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.