Memory is a willful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know. Elliot Perlman

My memory works in a fairly consistent way. When I can't remember something, I struggle without success to stop searching for it. This is the hard part. But it’s important to stop, if you want to recall what you’re searching for.

Finally I give up or get distracted and then, after an unpredictable amount of time, out of nowhere it seems, what I’m trying to recall drifts in. It can be in the middle of the night or when I am doing something else, like typing this sentence, taking a shower or not doing much of anything at all.

You just never know when X’s name will pop in. But more often than not it does--eventually—or I forget about what I was searching for. The mind does so much of its work behind the scenes.

Surely you have had similar experiences and I suspect the phenomenon is rather common. Mind-Pops is the subject of Ferris Jabr’s recent article in the Scientific American. Ferris reviews the work of Lia Kvavilashvii who is one of the few who have investigated this aspect of memory.

Kvavilashvili notes, “But once I started recording them, quite often I would notice that what popped into my mind wasn’t entirely accidental. The contents of the mind-pop had been experienced in the recent past.”

Another kind of mind-pop is the unexpected recollection of a previous event. The older you get, the more often this occurs. A childhood experience, a place you visited many years ago, a friend you haven’t thought of in years pops in. These memories are totally involuntary and seemingly unrelated to anything you are doing.

But are these autobiographical mind-pops quite so random? Perhaps they are related to something in your environment or an incident that “primed” them? Ferris writes, “If a psychologist gives a volunteer a list of words including the word “apple” and later asks the volunteer to write a complete word starting with “app,” the subject is more likely to write apple than “appetite” or “application.”

So perhaps the memory of having lunch many years ago with you high school buddy, Phillip popped in because recently you read a short story by Phillip Roth or a blog about him. Kvavilashvili believes that mind-pops are not random; instead they are linked to our previous experiences and knowledge.

She recalls a mind-pop when the word “Acapulco” sprang into her “consciousness.” after throwing a used bag into the trash, She couldn’t figure out why until a family member reminded her that 45 minutes before they had watched a TV program about the Mexican resort city.

Of course, most of the time the chain leading back to the source of the mind-pop cannot be traced. Still the fact that it often can suggests a mind-pop does not simply appear out of nowhere or represent random neuronal firings, even though the long chain of prior associations is not readily retrievable.


Memorial Day Lanterns

At sunset on Memorial Day in Honolulu the tenth annual lantern floating ceremony will be held at the beach near Magic Island, not far from the center of Waikiki. The ceremony is held to honor the lives of those lost in war and to remember other “departed loved ones.”

Participants write the names of the deceased and their personal messages on paper lanterns, which are then set adrift onto the ocean. Each year more than 3,000 candle-lit lanterns are released into the sea.

While the ceremony is Buddhist in origin, Hawaii’s version reflects the Islands’ diverse collection of faiths and backgrounds. The ceremony I most recently attended featured everything from Hawaiian chant and hula to Japanese Taiko drumming, the Honolulu Symphony, and a German trumpeter.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, all the lanterns are collected from the ocean and recycled for use in the following years.

The event can be viewed on television or, in person, on one of the nearby beaches. Either way it is also a very moving experience.


Friday Night Poetry

As I was walking by my bookshelf the other day, I noticed a book whose title looked interesting and whose author I may have heard of, but wasn’t sure.

I removed the book, read its title and turned at once to the inside back cover.

There I saw a set of numbers that I recognized as the pages where I had noted a passage or two.

But lo and behold, I had no recollection of the book, its author, story, or the slightest thing about it.

And then I recalled a poem by Billy Collins, an author I know, about an experience that is equally familiar to me.

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

See Collins live performance at a recent TED conference:


Schmidt Steps Back

No such thing as graceful old age. F. Scott Fitzgerald

There are novels that you want to write about and then there are others that leave you mute. While I finished Schmidt Steps Back, Louis Begley’s latest tale in his the sad saga of Albert Schmidt, it did little to stir my vocabulary.

But Schmidt bears a certainly similarity to me. We are both relics, relics from ancient times, ancient ways, and ancient ways of ruminating. Schmidt is now a widower, lives on the beach in the Hamptons, but is no longer the lover of the wild, 20 year old Puerto Rican waitress, Carrie, and no longer employed at his high-class legal firm either. What is he do with his life?

“I am a lonely old man I need to think I can make myself useful.”

He does this by becoming the director of the ultra, ultra billionaire Mike Mansour’s foundation that has established a series of Life Centers in European capitals to promote democracy. This takes Schmidt to Europe, almost weekly it seems, where along with promoting democracy, he has a cascade of affairs, and finally a serious lover who works for a publishing company in Paris. At this point the novel picks up a little steam. There’s nothing like a love affair in Paris, is there?

Mr. Mike Mansour is, quite frankly, even more interesting than Mr. Albert Schmidt. Mansour, an Egyptian Jew, is among the 1 percent of the 1 percenters. How he made his percents is never mentioned. But he is loaded.

Need a private plane to take you to Europe, a five star hotel in which to stay, an apartment should you wish to stay longer, for reasons that have nothing to do with democracy, meals at Michelin 5 rose restaurants, a town car, you name it? Pas de probleme.

As usual, in these tales, the strained relationship Schmidt has with his daughter, Charlotte, gives the novel a much-needed zing. At times she displays a cruel and malicious streak. Most of the time she ignores him. Schmidt counsels, “All I can say is that, as a general rule, it is more likely than not that something will go serious wrong between a parent and child. It’s such a fraught relationship.”

He does his best to love her, forgive her, regardless of her rejections and he is always on the ready to help her, probably too much on the ready. Later Charlotte falls into a deep and prolonged depression, requiring care and treatment in a psychiatric hospital all of whose costs Schmidt gladly pays. Sadly, their relationship never has a chance to end peacefully.

Most of the final sections of Schmidt Steps Back depict the on again, off again relationship with Alice, the irresistible Alice in Paris. We learn in great detail about their almost daily sexual encounters. You’d think for a man of 78, his adolescent passions would diminish a bit. But no, not for Schmidt for whom these experiences seem to be far more important than “being useful.”

At the end, there is some consolation for Schmidt other than merely staying alive. However, I am sorry to report this did little to enrich my pleasure in reading about his past reversals and current tragedies. Pas de probleme. I turn at once to The Missing Shade of Blue by Jennie Erdal, a novel that from page one onward is a philosophical tour-de-force.


The Facebook Era

These days, social media continually asks us what’s “on our mind,” but we have little motivation to say something truly self-reflective. Self-reflection in conversation requires trust. It’s hard to do anything with 3,000 Facebook friends except connect. Sherry Turkle

It was the week of the big Facebook IPO fizzle. It was also the week I read a review of Facebook research recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, (Vol 7, 203-220). Even erudite scientific journals are not immune from the Facebook Effect.

The authors summarize the results of 412 studies from a variety of peer-reviewed journals. They report that Facebook now has over 845,000,000 (that’s 845 million) users from countries throughout the world. In fact, 80% of the users (Facebookers?) live outside this country. While I am aware of the popularity of Facebook (who could not be?) I didn’t realize it passed Google in 2010 to become the most visited website in the US.

The authors ask us to assume the activity of all these people on Facebook has some degree of generality to social behavior in other situations. They also ask us to assume the information shown in a user’s Profile is accurate, in other words, truthful. I am not sure about either of these assumptions.

The average user is reported to have 130 friends but the distribution on this measure is highly skewed, such that 20% had fewer than 25 friends, 50% had over 100 friends (Do you have over actual 100 friends?) and a small number had over 5,000—the maximum number allowed. I was intrigued to learn that 92% of the users were connected by only four degrees of separation from other users.

The question posed by the authors that interested me most was “Why do people use Facebook?” It sure beats me.

The most common reason cited in the research is the “users desire to keep in touch with friends.” This isn’t much of a bombshell, is it? Surely we knew how to do this before Facebook arrived on the scene. The researchers distinguish between strong ties—actively communicating with a small group of friends—and weak ties—more passive following the news of other “friends.”

A small number of studies suggest that loneliness may motivate some users, although the research here is equivocal. Others mention they become Facebookers to relive boredom, a motivation that seems more plausible to me, in the sense that it becomes a diversion, a time out, or a break from working on an effortful task.

The authors wonder if Facebook profiles are accurate. I don’t know how they expect to ever arrive at clear answer to this question without actually interviewing the profiler in person. In my case, to be sure only one, my profile was written in jest and while I am a pretty bookish guy, I do not look like the photo on my page. Anyone who knows me would realize in flash that I was only being playful about other matters, as well.

A great many commentators have worried about how Facebook affects a user’s personal relationships and especially for young persons, to what extent it interferes with their education. In the absence of research, the authors address none of these questions. Here we must fall back on the many published speculations and the accounts of individuals we know.

Does Facebook represent a positive contribution to society? The answer to this simple question is also beyond the scope of the report, probably beyond the scope of any systematic research. To answer this question, we might wish to imagine how our life would be different if there never was a Facebook in the first place. Would other forms online exchange fill up the void? Or what did we do before Facebook? Can we get along now without it?

In discussing the impact of Facebook on modern life, the authors suggest it played a major role in facilitating the Egyptian uprising that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. They claim that during the two weeks before Mubarak’s resignation, with five million users in Egypt, “over 32,000 new groups and 14,000 new pages were created on Facebook in Egypt.”

We have heard similar reports about other protest movements in the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Movement in this country. Again we must ask ourselves if these movements would have occurred in the absence of Facebook. To answer this question all we need to do is look to history for examples of protests and revolutions long before the Facebook Era.

At the end of his article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” in this month’s Atlantic, Stephene Marche concludes: “What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation—is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity.”


On Friendship

And why had he never had a friend, as Jorge O’Kelly had been for Prado--A friend with whom he could have talked about things like loyalty and love, and about death? Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon

I’ve had only a few friends in my life. I did have a friend in junior high school, but we were too young then to talk about love and death. I had another friend in high school who I enjoyed talking with at lunch. But all we ever talked about were the classes we were taking and I never saw him again after we graduated

In college I didn’t really have any close friends, even though you started to hear talk of love and death then. In graduate school I did have a close friend and we must have talked a lot about love and death, as we spent one summer reading Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet.

He was about the closest friend I ever had. We snuck away from classes once in a while to go to the horse races. One year we staged a Kentucky Derby Party, mint juleps, fancy hats, and a genuine betting table. It was one of those all-time-best-ever parties.

He and his wife became our bridge friends and we often had dinner together at home or in the City. But we lost contact after graduate school and then one day I learned he had taken his life. He felt thoroughly out of place in psychology and was fighting chaos that I never heard much about.

After that, there have been no close friends in my life. Never again did we play bridge or have regular dinner companions. The closest person in my life has always been my wife and we talk almost daily about love and death. But I’ve never considered her a friend, as she is something in a higher realm altogether.

Like Gregorious in Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon, lately I’ve begun to wonder why I’ve never really had any close friends, at least for any length of time. Gregorious never answers that question, never even tries. And for me it also remains a puzzle.

In The Spinoza Problem Irvin Yalom writes of Spinoza, Ah, friendship! So this is the glue that holds people together—this warmth, this loneliness-dispelling state of mind. Doubting so much, fearing so much, revealing so little, he had sampled friendship far too rarely in his life.

Later, Spinoza replies, Though I desire and insist upon a solitary life to pursue my meditations, I can sense another part of me longing for intimacy.

For those of us of this disposition, we often turn to books for our friends. We are under no delusions about them, but for a while we become true companions, often far less troublesome than our real friends. Anthony Burgess wrote, “I am convinced that many novel-readers go to a book not merely for the story but for the companionship of the teller of the story—they want a friend with a somewhat greater knowledge of the world than themselves, one who knows the clubs, a good cigar, Tangier and Singapore, who has perhaps dallied with strange women and read odd books, but remains friendly, smiling, tolerant but indignant when the reader would be indignant, always approachable and always without side.”

I find my fictional friends generally far more perceptive with richer bank of ideas than those I encounter off the page. But while I talk with them, they rarely reply or if they do, it is with a voice that leaves open the question of what they might have said if they could jump off the page and land on the empty chair beside me.

In Three Dollars Elliot Perlman wrote: If you have ever loved your parents, if you have ever been able to talk with them, then all you really want from life is someone you can talk to when your parents die.

Isn’t what that what a friend is for, someone who you can talk to, who listens to what you say, and to whom you might say things you’d never tell anyone else? It would be even better if a response were made. But is that really necessary? Perhaps someone who is simply there, a silent companion is all that matters.


Pop Quiz

1. What contains 100% recyclable materials?

2. Runs without a battery?

3. Can be used on take off and landing?

4. Can fall and not break?

5. Doesn’t require an Internet connection?

6. Opens quickly?

7. Is compatible for sun and sand?

8. Will never crash?

Times up. If you guessed a book, you may go to the head of the class.

The quiz owes its origin to the Paperback Exchange, an inviting bookstore in Florence, Italy. The questions appeared in an advertisement, The Ultimate Reading Device, the bookstore placed in Florence’s English Language newspaper.

The store is located on a typical narrow street near the center of Florence. Let’s go inside.

Places to read abound.
About once a week there is a reading, lecture, or recital.

There is one other English Language bookstore in Florence. Be ready for the next pop quiz. Hint: recently, it was almost forced to close.


Question Asking

To ask a question of another person is normally considered a fairly neutral, everyday activity. The inquirer seeks to obtain information or learn about something. Unless you are trying to be dubious, sarcastic, or playful, you don’t intend to embarrass or cast doubt on the person’s answer. That is, if you are not one of the current justices of the Supreme Court.

After the Court heard arguments on the constitutionally of the new Health Care Law, the Times carried out an analysis of the questions asked by each of the justices. Consider the central issue the Court will be asked to rule on: Is the individual health mandate constitutional?

To the lawyer arguing Yes, the liberal judges, Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan & Sotomayor, asked far fewer questions (1,1,3 4, respectively) than the conservative judges, Kennedy, Roberts, Alioto & Scalia--Thomas, as usual asked no questions (6, 5, 9, 12, respectively.)

The liberal-conservative relationship for the number of questions asked to the lawyer arguing No was precisely the opposite, with the liberal judges asking far more questions than the conservatives.

The article reports that Chief Justice Roberts once wrote, “…the secret to successful advocacy is simply to get the Court to ask your opponent more questions.” He based this claim on a study of 10 Supreme Court cases by a second year law student, Sarah Levien Schullman who reported, “the party that gets the most questions is likely to lose.”

Roberts confirmed her results by expanding his own study to 30 cases and similarly found that the “most-asked-question-rule” predicted the loser 86% of the time. A much larger study of 200,000 cases also reported the same outcome. The lead author wrote, “The more attention justices pay to a side, the more likely that side is to lose.”

If these findings are a reliable predictor of the Court’s judgments in general and on this case in particular, the Court is likely to rule the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional sometime next month.

This prediction is also supported by the fact that Anthony Kennedy, the so-called “swing justice” asked more questions (6) to the attorney arguing for the constitutionality of the law than the one challenging it (3).

It is obvious that nothing we say or do is free from the biases inherent in the effects of previous experiences or the inferential errors that cloud our judgments. At the same time one might expect that the members of the highest court of the land to be fully aware of these biases and take pains to minimize their influence.

In light of the large differences revealed in the research on judicial decision-making among Supreme Court justices, there isn’t much evidence for their claim of bias free questioning.


The Deep Blue Sea

London 1950. Wartime rubble still litters the streets. We see this through the brown and hazy London fog. It rains, is cold, and always seems to be night.

He sees her on a lounge chair. He stares at her. She sends a slight smile his way. He steps up to her and proclaims she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.

And so it begins. She is married to a distinguished judge, much her senior. Too much her senior, in fact, for marital relations. He was an RAF pilot who is still living through those days. While jolly in that stereotyped British way, he seems without purpose or skill, other than as a pilot.

The story has often been told. The outcome is equally familiar. But there is no stopping its retelling--especially with Samuel Barber’s somber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in the background.

The story takes place on a single day, months after she left her husband for the young pilot. She remembers it all in random flashbacks, after she had been saved from an attempted suicide.

There is nothing left to her life now. Her husband has divorced her, the pilot has moved on, and the rain still falls on the lonely streets of London. Meanwhile, wartime songs continue to be sung in the smoke filled pubs. “I’ll be seeing you in all the old, familiar places.”

The film is “The Deep Blue Sea,” adapted by Terence Davies from a play by Terence Rattigan. The woman is Rachel Weisz, the man, Freddie, is Tom Hiddleston. It is a film to be seen on a cold and rainy day in a town of similar conditions, like the one I find myself in now.

It will not cheer you up or help you resolve the conflict between reason and emotion. But it is a romantic tale that no matter how often and in what manner it is told is as much a part of life as anything else.

There is a scene in this film I’ll never forget. It is a long tracking shot in an Underground Tube station during a German air raid. The camera moves along the tracks focused on the barely visible groups of people huddled together in heavy coats, hats, and gloves, some singing, others playing cards, some standing alone, further and further along the tracks, as the bombs fall on the city above.

The story of Hester and Freddie reminded me of Robert Lowell’s poem Epilogue whose last lines are:

All's misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.


The Spinoza Problem

“Gods decrees and commands and consequently God’s providence, are in truth, nothing but Nature’s order.”

Alfred Rosenberg was a Nazi anti-Semite, a pretentious, sometimes crony of Hitler who wrote one of the central doctrines advocating the annihilation of European Jews. Baruch Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish scholar who is recognized to be an early forerunner of contemporary philosophy.

Irvin Yalom explores the connection between these two widely separated individuals in his latest novel, The Spinoza Problem. Reading Yalom’s psychiatric tour-de-force is like listening to two alternating sessions between Yalom, the therapist, and Rosenberg and Spinoza, his two clients. Similarly, the chapters in this narrative alternate between centuries, between a thinker and a madman.

Like Yalom’s previous novels, The Spinoza Problem, also weaves together clinical practice with philosophical insight. A German psychiatrist who was a friend of Rosenberg remarks, “One of the things I love about psychiatry is that, unlike any other fiend of medicine, it veers close to philosophy.” Yalom is a master of linking these two disciplines.

As a young student Alfred Rosenberg could never understand why the great German writer Wolfgang Goethe, who always had a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics with him, could have admired a Jew. Rosenberg remarks, “What a paradox. A Jew both courageous and wise! Spinoza has soul wisdom—he must have non-Jewish blood in him.”

Before I read this novel, I had only a vague acquaintance with Spinoza’s life and work. But afterwards, I knew a very great deal. Moreover, I wanted to know more, bought a book about him, read widely on the web, pondered the relevancy of his “truths.” “We have always been enslaved by love…reason is no match for passion…I must learn to turn reason into a passion.” Isn’t this one of the great delights of reading a novel like this?

While I was far more familiar with the Nazi Germany of Alfred Rosenberg, I didn’t know he wrote a influential diatribe against the Jewish people, The Myth of the Twentieth Century. Because of his obsession with Spinoza, he led the raid on the Spinoza Library in Rijnsburg, a small town outside Amsterdam, and removed all the books that were kept mthere. At Nuremberg, Rosenberg was tried and convicted of war crimes and executed on the gallows.

The great tragedy of Spinoza’s life was his excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam at the age of 24. This meant he was barred from Jewish his synagogue, his friends and family members (brother and sister) were forbidden to speak with him, and all his writings and books were formally banned for the rest of his life.

His days were largely spent writing and reading in solitude. “Though I desire and insist upon a solitary life to purse my meditations, I can sense another part of me for longing for intimacy.” Spinoza died at the age of 44 having supported himself as a lens grinder and private tutor. It was not until much later that the importance of his work was fully appreciated.

In the Prologue to The Spinoza Problem, Yalom writes that he always wanted to write about Spinoza, “…so alone in the world—without a family without a community—who authored books that truly changed the world. He anticipated secularization, the liberal democratic state and the rise of natural science and he paved the way for the Enlightenment."

Yalom speaks briefly about his novel here:


Nimble Neurons

I go to the gym every day. Previously, I went for a long run. The bones do weary. So now it is the gym. It is also warmer.

I started to exercise in the early 80s, wasn’t sleeping well, too much work. Running was said to improve sleep. At first, I could barely run around the block. Eventually, I ran for miles, in the rain and snow. It was hard sometimes to get out the door. But I always felt better when I did. Who does not want to feel better? For a while it became a bit of an addiction, a positive one, I told myself.

I also accomplished something. Maybe that was it. But I was also fitter, sleeker, in a better mood. It was the beginning of the great running boom, the days of Billy Rogers and Frank Shorter and much talk about the benefits of aerobics.

Later Alberto Salazar became of the great marathon runners. I admired his remarkable ability to ignore pain. When he visited Portland, he used to run up in the hills where I lived then. What a beautiful run as it curved around the crest of the hill! I can still recall every rut in the road, every change of temperature, every easy and tough grade. One day he was out running when I was. I saw him in the distance. I ran faster and faster. Eventually, I reached him. And passed him! We were going in opposite directions.

When I began running, I wasn’t trying to live longer, loose weight, improve my cardiovascular function, avoid the dread disease of old age, or increase my brain volume. Since then each of these effects has been well documented.

Gretchen Reynolds reviews some of this research in a recent article in the Times. She calls exercise “the relationship.” She begins with a study of four groups of mice that were placed in distinct living situations:

1. An enriched environment with toys, abundant food, colorful visual stimuli
2. The same enriched environment plus a set of running wheels in their cage
3. The standard mouse environment—no extra stimulation or running wheels
4. Running wheels alone in the standard mouse environment

Both before and after they were placed in these environments for “several months,” the mice were given a series of “cognitive tests.” The only groups that improved were the two with access to running wheels; the enriched stimulation by itself had no effect on the test performance. Physical activity also led to “healthier brains.”

Do comparable results occur for human exercisers? Two recent studies confirm the animal findings. Both examined the normal loss of brain tissue as a person ages. In one this loss was significantly less in a group of 55 and older individuals with superior cardiovascular function. The authors attributed this outcome to exercise, although they did not have an independent measure of it.

The second study directly measured activity in a group of 60-79 aged individuals who were randomly assigned to an aerobic training group. This consisted of three 1-hour exercise sessions per week for a 6-month period. The nonaerobic group participated in a series of stretching and “toning” sessions during the same 6-month period.

Brain volume increased significantly for the older adults who participated in the aerobic fitness training sessions but not for those who were in the nonaerobic group. Again, physical activity appeared to benefit your brain, as well as your heart. What is true for the mouse is true for the man.

Exercise seems to be good for our smarts and our neurons. So throw away those crossword and Sudoku puzzles and go for a swim, walk, bike ride, or run. You’ll be healthier, feel better, loose some weight, and power-up your brain.

Stanley Colcombe et. al. Aerobic fitness reduces brain tissue loss in aging humans. Journal of Gerontology, 2003, 176-180.

Stanley Colcombe et. al. Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. Journal of Gerontology, 2006, 1166-1170


The Brain Lights Up

Let’s talk about the brain. Not a day goes by when I don’t read about another study demonstrating a relationship between a particular area in the brain and an attitude, feeling, or behavior.

Imagine, for example, you are reading a really enjoyable novel. At the same time a neuroscientist is measuring the activity of various areas of your brain. A certain area lights up, other areas don’t. What exactly do we know when that happens?

Why is there so much talk about this kind of research, especially in the media with the research labs not far behind? In a recent article in the Times, “Your Brain on Fiction,” Anne Murphy Paul wrote,

“Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.”

Change how we act in life? Really? That is a powerful claim. Is the activity in that area of the brain changing us? Or is the “detailed description” having that effect? Would our life be similarly changed if another area of the brain lit up when we read the text?

Are we not going well beyond the data in making inferences like this about the role of brain mechanisms and conscious processes, let alone changes in behavior?

I confess that I am not much enamored of the growing body of research in this area. I also admit I do not fully understand all of it. Still I know enough to realize no one has yet demonstrated a causal relationship between activity in a certain brain area and a particular idea, thought, or feeling.

Indeed, we know more than one area of the brain is activated by a specific experience. We also know the process whereby brain activity might generate a particular conscious experience or behavioral change is still a very great mystery.

It is reasonable to believe, as Kenneth Oatley and Raymond Mar have claimed, that those “who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” But is that because empathic individuals enjoy reading more than those who lack this very important characteristic or because reading fiction is the source of their empathy?

We also know that a great many individuals who do not read fiction have a very strong sense of empathy. Again, like any other behavior, attitude or sentiment, we are faced with the almost impossible task of untangling its roots.

In Psychology’s Ghosts, Jerome Kagan reminds us of this fundamental truth. If we discover an area of the brain that “light’s up” each time we read a book that arouses our sympathy for another person(s), the assumption is that this evidence demonstrates a relationship between the two. But what has been demonstrated? Kagan writes,

"An adolescent's feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic cannot be translated into words or phrases that name only the properties of genes, proteins, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits without losing a substantial amount of meaning.”

And by “meaning” Kagan is referring to the multiple effects of culture, class, prior experience, etc., factors that all too often are discounted by the prevailing belief in the primary importance of brain mechanisms in governing behavior.