August 14, 2012

The age of insight by Eric R Kandel

The age of insight by Eric R Kandel

The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain

(Eric a Nobel prize winner of 2000 did a research on art & aesthetics and book covers it. The first part of the book mainly on five famous people who lived Vienna).

Freud’s theorizing,Schnitzler’s writings and the painting of Klimt. Schiele and Kokoschka had a common insight into the nature of human instinctual life. During the period of 1890 to 1918, the insights of these five men into the irrationality of everyday life helped Vienna to become the center of modernist thought and culture. We still live in that culture today.

Modernism began in the mid-nineteenth century as a response not only to the restrictions and hypocrisies of everyday life, but also as a reaction to the Enlightenment's emphasis on the rationality of human behavior. The enlightenment or age of reason was characterized by the idea that all is well with the world because human action is governed by reason. It is through reason that we achieve enlightenment, because our mind can exert control over our emotions and feelings.

Ernst Gombrich says on art: “Art is an institution to which we turn when we want to feel a shock of surprise. We feel this want because we sense that it is good for us once in a while to receive a healthy jolt. Otherwise we would so easily get stuck in a rut and could not longer adapt to the new demands that life is apt to make on us. The biological function of art, in other words, is that of a rehearsal, training in mental gymnastics which increases our tolerance of the unexpected”.

In Vienna, modernism had three main characteristics. The first was the new view of the human mind as being largely irrational by nature. Unconscious conflicts are present in everyone in their everyday actions. The second characteristic of Modernism was self-examination. The third characteristic of Modernism in Vienna was the attempt to integrate and unify knowledge, an attempt driven by science and inspired by Darwin’s insistence that human beings must be understood biologically in the same way as other animals.

Freud's three key ideas have held up well and are now central to modern neural science. The first idea is that most of our mental life, including most of our emotional life, is unconscious at any moment, including a small component is conscious. The second major idea is that the instincts for aggressive and for sexual strivings, like the instincts to eat and drink are built into the human psyche, into our genome. The third idea is that the normal mental life and mental illness form a continuum and that mental illness often represents exaggerated forms of normal mental process.

What are emotions? Why do we need them? Emotions are instinctive biological mechanism that color our lives and help us deal with the fundamental tasks of life: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Emotions are dispositions to act in response to someone or something important to us. Emotions arise from the very core of our physical and mental states, and they have four independent, though related purposes. Emotions enrich our mental lives, they facilitate social communication, including the selection of life partner; they influence our capability for rational action; and perhaps most important, emotions help us escape potential danger and approach potential sources of good or pleasure (Animals have two major opposing class of motivators: approach and avoidance).

According to Darwin, there are six universal components that lie along a continuum from approach to avoidance. These six include the two major emotional primitives - happiness (ranging from arousal from ecstasy to serenity) that encourages approach and the other, fear (ranging from terror to apprehension) that encourages avoidance. Between these two extremes lie four sub-types: surprise (ranging from amazement to distraction), disgust (from loathing to boredom), sadness (from grief to pensiveness), and anger (from rage to annoyance). Darwin was careful to indicate that discrete emotions can be blended: awe, for example, is a mixture of fear and surprise; fear and trust give rise to submission; trust and joy produce love.

Darwin’s observation that faces are a primary means of conveying emotion was extended a century later by the American psychologist, Paul Ekman whose detailed study on the subject found much the same six facial expression of emotions that Darwin described. There is now evidence that in addition to these common expressions, specific cultures have added nuances that outsiders must learn to recognize in order to fully understand the emotion being expressed.

In addition to providing dynamic information, faces also provide static information - skin color shows the ethnic group, wrinkles provide age related information, etc. Dynamic information like rapid facial signals with eyebrows and lips provides information about attitude, intent and availability. Thus face broadcasts messages not only about emotion and mood, but also about capability, attractiveness, sex, race and other matters.

When we look at a beautiful work of art, our brain assigns different degrees of meaning to the various shapes, colors and movements we see. This assignment of meaning, or visual aesthetics, illustrates that esthetic pleasure is not an elementary sensation like heat or cold. Instead, it represents a higher order evaluation of sensory information processed along specialized pathways in the brain that estimate the potential for reward from a stimulus in the environment. In art, as in life, there are few more pleasurable sights than a beautiful human face. Attractive faces activate the reward areas in the brain and inspire trust, sexual attraction and sexual partnership. Studies of attractiveness in life and art have led to a number of surprise insights.

What males a face attractive? One characteristic is symmetry which is preferable to asymmetry. Symmetry indicates good genes. During growth, challenges to health and environmental stressors can result in asymmetrical growth pattern in face. The degree of symmetry in a person’s face may therefore indicate how capable that person’s genome of resisting disease and maintaining normal development in the face of challenges. In addition to symmetry, other features are universally considered attractive in a female face: arched eyebrows, large eyes, small nose, full lips, narrow face, and small chin. Attractive masculine features are based on different criteria: sharply angled (other than curved) shoulders, elbows, and knees are associated with both masculinity and aggressiveness. A protruding chin, jaw-line, brow-line and cheeks, along with elongation of the lower face - characteristics caused by increased testosterone production during puberty - are also considered attractive in men. These facial characteristics and the implied excess of testosterone suggest not only hyper sexuality but also the potential for a social behavior, aggression and dominance.

In his book, The Art Instinct, Dennis Dutton says that we care about art because it gives us ‘some of the most profound emotionally moving experience available to human beings” Story telling is pleasurable, he explains, because it extends our experience by giving us opportunities to think hypothetically about the world and its problems. It also a source of information. along with the size of human brain, language and storytelling enables us to model our world uniquely and to communicate those models to others. Our response to art stems from an irrepressible urge to recreate in our own brains the creative process - cognitive, emotional and empathic- through which the artist produced the work.

Art if an inherently pleasurable and instructive attempt by the artist and the beholder to communicate and share with each other the creative process that characterizes every human brain - a process that leads to an Aha! moment, the sudden recognition that we have seen into another person’s mind and that allows us to see the truth underlying both the beauty and the ugliness depicted by the artist. 

Brains pleasure circuits are also activated (in addition to drugs et al) when we enjoy a work of art, when we experience a beautiful sunset, a good meal, or a satisfying sexual experience. In each case, the experience has dimension beyond the bottom-up release of dopamine.

The second bottom-up modulatory system reduces pain and turns up the volume on pleasure, including the joy we take from art, by releasing neurotransmitters known as endorphins. Strenuous exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, producing what athletes call an endorphin high. In fact athletes describe feelings lethargic and depressed when they do not exercise; this is because they are undergoing endorphin withdrawal.

The third modulatory system release oxytocin and vasopressin, neurotransmitters that are important for mating and parental behavior and more generally social behavior, social cognition and our ability to read the mind and intentions of others.

The forth modularity bottom-up releases norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that enhances alertness; high concentration of nor epinephrine, which are produced in reaction to stress, induce fear.

The fifth bottom-up modulating system, the serotonergic system, is perhaps the most ancient. These neurons are important in arousal, vigilance, and mood.

The sixth bottom-up modulating system is the cholinergic system, which releases acetylcholine and regulates the sleep-wake as well as aspects of cognitive performance, learning, attention and memory.

All of the senses serve analogous functions in acquiring knowledge of the world, but vision is by far the most efficient way to acquire new information about people, places, and objects. Moreover there are certain types of knowledge such as the expression of a face or the interaction of a social group that can only be acquired through vision. Since vision is above all an active process, art also encourages an active and creative exploration of the world.

Since art arouses emotion and emotion elicits both cognitive and physiological responses in the observer, art if capable of producing a whole-body response. Vilayanur Ramachandran argues that many forms of art are successful because they involve deliberate overstatement, exaggeration and distortion designed to pique our curiosity and produce a satisfying emotional response in our brains. In order to be effective, however art’s deviations from realistic depiction cannot be arbitrary. They must, succeed in capturing the innate brain mechanisms for emotional release, once again reminding us of the discovery by behavioral psychologists and ethnologists for the exploration of a simple sign stimulus that is capable of releasing a full-blown behavior and whose exaggeration produces an even stronger behavior.

Ramachandran identifies ten additional principles of art, derived in part from Gestalt insights that he thinks are universal: grouping, contrast, isolation, the solving of perceptual problems, symmetry, abhorrence of coincidence, repetition of rhythm orderliness, balance and metaphor.

Artists traditionally focused on the face, hands and erotic zones because of their importance in everyday human interactions. Essential prerequisites for creativity are technical competence and a willingness to work hard, according to Ernst Kris and Nancy Andreason. They divide the remaining aspects of the, creative process into four parts: 1)the types of personalities that are likely to be particularly creative 2) the period of preparation and incubation 3) the initial moments of creativity themselves 4) subsequent working through of the creative idea.

August 11, 2012

The hour between dog and wolf by John Coates

The hour between dog and wolf by John Coates

Risk taking, gut feelings and the biology of boom and bust.

It is enlightening to see our behavior as an elaborate mechanism designed to maintain homeostasis. However, before we go too far down the path of biological reductionism, I have to point out that hormones do not cause our behavior. They act like lobby group, recommending and pressuring us into certain types of activity. One group of hormones has particularly potent efforts on our behavior - steroid hormones. This group includes testosterone, estrogen and cortisol, the main hormone of the stress response. Steroids exert particularly wide spread effects because they have receptors in almost every cell in our body and brain.

McEwen’s research on steroids shows how brain works: the hypothalamus sends a message to a gland instructing it to produce a hormone; the hormone fans out across the body, having its physical effects, but it also returns to the brain, changing the very way we think and behave. Now, that is one potent chemical. Indeed, subsequent research by MceWen and other showed that a steroid hormone, because of its widespread receptors, can alter almost every function of our body (its growth, shape,metabolism, immune function) and of our brain, (its mood and memory and of our behavior).

During moments of risk taking, competition and triumph, of exuberance, there is one steroid in particular that makes its presence felt and guides our actions - testosterone.  Testosterone-fueled behavior is life winner effect. Winner effect works this way: two males enter a fight for turf or a contest for a mate and in anticipation of the competition, experience a surge in testosterone, a chemical bracer that increases their blood’s capacity to carry oxygen and in time, their lean-muscle mass. Testosterone also effects the brain, where it increases the animal’s confidence and appetite for risk, After the battle has been decided the winner emerges with even higher levels of testosterone, the loser with lesser levels, The winner, if he proceeds to a next round of competition, does so with already elevated testosterone and this androgenic priming gives him an edge, helping him win yet again. As testosterone level rise, confidence and risk taking segue into overconfidence and reckless behavior.

Cortisol is the main hormone of the stress response, a body wide response to injury or threat, Coristol works in tandem with adrenaline, but while adrenaline is a fast-acting hormone, taking effect in seconds and having a half-life in the blood of only two or three minutes, cortisol kicks in to support us during long siege.

The research I encountered on steroid hormones thus suggested to me the following hypothesis: testosterone, as predicted by the winner effect is likely to rise in a bull market, increase risk talking and exaggerate the rally, morphing it into bubble. Cortisol, on the other hand, is likely to rise in a bear market, make traders dramatically and perhaps irrational risk averse and exaggerate the sell-off, morphing it into a crash.  Steroid hormones building up in the bodies of trades and investors may this shift risk preferences systematically across the business cycle, destabilizing it.

We are so completely enthralled by information that one could, without exaggeration, say we are addicted to it. The addiction develops under the influence of another neuromodulator, this one called dopamine. Produced by a group of cells at the top of the brain stem, dopamine targets brain regions controlling reward and movement. When we receive some valuable piece of information, or perform some act that promotes our health and survival such as eating, drinking, having sex or making large amounts of money, dopamine is released along what are called the pleasure pathways f the brain, providing us with a rewarding even euphoric experience. In fact, our brain seems to value the dopamine more than food or drink or sex itself.

Unfortunately dopamine neurons are easily duped, and can be tricked into bestowing their rewards by drugs of abuse. Almost every recreational drug, be it alcohol, cocaine or amphetamines, achieves its additive effects by increasing the action of dopamine in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, located midway between brain stem and the cortex and specifically one part of it,  is called the nucleus accumbens.

Food can raise an animal’s dopamine levels by 50%, sex by 100%, nicotine by 200%, cocaine by 400% and amphetamines by 1,000%.  There are two types of rewards - the pleasure of consumption and the pleasure of anticipation. Some cues such as smell of our favorite restaurant, the exciting appearance off in the distance of ski slopes can involve dopamine effect. Many addicts actually come to lose the pleasure they once enjoyed from drugs, may even find the actual consumption distasteful but cannot stop. In order to kick a habit they now find unpleasant addicts often they have to separate themselves from drug taking cues by changing neighborhoods and avoiding old friends.

Hormone signaling process from hypothalamus to the production of steroids hormone, takes up to fifteen minutes just to get started. It takes even longer for steroids to take affect - hours or even days. The process may be slow, but the way steroids work in unique in the human body. They cross membranes, enter the cell nucleus and cause gene transcription. In other words, steroids cause proteins, the building blocks of the body to be manufactured. Steroids have receptors in almost every nucleated cell in the body. All these properties of steroids give you an inkling of their power. A single steroid like testosterone can cause a bewildering suite of physiological changes, building up bone density and lean-muscle mass, increasing hemoglobin and clotting agents in your blood, heightening mood, tormenting you with sexual fantasy and tilting behavior towards greater risk taking,. By doing so, testosterone orchestrates a focused and coordinated physical response to the competition and opportunity at hand.

It was in the year 1913 class of steroids was isolated by a German scientist named Adolf Butenandt who got Nobel prize with his team for chemistry in 1939 and when Nobel committee asked about testosterone, Butenandt exclaimed, “Dynamite, gentleman, it is pure dynamite”.

The Y chromosome of XY pair (male) has a gene called SRY which produce testosterone. X chromosome can swap material with another X chromosome, thus ensuring that each generation is fitted with new parts. But not so the isolated Y chromosome, which does not get new parts. This lone wolf has nothing it can swap with; so over time, it compounds the problem and accumulates damage until its genes, one by one, die off. Some animals, such as the kangaroo, now have only a few genes remaining on their Y chromosome. This slow death of Y chromosome is called Adam’s Curse by Geneticist Bryan Sykes who predicts that in five thousand generations men will be extinct.

Testosterone levels fluctuate over a course of man’s life. Spikes just after birth and then subside until puberty. Later, beginning in his early 30s, a man’s testosterone levels begins to fall and continue to do so over the rest of his life. Having high level of testosterone brings high energy level, high risk taking mentality, & high sex drive (common during teen / youth days). In trading desk, routine testosterone steroid injection helps the trader to take risky bets that they otherwise wouldn't bet.

(Some people has high testosterone levels by birth – if your ring finger is longer than your point finger, then you are a macho man :)

August 10, 2012

The passionate Muse by Keith Oatley

The passionate Muse by Keith Oatley

Exploring emotion in stories.

We can only fully understand and accept our emotions, says Scheff, when they occur at about the right distance. According to Scheff, the function of literary art as well as practices such as religious rituals is to enable significant emotions to occur at the right aesthetic distance, a distance at which they can be experienced and assimilated.

In the west, the foundational text on how fiction works was Aristotle’s Poetics. The equivalent version in India was the Natyasatra by Bharata Muni, who lived perhaps 200 years after Aristotle. The central idea about how fiction works for Aristotle and his followers was mimesis, the relation of literary art to the world, usually translated as representation or imitation. In Indian poetics the fundamental issues were different. The principal Sanskrit terms were dhavni (meaning suggestion) and rasa (meaning literary emotion).

Dhavani was thought to be the soul of poetry. The functional of poetry, drama and other kinds of fiction is to suggest within the context of a rasa, an emotion that can be recognized widely in the minds of readers or audience members. Rasa are like emotions of everyday life and rasa theorists argued that there are nine fundamental emotions in ordinary life, called bhavas, There is a corresponding rasa for each bhavas.

Bava / Rasa (in that order)
sexual delight  / the amorous or erotic
laughter / the comic
sorrow / the pitiable or tragic
anger / the furious
perseverance / the heroic
fear / the terrible
disgust or disillusion / the odious or loathsome
wonder / the marvelous
serenity / the peaceful

Noel Carroll has written that ‘emotions are the cement that keeps audience connected to.... narrative fictions’.

The anxiety that creates the suspense of a story is a form of excitement. The greater it is, the larger is the relief and satisfaction when it’s resolved. You can see this kind of excited anxiety by going to an amusement park that has roller coasters and the like. Watch how people are whirled into the air by elaborate machines. The excitement of being flung about is followed by relief as people get off the ride and talk to their friends. Excitement is on sale in Western society

To fall in love is to extend one’s self to enclose another person. Love stories are fascinating because of the questions of how we might know whom we might join in this all-engaging way. Fantasy is  a strong component both of falling in love and the stories to which this state gives rise.

Abhiavagupta (an important rasa theorist 1000 years ago) gives the following example of a verse from a play, a young woman’s husband is away and a traveler arrives at her house and she invites him to stay. Here is what the young woman says to the traveler.

Mother-in-law sleeps here, I there
Look, traveler, while it is light.
For night when you cannot see
You must not fall into my bed”

The verse works by dhavani - suggestion. An intuition of love has passed between the young woman and the traveler. Abhinavagupta discusses how in it, the young woman speaks openly in the presence of her mother-in-law and by means of a prohibition; she makes the traveler an invitation. If he does not understand it, he misses an opportunity.

Freud writes, “We laymen have always been intensely curious to know... from what sources that strange being, the creative writer, draws his material and how he manages to make such an impression on us with it and to arouse in us emotions of which perhaps, we had not even thought ourselves capable’.

The answer, says Freud, is that the stories that arouse such emotions are expressions of wishes. That is to say, they are like dreams, the meanings of which - according to Freud- are also expressions of wishes.

Play is the very emblem of enjoyment, of doing something for its own sake. The processes that underlie it are also the psychological bases of art. The center of art is the creation of a ‘that’ from a ‘this’.

Stories of anger involve an expectation that has been breached, in which a person’s status and selfhood are demeaned. Anger signals a wrong that demands to be righted, a readjustment that needs to be made in relationship. Readers can easily feel angry on behalf of a protagonist who has been victimized who may follow an urge to exact retribution.

The experience of being able to read and feel and think into a piece of fiction, although it may sometimes be sad, can also be profoundly joyful. It can be joyful, I think, it enables understanding of ourselves to grow and expand, in the way that - as Proist puts it - love can be do. This happens, not so much because of the imitation of life by art, but as we build a world in which we are closely involved. It happens when we allow the literary muse of passion to enable our own selves to bring meaning to life in relation to literary selves.