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.