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.