130925_12362_dennett020.JPGThough the 1990s were dubbed, the “decade of the brain” by scientists, there is something extraordinary occurring in the present decade that shouldn’t be ignored. Some of the brain research done during the end of the last century has spurred scientists and humanists to think differently about many things. The leaders in this renaissance of brain science and philosophy are writing books and articles for a lay audience–so many it’s been hard to keep up with them (though I have tried my best to do so).

My favorite “brainiacs” in the field are Antonio Damasio, Daniel Dennett, Eric Kandel, Paul Bloom and Merlin Donald. Each has written several books pressing society to more seriously consider new discoveries about the brain and its workings in our daily lives.

Damasio famously debunked Cartesian dualism (the mind-body problem) and unveiled the complex palette of emotions built into our nervous system. Dennett “explained” consciousness from both a philosophical and scientific perspective. Kandel gave us a masterpiece about the neuroscience of “memory” and subsequent books about art.  Bloom spent his career studying how babies develop an inner sense of “moral” judgment. Donald gave us a theory of how the human “mind” evolved from the brains of early hominids over hundreds of thousands of years.

I have just finished a new book by Dennett, entitled From Bacteria to Bach and Back. Dan has never been one to overlook a pun when it serves his purpose as a writer. In it he attempts to synthesize much of the brain science and evolutionary theory that have informed his philosophy. Reviewers have praised the book for its broad sweep and lively writing, and I found it fascinating, though too clever by half.

Two of the big ideas in BBB are intended to shake things up: the concept of “memetics” as a science, and the radical idea that consciousness is “an evolved user interface” with the outside world. For anyone interested in philosophy or cultural history, these perspectives are fascinating.

The news here is that brain scientists are pressing society to take note of the major discoveries that will change the way we live in the very near future–through advances in medicine, pharmacology, behavioral science, psychotherapy and other fields–transforming the world for the better. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave is a case in point–a Stanford professor on the talk show circuit explaining the evolution of the human brain to TV viewers. A generation of brilliant researchers is breaking out of their laboratories and taking to the streets. Watch out, they’re dangerous, like wild baboons.

The Work at Hand

April 18, 2017

Our society is beset with so many problems it is sometimes difficult to know which to address first. This blog post isn’t about resisting the corrupt U.S. administration, or confronting global climate change, however. I want to discuss something far more basic about the nature of work, the work of thinking.

The expression, “the work at hand” is common in English, and I expect also in many other languages (though I haven’t looked at others except French and Italian). We seldom think about why we associate “work” with “hands,” or refer to intellectual work using this same expression, even though our mind isn’t engaged in manual labor. In past blogs I have  talked about the need for more education in hand skills and craftsmanship, but even that topic isn’t relevant to the present discussion.

The reason that humans use expressions that associate abstract thinking with “manual” or hand-centered activity is that our brains evolved long ago to monitor and control the  body, and never lost that vital connection. Mirror neurons, discovered in the 1990s, fire when we are looking at another human who is doing some kind of manual task such as stirring a pot of stew–the motor neurons in our brain that control the hand, arm, and wrist fire as if we, too, are doing the stirring. All of this is unconscious, of course.

There is in fact so much unconscious processing going on in our brains during waking hours that we seldom stop to reflect on what is going on behind the scenes. Neuroscientists have been looking on the other side of the curtain for the past decade or so, and now have some startling news about “grounded cognition” that are just reaching a popular audience. For them, the work at hand involves mapping functional areas of the brain in order to understand emotions, memory, behavior, perception, mental illnesses, and many other things that we all care about. There’s a real urgency to their research, though our government doesn’t seem to think so.

I want to remind my readers that brain science is, at this moment, more important than rocket science, economics, political science, or even physical sciences. Because if we don’t understand our brains, our work to improve the quality of life on Earth will not advance far enough to save us from the unconscious behaviors that have led us to the mess we’re in–all those nagging problems we confront every day. Let’s work on that.

I have just finished reading a fascinating book by the Penn neuroscientist, Anjan Chatterjee, called The Aesthetic Brain. The author is one of the founders of the new Neuroaesthetics Institute at Johns Hopkins Medical School. His book has the most comprehensive survey of research on art and the brain that I have encountered.

One of Chatterjee’s conclusions is that art is not an “instict” in humans, but rather emerges when we are under little pressure to adapt to environmental forces. He likens human art to the songs of the Bengalese finch–birds which have emerged after about 250 years of breeding by the Japanese, for use as pets. Unlike a peacock’s tail, which has evolved to attract females during mating, the finch’s songs are improvisational and not strictly necessary for survival. They may please other finches, but don’t attract them.

I don’t quite agree with Chatterjee on this point, particularly with regard to the relationship between humans and the built environment. Humans create beautiful landscapes, houses, and piazzas not only for sheer pleasure but also because they nurture us–just as food tastes good but also gives us sustenance. Our taste for certain kinds of flavors directs us to eat nourishing foods and avoid toxins.

We know that the brain responds positively to certain kinds of landscapes and not to others, to beautiful faces, to pleasingly proportioned bodies, and even to certain proportional relationships. These things are part of an aesthetic facility, but could also have other functional purposes. For instance, wayfinding and movement are enhanced by our capacity to analyze scenes in the environment. Humans are also quite sensitive to qualities in places and spaces that are familiar, pleasing, and sustaining. There is even a part of the brain associated with place awareness.

My friend John Massengale, an urbanist and architect, is working on a conference dealing with the perception of place that may take place in England next year. I hope that some of the science there will enlighten us on why the environment has aesthetic affect on our brains. I am not a scientist, but I firmly believe that beauty in our surroundings isn’t just “nice” but unnecessary. I think that brain science will eventually prove this and other things about architecture that have been common sense understandings for centuries.

Brains on Music

November 13, 2016

As I have said before in this post and elsewhere, the brain needs stimulation in the form of creative endeavors in order to develop and flourish. Dr. Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins Medical School has a great podcast on this subject. Check it out.

Robin Williams and Depression

September 3, 2014

Nanu nanu. Living with mental illness is a little like living on another planet, as many of us who suffer from depression know. Nobody understands what we are going through, or at least they don’t seem to get it except when something terrible happens. Like a suicide, successful or not. As Andrew Solomon has shown in The Noonday Demon, all depressed people think seriously about suicide. If they are treated, most don’t succeed at offing themselves. Artists still seem to live on edge of the abyss. The demon often takes over. E.T. can’t phone home because there’s nobody there.

Sylvia Plath chronicled her path to oblivion, and a few other artists have created similar poetic if harrowing memoirs of depression. Robin Williams spoke very little about his illness, and often made light of his demons–drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. His manic humor was extraterrestrial and at times incomprehensible, at least to those who don’t perform to get rid of their insecure sense of self. When you don’t have a solid sense of who you are it is easier to become someone else. Few humans have had the gift/curse of multiple personality imaginations like Robin Williams. Genius often comes close to madness, and this was surely a case in which the two were Jekyll and Hyde.

Since I grew up watching Robin Williams and often saw my myself in his characters, I feel a deep sense of loss now that he is gone. I don’t, however, feel surprised or mystified by his suicide.  All depressed people know a little about what he faced every day. Knowing that he got up and went to work, entertaining millions as no one else can ever do, inspires me to do what I can with my art. As Tolstoy said, “I would rather be the holy fool than any other human being.” Rest in peace, Robin.

Building Brains by Hand

April 1, 2011

A century ago John Dewey introduced a radical idea in American education, then dominated by instruction in the “Three Rs.” At his Chicago Laboratory School, teachers gave elementary school pupils “the materials of life” and asked them to work with their hands to learn skills that their parents had practiced as farm hands and laborers. In a modern industrial society the idea seemed counter-intuitive–why bother with old fashioned hand tools when the machine would make such labor obsolete?

Modern neuroscience has proved that learning through hand skills is fundamental to building the circuitry that young brains need to develop higher order reasoning. Moreover, society needs citizens who are capable of solving practical problems that require more than just a knowledge of Microsoft Windows. Children spend an increasing amount of their time in front of screens, meaning less and less exposure to the outdoors, to the pleasure of manual labor, and an increasing lack of practical knowledge that sustained previous generations. Faced with budget cuts, our public schools are giving up on courses in music, art, and hand skills–even basic auto mechanics and wood shop.

It should come as no surprise that parents in some affluent areas of the country are trying to enrich their children’s education with programs that have fallen by the wayside in most schools. More surprising, perhaps, is the trend toward bringing what used to called “manual trades” education back into the lives of younger kids. The New York Times Home Section on Thursday featured an article, “Big Tools for Little Hands,” that documents this phenomenon. It appears that Dewey’s methods are re-entering the mainstream.

I wrote a book on Gustav Stickley’s educational program at Craftsman Farms, and have written in this blog about hand craftsmanship. It makes sense to me that Americans, indeed most post-industrial citizens, are rediscovering the necessity of hand craftsmanship and so-called “manual” skills in education. I won’t go into all the reasons why this is so, but seeing children enraptured by making things out of wood at Construction Kids in Brooklyn fills my heart with joy.

It is  ironic that our society is dismantling an education system that was the envy of the world, while small groups of Americans rededicate their lives and careers to bring such wonderful experiences to the lives of young children. I am a believer that little things make a big difference. This is one seems to be doing just that. Hooray for hammers.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is rapidly becoming a media star. His several books, including Looking for Spinoza and The Feeling of What Happens, have brought new discoveries about the brain to a large audience, and he is a popular lecturer on music and education as well as his specialty. I am reading his latest offering, Self Comes to Mind, and it is as spellbinding as a mystery novel.

Damasio first shocked the academic world by suggesting that one of the bedrock tenets of modern thought, the brain-body dichotomy, was false. Why was this shocking? Cartesian “dualism” is the foundation of post-enlightenment philosophy, and one of the things that makes positivism possible. If humans are largely rational creatures, progressive advances by empirical science will produce an increasingly “modern” and perfect society. If humans are more like other mammals, the baser instincts might derail such progress. To those of us who don’t buy the rationalist line, Damasio’s discoveries are fascinating. Who knew that Spinoza was centuries ahead of his time?

The good doctor’s latest hypothesis, also controversial, is that the “feeling brain” can help explain the most vexing problem in psychology: what is consciousness and where does it reside? Previous attempts at finding even a definition were fraught with contradictions. Many of the intuitive explanations for why we possess a “self” were plausible–higher rational processes allow humans to perceive an “autobiographical” self that separates them from other mammals. Unfortunately, they have not been proved in the laboratory, where brain imaging and “mapping” studies have produced startling revelations about how the mind works.

Damasio and his colleagues have located a group of transitional, coordinating regions of neurons that appear to have a critical role in binding the body’s regulating mechanisms with the “higher” brain functions. They are located in positions between the brain stem (the old brain) and the cerebral cortex (the outer, new brain). It seems that our conscious awareness of self (there actually are three flavors: proto, core, and autobiographical) takes place in these transitional areas, not in the expected regions of the outer brain.

Why is this important? Well, for one thing it shows us again that human “nature” is closer to the ground than to the stars. Though we press to distinguish ourselves from our animal neighbors on this planet, we cannot escape the evolutionary story that is preserved in our brains and bodies. It is humbling, but also liberating, to know that the feeling of being human is not as unique as we once supposed. Next time you swim with a dolphin, give him a knowing wink.

Art and Anthropology

October 16, 2009

News flash. Anthropologists, while busy discovering new missing links every other month, have noticed that early humans made art. Furthermore, it appears that artistic endeavor was predicated on crafting things that humans, then and now, found beautiful. Dennis Dutton, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has written a book about this. In today’s New York Times he asks if today’s “conceptual” artists are producing “art” at all.

I have argued here and elsewhere that the pursuit of beauty, in all its forms, is a necessary factor in the making of paintings, architecture, poetry, music, sculpture–any fine art, and most applied arts. For the past century or so, conceptual artists have abandoned this pursuit, and, while many provocative works have appeared, art has suffered. Dennis correctly asks whether the works of such artists as Damien Hirst will remain in the canon a hundred years from now.

Perhaps it is ironic that scientists–particularly neuroscientists mapping the brain and anthropologists mapping human evolution–are making profound contributions to the understanding of art and music these days. Art critics, self-involved as they are, have generally not noticed these discoveries. Antonio Damasio’s critique of rationalism has dismantled much of the philosophical scaffolding that many artists and architects use to justify their work. Scientists analyzing the evolution of the brain continue to point out that aesthetic pleasure is hard-wired, not culturally derived. In short, those who argue that contemporary art has moved beyond the true and the beautiful are wrong.

Well, “chacun a son gout” and all that. Those who enjoy looking a medicine cabinets and embalmed sharks are entitled to spend millions on Mr. Hirst’s work. For me, the Museum of Natural History has better examples of animal parts. But let’s stop denigrating the legitimate work of artists and architects who spend their careers mastering the techniques and crafts that are necessary for artistic production as it has existed for thousands of years. Our old brains still respond to beauty.