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.