some reason in madness". Perhaps the "reason" is to be sought in the pattern of neural de-activation that we have observed.

Of course, this pattern of activation is the one observed in the early and passionate stages of romantic love, a stage that usually does not continue indefinitely. One presumes that when a relationship becomes stabilized, or indifferent or even hostile, then the de-activation that is so prominent a feature of the passionate phase of love is no longer evident. It would be interesting to pursue such a study. It is now clear that there are chemicals, among them nerve growth factor, whose concentration rises during the early and passionate phase of romantic love, only to drop to normal levels once the relationship is stabilized or ended.

Nor is this suspension of judgment unique to romantic love. In a further study of the brain's love system, we studied the neural correlates of maternal love. The pattern of de-activation was remarkably similar to the one observed in romantic love, again leading one to believe that this constitutes the neural basis of the suspension of judgment - after all, mothers tend to be far less judgmental about their own children than about other children.

These are small steps in learning about the neural basis of love. There are other interesting discoveries to which I will return later.