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!?