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?