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.