Thursday, December 29, 2011

Attention and the Leonardo Exhibition

I sometimes wish that the brain had several parallel attentional systems, with the possibility of switching each one on and off at will. I recognize the many difficulties of a nervous systems so arranged, not least of which is the problem that a switched-off attentional system will no longer be capable of signaling danger. But there would also be advantages, and one advantage would have been handy when I attended the Leonardo Exhibition at the National Gallery in London several weeks ago.

It was a dreadful experience, made all the more dreadful by the presence of so many masterpieces which would one could just not contemplate at leisure. Apparently, the Gallery had restricted entry to 185 at a time , instead of the 250 at any one time that they stuff in at such exhibitions. That may relate to the numbers entering; it has nothing to do with the numbers leaving. There must have been at least 600 in the room when I was there, describing paintings to their friends in a variety of languages, gesticulating and pointing to various features and, in general, distracting attention from the paintings and drawings themselves. To all those who do not wish to have such an unpleasant experience but learn about the paintings, I would recommend buying the catalogue instead, and forgetting about the exhibition. Of course, photographs never compare with the real thing, but at least you will be able to view the paintings without the endless distraction imposed by an attentional system that is simply not able, for good biological reasons, to handle many distractions.

I readily admit that I may be more sensitive than others to crowds. In addition to invading one’s peri-personal space with their handbags, etc, they also invade one’s auditory space incessantly. I deplore the endless messages now broadcast in Underground stations, many of which are pointless (“stand behind the yellow lines”; “no flash photography on the Underground”; “please contribute to our charity” and, most useless of all, “there is a good service on all lines this morning” (which, however, is more often than not followed by the announcement: “except for the following – the Circle, District, Piccadilly and City lines”, rendering the first part not only useless but also inaccurate). I hate announcements on planes, and in fact on a recent flight to Japan, I asked the steward if he could shut off the endless announcements on the intercom system (he did). Wherever I go, I am plagued by someone sitting next to me chattering on their mobile ‘phones. But such disagreeable experiences become doubly more so when one goes to a gallery to enjoy oneself and be instructed. So, I think that my days of visiting block-buster exhibitions are now over, unless of course I come across so much money that I can hire the entire exhibition for myself – an unlikely eventuality. Or, even more unlikely, if I could come up with a re-wiring of the nervous system such that a distracting input can be completely shut off.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Visually unconvincing

…and therefore probably not true!

Following on from my previous post on the Mona Lisa, I was interested in the total disconnect between the alarmist broadcasts about the impending hurricane Katarina pounding New York a few weeks ago and the actual live images that were being simultaneously broadcast. At the start of these alarmist news broadcasts, I thought that the accompanying drumbeats (on the BBC) made sense for once, implying as they did some catastrophic event. But the live scenes broadcast simultaneously with the reports from on the spot correspondents told a very different story. The 170 km per hour winds did not square with the picture of ordinary people hailing a taxi quietly or chatting and laughing, apparently totally unperturbed. Nor were the umbrellas upturned and the almost vertical downpour of the rain gave the lie to the declared strong winds. In fact, the visual picture was of nothing more than an ordinary rainy day.

The drumbeats sounded ridiculous, in retrospect. And, by the simplest of all tests, namely the visual test, all these news readers came out as being extremely gullible and silly.

I wonder – do they actually see the pictures that are projected while they read the news.

Which means that TV news stations should be a good deal more careful if they want their reports to have credibility. In such instances, it is perhaps best (from their point of view) to stick to reading the news without accompanying pictures.

It is not quite that easy to cheat the visual brain.

£60,000 for self reflection

Next week in London, a canvas by Bob Law entitled Nothing To be Afraid Of V 22.8.69 is to be auctioned and carries with it an estimate of £60,000.

Law apparently “had applied the seductive idea of nothing to a canvas, and asks the viewer to reflect” (according to the auctioneer’s catalogue).

Metro reports the artist David Hockney as saying, “It seems to me that if you make pictures there should be something on the canvas”.

The idea of “blankness” is not new, and not only in painting. I gather that in some Noh performances (which date back to the 15th century), the actor appears before the audience and says nothing for about half an hour. Half an hour, during which the audience’s imagination can be stimulated.

But I have very mixed feelings about this empty canvas by Law and its price tag.

On the one hand, it seems an awful lot of money to pay, when you could have the same thing for much cheaper, for example by painting one wall in your house in white (see my post about my stay in a Tokyo hotel). You could then project your imagination daily on the empty space. If the space is large enough, one could project films regularly on it, thus turning an empty space into a source of infinite variability and fertile imagination.

On the other hand, given the huge sums spent in auction houses on what I believe is very shoddy work, I would prefer a blank canvas. I can project my concepts on to it regularly, whereas I would have to view a bad piece of art daily, were I unfortunate enough to spend so much money on it.

But of course I defer to those knowledgeable about art. Metro reports the head of contemporary art at the auction house as saying, “Bob Law is the most underestimated and overlooked minimal artist in Britain …[who] didn’t get the recognition that he deserved”

Well, he may now. I hope that the purchaser will enjoy enriching his imagination daily.

As for me, I will stick to a white wall.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Mona Lisa in 30 seconds

I just heard the tail end of a talk on BBC Radio 3, during which the speaker seemed to lament the very brief period that the average viewer spends in front of one of the world’s most famous paintings, the Mona Lisa.

Apparently, when the painting was in Japan in the 1970s, the average time spent by the viewer was 30 seconds, while at the Louvre (where it is housed), the average time is 15 seconds.

Does this show that the average viewer is not interested in the painting, or that the main interest lies in being able to say that he or she had seen it, as a famous art critic once argued?

Or is there, perhaps, another interpretation as well?

Perhaps part of the reason lies in the power of the visual image, and its ability to give a great deal of knowledge even after a very brief viewing, because the visual brain is so well developed and can acquire so much knowledge over very brief periods of time. After all, volumes of writing on the Mona Lisa will not give the same information and knowledge that a few seconds of actual viewing does.

Some of the most beautiful segments in symphonic works last but a few seconds and yet are experienced as beautiful and emotionally arousing. Why shouldn’t a visual image do the same?

I do not deny the fact that many want to view the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Pietà at St Peter’s Basilica just to be able to say that they have seen it.

But it is equally rash to deny the huge efficiency of the visual brain, which allows the average viewer to obtain a great deal of knowledge through such a brief viewing.

A very interesting article on financial “irrationality”

I read quite a few articles on the economy and the economic crisis. Most of them seem soberly written, and pretend to be analyzing the situation in informed, rational ways. And most of them show little understanding of why we are in an economic abyss and do not seem to be able to predict the future accurately. These articles perhaps seem convincing because they are, on the surface at least, apparently rationally written.

Only very, very few acknowledge the irrationality of the system. How could a system, devised by whizz-kid mathematicians employed by major banks and financial institutions be so irrational? After all, before they answer your questions, these kids grab the slide ruler or its modern equivalent to give you a precise, rational, answer.

An excellent article by Danny Schecter is a refreshing departure, because it acknowledges explicitly that the financial system is driven by greed and fear and arrogance. Greed and fear are emotional states that are difficult to analyze rationally. As I have argued here before, greed and its pursuit are very likely accompanied by de-activation of large parts of the brain, and specifically the parts concerned with judgment. Hence the actions and decisions taken by those in this state – especially when the prize is untold riches – is considered irrational, at least when analyzed by people who are not themselves in that state.

But is it really irrational? Yes, if you judge it by the standards of rational judgment. But I think that emotional behaviour has its own logic and rationality, which we commonly fail to understand, precisely because we analyze it with our rational brains.

But no, they are not irrational, if judged by other standards. Would one financial wizard, consumed by greed, consider it irrational when another financial wizard, equally consumed by greed, sells sub-prime mortgages to make fat profits? In the greed world, there is nothing irrational about that. And recent history proves it. Those actions evidently received wholesale approval. Nor was this approval restricted to the financial wizards. Those who bought the mortgages were probably equally consumed by the dream of rich profits, with minimal outlay.

If you think about it, there is nothing really irrational when someone consumed by greed behaves in unethical ways provided that he is rewarded, at least periodically. And of course, he would do it again and again, even after he fails, because in greedy states the cognitive, judgmental parts of the brain are inactive.

This is not unlike the brain system regulating romantic relationships. In phases of intense, passionate love, it appears as if large parts of the brain are inactive. Hence lovers often behave as if they have taken leave of their senses. But in fact, their conduct makes biological sense.

Neurobiologists have for a long time emphasized brain activity when we undertake particular tasks or are in particular states. Perhaps the time has come to give equal emphasis to brain de-activation when we undertake particular tasks or are in particular states.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The brain's mirror neuron system and Britain's "moral collapse"

Much has been written about the mirror neuron system. At the cellular level, this refers to neurons in the brain that not only respond vigorously when the subject undertakes some action such as grasping but also respond vigorously when the subject observes someone else undertaking the same action. There are many outstanding questions regarding the mirror neuron system, but these need concern us here.

Much has been made of the mirror neuron system. Among the questions that have not been addressed, as far as I can tell, is whether such a system functions in developing concepts related to role models in individuals. The question is not unreasonable. We often imitate the actions of those we admire, and we may even enlarge this imitative behaviour to aspire to what they have achieved. This aspiration need not be limited to the exact field that the role model is in. For example, a sportsperson can inspire us, through their dedication, motivation and self-application, to try to reach equivalent heights in our own chosen field.

That of course is looking at the mirror neuron system – assuming it to be remotely involved in this general imitative behaviour – in a positive light. But can the mirror neuron system also act in what is generally considered to be a negative way?

I recently saw a film which describes true life events related to gangsters – a disturbing film, in which young men took as their models older gangsters and imitated their behaviour. To be sure, there are other factors that come into play here – the absence of a positive role model, the inadequacy of the individual, etc., but I wonder to what extent the brain’s mirror neuron system plays a role.

Which brings me to the recent riots in Britain.

It is of course a fact that these riots did take place largely – though apparently not exclusively – in impoverished areas, which has led some to suspect that this impoverishment is one of the root causes. That may well be so, but I wonder to what extent the absence of positive role models, and the presence of negative role models, at the highest levels of society has not also provided a negative role model, through the brain’s mirror neuron system.

There is a Russian proverb which says that when a fish stinks, it stinks from the head down.

When the Prime Minister speaks of Britain’s “moral collapse”, he should include in that the moral collapse – apparently with impunity – of Britain’s ruling elite. When Members of Parliament can have their hands in the till and behave in ways which, though legally acceptable, are morally wrong, when politicians can lie to the public and to Parliament on important matters of state, when they can have cosy relationships with unelected people who apparently dictate policy to them, when bankers can bring the country to the brink of disaster with impunity – and the catalogue goes on – then they are not providing good moral leadership.

When these same people apparently are rewarded, or simply let off the hook, then the moral collapse is complete. And it provides a negative role model, perhaps through the brain’s mirror neuron system, aided by its memory system.

When the Prime Minister says that at the root of the riots was “indifference to what is right and wrong”, he should keep in mind the model provided by the politicians, who also in many instances seem to be indifferent to what is right and wrong.

Mr Miliband, of the Labour Opposition Party, has blamed “greed, selfishness and immorality” for the riots. Do these words not also adequately describe the behaviour of politicians, en masse, as revealed in the press over the past two years?

Perhaps neurobiologists will now start to consider the relationship of the brain’s mirror neuron system to the development of positive and negative role models.

Friday, August 12, 2011


“Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit...For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police...the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone”
From the opening paragraph of AJP Taylor’s English History 1914-1945

Yes, I know, there was much that was wrong with England at that time.

But still, that every single line in the above paragraph is no longer true, and will never again be true, is a matter for regret.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Skinnerian rats and financiers

The behaviour of markets is baffling and erratic. Shares slump in the morning, only to recover in the afternoon. The latter gives people hope. More hope when the unemployment figures in the United States go down. Markets rally. These hopes are dashed by close of trade later in the afternoon or next morning, when another set of figures says something else. Gloom and panic buying and selling sets in. This is baffling and erratic behaviour.

But is it so baffling and erratic?

Markets are made of people, and peoples’ behaviour follows certain rules. These rules are commonly similar to rules observed in animals such as rats and pigeons. The American psychologist BF Skinner documented this years ago.

Let us take negative reward, such as pressing a button to avoid an electric shock (in financial terms, not losing money. The shock can be avoided by pressing the button at fixed times (say every 5 minutes) or fixed intervals, say after every 50th press. But the shock can equally be delivered at unpredictable times and unpredictable intervals. The latter two generate very high levels of button presses and are known, in monkeys at least, to induce severe gastric problems, including intestinal ulcers.

They also sometimes result in what is known as superstitious behaviour. If a rat, for example, while trying to avoid a shock in a random negative reinforcement schedule, circles the cage twice and is rewarded with a food pellet on a few occasions when it does this, then the chances are high that it will continue this bizarre behaviour while continuing to press at high rates, presumably in the belief that it will be rewarded again.

So much for the world of rat ideas. Now translate this into the world of financiers. The European Central Bank announces that it will buy Italian and Spanish bonds and some Harvard qualified economist says that this will miraculously solve the eurozone problem. They buy shares (superstitious behaviour) and the markets go up. But then, what they had not factored in, namely the calculation of ordinary brains that such bond-buying will not solve the malaise, sets in, and the markets go down. Then some fancy statement from the Federal Reserve says that interest rates will not go up (superstitious statement that does not take into account the underlying malaise), and the market goes up again. The reality of ordinary brain calculations then sets in, and the markets go down again. Then some official in some bank somewhere announces that there is a strong possibility of printing money (superstitious behaviour), and the markets go up again. The truth is that money printing, bond-buying and low interest rates amount to superstitious behaviour; they do not solve the underlying problems. The brain’s calculations are that those who have borrowed huge sums of money to service extravagant life styles cannot pay this money back without something more radical and convincing. Hence loss of confidence sets in.

All this amounts to high-rate superstitious behaviour. And this behaviour is due to the fact that the financiers do not really understand the system that they have created.

Perhaps they should revert to much simpler systems – ones that their brains, as well as ordinary brains, understand. Then they might find that their behaviour is not so erratic after all and that there is a rationale to this apparently bizarre behaviour.

Simple brain economics

Two days ago, a geek parading as an economic expert appeared on TV to tell us that the new policy of the ECB (European Central Bank), of buying Italian and Spanish bonds, had worked and that the markets had stabilised. Less than 12 hours later, the great sell-off began, with French banks taking the biggest hit and France’s AAA rating being questioned. So much for the expert.

The truth is that the policy of the ECB and all other policies currently on the table will not work. Only a policy that takes into account brain realities will. I do not say this as an economic expert, which I am mercifully not. I say it based on a much simpler economics, brain economics which itself is based on profit and loss and confidence and reliability. These, it seems to me, are simple and basic factors that the brain has evolved to assess for millions of years. Most brains understand little about the fancy mathematical economic theories developed by artificial intelligence laboratories, and which have proven to be such a disaster – in fact, they may have contributed significantly to bringing about the economic crisis.

Let us suppose that, to finance my extravagant life-style, you lend me £100,000 at 4% and find that, because of my low earnings, I am unable to pay back the interest, let alone the loan. Instead, to service the interest, I come to you for another loan, this time at 6%. You may think me a little nutty and unreliable. However, if you know that I have huge realisable assets – say, land and castles - which I could sell off come the crunch, you might lend me some more. But then you find that I return with a further request for another loan, to service the interest on the outstanding loans, because I am unwilling to tighten my belt. Your confidence will evaporate and my credit rating will go down; you (or your brain) would have calculated correctly. You would rightly ask me to tighten my belt, sell off my assets and balance my books. Your brain will have calculated that I am not credit-worthy, and you would lose confidence in my ability to repay. All promises I make would henceforth be worthless.

This is all there is to it. It is an exact analogy to what is happening, and all this talk about buying bonds here to sell them there and the rest of it is junk talk. This is why all buying of bonds, and raising debt ceilings and lending more money, will not work. One does not need a sophisticated degree from Harvard Business School to realise that.

And quantitative easing?
This means printing money. It, too, will not work and never has except as a temporary palliative which only makes matters worse in the end. All ordinary brains, without the advantage of sophisticated degrees in mathematics and economics, know that printing money simple reduces the value of the money we have, and therefore increases prices. And hence, people with ordinary brains simply take refuge in something that is unlikely to be easy to clone, like gold. All this does not require sophisticated thinking. It amounts to simple and reliable brain calculations.

The one reasonable statement I have heard from an economist came on the BBC today. He said that “markets are finally catching up with reality”. Even that is incomplete, for what reality is this that he was talking about? Well, let me provide the answer: brain reality!

Maybe we should dispense with all these economists once and for all. To paraphrase what a friend of mine said about another friend, “I never believed in artificial intelligence until I met economists”.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

British Spring: Loss of fear among British politicians (follow-up to my previous post)

In its edition of July 15, 2011 Le Monde published an article under the title of "Murdoch: au Royaume-Uni, la peur a changé de camp", an article in which the events surrounding the demise of the Murdoch empire are described as "the UK, living its after-Murdoch spring". It is the first article that I have seen which draws an explicit parallel between the Arab Spring and events surrounding the Murdoch empire, although there may of course have been others, and concludes that there was a common factor - loss of fear.

The point being made here is that British politicians, fearful of tackling what they have perceived as the power of the Murdoch press, have suddenly lost their fear. The article does not mention another important similarity with the Arab Spring: the emotional trigger. Just as the Arab Spring had one(s), so the emotional trigger in this instance, I think, was the revelation that journalists working for one of the Murdoch papers had hacked into the mobile 'phone of a murdered girl and had deleted messages on her 'phone, thus giving false hopes to her family that she may have been alive when the search for her was on. The public was revolted. The trigger was ignited; there was no turning back, and the amygdala in the brains of politicians was de-activated, with consequences that we now know - the demise of the News of the World, plus other events that are waiting to happen.

Then came the revelation that the mobile 'phones of relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan may also have been hacked. I daresay that should the current reported investigations in the USA prove that the mobile 'phones of the victims of 9/11 had been hacked, the emotional volcano will be too hot to contain. This is an extremely emotive issue, and the consequences will be dire.

Although there have been some remarkable Members of Parliament who have fearlessly attacked the Murdoch press, the report in Le Monde and other reports in the British press have consistenly written that politicians here were dead scared of saying anything that may upset the Murdoch press and cost them their jobs and imperil their future rise. But once the emotional trigger was set alight, that fear was lost, presumably through amygdalar de-activation.

Another similarity with the Arab Spring, is that this was a mass event, in the sense that the revulsion at the revelations was widespread. Hence, an aid in the loss of fear was the emotional support of a wide segment of the public (see my previous post).

Several articles have emphasized the fact that maybe Murdoch did not have as much as power as he was assumed to have, and that he was only perceived to have this power. The point is really largely academic; power is always the power that is perceived, by the brain of course, never the real one which is in any case difficult to calculate.

And the brain may not be far off the mark. After all, when the British Prime Minister is reported as having had no less than 25 meetings with the Murdochs since coming to power, enjoyed a Christmas dinner with them, and when a previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is reported to have had three telephone conversations with Rupert Murdoch before the launch of the Iraq war, what else can the brain conclude?

Add to that the fact the the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, was removed from his position as chairman of a committee to decide the total Murdoch take-over of BSkyB, when he declared - long before these events reached boiling point - that he was "at war" with the Murdoch empire, what else can the brain conclude?

Such events, as the Daily Telegraph said in its editorial yesterday, "would have raised eyebrows in Palermo".

The only reality we have is brain reality - and brain reality seems to have been pretty shrewd at making inferences about power.

So, the amygdala is finally de-activated among a large number of members of that sheepish organization known as the Mother of Parliaments. Papers here are speaking about Parliament finding a role and purpose again. I rather doubt it. Which brings me back to the point: how long does amygdalar de-activation last? An interesting experimental question which may lead to lasting new views about politicians.

The Arab Spring, Twitter, Facebook and the brain

A great deal has been written about what has come to be known as the “Arab Spring”. Two factors have reportedly been instrumental in enabling it. One of these is hardly credible, at least to me; the other is of profound neurobiological interest.

The first is that this is a social network media revolution, through channels such as Facebook and Twitter. I find it hard to credit this oft-repeated belief. Both Tunisia (where the revolt started) and Egypt are very poor countries, 40% of the population in the latter living below the beltline of $2 per day. I do not suppose that, apart from a tiny percentage, many have the means to acquire computers and mobile ‘phones. Indeed it is hard to believe that Mohammad Bouazizi, the young man who tragically and in despair over his poverty immolated himself, had the means to have access to social media networks at all. Television, commonly available in cafés for communal watching, is likely to have played a more significant role. This is not to say that Twitter and Facebook did not facilitate communication. Of course they did, just as (in a much slower world) the horse facilitated communication during the French Revolution.

The second – loss of fear - is of greater significance and of much neurobiological interest. We have been repeatedly told that the masses who are revolting, commonly against much better equipped security forces, have lost their fear. Fear is associated with certain physiological activity, and especially prominent among brain structures contributing to such activity is a complex nucleus called the amygdala, buried within the temporal lobes of the brain, and consisting of many subdivisions. I would not wish to imply that the amygdala alone is responsible for so complex a state, for the amygdala is connected to many other brain structures which, collectively, are responsible for generating and maintaining the state of fear, as a defensive mechanism to protect the individual. Whatever the role of the different brain structures, the central role played by the amygdala was shown many years ago when scientists described how damage to it results in a loss of fear by animals and humans.

The amygdala has extensive connections within the brain. It is believed that there are two routes to the amygdala, an “immediate” one from the sense organs, which by-passes the cerebral cortex, and a more “leisurely” one that relays signals through the cerebral cortex. The amygdala is also connected to centres, such as those of the sympathetic nervous system, which regulate activity to mobilize the individual for appropriate reaction in response to fearful events or stimuli.

I suppose that the default state is activity – whatever its exact nature - within this system, activity within the amygdala that is relayed to other centres with which it is connected. I also assume, perhaps somewhat simplistically, that de-activation of this system is what leads to the condition that we describe as “loss of fear”.

This raises the interesting question of what triggers the de-activation and what dictates how long-lasting the de-activation and therefore the change from the default state is.

It is obvious that a long set of grievances reaches a point where individuals defy willfully the physiological state and care no longer about the consequences of their action. In the case of the Arab Spring, there was also an emotional trigger – the self immolation by Mohammad Bouazizi. The amygdala is part of the brain’s emotional and social system and the relative influence of the emotional component compared to the more cognitive component in regulating its activity is interesting to determine.

I am of the view that, in Egypt, a trigger, which was far more significant than Twitter and Facebook messages, was the emotional breakdown of Wael Ghoneim on Egyptian TV, an episode that was played and replayed, and presumably seen by masses in the many cafés in Egyptian cities. The episode was actually accompanied by music, hence fortifying the emotional message.

The fear system has been studied largely in animals, but the events of the Arab Spring and other similar events raise important questions about the organization of the fear system in humans, ones which are amenable to study.

One question relates to the time course of the de-activation. Judging by events in the Arab Spring, it can be very long lasting indeed; indeed it may even be permanent. This may yet turn out to be an interesting example of brain-plasticity.

A second question relates to the trigger. There seems little reason to doubt that an emotional trigger was just that, a trigger coming on top of much discontent. This in turn raises the question whether there is a threshold for triggering an amygdalar de-activation, and what the neural mechanisms for maintaining it may be. It also raises the question of how the system returns to its de-fault value, assuming that the change in the brain is not permanent. Finally, it raises the question of how the two routes to the amygdala – the direct one and the cortical one – regulate one another.

A third question is about the potentiating effect on this de-activation caused by group action. There seems little doubt that the involvement of many in the uprising had a facilitating effect but how this works no one knows.

As I said above, the system regulating fear is not confined to the amygdala and an enquiry into the neural mechanisms involved in the loss of fear would no doubt have to extend much beyond it. But the amygdala is a good place to begin.

The Arab Spring is an example of other events where loss of fear is a powerful engine for initiating change. Hence the lessons that it provides for experimentation and the results of such experimentation will have important, general, implications.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A carbuncle on the face of Istanbul

Istanbul is one of the most wonderful cities in the world. It has an extraordinary history, is rich in fabulous monuments and has a very privileged natural position by the sea - the Bosphorus dividing and uniting it at the same time. It is a delight to be in and I have made a point of visiting it regularly.

One would think that such a treasure is worth treasuring. Yet architects, presumably with the agreement of city planners, have allowed it to be defaced thoughtlessly. One hideous example of this is the huge Ritz Carlton which has been built in such a way as to obscure some of the loveliest views of the Bosphorus on the one hand, and to blight the serenity of a 19th century mosque on the other (see the pictures I took with my mobile 'phone below)

Far from being a delight, like some of the extraordinary constructions of Frank Gehry, the building itself is very undistinguished architecturally. It is a ghetto for the rich which can, regrettably, be seen from land, sea and air. There is no respite from it.

Prince Charles once described the Sainsbury extension to the National Gallery in London as "a carbuncle on the face of an old and well-loved friend". The hideous Ritz Carlton in Istanbul is much worse than that, for at least the Sainsbury wing (which I do not find nearly as objectionable and which, significantly, houses great masterpieces of art and is open to all, rich and poor, for free) cannot be seen from all over London, while the Istanbul Ritz-Carlton cannot be avoided.

What is it that makes those responsible deface their city in this way?

The Daily Mail cartoon, which is the subject of my previous post, may provide a clue.

I presume that the medial orbito-frontal cortex of the brains of architects and planners who allowed this monstrosity to deface the beauty of that well loved city was inactive, or de-activated, during a long period when the building was planned and was under construction.

What could have de-activated the medial orbito-frontal cortex?

Greed comes to mind. Rich tourists, and so on.

Which makes it interesting to ask whether, in the face of greed, the medial orbito-frontal cortex is de-activated, rendering subjects unable to experience beauty.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

An insightful Daily Mail cartoon on beauty and brain activity

There was a neurobiologically interesting cartoon that accompanied the Daily Mail article on our most recent brain study on beauty, published in the open access journal PLoS One last week (you can access the paper here). The study shows that activity in a region of the brain’s pleasure and reward centre, the medial orbito-frontal cortex, correlates with the experience of beauty, whether the source of the beauty is musical or visual. A previous study by another group had shown that this same region is also active when subjects view beautiful faces.

The cartoon by Pugh has a man looking at the photograph of an ugly woman (his wife), with the caption saying “My medial orbito-frontal cortex let me down when I married her”.

There may be some truth to the cartoon. A previous study by us on romantic love had shown that when people who are passionately in love view the picture of their loved partner, significant parts of their cortex become de-activated. This may be the reason why we are commonly less judgmental about those we love.

Purely as conjecture, it may be that when the fictitious character in the cartoon was courting his future wife, with whom he may have been passionately in love, there was significant deactivation of much of his cerebral cortex, leading him not to see her ugliness.

As his love wore off, and with it the de-activation, he became more judgmental and saw the ugliness which he had not seen before.

There are of course other interpretations. But this interpretation is what comes immediately to mind when viewing this cartoon.

You see, one can get ideas about experiments from all kinds of sources.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sorry...but this is not by Michelangelo

An article published in The Independent yesterday describes how a highly respected Italian art scholar and leading world scholar on Michelangelo has concluded that a painting entitled Crucifixion with the Madonna, St John and Two Mourning Angels and until now attributed to Marcello Venusti, is in fact by Michelangelo. The art scholar is reported to have have said, “no one but Michelangelo could have painted such a masterpiece”.

The painting is owned by Campion Hall and is on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

More significantly, the scholar is reported to have said, “You can immediately see the difference between this work and that of Venusti”.

Well, I do not agree. I would put it like this: One can immediately see the difference between this work and the work of Michelangelo. From which I conclude that the work in question is not by Michelangelo.

I hasten to point out that I am not, and do not consider myself to be, an expert on art, or on Michelangelo; I am not an art historian nor an expert in dating works of art. That said, the Venusti work seems to be - by the simplest of tests I know, the vision test - not to be by Michelangelo.

Look at the work carefully, and consider the following. First of all, the body of Christ departs significantly from the vigour that Michelangelo imparted to human figures. The face is even more lacking in vigour, determination and resigned acceptance of fate. The sagging breasts are not the sort of thing that Michelangelo, I think, would have invested a vigorous Christ with.

Next look at the vacuous look on the face of St. John. Could Michelangelo really have done this? Compare that vacuous look with any of the figures he painted for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and note the difference. Much the same can be said of the vacuous look on the angel to the right.

Now look at the clouds above the cross – or is it some kind of halo?. They are symmetrically disposed – almost in total symmetry on both sides. It seems to me very unlikely that Michelangelo (going by his other works) would have done this.

Hence, all told, my brain – by comparing the Venusti with the works of the mighty Michelangelo – has come to the conclusion that this painting is not by Michelanglo at all.

I respect the authority of the scholars in this matter; but in this instance I believe that my brain’s judgment is more reliable – at least to me.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Telephone Library in an Art Museum – a vast improvement on pebbles

I recently visited the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris for their current, quite wonderful, exhibition of the work of Kees van Dongen. After my visit, I wondered around the museum and came across the installation piece by Christian Boltanski entitled Les Abonnés du téléphone. This is essentially a collection of telephone directories from all over the world (actually not all over the world, since many countries are missing) which the visitor can consult at leisure, since there is a desk and chairs as well as table lamps. It is to all intents and purposes a telephone library. I actually consulted some of the directories, to look for persons I may know. It was engaging and thought provoking. Why were some countries not represented? What had happened to some of the people I knew? The exhibit succeeded in starting a train of thought. Hence, it exercised my brain to some degree – certainly much more than the horror show I last wrote about. For me, it was better, too, than the mandatory Brillo Boxes or soup cans that every museum of modern art must possess.

Moreover, there is no one place I know of in London or New York or Paris, or indeed any of the major cities, where I can consult telephone directories from all over the world, or at least many places in the world. So this collection, imperfect though it is, could serve a purpose, especially as the entrance to the permanent collection of the museum (of which this is part) is free.

But, once the idea of “surfing” telephone directories settles in, I could as well do it from the comfort of my home, by switching on my computer, and the table lamp, and sitting on a comfortable chair and visiting or some such.

Beautiful it is not and does not pretend to be, but….is it art?

By the standard set by Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal, it certainly is.

What do you say?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Outraged at an art gallery

I am a regular visitor to art galleries, and am increasingly appalled by the trash that curators and museum directors stuff into their galleries and pass off as art. But nothing could have prepared me for an exhibition of graduate students at a famous art college in London. The trash exhibited there – and presumably approved of by the teachers of that venerable institution – was shocking beyond all brief description.

Marcel Duchamp sneered at the art world when he sent a urinal as an exhibit at an art show, and then again with his readymades and yet again when he launched his slogan “art without an artist”. Duchamp was a cynic but a highly intelligent man. I wonder what his attitude would have been had he lived long enough to see that he has, with his statements and actions, licensed not only museum directors and curators to purvey their rubbish, but worst of all, to have licensed teachers at art colleges – including professors – to abdicate all responsibility towards their students, from whom they now demand increasingly large sums. What he seems to have provided some sections of the art world is a recipe for suspending thought. For there was nothing in the collection of bric à brac exhibited to suggest that the students exhibiting had had any formal tuition in anything remotely related to art, save the notion that anything can be called art provided it is exhibited in the relevant artistic setting. Nor did any exhibit suggest that there had been thought behind it. There was not a single item in that lamentable exhibition that I wanted to contemplate or look at after the first glance, or to think about, or to delight in. Instead, the usual collection of stones, of cardboards with illegible scribbles, and on and on. Truly shocking.

I argued in my book Inner Vision that one of the many functions of art is the acquisition of knowledge. In fact, I would argue that this is a very important function of art. But what kind of knowledge does one get from this accumulation of trash? None at all as far as I can see.

Perhaps the only value of this disgraceful exhibition is that it may spur some to start questioning whether we have not gone far enough with this license we have given to the art world and its conceits. When the rot really sets in, that is, when artists who are also teachers by trade, abdicate their responsibility towards the students out of whom they make a living, by encouraging thoughtlessness and by encouraging the notion that anything can pass as art, then the time has come to pension them off so that they can live by their art alone and replace them with those who have a more responsible attitude towards what they profess to teach.

It is regrettable that art, being largely in the subjective arena, is not as open to assessment as science or as other subjects in the humanities, such as English or history. Had it been, and had there been assessors (as there are in science), the ratings given to institutions such as the one I visited would be very low and they would soon lose their government subsidies. Perhaps one good outcome of neurobiology is that it may soon give an objective measure of just how much pleasure this kind of trash gives, and force those who live by teaching art to think a little more and perhaps to communicate some of their thinking to students.

So neuroeconomics tells us what I have been arguing for a long time...

There is an interesting article in The Guardian today, which goes some way to support what I have been arguing for a long time on this site -- that we should have many more women in top economic positions than we actually do now, at least in Britain. It is good to know that Iceland called in women to clear the economic mess left by men, and that Norway has slapped a mandatory 40% women on financial boards. As I have stated here before, if I were Prime Minister I would pass legislation to ensure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) should always be a woman.

Neurobiology may yet be listened to by those running our affairs, and may yet come to have a very beneficial effect on society.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A great but empty exhibition at the Uffizi in Florence

Currently, waiting time to enter the Uffizi Museum in Florence is, at a minimum, 2 hours, unless of course you get there first thing in the morning. But right across the main entrance to the Museum is another exhibition, in another wing of the Uffizi, which you can enter without waiting. Once you get inside, it is empty, thus giving you time to contemplate the great works on display at leisure. It is specatcular and contains great drawings by some of the great Italian masters - Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raffaelo, Perugino and others. The exhibition was at the British Museum before going to Italy, and contains masterpieces from both museums. Entry to the exhibition is free, while you have to pay 11 € to enter the main gallery.

An authority explained that the emptiness of the exhibition of drawings at the Uffizi can be accounted for by the fact that the entrance is free. Therefore, it could not be worth much, at least in the estimation of the average person.

Some art curators and historians insist on the fact that one must view an art work in its totality - that is, the context, its commercial value, and so on. How right they are, and what an apt joke Marcel Duchamp played on the art world by sending a urinal to an art exhibition as a serious exhibit. The urinal became a work of art, instantly, because it was now in a new context and, significantly, in the context of an art exhibition.

Hence the necessity for separating art from beauty, which neuroesthetics should do.

And hence the necessity for the "reductionism" that many are so vehemently against. For we should isolate perceived beauty and study its neural correlates, just as we should isolate the other factors such as the commercial value and context and study their neural correlates.

Meanwhile, the magnificent exhibition at the Uffizi is a living testament (at least until it closes later this month) to the true, but sad, opinion of many in the art world - that when discussing a work of art one should do so in context, and above all in its commercial and monetary context.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Coloured Shadows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Milan

Last week saw the opening of an exhbition of my art work - Bianco su bianco: oltre Malevich (White on White: Beyond Malevich) - at the Museum of Contemporary Art Luigi Pecci in Milan. This was done in the context of my neuroesthetic programme. It is really art inspired by what we know about the brain, and especially its colour system. It is based on colour shadows, which are produced when white light and light of a given colour illuminate an object. Both Leonardo and Goethe wrote about it.

No one really knows how coloured shadows are produced in the brain though many years ago I described colour specific cells in the colour centre of the brain - area V4 - which also respond to their preferred colour when it is produced by shadows.

Although we experimented with the best distances and angles for the projectors in the studio in London before shipping the white sculptures to the Museum in Milan, setting the sculptures up in the Museum presented lots of challanges. The interesting thing is that once you have a white sculpture against a white wall, the exhibit can be infintely variable. Projectors can be set up at different angles within the confines of the space and the work acquires its dynamism from a critical interaction with the viewer; the coloured shadows change depending upon the position of the viewer. Hence one of the exhibits - entitled New York - could be so arranged that from one point of view it could be considered to be New York at mid-day and from another point of view New York at dusk.

I found the experience of exhibiting in a museum quite thrilling. I will post images on the web once I have them

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rendering news more urgent through music

The news bulletin on BBC Radio 4 is presented without the accompanying introductory music, and without any musical interruptions. This is not true of the news on BBC tv, which is introduced and interrupted by drumbeats. It is also not true of the majority of news broadcasts around the world, whether on radio or tv.

What, I wonder, is the purpose of this?

The visual effect of a scene can be greatly enhanced by music, as is common knowledge to all those who watch films. The neural mechanism underlying this enhancement is not known with any precision, but that there must be some increased activity in the visual cortex when the appropriate music accompanies the visual scene is likely.
Perhaps musical accompaniments to news bulletins have the same purpose, to enhance – what? – the sense of urgency and expectation.

The pre-news bulletin music tends to be somewhat urgent and at times hysterical. Its intended effect, I suppose, is to give the news items that are read some urgency. But the uncritical use of the “urgent” music has, on occasions, a somewhat hilarious and presumably unintended outcome. When I was living in Washington DC, there was an hourly news broadcast, which was preceded by such urgent music, designed to give the news items greater immediacy and importance; it was accompanied by  the words, “News, news, news, three dimension news – every hour, on the hour!”, words which were uttered with much force and gravitas. But the intended effect was often nulled by the top news item that followed, which was often something like, “There is a two mile traffic jam in Hicksville”.

On tv, this sense of urgency is sometimes heightened by the pen that newscasters hold in their hands, implying that they write the news which they are employed to read and implying also that there may be a sudden and urgent need for them to change the news in light of incoming information.

With really important and urgent news, you do not need any musical accompaniment, especially of the hysterical variety. But the dullness of dull news may be alleviated somewhat by injecting a sense of urgency into it through another agent, namely music.

I wonder how much effect such musical interjections have in convincing listeners to stay put and listen to the entire broadcast, and through what neural means – does it make them expect something dramatic to happen? Otherwise, why would newscasters use such hysterical music indiscriminately, regardless of the importance of the news that follows?

As for me, I prefer to listen to the news on Radio 4.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Desire, sexual misconduct and deactivation of cortical areas

It must not be assumed that people who are brilliant in their work, rational in their thinking, caring in their attitude and sympathetic to others in their daily life are necessarily acting “out of character” when confronted with strong desires.

There are situations, and powerful sexual desire is almost certainly one of them, when a person is no longer in control of his or her actions. I say “almost certainly” for I have not seen the results of any experiments on this topic. But there have been papers on the cerebral activity that accompanies intense feelings of love as well as sexual activity. These have shown that, in addition to cortical areas that are active during these experiences, the two states, and especially the latter, lead to de-activation of large parts of the cortex.

Included in the de-activated areas are those which are traditionally thought to be important for judgment. Hence, this cortical de-activation may provide the reason for why we “take leave of our senses” in these conditions and sometimes behave in ways which are injurious to ourselves and others, as well as being incomprehensible and “out of character”.

One consequence is that we are less judgmental about those we love; another consequence is that we are also less judgmental about ourselves, our actions and even our future. Put more briefly, the first and highest priority is satisfy the desire.

How else to account for why great and honourable men and women have risked their future in trying to satisfy their desire, often through behaviour that is incomprehensible and “out of character”?

It is also important to note, as a reflection of brain specializations, that this lapse in judgment is not universal. One who takes "leaves of his senses" in matters of love or desire may be quite rational in judgment of mathematical or historical or scientific problems. In other words, it is not the faculty of judgment that is lost but only judgment in certain domains.

Whenever the world is mesmerized by the downfall of one man through a momentary lapse of judgment, we might do well to recall that in situations of love and desire, we may not be in control of our actions, or be in only minimal control of our actions because of the de-activation of our cortex. Consequently, we should not be too quick to pass a moral judgment.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Who was he talking about?

At the Cognitive meeting that has just ended in Marmaris, one of the speakers said that a category of people indulge in "repeated risky behaviour despite explicit knowledge of potential losses".

Who would he have been talking about?

Well, it was about alcoholics who drive.

But it could equally describe bankers, or at least some of them.

In fact it is a description that suits bankers better.

What interested me is that the speaker went on to say that perhaps one should look for a "shared dysfunction" in the brain resulting in the reckless behaviour of drunken drivers, who know the possible consequences of their habit and other similar states, where the perpetrator has "explicit knowledge of potential losses".

Perhaps there is a dysfunctional brain organization that leads to states such as gambling, alcoholism and.....banking. These states have a common element - a habit indulged in in spite of the known, unacceptable, consequences.

Friday, April 22, 2011

August Macke and Brain Interactions

The work of the German Expressionist painter, August Macke, gives an interesting insight into brain mechanisms. As the examples here, here and here show, in his brilliantly coloured paintings he often does not invest his faces with any detail whatsoever, yet one can glimpse even the (emotional) expression on their faces from their comportment, from the postures of their bodies or, in brief, from their body language. Macke is not of course the only artist to have made paintings in which the details on a face are omitted altogether. But looking at his paintings the other day, the neurobiological question came to me somewhat more forcefully than before.

It has been known for a long time that there is a special area of the brain, commonly known as the fusiform face area, whose proper functioning is critical for facial recognition. As well, it appears that another part of the brain, the amygdala (a nucleus buried in the temporal lobe) is critical for evaluating the emotion in a face. Yet, if we were to isolate the faces in Macke’s paintings, it would be hard to discern any emotion at all. It is only in the context of body comportment that the faces acquire an expression.

There is, it seems, another part of the brain that is critical for the recognition of human bodies. An interesting study published last year addressed the question of whether basic emotions such as happiness or sadness or fear conveyed through the face or the body activate the same or different areas of the brain. The conclusion was that there are two regions of the brain which are activated equally powerfully regardless of whether the emotion was conveyed by a facial or a bodily expression.

This of course raises the further question of how an emotion conveyed through a bodily expression is then referred back to the face, to invest it with that same expression, for example of fear or happiness, when in fact the face itself contains no detail, as in some of Macke’s paintings. This presumably requires a system of back-connections from the two areas implicated in representing emotions regardless of their source, to the areas involved in registering faces and bodies. But what these connections are remains a puzzle.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Putting off decisions

A very interesting article, ostensibly about the euro, but ending with a very sensible amd unanswered neurobiological question, appeared in today's New York Times.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Undesirable rewards and brain activity

No sooner had I written that I do not expect Spain to seek a bail-out, because the Spanish Prime Minister had not denied that they will do so, than a high ranking Spanish official actually made just such a denial. In words reminiscent of those used by Mr Barroso, the President of the European Commission, Elena Selgado, the Spanish finance minister said that the risk of contagion to Spain is "absolutely ruled out".

This frightens me somewhat and raises an important neurobiological question.

Following my line of thought, itself influenced by my experience of what politicians say and do, I would expect that this means that there is a high chance that Spain will actually seek a bail-out. This would of course be a disaster, and a most unwelcome prospect.

So, the biological question is this: when what we expect happens, apparently there follows strong dopaminergic activity, especially in orbito-frontal cortex. We are somehow "rewarded" because we predicted correctly. But what is it that happens in our brains when we predict correctly but the outcome is one that we absolutely do not want?

I do not know whether anyone has done experiments along these lines.

Still, I am not entirely without hope that, on this occasion, my general prediction will turn out to be completely wrong and that Spain will not seek a bail-out.

My hope rests on two facts:

The lesser of the two is that the denial did not come from the highest level, that is from the Prime Minister himself or, heaven forbid, from Mr Barroso!

The more reliable one is that the denial came from a woman.

As I have consistently argued, women are to be trusted a lot more than men when it comes to financial matters.

So, I am trusting her words and hoping that Spain will not need to seek a bail-out.

As for the experiment above, it is still worth doing.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Beyond Marcel Duchamp...

Following on from my post yesterday, I had an idea…

with reference to the Tate Modern exhibition entitled the "finiteness of art"…

A cleaner at the Tate Modern apparently removed a pile of garbage that was part of the exhibition, thinking that it was actual rubbish and not realising that it was actually a part of the exhibition.

I suggest that the rubbish pile that is actually a part of the exhibition should be cleared daily.

This would heighten the meaning of the "finiteness of art" (which is the title of the exhibition)

It would also make the act of throwing out the rubbish daily a part of the exhibition, thus elevating it to an event as well as an exhibition, and strengthening the viewer's involvement in wondering what this daily throwing out of the rubbish could be about.

It would thus also raise contemporary art to new heights.

I have only one question…

Have we underestimated the intelligence of the cleaner, who " accidentally" mistook the pile of rubbish for what it actually is, a pile of rubbish?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

We must call a halt to rubbish collection in art galleries

Marcel Duchamp was subversive in more ways than one. By sending a urinal to an art exhibition and introducing the concept of “art without an artist” he turned concepts of art upside down, focused in the popular mind the separation between art and beauty, and was instrumental in introducing the emphasis in contemporary art on the viewer as an active participant in creating the work of art, by questioning his or her relationship to the viewed art work. Perhaps without realising it, he introduced a profound neurobiological angle to art more forcefully than ever before.

But his work has had, I believe, another and very unwelcome outcome. It has licensed museum curators and directors to collect all kinds of rubbish and exhibit them as art works, with the fatuous expectation that visitors to museums will start delving deeply into themselves and questioning their relation to what is displayed.

I recently visited an important, though not major, art gallery in an important European city and couldn’t help feeling that this process has now gone on to absurd levels. Filing cabinets, doors, chairs, a collection of dolls, the inevitable Brillo boxes, sticks and stones and bric à brac of all sorts clutter the museum. If their intention is to start a questioning process, why not just tell all prospective visitors to question everything that they see in their lives, and save museum space for more inspirational works? In fact, what impressed me most in the museum I visited was not the collection on display but rather the spacious rooms and the inviting architecture. The museum itself, rather than what was on display in it, became the main attraction.

I believe that this mindless process, of collecting junk and displaying it as art, must stop, which might also halt the production of these mindless works at source, or at least help to reduce it. How to do so is another, and more difficult, matter. But an incident at Tate Britain in London some years ago may point the way. Wandering through the vast and seemingly aimless collection of bric à brac at the museum I visited, I actually found it difficult at times to distinguish between displays which form part of the museum’s collection and accidental objects left there by chance. Apparently, a cleaner at Tate Britain experienced the same difficulty a few years ago. He or she threw out a bag of rubbish, accidentally we are told, that was part of an exhibition supposedly emphasizing “the finite existence of art”. The bag was recovered but is now apparently covered at night and staff have been made aware that it is part of an artistic exhibition.

The cleaner evidently had no time to question the relationship of his or her being to the rubbish bag, and reached the right conclusion. Perhaps what she or he did was not quite so accidental after all. It was, after all, about "the finite existence of art"

He or she represents, perhaps, the views of many!

Friday, April 8, 2011

The last

So, true to my prediction, Portugal has finally asked for a bail-out. The surprise is that they did it now, well before the June 5 elections due in that country.

Of course, as my readers know, my prediction was not based on knowledge of economics – though one does not need to know much economics to predict such an outcome – but to the denials of the politicians. Chief among those was Mr Barroso, the President of the European Commission and himself a Portuguese, who was (when I first wrote on the topic) at the forefront of those who denied vehemently that Portugal would need a bail-out.

These politicians may have learnt their trade from the planners of the London Underground where, as I have written before, 95% of the time, “No exit” actually means “short-cut”. But because it is only 95% of the time, there is a 5% chance that one will get it wrong, and hence the smug satisfaction of getting it right – presumably coupled to a release of dopamine in the brain, if neurobiological results on expectation and reward are anything to go by.

If I get a smug satisfaction from having predicted correctly, I am also of course very saddened by the enormous economic hardship that this will cause the Portuguese. Economists are now saying that the hardship would have been less if the Portuguese government had applied for a bail-out months ago, when the writing was on the wall. But economic predictions are not, at least in my experience, as reliable as predictions based on the opposite of what politicians say.

Economists are also now saying that Spain has a 20% chance of seeking a bail-out. I do not agree. Mr Zapattero, the Spanish Prime Minister, has not denied that Spain will seek a bail-out, from which I conclude that this will not be necessary. Only, and if, he starts denying it will I believe that this will be necessary.

We shall see.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

It has not happened…YET

Predictability and unpredictability are both neurobiologically interesting and, with little doubt, there is a complex neural machinery, including activation of the brain’s reward system when what one has predicted has come true.

But what is it that happens when what one has predicted does not happen or, better still, has not happened over a prolonged period?

I am reminded of a prediction I made here on November 29, 2010 that Portugal, like Greece and Ireland, will seek a bail-out. My prediction was not based on any economic knowledge, of which I have none (but does anyone else?). Rather, my prediction was based on the fierce denial by the Prime Minister of Portugal at that time and by the President of the European Commission, Mr José Manuel Barroso. When politicians deny anything fiercely, there is a good chance that it will happen. That is common experience.

Belief that what they have denied strongly will happen is a sort of negative gambling, gambling on what one believes has a very high chance of happening, as opposed to true gambling when one acts in the knowledge that what one wants will not happen.

But Portugal has, to date, not sought a bail-out. So, my prediction has not come true, over a prolonged period.

Now Mr Barroso has spoken again. This time, in a reference to the opinion of many in the financial world that the possibility of a bail-out has become more probable in light of the resignation of the Prime Minister of Portugal, he has shrugged such a possibility off as unlikely given that Belgium, which has had no government for the past several months, is doing well financially, the implication being that so can Portugal, without seeking a bail-out.

That Mr. Barroso should deny that there will be a bail-out makes it that much more likely to happen, in the calculations of my brain in light of past experience.

What happens if I am wrong, if my brain miscalculated? There must be some deterrent neurotransmitter somewhere that will make me more circumspect in the future.

But, given that a politician has denied the possibility so vehemently, at present my brain calculates that this is still very likely.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Two faces of the gambling habit

A variable ratio reinforcement schedule is one that generates gambling behaviour. In such a schedule – commonly used on pigeons in psychology laboratories – a pigeon is reinforced with some kind of food pellet after it presses a panel. But it does not get a reward every time it presses. Rather, it may get a reward after the 10th press and the 12th press, with nothing happening for the next 80 presses, after which it may get a reward for the 81st press, and so one. In brief, the pigeon is rewarded unpredictably. Such a reinforcement schedule generates very high response rates. It is very similar to what happens in gambling – where one (unpredictable) response is enough to pave the way for an uncontrollable gambling habit, even in spite of the common knowledge that the chances of winning are very slim.

There is the obverse to this, too, and a hilarious but true article by Henry Farrell, in response to an article by Alan Greenspan in yesterday’s Financial Times, captures it nicely. This exemplifies how we are often lulled into a sense of security where there is no room for it, because the accident that is waiting to happen has not happened, even when we are aware that such an accident may happen (just as the gambler knows that winning is an accident and that he will ultimately lose). Greenspan’s article contains the following :

Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognize it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that is irredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.”

Farrel goes on to enumerate some “rare exceptions”:

"With notably rare exceptions, Japanese nuclear reactors have been secure from earthquakes.
Though unredeemably(sic) opaque, Mr. Madoff’s operations delivered excellent returns, with notably rare exceptions.
With notably rare exceptions, the levees protecting New Orleans have held fast in the face of major hurricanes.
With notably rare exceptions, locking all exits to the workplace is a harmless way to improve your employees’ productivity.
With notably rare exceptions, petroleum extraction has minimal environmental impact."

To which I may add that, with notably rare exceptions, planes are able to land and take off at London Heathrow Airport, which has just been voted 99th in a list of airports.

All of which makes me wonder whether the neurobiology underlying the gambling behaviour in fixed-ratio reinforcement schedules is not very similar to the neurobiology underlying the – what should I call it ? – negative variable ratio reinforcement!!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Vive Christine Lagarde

I have argued in several previous posts that society could profit handsomely by having a larger percentage of women in top economic posts. My argument has not been based on the demand often made, of equality between women and men. On the contrary, it is based on the biological inequality between the two sexes which, I think, is sometimes in women’s advantage and ultimately works to the advantage of society at large. In economic matters, the general tendency of women to be risk aversive and to plan for the future is a great asset when compared to the risky behaviour of men who seek instant gratification. Had there been more women in top economic posts, we may not have had the recent economic recession or not have had it with the same severity.

Now, France’s articulate and elegant Christine Lagarde, the first women minister of finance in a major industrial country, has echoed my words. Let me say at once that she has not referred to me; indeed I would be amazed if she knows of my existence. But she speaks from the same biological book as I do. In The Independent of yesterday, she is reported as having said that “the 2008 financial collapse was, at least in part… driven by the aggressive, greedy, testosterone-fuelled mood of male-dominated, hi-tech trading rooms”. In other words, the testosterone concentration inequality between men and women had ultimately worked to the disadvantage of the world economic system. I couldn’t agree more.

She added, "In gender-dominated environments, men have a tendency to... show how hairy chested they are, compared with the man who's sitting next to them. I honestly think that there should never be too much testosterone in one room." Right on the spot – due to biological inequality again!

There have been many studies on decision-making in the field of neuroeconomics. I wonder how many have factored in differences between men and women in such matters, or have designed experiments specifically to address that question. This surely would be worth doing.

Meanwhile, in Germany the head of the Deutsche Bank, who is described by the bank’s spokesman as being a “gentleman from the old school”, expressed the hope that economic boards “will be prettier and more colourful one day” when more women hold top economic posts [Deutsche Bank apparently has no women on its board].

No comment!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tatsuo Miyajima, the artist of our endlessly changing world

Last week in Sendai, Japan, I was enormously pleased to be able to have a public dialogue with the wonderful Japanese artist, Tatsuo Miyajima.

Most artists, or at least most of the ones I know, deny having a philosophical outlook that they try to translate into their works. Some had thought of the work of Cézanne and others as being a “painted epistemology”. But Cézanne himself denied this and Daniel-Henri Kahnwiler, the art critic and art dealer, insisted that none of the many painters he had known (which included Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, André Derain and Maurice Vlaminck among others) had a philosophical culture.

Not so with Tatsuo Miyajima. He is deeply rooted in a rich Japanese, and indeed Oriental, philosophy that can be summarized in a single line: “Nothing is permanent except change”. And he expresses this in what are visually mesmerizing displays of ever-changing variously coloured digital numbers. The numbers exclude zero, which in his culture is a metaphor for death. But in that Buddhist culture there is no real death, there is only change.

In a sense, therefore, Miyajima is using a new, electronic, medium to deliver a message rooted in ancient Oriental philosophy. And it works very well, partly because it is visually so attractive, partly because the medium is new and partly because it engages the viewer so forcefully in trying to understand the message. Indeed, Miyajima says of art that it is like a mirror, in which the viewer enquires into, and understands something about, himself. That something is the ineluctable progression of time, the inevitability of change and, by comparison, the banality of the moment.

But, of course, the moment is not banal, for it is part of the change and it is the most deeply registered and experienced in the chain.

I hope that one day soon, London will have the pleasure of seeing a larger number of his works, and I hope that the catalogue for that exhibition will include these lines from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets (Burnt Norton):

Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end
And all is always now.

which seem to me to be a very good general description of Miyajima’s approach.

His work has inspired me to think of many experiments, some of which I hope I will be able to do. At any rate, discussing his work with him in relation to the brain and its activity was a real delight.

Empty walls and a rich imagination

Some two weeks ago, I went to Tate Britain in London to view the Eadweard Muybridge exhibition when, in another part of the Gallery, I was confronted by a room with four immaculately clean white walls. Was this part of an exhibition, I wondered? It could have been. After all, one of the characteristics of contemporary art is to involve the viewer more imaginatively in what the artist is trying to depict, or for that matter cannot depict. Nor is contemporary art entirely new in this endeavour. Sandro Boticcelli ,who set out to illustrate all of the cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy left some of them un-illustrated. The pages corresponding to these cantos are left blank – as if to engage the viewer more imaginatively in translating Dante’s difficult concepts about love and beauty, which Dante himself confessed he found difficult to render in language. But the empty walls at the Tate were not, it turned out, part of an exhibition. They were just that – empty walls, the room being decorated for another exhibition. But it did get my imagination working.

Not long after, in Tokyo last week, I stayed in a delightful hotel. Nothing luxurious, but my room was a delight to wake up in and to return to at night. What could have been the source of this delight? Well, quite simply EMPTY WALLS. There were none of these art works, sometimes in the form of posters, chosen by the management or the interior designer. Instead the bareness of the walls, decorated in white, invited the imagination to wonder, and to wander as well, and create an imaginary museum in a small room. What would I put here, or there, if allowed? What would merge best with the remaining colours of the room, mostly brown? After all, to decorate a room, you have to begin with an empty wall.

I do not know whether this baring of the walls was intentional on the part of the management. But this was Japan, and of course it could have been. For many of the beautiful prints and drawings from Japan have a compelling characteristic, which is that they are set against relatively large empty spaces that are a stimulant to the imagination. It was those empty spaces in Japanese drawings that so influenced Paul Klee in his early drawings when there was a craze for things Japanese.

The Japanese, if I understand them, are masters of the unsaid and the unstated, of subtlety and ambiguity, all of which constitute powerful stimulants to the imagination.

I can really recommend a beautifully but sparsely furnished room with empty walls!