Monday, November 29, 2010

Smug satisfaction at predicting what is easily predictable

Why, I wonder, do I [and many others] get a satisfaction (or kick) when something so self-evident, which we had become so accustomed to predicting, turns out to be true? Why does not the brain adapt to repeated exposure and become indifferent, instead of satisfied.

On London Underground, “No exit” usually means “short cut”. This is true most of the time but not always. So whenever I take the exit marked “No exit” and find that it is indeed a short cut, I feel well pleased, as if I had discovered something new, when in fact I have not. I suppose the fact that it is not always true gives me the thrill of knowing that I had predicted correctly, for I could have got it wrong.

The same is true of politicians, at least in the UK. Whenever the Prime Minister of the UK declares that a minister who had been caught in some scandal or another has “my full support and backing”, it is almost certain that the said minister will resign sooner rather than later. But it is not always so, which is perhaps why we are satisfied when we get the prediction that the minister will resign right, even if past experience shows that our prediction is likely to be right.

Consider next the vehement protests of the Irish Government that they will not seek a bail-out, that they will refuse to borrow more money to get themselves out of debt (a somewhat ridiculous situation when one thinks about it). The more vehement the denial, the more apparent it became that they would seek a bail-out, which is what they did in the end. But there always remained the possibility that they may not, which is what gives us the satisfaction of having made the correct prediction. If we had known it as a certainty that the denials meant that they would actually borrow the money to process the debt resulting from borrowing money, maybe we would have less satisfaction with our prediction, which results from our knowledge that politicians lie.

Currently, the Portuguese Government is angrily denying that they it seek a financial bail-out, a denial echoed by the President of the European Commission, Mr Barosso, who was “absolutely” certain that this would not happen.

Well, my prediction is that it will; and if I turn out to be correct, I shall feel a certain satisfaction at having been correct. We will wait and see.

The general point I am making is that, even when the brain becomes accustomed to the fact that certain statements mean the opposite, it still entertains the possibility that, on some occasions, the statements are correct. And hence, when it finds that its predictions are correct, it gets some satisfaction, even if the predictions are what would be expected from past history anyway.

All of which points to some interesting brain experiments on prediction.

Biological necessity for having more women in top economic posts

In an editorial last week, The Financial Times strongly supported the appointment of more women to boardroom roles, saying that the “number of women on UK boards is lamentably low”, thus echoing what I wrote here some time ago. But The Financial Times uses different arguments, based on diversity and equal opportunity. The case that I would like to make for more women being on boards of companies and in top economic positions is perhaps a little more radical. It is based on biological differences between male and female brains which, in many instances, works to the advantage of women and ultimately to that of society as well.

One such difference is that women, through biological inclination, are more risk aversive than men. This is, I think a biological imposition, since women have to think more carefully of building a stable environment for growth of the family in as prosperous social conditions as possible. It is likely, therefore, that they would be more prudent in their management of the economy. Had I been in power, I would probably insist that the job of Minister of Finance (in Britain, Chancellor of the Exchequer) should always go to a woman; I would probably also want to ensure that a woman is minister for housing and perhaps even for army supplies. I do not believe that men are as good at these jobs. In fact, as it turns out (also reported in The Financial Times some time ago and about which I wrote here), “the more women there were in a company’s management [in France], the less the share price fell in 2008”.

It is interesting to note that, in the latest documents released by Wikileaks, one from a US diplomat in Berlin describes the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as “risk aversive” – presumably pejoratively.

Well, we know what all those risk-prone men in top economic jobs, together with their male economic advisors, did to the world economy.
So perhaps being risk aversive in certain areas is not such a bad thing after all.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Denial of blindness and mind blindness (or denial states)

A correspondent has asked me whether there is any visual equivalent to the state I described in yesterday's post about peri-personal space.

Well, not exactly but there is something similar known as anosognosia. This is a condition in which humans blinded by lesions to their primary visual cortex (V1) become completely blind and yet deny being blind. The denial is, as I understand it, persistent. In other words, when they bump into objects and cannot identify them visually, they still deny that they are blind.

This raises interesting and important questions about brain mechanisms that determine perceptual states and the extent to which such mechanisms are under the control of further brain mechanisms which dictate and determine knowledge.

There is yet another syndrome, which has more general applicability. It is a term no longer in use, because advances in our understanding of how the visual brain works have made the term inappropriate. But in the early stages of neurology it described states when, following lesions in the brain, patients could see but could not understand what they had seen. The neurologist Hermann Munk called this syndrome Seelenblindheit, and was usually referred to in English as mind blindness.

I think that the term should be re-introduced to describe certain groups of humans, amongst whom I include politicians but also a good number of academics (economists do not fit into this category for they seem incapable of either seeing or understanding the economic picture).

Blithely those suffering from mind blindness persevere even in spite of the knowledge that their senses and intellect gives them. They are mind blind, or in states of denial. When they are cured of their mind blindness by some mysterious cortical mechanims, it is often too late.

By re-introducing the term, we might be able to take the syndrome more seriously and study it neurobiologically. It may yet give us important insights about the knowledge-acquiring system of the brain.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Experienced and un-experienced extensions of body parts

A well documented syndrome is that of phantom limbs, in which sensations from an amputated limb do not disappear but remain and are often painful. Subjects with this syndrome may also feel that they are able to move their limbs. In short, a missing part is not necessarily experienced as missing, even when the subject knows that it is missing.

I presume that someone born with one limb missing will not experience that limb. From which it follows that the phenomenon is due to the persistence in the brain of some record of that limb, even in its absence.

There is a counterpart to this condition, which I experience on a regular basis in the streets and the Underground system of London. People carrying backpacks or bags do not seem to be aware of the extension of their bodies, and hence are quite happy to invade my peri-personal space. They do not do so with their actual bodies, but with the artificial extensions to their bodies. They brush against me continually, sometimes forcefully, without even being aware of having done so.

Thus the brain does not appear to accommodate, in its calculation of the space occupied by the body to which it belongs, any artificial extensions of that body, even when such artificial extensions become daily props.

Presumably, if the artificial extension becomes a permanent fixture, the brain may gradually take account of it. But this must be a very long process, assuming that it occurs at all.

The result is of course most irritating, because people around us invade our peri-personal space continually, brushing against us with the artificial extensions to their bodies. A Japanese colleague of mine told me that this kind of peri-personal space invasion is much frowned upon and disliked in Japan. Good for the Japanese.

This irritating invasion of other peoples’ space by artificial extensions to the body, if appropriately studied, may give us useful hints about how the brain represents the body of which it is a part.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Material for a control experiment on politicians

Returning to what I wrote earlier today, I now read in a BBC report that (according to one politician) the Labour Party "may have been reluctant to do a coalition deal with the Lib Dems because they knew what was in store for an incoming government".

So perhaps the frontal cortex in the brains of these politicians was exerting some control on the subcortical reward centres of their brain, preventing them from triggering the operations that would lead to immediate reward.

If only the brains of these politicians could have been scanned at that time, and the activity in these brains compared to that of politicians who wanted immediate reward in spite of long term difficulties, we might have had an interesting insight into the operations of the brain.

I daresay there will be many more such opportunities in the future.

Greed for power and brain activity

Most people in Britain, and many around the world, will have watched with (perhaps) some interest but with no surprise the dash for power between two parties – Conservative and Labour – neither of whom won an absolute majority. They haggled and bargained with the Liberal Democrats, offering all sorts of goodies to form a coalition government. They were both greedy for power, as indeed all politicians are.

But, on this occasion, it was putting short term gains before long term interests. Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, had warned days before the general election that the economic situation is so dire that whoever wins power will subsequently be out of power for a generation. This is because the government in power would have to take some very tough economic decisions to get Britain out of the deep financial problem that it is in.

No matter – the politicians want power and they want it now. Short term gains set against long term interests!

What is it that happens in the brain when an individual sacrifices long term interests for short term gains?

As it happens, a very interesting paper appeared a few months ago in the Journal of Neuroscience, which had studied this very problem. Using a relatively simple and clever design, the authors show that the impulse to immediate gratification – in which the reward parts of the sub-cortex of the brain play an important role – is “censored” or modulated by the frontal cortex. In situations where immediate gratification takes precedence over long term gains in the behaviour of individuals, there is a relaxation of the strength of activity between the frontal cortex – which might be thought of as censoring the sub-cortical nuclei - and the sub-cortical nuclei involved (the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area).

Hence one can surmise that among many politicians there must have been a significant reduction in the control that the frontal cortex exerted over their sub-cortical nuclei.

This of course raises the question of what factor inhibits these connections.

I have previously argued on this site that greed de-activates the frontal cortex in the brains of those who manage financial affairs. The study I refer to here is consistent with this suggestion, if one substitutes greed for power for greed for money. But it would be good to go beyond and learn how greed inhibits the judgmental activity of the frontal cortex.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Abandon the search for perfection?

The eminent Indian author, Radhika Jha, has a very interesting, but somewhat puzzling, suggestion for changing this world and making it a better place. I mean puzzling for so creative a person as her.

She believes that we should get rid of our obsession with perfection – that we all want the unattainable – the perfect wife, the perfect child, the perfect car, and so on.

She proposes that, instead, we form a club of the 99 percenters, those who do not search for perfection because “perfection is not creative”.

We should instead, she believes, “make imperfection our goal”, and acknowledge that there are many solution to our problems, none of them perfect.

This is an interesting challenge, but one that, I think, goes against brain realities, especially in art.

Let me first say that she is probably correct, from a neurobiological point of view, in saying that perfection is not creative. For once a painter has created the perfect painting, for example, the impulse to carry on is somewhat dissipated.

I recall Balthus, the French painter (who never allowed me to view his canvases when he was still working on them), once surprisingly inviting me to his studio to see a painting that he had all but finished. Why, I asked him, was he giving me this privilege which he had always denied me before?

“Because”, he replied, “I am, for the first time, satisfied with this painting. And that is the end of me”.

What is creative is the seeking of perfection – and not attaining it.

This perhaps is not a recipe for making the world a happier one, because of the frustration that it entails.

But it is a recipe for making the world a richer one.

And consider this: Radhika Jha has said that she searched for the “ideal” village to describe in a novel but could not find it. So she created one from her imagination instead.

Exactly so.

Perfection (and the ideal) as I have argued in my book Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, reside in the brain, a synthesis of many experiences. But the individual example may not satisfy the synthetic one created from many examples.

Hence the impulse to create, and reflect in a creation, the synthetic concept in the brain.

This is a frustrating and very difficult task, more often than not accompanied by failure, but a failure that leads to greater creative efforts.

So, in a sense, by creating the ideal village from her own imagination, Jha is disowning her suggestion that we should not seek perfection.

Interesting thought!

String theory and the brain

Some years ago, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was inadvertently put on the wrong panel, a panel on mathematics! Now let me say that I respect and fear mathematicians because I am so feeble at the subject. Once, when sitting next to a very renowned mathematician at dinner, I asked him whether he could explain to me in lay terms what his research was about. He replied “No”. End of conversation!

But on this occasion, I thought it would not be right to chicken out just because I had been put on the wrong panel. So I went there determined to give the brain a prominent place in the discussion, which took place over dinner.

The question I raised, to which no mathematician could provide an adequate answer, but which actually absorbed most of the evening’s discussion, was simple:

Given that there is no real experimental evidence for string theory, is it plausible that physicists and mathematicians would have come up with such a theory had we not had the kind of brain organization that we have?
The great mathematicians pondered the issue over the evening and could not provide an answer (nor by the way can I, at least not definitively).

I still think that the question is a very interesting one.

It goes beyond string theory to nanotechnology.

I have heard George Whitesides, eminent chemist, say that there are many phenomena in the world of nanotechnology that we have no intuition about but that we can formulate mathematically.

His general view, which I hope I am summarizing correctly, is that at the nano level, particles behave in a way that has not been properly formulated in our intuition, but which we can understand mathematically.

This raises the interesting question whether the mathematical brain has intuitions that are quite distinct from ordinary experiential intuitions.

Which comes back to the question I started with: whether we would have had these mathematical intuitions had we not had the kind of (mathematical) brain that we have.

I am not sure that I am formulating the questions precisely enough, but there is some interesting material for thought there.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ethical stocks!!!

I read a somewhat bizarre news item on the front page of The Financial Times yesterday. Apparently an ethical equity index has been launched "in response to increasing demand by investors for so-called ethical stocks in the wake of the financial crisis". The group of 533 European companies consists of companies that derive their revenues solely "from sources approved 'according to the values and principles of the Christian religion'".

Among the companies in the index are BP, HSBC, Nestlé, and Royal Dutch Shell.

Making money, as I have argued before on this site, is closely related to greed and, as I have also argued, I have the strong suspicion that when the brain's greed system is in operation, those parts of the brain that regulate ethical conduct are de-activated. Perhaps the greater the amount of money to be made, the greater the deactivation of the system that regulates ethical behaviour.

Now let me say that such an experiment has not been reported yet, to my knowledge. But I strongly suspect - just by watching human behaviour (and there has been plenty to watch in the past year alone and, as I understand it, there is a spectacle going on right now) - my conjecture will turn out to be true.

Perhaps it is wise to stop pretending - and fooling ourselves and others - that making big deal money can be made entirely ethically. Perhaps we should put money (and the greed that commonly goes with it) into separate compartments.

Of course there are rich individuals who have behaved entirely ethically and in accordance with the principles of their religion.

But I have not heard of many very big companies that do so.

Why not admit that greed is incompatible with high ethical standards?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I’m upset about Amsterdam

I stopped in Amsterdam on my way to give a lecture in Groningen, with the specific purpose of visiting the exhibition at the Hermitage entitled Matisse and Malevich: Pioneers of Modern Art. I was in fact especially interested in seeing the Malevich paintings on display, since I am myself preparing a Malevich event for October (about which more later). But there was ONLY ONE Malevich in the Amsterdam exhibition, entitled Black on White. It is at the very end of the exhibition. I felt cheated by that…especially since Matisse and Malevich are advertised in letters of equal size on the posters. I wonder whether there is a Trades Description Act in Holland, equivalent to the one in England. If there is, I think that there would be a good case for saying that the act has been infringed.

The curators may have done this deliberately…and tantalized the visitor to the end, or they may have had another symbolic idea in mind. Whatever, I still feel cheated.

Of course I could have asked for my money back…but actually, the rest of the exhibition was very enjoyable, so I didn’t (not that they would have given it back, I imagine). There are some wonderful paintings from Matisse and Picasso, as well as many others. Perhaps the most memorable quote in the exhibition is one attributed to Picasso, which I had not encountered before.

Picasso, apparently, did not want to dissociate himself completely from depicting the external reality, as Malevich did. “You have to start somewhere” he is quoted as saying. “You can always erase reality later on”.

Interesting thought, that. I think that artists always do erase reality to a greater or lesser extent, and substitute their own reality – created by their brains, instead.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Zero and cognitive factors

I write about a topic of which I am very largely ignorant but which nevertheless seems interesting.

The overall question is: to what extent is our concept of zero shaped by religious, philosophical or metaphysical considerations and to what extent is it based on our mathematical sense.

The question came to me after attending a very interesting lecture/discussion on Indian mathematics given by Dr. George Gheverghese Joseph as part of the Royal Society’s 350th Anniversary celebrations.

As I understand it, the concept of zero was developed in India in the Vedic period, which stretched from the second millennium to the 6th century BC.

It is strongly related to a concept called Sunya which means nothingness, emptiness, void, while Sunyata refers to “emptying the mind of all impressions”, presumably to achieve peace.

It is a concept that has been used to describe an important aspect of the arts, namely the capacity to realize the void and represent it, while within the context of Sunya, architecture is also related to the void – “It is not walls that make a building but the emptiness”.

Is there, one wonders, any relation between the concept of zero and these almost philosophical and quasi-religious views about emptying the mind to achieve peace?

The view held by the Vedic mathematicians is that the number zero, being no number at all, is the necessary condition for the existence of all numbers.

But our view of zero, unlike our view of other numbers, seems to have evolved. In the 19th century, division by 0 was considered to be a meaningless operation, while it is viewed differently today. It is indeed critical in computational operations.

But zero is apparently also linked to very large numbers, indeed to infinity, a question that fascinated the ancient Indian mathematicians, whereas the ancient Greeks, apparently, had a horror of large numbers and infinity, preferring finite geometrical representations.

All of which would seem to suggest that the number zero, unlike natural numbers, is one that is open to other influences and open also to conceptual modifications. Perhaps this is also true of infinity.

It is worth thinking about in the context of the mathematical brain.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Parliament, the brain’s synthetic concepts and negative ideals

In my book Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, I wrote about the brain’s synthetic concepts and equated these with ideals.

To summarize, I hypothesized that our ideal of, for example a house, is a synthesis of all the houses that we have seen. The ideal house cannot be easily matched in reality because the individual house commonly does not satisfy the brain’s synthetic concept, synthesized from many houses. In other words, the individual house commonly departs from the “ideal” house.

I equated the brain’s synthetic concepts to the Platonic Ideals, which also can rarely be experienced and can only be accessed through a thought process.

Plato seems to have hesitated over whether we make ideals of common objects such as houses. His preoccupation was more with things like justice, honour, and love. I believe, by contrast, that the brain forms synthetic concepts of all its experiences, from common objects to lofty characteristics such as justice and honour.

When we speak of ideals, we commonly have something positive and desirable in mind. With synthetic concepts, it is different. If synthetic concepts are built up from many experiences, then it stands to reason to suppose that negative experiences also go into their making.

This latter point, about negative experiences being incorporated into the synthetic concepts, is one that I did not make in my book. It is worth doing so here, giving as an example my experience of Parliament.

When I was young, I had a certain admiration for Parliament and parliamentarians had my respect. To have been invited to the House of Commons (which I have not) would have been a certain privilege for me. I conceived of it as the Mother of Parliaments, whose members were largely concerned with the welfare of the country. They would, I imagined, put country before party and way above personal profit.

Like everyone else, I have of course witnessed the reality which has now become etched into my synthetic concept of parliament and parliamentarians: a body consisting of many members sitting more in a gravy train, unable to assess critically because both hands are in the till. A body consisting of members – assuming the reports to be true – whose spouses buy pornographic movies, others who adorn their homes, and yet others their gardens, while passing the bill to the taxpayer as expenses. Some have apparently made false statements to obtain money for dubious ‘second homes’. A few, I gather, have even been charged.

Most of these members have protested that they have done nothing illegal. Perhaps not. Perhaps their actions were legal because the rules were framed by Parliament itself. But wrong doing does not fall only within jurisdiction of the law. There is also a moral question, of whether it is right for those sent to represent them should behave in this way.

I have heard recently that some parliamentarians have even offered themselves for rent, to influence policy, reputedly at rates of between £3000-£5000 per day, presumably depending upon the type of service provided. Not that long ago, a famous businessman reportedly boasted that he could “rent” any member of Parliament. Sadly, this may yet be true, at least in some cases.

It is inevitable that such experiences, though indirect, should now have become part of my brain’s synthetic concept of Parliament. And in this instance, it is the negative component that dominates.

Hence, I much prefer the synthetic concept to the ideal, because the synthetic concept handles both negative and positive experiences.

Just as “positive” synthetic concepts become ones that we strive for (perhaps because they strongly stimulate the brain’s reward system), so “negative” synthetic concepts are ones which we prefer not to experience further. It is instructive to learn that a record number, 146, of present Members of Parliament will not seek re-election. Some of these may have reached retirement age, some may have been exposed. But there still must be quite a few in whom a positive synthetic concept has been gradually transformed into a negative one.

This sad little story has, of course, much grander implications when we come to think of brain concepts and the experiences that shape them and the relationship between Ideals and brain concepts.

As for me, it would now mean nothing to me to be invited to, or visit, the Houses of Parliament; every time I walk by its buildings in Westminster, an institution which I once admired seems like a shabby den of somewhat pathetic characters for whom I have little respect, a shabbiness that is accentuated by the apparent, and seemingly deceptive, grandeur of its appearance. This is a sentiment that, I suppose, is shared by many – perhaps even a majority – in the country.

So would I consider it a privilege to be invited into such a chamber now?

Of course not.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pessimism and the brain’s reward system

When I first went to University, Bertrand Russell came to address us. Among the things he said are two that I have retained and have since always lived by. His first advice was for us to be very selective in what lectures we attend. Lectures, he said, were the relics of medieval times when there were no printing presses. The best way to learn is to spend one’s time in the library, and go to lectures only when we had a fair amount of background information in order to be able to assess critically the lecture and gain a better insight. I have always adhered to this advice, which has served me well, I think. There are of course exceptions. I recall the many brilliant lectures of AJP Taylor, then a lecturer at University College, on history, a subject that I knew little about, or the very polished and witty lectures of Peter Medawar, then Professor of Zoology, among whose memorable lectures was one in which he mauled mercilessly Teilhard de Chardin and his book The Phenomenon of Man, a book which I have not bothered to read.

The second piece of advice was better. You must come to believe, he said, that this is a deeply evil and wicked world, and you must believe this both intellectually and emotionally. Then you will be happy.

I have come to believe this, and it has made me happy, or perhaps happier than I would otherwise be.

I always expect the worse from this evil and wicked world, and am often pleasantly surprised when the worst does not come to pass but never or rarely surprised or upset when it does.

I gather that the dopaminergic system in the reward centres of the brain respond even more vigorously to the expectation of reward than to reward itself. Hence, perhaps, the disappointment.

But when one is expecting a negative reward, as I do, and gets a positive one instead, then do the dopaminergic neurons respond even more vigorously?

I wonder about the physiology of this pessimism that leads to happiness. Whatever it is, this is a piece of advice from a venerable philosopher that I am happy to pass along.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Astrologers and economists

I read in an American newspaper some two weeks ago that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of the United States had found that the economic predictions of a gentleman with psychic powers “weren’t particularly accurate”. The gentleman, apparently trained by Nepalese monks in the art of time travel, had (according to the report) predicted that the Dow Jones industrial average would rise between April and June 2002, when in fact, according to the SEC, it had fallen.

Well, did the highly paid economists do any better?

According to a BBC World Service report broadcast some two years ago, many in India seek the advice of astrologers in money matters.

They could do worse.

They could seek the advice of economists.


I was asked last week whether the outcome would have been different if Lehmann Brothers had been Lehmann Sisters.

I think it almost certainly would have (see my previous posts on the topic of women in economic positions)

If meadow voles could talk to tigers and humans…

We have all been reading reports of marital infidelities among prominent and high profile personalities, some of whom have been advised, or are seeking, sex therapy and sex counseling for their serial infidelities. Does such therapy and counseling work, would it have any effect, or is it just throwing good money after bad?

The conclusion to be drawn from work on the love life of voles (rodents) suggests that such counseling is, at best, fraught with difficulties, and at worst is useless.

I have given an account of some of this work in my book Splendors and Miseries of the Brain.

Meadow voles, unlike prairie voles, are notorious for their promiscuity, a behaviour that, in female meadow voles, has been directly linked to receptors for a neurohormone, oxytocin, which is critical in pair bonding and has an important relationship to the dopamine “feel-good” system in the brain.

Monogamous prairie voles have a good deal more of the receptors for oxytocin in their brains than do meadow voles. Injecting antagonists to oxytocin in prairie voles renders them promiscuous too. But injecting oxytocin into promiscuous meadow voles does not turn them into monogamous animals, because they just do not have enough receptors for oxytocin.

Hence, if meadow voles, shunned in a society of prairie voles, could communicate with humans or tigers (assuming there to be promiscuous tigers who seek sex counseling), they might tell them not to waste time or money but to seek pharmacological remedies instead.

Of course, voles are far removed from humans. Yet humans also have oxytocin (and vasopressin, another neurohormone closely linked to pair-bonding and more prominent in males).

I suggested in my book that differences in receptors for these neurohormones may similarly be critical for determining the extent of infidelities in humans.

In an article published in Nature last year, Larry Young, one of the pioneers in the study of the brain’s love system, writes that “Variations in a regulatory region of the vasopressin receptor gene, avpr1a, predicts the likelihood that a male vole will bond with a female”. He adds that in humans, “different forms of the AVPR1A gene are associated with variations in pair bonding and relationship quality. A recent survey shows that men with a particular AVPR1A variant are twice as likely as men without it to remain unmarried, or when married, twice as likely to report a recent crisis in their marriage.”

This is not good news for sex counselors in this domain. It suggests that modifying behaviour to make promiscuous men monogamous requires a more radical intervention than the spiritual and “psychological” counseling that sex therapists indulge in. There are of course deep ethical and biological objections to a more radical pharmacological intervention.

This is not to suggest that spiritual counseling does not work. It may, but my guess is that it only works in a very limited number of cases, and then only at a heavy price, of continual dis-satisfaction.

In the fight between biology and morality, biology has commonly won in the end.

I am not advocating promiscuity or monogamy, or anything else. All I am trying to convey is that, in regulating romantic relationships, and in framing laws that regulate such behaviour, account must be taken of biological realities.

Friday, February 26, 2010

An economic hoot

Shares in the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) reportedly went up by 6% yesterday, on news that their losses for the past year – at a mere £3.6 billion compared to the £24.3 billion the previous year - “were better than expected”! This substantial loss, being much “better than expected”, also allowed RBS to pay out some £1.3 billion in bonuses to their employees. Apparently if they did not pay out these vast sums, the talent of these employees, which gave them a loss of £24 billion last year and £3.6 billion this year, might leave for other banks (presumably ones also dependent on government handouts).

Meanwhile the Lloyd’s group reported losses of £6.3 billion for last year, but were apparently very upbeat because they expected a “significant improvement” for 2010.

And the gullible have sent the shares of RBS up by 6%.

It reminds one of the friar who consumed one bottle of scotch per day and landed an appointment at a seminary, where drinking was forbidden. Once the Father Superior became aware of the friar’s drinking habits, he gave him a severe dressing down and told him to stop it.

So the friar cut down his consumption of whiskey to half a bottle per day. This earned him the gratitude and friendship of all at the seminary.

It has been postulated that the dopaminergic neurons in the reward centres of the brain are more active during the expectation of reward than when the reward is obtained. Perhaps this explains why rewards are often disappointing.

But what if the reward far exceeds expectations, as a diminution in loss to a mere £3.6 billion, obviously was.

Would this entail an even more vigorous activity by these dopaminergic neurons?

An interesting brain experiment for neuroeconomics?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Economic "experts"

This week "Forum", a BBC World Service Programme, featured a very perspicacious man - Moises Naim - a former Venezuelan Trade and Industry Minister. He summed up very nicely what so many think about economists and their spectacular failure in predicting what they profess to be able to predict. Without actually saying so, he perhaps conveyed very well the deep contempt in which economists are held worldwide and even suggested briefly that they might learn from neurobiological experiments. I doubt that economists would want to listen to him, but for the rest of us he is worth listening to.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

London Underground and the Concept of “Defensible Space”

Over the past few years, London Underground has seen great improvements. And vast sums are being spent on improving it, no doubt in preparation for the Olympics in 2012.

But there has been one very retrograde step – the removal of arm rests between seats on some lines.

Arm rests act not only as arm rests but as aids in defining our territory while we are sitting there. And territoriality is one of the most primitive instincts we have.

Airlines give you better scope to defend your space or be oblivious to it, at a price.

Travellers in steerage have almost no defence and have to fight to define their space on the arm rest, sometimes leading to considerable aggravation.

But for a considerable extra sum, one can travel in business class, where there is far less chance of one’s territory being invaded. Still, the danger exists. I saw two people struggling in business class on a flight from Japan until one of them begged to be seated elsewhere. Unfortunately, the plane was full and he had to endure the misery of having his space invaded for the rest of the long flight.

And for a huge extra sum, one can travel in first class, where the problem does not even arise.

London Underground keep telling us that they are investing vast sums to make our journeys safer, more punctual and pleasanter.

Pleasanter? If they had bothered to read a little about the psychology of territoriality, they may not have abolished those arm rests, which no doubt reduce the amount of angst among passengers as they struggle – instinctively – to defend their space. Their removal makes for a less pleasant journey.

The concept of defensible space is one that all those engaged in such enterprises should look up. Unless, of course, their aim is to make life less pleasant.

Le Crazy Horse in Paris

Le Crazy Horse in Paris used to be a great cabaret – I recall many years ago a very aesthetic show in which, through a very clever arrangement of lighting, one only got a glimpse of the girls on parade – from which one was expected, I suppose, to reconstruct the rest (but the brain is able to recognize a form with exposures as brief as 16 milliseconds).

Those days are gone. Le Crazy Horse is now an over-priced cabaret – or rather a cross between a cabaret and a theatre – with a boring show, a faded carbon-copy of its former self.

I last visited it some two years ago, and the only thing I retain is a handout leaflet which said that they had the world’s “most beautiful and most inaccessible women”.

Those who wrote that line are smart – for inaccessibility is the key to the fantasy world recreated there. It is the inaccessibility that creates endless possibilities – in the mind. Once something is totally accessible, it is also rigidly defined, and hence limits the precious role of fantasy.

I suppose that for Dante, too, Beatrice was inaccessible, opening up extraordinary possibilities in his mind. Had she been accessible, he may not have written of her as he did. After all, he has nothing to say about his wife, who must have been totally accessible.

The gulf between the inaccessible girls at Le Crazy Horse and Beatrice is not quite as wide as may seem, although some may be outraged at the suggestion.

But fantasy obviously comes at a price – and viewing those inaccessible girls at Le Crazy Horse is now for those who have cash to spare. What they are paying for is not really a glimpse of the girls at all, but the world of fantasy that that view provides.

And why not?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The bite in the apple

I always assumed that the bite in the apple which is the logo of Apple Mac represents eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil - though I never bothered to enquire.
I was told yesterday by a seemingly well informed person that it is meant to represent a bit of computer history - the bite that Alan Turing, the brilliant English scientist and decoder of Enigma, took from an apple dipped in cyanide. This was his way of commiting suicide after being hounded by the authorities for his homosexuality.

Is this well known?

As an interesting aside, following a recent petition to Downing Street, Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, apologised on behalf of the British Government for the way in which Turing was treated, which was a decent thing to do.

The specificity of synaesthetic memories

Synaesthesia is a condition in which experience in one modality (for example auditory) triggers an experience in another (for example vision). Commonly a specific note or number generates a specific colour. This naturally argues for a very specific set of connections in the brain – from say a specific part of the auditory cortex to a specific part of the visual brain - in fact to the colour centre (V4). And not only to any part of V4, but the part in which that specific colour is generated and registered. [It is known that there are groupings of cells in V4 that prefer specific colours].
But if my experience is anything to go by, synaesthesia also affects memory in highly specific ways.

I often listen to BBC Radio 4 in the evening, just before the shipping forecast at about 23:45 and the news at midnight. The shipping forecast is preceded by a tune known as sailing by. I cannot be the only one in whom the music conjures up the sea and a boat – that, after all is the title of the tune. But the mental image the music triggers in me – which is always very clear – is also very precise. It is not, as one might imagine, of the rough seas around the British isles, but of a clear, azure blue sea, more like the sea one encounters in the Aegean, around the Greek and Turkish coasts. The boat I see is not any boat but an old fashioned one, of which a perfect example can be seen here. And I am always looking from the boat at the sea.

I have been listening to this tune for years and the mental visual image it creates has never changed. This argues for a highly specific set of connections that link the visual memory system with the immediate auditory input. Experts might have other terms to describe the phenomenon; for all I know it may not even fall under the term synaesthesia. But whatever term one might choose to describe it, the fact remains that it is testament to an astonishing specificity in cortical connections.