Sunday, December 20, 2009

Autism as a dual disorder

Autism is a complex neurological disorder of varying degrees of severity. Among its characteristics is a difficulty in social interaction and in reading the minds and intentions of others.

But social interaction involves at least two people, and in thinking about autism I wonder whether we should not also consider the way in which apparently normal people are also “impaired” in interacting with frankly autistic people.

I was very frustrated over a year ago when dealing with a lady who seemed remarkably ill equipped at social interaction, and seemed to lack all intuition. Communication with her was very difficult and other, apparently normal, individuals who came into contact with her shared my experience. I wondered, as did others, whether she is autistic.

It gradually dawned on me that the difficulty was two-way, that I in return was very ill-equipped to communicate with her, because I had no mental representation of a person from whom one could elicit no anger, or sadness, or joy or approval, or disapproval, or indeed any emotion, whatever one said or did.

Hence I suggest that, if we consider autism spectrum disorder to be, in part at least, a social disorder, we must envisage the possibility that the “disorder” is shared and that it is partly also a "disorder" in the individual with whom the interaction is occurring, and who has no mental framework to deal with this apparent difficulty of reading the mind of an autistic individual or interacting with them. It may be worth considering whether, in dealing with autism, we should not also try to generate rules that will make our interaction with autistic individuals more easy. This may even have the beneficial effect of easing their problems.

It is of course possible to argue that we would be able to learn how to deal with this lack of social interaction more readily than individuals with an autistic spectrum disorder. My experience with this lady has taught me otherwise. I found it very difficult to read into her mind and thus interact with her constructively even in spite of the long time during which I had to interact with her.

Hence I think that autism spectrum disorder should not be considered as confined to individuals but to social interactions in which both sides, the autistic and the apparently normal, are deficient in communicative skills, with each side lacking the mental representation of how to interact with the other.

At any rate, this is something worth thinking about.

How reliable is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a splendid idea. I often consult it, as do millions of others. But it seems that reliance on it alone can be dangerous.

I recently consulted Wikipedia about the phenomenon known as “Blindsight”. This is a condition in which subjects who become blind through damage to their primary visual cortex can apparently discriminate with high accuracy objects presented to their blind fields but are totally unaware that anything has been presented there. They are just able to discriminate, for example, whether a visual stimulus moves to the left or to the right but deny having seen anything.

That, at any rate is one version.

There are some, amongst whom I include myself, who have doubts about the phenomenon. I will not detail here the articles that I and others have written to express these doubts. But anyone consulting the article on “Blindsight” in Wikipedia would not even realize that this is a very controversial topic. They would instead have the impression that it is a well established and agreed-upon phenomenon.

But that is far from being so. It is a very controversial phenomenon. But the Wikipedia article doesn't give any hint that it is, or refer to any articles that have questioned the phenomenon. I hasten to add that I do not know who has written the article and have not bothered to look it up.

I suppose, and hope, that no scholar relies exclusively on Wikipedia or indeed on any single source. The danger comes more from, and to, those who, not being conversant with the literature on the subject, assume the validity of what is written and propagate it unquestioningly.

Blindsight is not the only article in Wikipedia that is misleading. There are others, some of them self-serving articles. It is of course the essence of good scholarship to allude to other findings or interpretations, even ones with which the author may disagree. Apparently, when some people think they can get away with it, they will not do so.This is perhaps less likely to happen in peer-reviewed articles.

On the other hand, unlike articles published in peer-reviewed journals, Wikipedia gives us the opportunity of modifying the articles and eradicating the errors. I am myself dis-inclined to do so. It would be too time consuming. It is sufficient to be aware of the danger in order to avoid the consequences. So I will continue to use and enjoy Wikipedia while being aware of its shortcomings.

The Acropolis Museum and the Parthenon Marbles

I recently visited the new museum at the Acropolis in Athens.

One reason for building a museum at the Acropolis is to house the Parthenon Marbles, which Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, bought from the Turks when Greece was under Ottoman rule and transported to England. They are now on beautiful display in the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum in London. Greece wants these marbles back because they constitute a very important heritage for the Greeks – as indeed they do for all of humanity.

I want here to comment on only one aspect, which is the way these marbles are intended to be displayed in the new Athens museum, should they every be returned.

It is very poorly thought out and an utter failure.

We would find it intolerable if, when listening to music, another piece of music were to be played.

It is similarly true that, in vision, too many distractors (in the form of too many other visual stimuli) interfere with our ability to appreciate what we are looking at. There are indeed studies of the phenomenon of “visual crowding”, which show a degraded ability to perceive visual stimuli when they are surrounded by other stimuli. This phenomenon has been more usually studied with peripheral vision but it is applicable to central vision as well.

Back to the Acropolis Museum. The background against which they intend to display the Parthenon Marbles, if they are returned, is so cluttered with other displays as to be totally distracting. Somehow, our visual field is invaded by so much else that it cannot concentrate on one item.

And this distracts from, and diminishes, the beauty and the inspiration that the Parthenon marbles provide.

This cluttering is actually a problem with many museums, especially ones that do not have enough space for all they want to exhibit.

The recently refurbished Museum of Modern Art in New York is splendid not only for its rich collection, but for the remarkable way in which they are displayed, with enough space around most paintings to enable the viewer to concentrate on each without the crowding that distracts.

Perhaps there is a minimum distance that should separate one exhibit from another. Perhaps it is worth establishing some general principles regarding this through psychophysical studies in vision. Indeed those specialized in psychophysics have actually come up with some rules. Perhaps architects and interior designers should have the humility to learn a little about visual science and visual psychophysics before they embark on such grandiose schemes.

I do not know who designed the Acropolis Museum. And I do not know who the curator is. All I know is that these precious marbles, which, though born in Greece, belong to all of us, are a huge inspiration and deserve to stand in isolation, without the distracting effects of other stones, as indeed they currently are in the British Museum.

Whether the marbles should be returned to Greece or remain in Britain will, ultimately, be a political decision. There is no doubt that a large number of lawyers will be involved in deciding whether the terms under which Lord Elgin transported the marbles to England were legitimate or not. I am not able to comment on these.

But I can comment on the aesthetic side and say that, on aesthetic grounds alone, the marbles should stay in London where they can be freely viewed by all and where they continue to provide a dazzling inspiration for millions.

If a time comes when a better place for them can be found than their current house in the splendid Duveen Galleries in London, then the question of their re-patriation can be re-visited.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Beauty without the brain?

This week-end, I watched a very interesting programme on BBC2 TV, entitled “What is Beauty”.

The question is naturally interesting, and it is a subject that I am very interested in. And I learned a great deal from watching this programme, which covered a vast expanse, from cave art, through Michelangelo, to Matisse and Gaugin, and contemporary art, to give just a few examples. Its presenter derived some 10 principles which define, according to him, the characteristics of what constitutes beauty – among them selection, surprise, spontaneity, animation, simplicity, surroundings, etc.

I am not in a position to comment on whether these are the characteristics of beauty or of the beautiful, though I strongly agree with him when he says that all art is abstraction. The presenter, beginning the programme by asking “what is beauty?”, ended it by saying that art is beautiful because of what it is and because of how it is done. But, in a programme addressing the question of what is beauty through the visual medium alone, there was not a word about the perceiving organ, the brain. Indeed, the word brain occurred only once throughout the programme, in a somewhat indifferent reference, when the presenter spoke about the idealization “simmering in Michelangelo’s brain”.

The flaw in the programme, for me, was the title: “What is Beauty?” I wonder: can one really answer or even approach such a question today without even the vaguest of references to the brain? I personally do not think so. When we speak of surprise, or pleasure, or surroundings, or unity, or abstraction, we can actually say quite a lot – even in our present state of imperfect knowledge – about brain activity in relation to these experiences. The programme would have been excellent had it not been for the title. Just as any discussion about what is beauty would be sterile without copious reference to the debates about this question in the humanities, so any discussion about what beauty is is very incomplete without at least a lip service to the brain. In that sense, what promised to be a powerful programme ended up being somewhat disappointing.

Cortical de-activation and ethics classes at business schools

On October 28, “The Financial Times” carried a column, apparently without any sense of irony, entitled “Is it possible to teach ethics to business school students?”

The answer is, of course, “Yes, it is”.

But the more important question is, “Will it influence their behaviour?”

I think not, especially where big money is involved.

Imagine a business school student, from one of the leading business schools and with a good background in ethics and moral philosophy, confronted with a situation in which he or she (more likely, he) can make billions, even if it entails suffering among hundreds of small savers? And why restrict ourselves to billions? The same would be true if the gains to be made are in the millions or the hundreds of thousands or the thousands, or even the hundreds. Will there be anything to stop him? Will his ethical education be of any value or practical use?

Evidence over the past two decades shows that it will not. I restrict myself to more recent evidence because it has been better exposed.

The question rather should be: “Is it possible for business school students, or better still those making money, to use any knowledge derived from their ethical studies to regulate their behaviour when confronted with the prospect of unheard of riches?”

I think not.

But why should this be so?

The reason lies, I have suggested in these columns, in the de-activation of judgmental areas of the cerebral cortex, including the frontal lobes, when greed holds sway. This is still conjectural and, to my knowledge, has not been properly studied by neurobiologists. But we have evidence from another brain system, the one regulating love. Evidence has shown that there is a strong cortical de-activation of judgmental areas when we are in love.

Hence it is useless to tell a person in love that their lover is not worthy for one reason or another. Their de-activated cortex cannot accept that conclusion.

Likewise, it is useless telling someone about to make billions that their conduct is unethical. I conjecture that, faced with greed, their de-activated cortex cannot accept that conclusion. And so, all these ethical courses will be found to be totally useless.

Notice that, in both cases, the judgmental de-activation is highly selective. Those who are passionately in love can exercise judgment in matters not relating to their love affairs, and those who are greedy for money can nevertheless exercise their ethical standards in matters not relating to their greed.

It may indeed be interesting to conduct an experiment in which the extent of cortical de-activation is plotted against the extent of gains to be made from greedy behaviour. I wouldn't be surprised if there is a straightforward, proportional, relationship. There is, after all, such a relationship between extent of hate experience and activity in certain areas of the brain.

I myself do not consider greed as either bad or good, but only as a biological reality that we are faced with.

And it is with biological realities that economists and business schools, as well as government regulators, should deal.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Neurobiology of fictional characters in literature

The Egyptian writer, Alaa Al-Aswany, author of the very successful The Yacoubian Building, was interviewed in Harriet Gilbert’s World Book Club this morning on the World Service of the BBC. His answers to the questions were brief and succinct, indicating a man who has thought deeply about things and thus able to respond briefly and with assurance.

I was especially struck by his comment on the creation of fictional characters, which raises an interesting neurobiological problem, though I cannot figure out a good way to study it.

Al-Asnawy said that, in creating his fictional characters, a moment comes when they acquire their independence and he is no longer in control of them; he merely describes their actions. He put in brief and forceful words what I have often considered, in a somewhat vague way, to be true of some of the great characters in world literature, that the characters are independent of the author, though I never envisaged that there comes a moment, during the writing of the novel, when they acquire their independence. Think of Anna Karenina, or Emma Bovary, or of Julien Sorel in Scarlet and Black. Oddly enough, I have never thought in the same way of Shakespeare, because the power and beauty of his language somehow always reminds me that it is Shakespeare who is writing.

One of the fundamental operations of the brain leads to a capacity to distinguish between self and not self. Indeed, Immanuel Kant thought that this is an a priori with which we are born and into which all experienced is read. I presume that there must be a radical shift in the brain of an author when he or she realizes that the character is no longer their creation but has acquired an independence which they can only describe – a moment when the character becomes detached from the self and becomes the non-self, and when the author knows that the character he or she is creating is separate from them.

I am not sure that I am communicating this well; I am sure that Al-Asnawy would be able to describe it better than me. Nor have I figured out a good way of studying it. But that it must involve a potentially describable shift in neural activity seems very likely. And it shows the power of the arts to point the way to interesting experiments in neurobiology and neuroesthetics.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The day dreams of economic "scientists"

The early morning news today was full of cackle about how Britain will later in the day be deemed to be "technically" out of the economic recession. The economists thought that the figures, when released later in the day, would show that the economy had expanded. Not by much, mind you, just 0.2%. But to the ever optimistic economists, who actually seem to know very little, this meant that we could now see light at the end of the tunnel...

But, within hours the light at the end of the tunnel turned out to be a train coming in the opposite direction!!!

For when the figures were released a few hours later, it turned out that the UK economy had "unexpectedly" shrunk by 0.4% between July and September, making this recession the longest since records began!

It says it all.

The portentous ignorance of the economists and the financial advisers is crushing. And it goes well, as ignorance commonly does, with their optimism.

Every single move, whatever its nature, is hailed as a sign of recovery. When house prices do not fall at the rate they had been falling at previously, this is a sign - to the economists - that house prices are on the rise again! When the pound gains a cent against the dollar, this is a sign - to them - that the recession is over.

And they call themselves scientists. What a joke. What I fail to understand, is why they remain so arrogant.

The BBC carried an interesting report a few months back, about how, in India, people are consulting astrologers on where to put their money. They could actually do worse. They could consult economists!

The correspondent himself went to two astrologers. If my memory serves me right, one of them told him to put his money into something when some star was equidistant from another, while another told him exactly the reverse.

Our economic scientists do not fare much better. But I bet that they charge a good deal more than the astrologers.

Apart from making fools of themselves and giving us all the occasion to laugh at them, their optimism raises a serious neurobiological point.

Alan Greenspan predicted that there will be another economic recession, because humans have an extraordinary capacity for optimism when the going is good.

But it seems that humans, or at least economists, have an extraordinary capacity for optimism, period! Regardless of whether the going is good or bad.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bank of England policymaker agrees with me

It is good to record that, months after my previous post (22nd February 2009) about the importance of having more women in top economic and financial positions, I now have agreement from an economist/banker.

The Guardian reports this morning that Charles Goodhart, a previous Bank of England policymaker, no less, who is now Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics, no less, has said that ‘the worst financial crisis since the second world war could have been prevented if more women were on the boards of major companies. "Women tend to be more cautious and have a longer term outlook. I think that men can be more aggressive and prepared to take larger risks," he said. "There would have been less likelihood of the financial crisis if we had a larger number of female chief executives in the financial sector."

He said that there were "remarkably few" female chief executives in the financial sector and that it is "a great pity". "I think that the longer term and cautious tendency that women have and less of the alpha male would be beneficial."’

This echoes my words nicely…Thank you, Charles Goodhart. There is hope yet.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ineffectual warning signs for the greedy

I was in stitches this morning, laughing my head off about a new gadget that a major company is launching to temper the greed of financiers and bankers, and others who deal with money. The gadget is some kind of instrument that measures the galvanic skin response and turns the readings into a colour scheme. Some colours (I suppose red) signal to the wearer of the gadget that he or she is getting too emotional, and should ‘cool it’. This, the makers believe, will make the financiers more risk aversive.

But this does not take into account that greed is a powerful emotion, and that such gadgets cannot control it through their warnings. Those whose greed and rapacity is above normal (which I suppose is true of many if not most financiers) can hardly be expected to be put off by some warning light, when they are prepared to risk ignominy, imprisonment and disgrace – and even the possibility of losing their entire fortune. After all, many of those currently in prison for financial mis-demeanours have had far more forceful warnings than the one delivered by a gadget strapped to the wrist.

It is like telling someone who is madly in love that they should desist because of some warning sign. It wouldn’t work, and never has. Part of the reason is that, in states of deep love, large parts of the cerebral cortex become de-activated, though the deactivation and consequent suspension of judgment is specific to the loved person. I have suggested elsewhere that with greed, too, there is a cortical de-activation and suspension of judgment, this time specifically related to the money to be made.

Under such conditions, and faced with the prospect of making millions, nay billions, one would hardly expect a banker to notice a red light telling him that he is getting too greedy.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that bankers are laughing all the way to their own banks, because of the huge amounts they are making owing to the imbalance between the interest they give on deposits and the interest they charge on loans. I have read that bankers in England are braced for huge bonuses, somewhere in the region of 5 billion pounds because of this artificial success.

But there are warning signs – far more potent than ones that come from wrist strapped gadgets. The latest comes from Nouriel Roubini, who was once referred to as the ‘prophet of doom’ because he was one of the very few who predicted the recent economic crisis, but who is now regarded as an economic guru, because he was one of the few who predicted it. He told the BBC a few days ago that another economic problem may well be on the way.

Is anyone listening? Probably not. With greed ruling, much of the judgmental part of the collective cerebral cortex is simply inactive, and therefore impervious to such warnings, be they from a grand guru or from a wrist gadget.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Alan Greenspan doesn't get it quite right

Alan Greenspan was chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of the United States and thus effectively presided over the largest economy in the world for very nearly two decades. However controversial his monetary policies may have been, his words, on economics at least, are nevertheless worth listening to.

In an interview he gave to the BBC last month, Greenspan predicted that the economic crisis will occur again. All economic crises, according to him, have one common source, however much they may otherwise differ. The common source is "the unquenchable capability of human beings when confronted with long periods of prosperity to presume that it will continue."

I would like to suggest that there is a simpler common source that is common to economic crises - GREED. And since greed is part of human behaviour, and does not seem to have altered much through the ages, it will lead to another economic crisis, and then another.

That is why I have urged those in the field of neuroeconomics to turn their attention to the neurobiology of greed.

I do not pretend for one moment that learning about the neural basis of greed will produce a cure for economic crises, far from it. But it would provide us with an interesting picture.

And I make this prediction - that, when confronted with greed and the prospect of earning huge sums of money - large parts of the brain become de-activated.

Worth a try, isn't it?

Perhaps not quite so asymmetrical after all

I commonly write and speak of the relationship between neuroesthetics and the arts and humanities as being highly asymmetric. By this I mean that we have a great deal to learn from the artists and the humanists but little or nothing at all to teach them in return. I would doubt very much whether Cézanne would have improved on his paintings if he had known what we know today about the visual brain and visual perception or that Beethoven’s music would have benefited by knowledge about the auditory cortex. In the same way, I would be surprised if our present day knowledge about brain mechanisms would do much to improve or modify the output of many currently active artists. I am also not sure that we have much to teach philosophers or historians of art, although we have a great deal to learn from them.

But perhaps the relationship is not quite as asymmetric as I think, or should not be. In preparing the lecture I am to deliver in Dublin on Francis Bacon, in connection with the celebrations of the centenary of his birth there in 1909, an acquaintance recommended that I should read one of the greatest works ever written on Bacon – a book by the French philosopher, here doubling as art historian, Gilles Deleuze. He exhorted me to read every line, digest it and then meditate on it, to gain important insights into the work of the master.

This was enticing and my enthusiasm was fortified by the exciting title of the book, The Logic of Sensation. I have been studying visual perception and sensation all my life, and here is a book, written by a philosopher, addressing the issue through the art of Francis Bacon. I lost no time in obtaining it.

The great American writer, HL Mencken, once wrote of an actress – probably Sarah Bernhard – who could instill fear and even terror in a recitation of the multiplication table. This same talent, magnified to the nth degree, is present in Deleuz’s writing. The effect of the windy and bombastic phrases is to produce a numbness of the senses, a general cognitive paralysis; its portentous ignorance adds a further intellectual shock.

He tells us on page 34 that “The Figure…acts immediately upon the nervous system, which is of the flesh, whereas abstract form is addressed to the head and acts through the intermediary of the brain, which is closer to the bone”! What could this mean, since the brain is part of the nervous system? My friends assure me that it is a metaphor. But a metaphor for what? Aren’t metaphors meant to help one understand better, to clarify? It makes no sense. Perhaps it would be worth learning a little neurobiology here. He might have clarified his thoughts and told us what he meant.

Fast forward to page 81, where we are told that “In Bacon, primacy is given to the descent” But this fall is “not necessarily a descent in space…It is the descent as the passage of sensation, as the difference in level contained in the sensation”. And “Why is the difference in level not experienced in the other direction, as a rise? Because the fall must not be interpreted in a thermodynamic manner, as if it produced an entropy…Kant laid down the principle of intensity…and concluded that the plurality apprehended in this magnitude could only be represented by its approximation to negation = 0…Consequently even when sensation tends toward a superior or higher level, it can make us experience it only by the approximation of this superior level to zero, that is, by a fall”.

The ellipises are all mine, but they do not alter the meaning significantly, because there is no meaning.

And so it goes on.

I have indeed tried to re-order the words in two paragraphs. This did not improve the passages, I admit at once. But even more interestingly, it did not make the passages any worse.

I am urged to have patience, to read and then re-read. Ultimately, I am told, I will gain the impenetrable insights. This implies that my inability to understand is really due to my somewhat limited capacities. This, alas, may well be true.

But if the price to pay for gaining these insights is to spend interminable hours trying to gain them, I will forgo the pleasure. After all, there are other art historians who have written far more eloquently on Bacon and other artists, or at least have written in language that I and others like me can understand.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

More on Art Without Art…and something new about Money Without Art.

I have found out more about the non-event at the Venice Biennale (see my post of September 12), the poster for which is now selling at 1000 Euros. Apparently, even though it never took place, people spoke about it with wonder and said how much they had enjoyed it.

Well, at least they had done so in their mind. Why not?

As well, a correspondent sent me a link to another non-event, from which there remain some photos. Maybe they also cost a fortune now.

rt is of course inextricably linked to money. And art, or at least good art, is difficult to produce. Art is really the realization of a brain concept. But, as I have argued in my book, Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, artists more often than not find it difficult to translate the rich concepts in their brains, derived from many experiences, into a single work of art or even a series of works. This leads to dis-satisfaction, and in the fiction of Balzac (The Unknown Masterpiece) and Zola (The Masterpiece), even to suicide (there are also examples of suicide from real life).

One solution to this depressing state is not to produce a work of art at all, but only to think about it.

So, I would like now to extend the “art without an artist” of Marcel Duchamp and what I have called “art without art” of Richard Prince and Pasquale Laccese and introduce what I believe to be a new concept, though of course steeped in examples taken from the past.

I call it Money without Art.

Given that people are prepared to pay astronomical sums for works of art by great artists, or fashionable ones, and given the difficulty of producing works of art, I have this suggestion.

Just let the artist sign an empty canvas or a frame, with the inscription: “I had such and such a concept in mind” for this work.

The artist then need not bother with producing the work, and therefore need not be worried about being dis-satisfied. All he or she needs to do is to sell it to a collector. The collector will have the guarantee that the artist thought about the work, even if momentarily, and therefore be satisfied. His acquisition should increase in value with time. Viewers can conjure up all sorts of scenarios for what the artist could have produced.

Of course, the artist must be an eminent one, or at least considered to be eminent. No one would want to pay a penny for an empty canvas by me. But it would be quite another if the empty canvas were signed by a great artist.

I would be surprised if an empty canvas by Picasso or Matisse signed and inscribed with the words “I wanted to paint such and such on this canvas, but did not do so” would not fetch thousands. Just as I would be surprised if the empty page not illustrating the last Canto of the Paradiso, from Boticelli’s series of illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, did not fetch thousands if it were ever to come on the market.

The application of this concept of Money without Art (or Monsart, for MONey Sans ART) would also be an addition to contemporary art which, I am told, questions more profoundly the relationship of the viewer to the work of art and to the concept in the artist’s mind.

After all, with an empty canvas, the possibilities are limitless, and so perhaps is the cash.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A very wise billionaire

A great deal of knowledge is gained by studying the faces we encounter. We may feel safe or threatened, we may empathize or distrust. All this is of course done immediately, in seconds and perhaps even in fractions of a second. So important is the knowledge gained from a face that the brain has a whole area devoted to facial recognition and to the recognition of facial expressions. But we still do not know how the brain evaluates a person from the many very rapid calculations that it must perform on the many details in a face. Indeed, we don’t even know precisely what these calculations are. But facial perception is being studied intensively by neurobiologists and we shall no doubt gain a great deal of interesting information about this perfected system.

When the brain detects a pleasant or nasty face – one to be avoided – it is of course doing so with respect to its own past experience. I often think that when we feel a certain danger in a face, of whatever source, we should trust our instincts and perceptions and ignore all other advice. For what may appear as a nasty face to one may appear as exceptionally pleasant to another. Each one according to his or her own experience.

We have all read stories about gigantic swindles being perpetrated recently, in schemes commonly known as Ponzo schemes. Some of those running these schemes must have had an extraordinary ability to look their customers (who in some instances were trusted “friends”) in the eye and know that they were going to swindle them out of all their money, without arousing any suspicion in the ill-fated customer. But not all were quite so naïve.

A friend recently related to me the true story of a billionaire who wanted to invest a huge sum of money in one of these schemes, which promised huge returns – of 10% or more. Apparently unlike many others who invested their millions with this man, our billionaire asked to meet the top man face to face before signing over his millions. His request was refused. He immediately cancelled the deal.

This was a wise man, one who trusted his instincts more than the judgment of those who recommended him to invest in such a scheme. But there is another side to the coin. Presumably, the many others who invested their millions – and lost – did so without studying the top man face to face. Or of course, they might have perceived danger signs, but other faculties – the reputation of those running the schemes, their past history, and so one – may have led them to over-rule their mistrust. Or, quite simply, some of us may have a less perfected facial recognition apparatus in our brains than others.

Whichever is the correct answer, perhaps we should all take the wise man’s action to heart and act accordingly in our dealings. After all, unlike many others, he is still swimming in his millions.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Art without art

Marcel Duchamp played one of the biggest jokes on the art world, when he used the ready mades to propagate his doctrine of art without an artist, the signed urinal which he exhibited (and which today no doubt costs a fortune) being one of the best known examples. It of course raised a whole set of questions about art, which are still being debated.

Now a gallerist friend of mine in Milan, Pasquale Leccese of Le Case d’arte, and the artist Richard Prince have gone a step further. They prepared a poster advertising an exhibition in the Panama Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. But there was no exhibition; it never took place.

The result?

Well, the poster, which sold for 10 Euros then, is now selling for 1000 Euros. It has become a collector’s item.

What a hoot!

But there is of course a serious side to this one, too.

After all, Sandro Botticelli, who illustrated all of the Cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy, left some un-illustrated. Especially notable is that the Canto in which Dante speaks of how the highest fantasy fails him and the last one, in which he simply abandons his will and desire to the love that moves the sun and the other stars are left un-illustrated by Botticelli, thus leaving it to the imagination of the viewer or the reader to create their own (mental) images.

I imagine that the pages left blank by Botticelli are worth millions today.

Reductionism...the hate word

Now that neurobiology has started to explore the neural correlates of subjective mental states such empathy, love, desire, beauty, reward and much else besides, the hate word “reductionism” is being used to stigmatize and call into question the efforts of neurobiologists in this direction. Our detractors insist on the “holism” of subjective experiences, and some at least seem desperate to find a source other than the brain for these experiences.

Clearly, this kind of research touches a raw nerve among them. Their motives are probably varied, but these motives do not interest me much. What is interesting to consider is the extent to which an unquestioning adherence to holism can impede research and a better understanding of how the brain functions. The visual brain provides an excellent example.

Salomon Henschen (Sweden) was the first to chart the location and extent of the primary visual receiving centre in the brain, followed by Tatsuji Inouye (Japan) and Gordon Holmes (England) who charted it in greater detail, the former in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War and the latter in the aftermath of the First World War. Both Henschen and Holmes believed that the primary visual centre (now commonly referred to as V1) in the brain was the only brain area for vision and that vision, being experienced in a wholesome way, was a unitary, wholesome, process. In the service of this doctrine, they and many others dismissed, often contemptuously, evidence that may suggest that, however wholesome our experience may be, the brain processes that lead to these experiences are in fact fractionated. Indeed, Gordon Holmes was even blind to his own evidence, which showed (in one patient) that the faculty to perceive visual motion may be selectively spared (I have reviewed this evidence in detail in my book, now sadly out of print, A Vision of the Brain). Indeed, so forceful was their dismissal that the clinical evidence which may have supported another view simply vanished from the literature. One would find it very hard to find any reference to it in the papers on the visual brain published between 1918 and 1970.

But one of the striking discoveries about vision since 1970 has been that there are many visual areas, each with its own distinctive connections and specialization, of which the areas specialized for visual motion and colour are perhaps the best studied to date. Even perceptually, in very brief time frames, vision is not the wholesome process that many thought it to be. For it turns out that we see colour before we see motion by about 100 ms, an enormously long time in neural terms.

This does not mean that vision is a not a wholesome experience but only that the process leading to that experience are widely distributed in separate areas of the brain. The challenge for neurobiology now is to understand how, in the longer term, that is to say for periods exceeding 100 ms, the brain integrates the results of activities in its separate parts to give us our wholesome experience.

Had we insisted on a holistic approach (as indeed was done for a long time), we would never have undertaken the research that revealed the brain processes that are instrumental in giving us our wholesome visual experience. To stigmatize this research as “reductionist” is silly. The research is simply a step in understanding better the brain process that lead to holistic experiences.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Should you eat bacon or caviar, or just stick to nouvelle cuisine?

We are all inundated by reports telling us not eat this or that, and become somewhat confused when we are later told that what was not recommended is actually good for you. I believe that there was a recent report that eggs are good for you, after all. Somewhat irritating, after I deprived myself of eggs for so many years.

To all those who are confused by these contradictory statements about what we should or should not consume, I recommend reading the excellent article at DC’s improbably science. This is written by David Colquhoun, Professor of Pharmacology at UCL, who has done as much as anyone to debunk bad science and the myths of alternative medicine. The particular piece I am referring will not only help you to assess the evidence about eating bacon (and much else besides) for yourself, but also constitutes an excellent introductory course to statistics for the lay person. Read it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

More on women...

A correspondent, M, criticizes me severely for praising Margaret Thatcher in a recent posting, where I quoted her as saying that she always insisted on running the economy as she would run the household as a housewife (my post of February 22, 2009).

M thinks that she started and promoted the era of corporate greed, not only in Britain but around the world. It is, as we all know, this corporate greed that has brought us to where we are.

M is of course quite right, and I agree with him. I believe that her policies did start the era of corporate greed and turned Britain into a less caring, humane and compassionate society than it used to be.

It also encouraged policy-makers in other countries to pursue these same policies and make the world as a whole a less caring place.

I was really trying to say that men would not think and talk like that. But M is right. After quoting her, I should have added, “However, she did not take her own advice seriously enough to incorporate it into long term economic policies”.

So, my apologies to M.

For me, it still remains that there are far too few women in leading financial and economic positions. It would only be right to have more. I am hopeful that they will follow a more careful economic policy, given their less reckless attitude. This more circumspect attitude may in the end be traceable to a difference in the way the feminine brain functions.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The "Gas Tank" Theory of Love

Some time ago (April 28, 2008), I wrote a piece about the objectivity of subjective experiences. I now recall that, many years ago, Martin Bell – then a correspondent for the BBC in the United States – reported on what he called Lee Marvin’s “Gas Tank” Theory of Love.

A lady he had been living with had brought a court case against him, demanding half of his earnings for the period they had been living together. But how much did he love her? Lee Marvin replied that if measuring love was like a fuel gauge, his feelings for her never got above “half a tank”.

Now this seemed funny and improbable at the time. But in fact measuring a full brain “gas tank of love” is not quite so improbable after all.

Romantic love correlates with activity in a specific set of areas. Brain activity that correlates with subjective mental states such as hate, or experience of beauty, or expectation of reward, seems to be proportional to the intensity of the declared subjective mental state, at least in some brain areas.

For example, activity in the putamen, a subcortical brain station, is propotional to the declared intensity of hate experienced by the subject.

Now suppose that we are able to calculate the exact number of cells in the putamen and determine the ones whose responses correlate with the experience of hate and suppose further that we have a precise figure for their electrical discharge rates per second. If we had this information, we should be able to tell whether, at any given moment, the hate is of the “full gas tank” or “half gas tank” variety. And so too with love.

This is of course taking a very simple approach. In practice, we would also need to have the same information for the other areas whose activity correlates with the experience of hate (or of love). And we would also have to calculate the responses of areas whose activity merely correlates with the experience of love or hate, without being related proportionately to the intensity of the experience.

This is all of course a long way off – some will wish ardently that is forever off. But it is worth recording that Lee Marvin was not being far from biology when he was trying to give a measure to the intensity of love that he felt. The gas tank analogy was, I believe, not a bad one after all.

The female brain and economics

In my previous post (February 22nd, 2009), I lamented the fact that there are not more women in top economic posts. I ventured the opinion that, if there are indeed differences between the male and the female brain (and who can deny that, at some level, there must be), this may work to the advantage of women – and the advantage of society – where it comes to economic matters. Had women been in charge of our financial and economic affairs, we might not be in quite the mess we are in today, so I wrote.

In this context, I was interested to read a report in The Financial Times dated March 2nd and entitled “Why women managers shine in a downturn”. The article is by Michel Ferrary, a professor of business management at Ceram Business School in France. He reports that …”the more women there were in a company’s management, the less the share price fell in 2008. A significant coefficient of correlation links the two variables”.

The only large company whose share prices rose in 2008 was the luxury goods company Hermès. Its share price rose by 16.8 % and 55 percent of its management are women. And, to a lesser extent, the story is repeated with other companies with highly feminised managements.

By contrast, companies with mainly highly masculinised management saw their share prices fall dramatically. Alcatel-Lucent, which only has 8.6 % female managers – presumably the rest are males – saw a 69.3% decrease in share prices – and the story is repeated across other companies.

Among French banks, contrast BNP Paribas with 38.7% female managers and whose share price fell 39 % in 2008, with Credit Agricole, which has only 16% female managers and whose share price decreased by 62.2%.

The article traces this to the fact that women “tend to be more risk-aversive and to focus more on a long term perspective”

One would, of course, like to see statistics for other countries besides France before reaching firm conclusions. But this interesting study supports my view that the female brain may confer distinctive economic advantages, to the benefit of all, and that we should, therefore, pursue seriously having equal numbers of women in topic economic and financial posts. If we persist in having unequal numbers, then we should advantage the women and have a smaller percentage of men.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In praise of women

A friend recently wrote to me, to enquire what I thought about an article which has apparently appeared recently and which describes differences between male and female brains. Apparently when females undertake judgments of beauty, both of their cerebral hemispheres are engaged whereas in males it is the right hemisphere alone that is engaged.

I have not been able to trace this article but recall having seen another article along somewhat similar lines many years ago, which again purported to show that, in females, both hemispheres are engaged when undertaking certain tasks whereas males use one hemisphere alone for the same task.


One conclusion from such studies is that male and female brains are different, which of course in a sense they are.

Another conclusion is that women need both hemispheres to do what men can do with one hemisphere.

To which I would like to add a speculation: that women do many things better than men, precisely because they use both hemispheres and are thus more engaged with the task.

If my speculation has any merit, then it makes sense to engage women a lot more in many areas of our lives than we actually seem to do, even in the most advanced societies. It is in any case their right, since they gain to lose as much as men when wrong decisions are made.

Consider our present economic plight. I have seen a most interesting documentary produced by It is in five parts and is entitled Frontline: the Meltdown. It is well worth watching.

One of the striking things to emerge from this documentary is that there is only one woman among the leading personalities who have dealt with economic crisis, one woman alone (I exclude the women who were being interviewed about their views). The documentary does not make this point, but it became obvious when I viewed it.

One woman alone!

I wonder. If the effort had been more equitably distributed between men and women, and above all if there had been more women in powerful economic and financial positions, would we be in such a mess today?

Would women be quite so reckless in promoting debts which they know can never be repaid? How many, I wonder, of those who purchased mortgages which they knew they could never repay were women? I bet a minority. Would they have accepted complicated economic formulations prepared by mathematicians who do not understand economics and accepted by economists who do not understand mathematics?

Women, on the whole, have a better instinct to preserve and stabilize and hence their judgment in these matters is often better, unlike men who can be, and often are, reckless in these same matters. There lies one difference between men and women and the advantage lies with women.

Margaret Thatcher always insisted on running the economy as she would run the household as a housewife. Never spend beyond your means. I don’t think that male economists over the past 15 years would think like that. They certainly haven’t acted like that.

If such differences are traceable to differences in brain organization, then why not use that to advantage? In any case, given that women suffer as much as men from the economic downturn, and probably a lot more, why not at least make them share in the decisions? It is, I think, scandalous, that they have such a minor representation in deciding our affairs, especially our economic affairs.

And here is my favourite quote of the week. It comes from Paul Volcker. He is quoted as saying “Even the experts [economists] don’t know quite what’s going on”!!!

Did they ever?

And of course, the overwhelming majority of “experts” who got us into this mess are men.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Neuroeconomics…and greed

I am a fan of the discipline that has become known as neuroeconomics. It has enlisted gifted neurobiologists and is probing highly interesting questions such as the neural parameters of decision making, the representation of reward and the relationship of neurotransmitter activity to reward expectation. I am sure that it will continue to give us many insights into brain organization.

Yet there is a cardinal area which it seems not to have explored so far, namely greed. Greed is currently on everyone’s lips, for it is principally greed that has brought us to the current economic crisis, not economic policies; or, if it is economic policies, then it is economic policies governed by greed. It is a word on everyone’s lips except the economists.

Greed is defined in Webster’s dictionary as inordinate and reprehensible acquisitiveness. This is a neurobiologically interesting, and almost certainly wrong definition. To the practitioners of this greed, there is nothing reprehensible in what they have done or are doing. To those brilliant strategists who advised that a policy of selling mortgages to those who are unable to repay makes sound economic sense, there was nothing reprehensible in their advice. To those inept economic policy-makers, there is nothing to be ashamed of or to regret in what these policies have brought about, the ruin of many families and businesses. To those bankers who, brandishing the begging bowl for economic bailouts from governments, are now re-brandishing the begging bowl ever more insistently for bonuses, there is no feeling of shame, nor are they ashamed of the luxurious beachside conferences arranged in elegant resorts to discuss their bankrupt policies.

Nor is greed limited to them. It also characterizes, for example, those who signed on to mortgages which they knew they could never pay back.

Why should this be so?

I believe that like love and hate, greed probably has neural correlates; it is likely that, as with hate, the degree of activity in relevant brain area(s) will be found to correlate with the intensity of greed experienced. Greed is also probably regulated by neurotransmitters and the receptors for them. It almost certainly depends upon a host of other, as yet unknown, factors as well. But there is one neurobiological prediction that I want to make about greed now – namely that it de-activates those areas of the brain, if any, that control shame and regret and, up to a point, judgment as well.

We have found that the frontal cortex (along with some other cortical areas) is de-activated in those who are passionately in love. It is for this reason, that those in love tend to be less judgmental about their lovers. It is also probably for this reason that it is pointless to try to convince one who is deeply and passionately in love about the folly of their action. Hence, in Pascal’s words, “The heart has its reasons, which reasons knows nothing about”.

And this brings me back to greed. President Obama has now joined the swelling number of people who are angrily condemning the greed of bankers and the incessant demand for bonuses from those who have brought us to this economic abyss. These cries mean nothing to the greedy; they are of no avail. They do not see the shame and have no regrets. This is because, I conjecture, greed also inactivates those parts of the brain that control shame and regret. But, when inactivated, neither shame nor regret are felt. The greed system of the brain then operates uncontrolled according to its own laws, which is that of acquisitiveness, but one which is never seen as reprehensible. Hence the inadequacy of the dictionary definition.

Like love, greed also has its reasons, which reason knows nothing about.

I shall be interested to see if my predictions about greed and the brain come true.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In defense of Senator McCain

This morning I heard an interview with an economist on the World Service of the BBC. He told us that no one knows the extent of the liabilities that the banks have and no one really has a clear solution to the economic problems. Asked if President Obama has the right strategies for solving the economic problems, he replied that “he has the right strategists”,

And then this jibe…

“Unlike Senator McCain who did not even know that there are economic strategists” or words to that effect.

Well, are there any?

If there are, are they anything but strategists in name?

They do not know the liabilities, they did not foresee the extent of the economic disaster, and they do not have the solutions.

So, is Senator McCain not right when he professes not to know that there are any economic strategists?

Given the mess that these so-called economic strategists have got us into, the wonder is that anyone believes that there are economic strategists.

There may be many criticisms that could be leveled against Senator McCain.

This is not one of them.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Creativity and the richness of brain concepts

In two recent blogs, I argued that self-censorship, whether known or unknown, is an unwelcome brake on creativity; it stifles self-expression and hence prevents a work from reaching the heights of great art. But, as I have argued in my recent book Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, it is not the only impediment. I view all art as an effort to translate brain concepts into a work. These brain concepts are synthetic ones – the result of many experiences. But a single work of art, or even a series of works, more often than not cannot translate these synthetic concepts adequately. Yves Saint Laurent once said (I think to Christian Lacroix) that he suffered greatly when creating. He is not alone in that. Most artists do the same and say as much.

One, very common, way of avoiding this difficulty is to abandon all attempts at creating a work; another is to leave it unfinished. But Balzac in particular highlights a third way, which also ends in failure. In his The Unknown Masterpiece (Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu), he writes of a painter who progressively destroys a painting through the richness of concepts in his brain, by trying to put too much into the work. When he finally allows others to see the painting, on which he has been working secretly for 10 years, they see nothing but “a mass of confused colours contained within a multitude of bizarre lines”. Of it Balzac wrote that it was about “a work and its execution strangled by the great abundance of the creative principle”, which I translate into the richness of the synthetic concepts in the brain.

It ends, of course, with the suicide of the artist, just as in Zola’s novel, The Masterpiece (L’Œuvre), the painter Lantier commits suicide because of the richness of concepts in his brain.

It is interesting to note that both Cézanne and Picasso greatly admired Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece. Picasso was so taken by it that he purchased (or rented) the apartment in Paris in which it was set. Of the principle character in the short novel (Frenhofer), Cézanne said, “Frenhofer, c’est moi”.

The novels of Balzac and Zola constitute, in this context, very interesting neurobiological documents. But they do not address, and neither has neurobiology to date, the mechanisms that drive an artist to want to create, often desperately. It is an extremely interesting problem for neurobiology, which stands to gain a great deal from learning about the problem by studying what the great creative artists have had to say about it.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Artistic creativity and the brain

I wrote a blog in May in which I discussed the improvisations of the jazz pianist, Tord Gustavsen. In it, I put forward the view that great artistic achievements must be free of all censorship, and above all self-censorship which, I imagined, may possibly be imposed by activity in the frontal lobes of the brain. In this context, I was very interested to read about an imaginative experiment in a recent paper by Charles Limb and Allen Braun, published in PLoS One. They studied the activity in the brain of professional jazz pianists while they (the pianists) were improvising. There is much of interest in this paper, but here I concentrate on one result which I found especially exciting in view of what I said in my earlier blog. Limb and Braun found that there was extensive de-activation in the frontal cortex as well as in those areas of the brain that are thought to regulate emotions. The authors write that the frontal areas that were de-activated in their study are thought to be important for the conscious monitoring, evaluation and correction of behaviour:

“The [frontal cortex] may be involved in assessing whether such behaviors conform to social demands, exerting inhibitory control over inappropriate or maladaptive performance”

And there you have it!

Any artistic achievement that is tailored to conform to social demands rather than to the real, uninhibited, feelings of its creator, is destined not to reach the heights of achievement, or even fail. It is only when an artist is dis-inhibited that he or she can reach the heights of artistic achievement.

This is perhaps what Wagner and Schopenhauer meant when they said, in a somewhat clumsy way, that an artistic work must “flow from the sub-conscious”, which I interpret to mean without self-censorship. This is perhaps what Proust also meant when he wrote in his Contre Sainte Beuve, “Every day, I become more aware that it is only outside [intelligence] that the [artist] can attain something of himself and the only material of art” (see my earlier blog).

It is at any rate wonderful to have in this recent work a neurological insight into a prized characteristic of all art, but especially of jazz and dancing.