Heidi Tan from the Charlie Rose show sent me an announcement about a recent broadcast because we had previously posted on discussions of the brain on Rose’s show (Find part one of that series here on YouTube or, better yet, go to the Charlie Rose website for the whole series of [currently] four episodes). Last night’s episode, ‘The Social Brain,’ included discussion with panelists Cornelia Bargmann of Rockefeller University, Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma (Italy), Gerald Fischbach of the Simons Foundation, Kevin Pelphrey of Yale University and co-host Eric Kandel of Columbia University. The group discusses social interaction, mirror neurons, autism, aggression, learning and the need for greater research on the ‘social brain.’
“Although many aspects of social behavior are learned, one of the striking things we’re going to hear about is that some aspects of social behavior are determined by individual genes that have profound effects on how we act, whether we bond together as individuals, degrees of aggression, and other things.” (Eric Kandel, Nobel Laureate, Columbia University)
If you missed last night’s episode catch it again tonight on Bloomberg Television® at 8PM and 10PM ET, or listen to the interview simulcast on Bloomberg Radio. Bloomberg Radio is broadcast on 1130AM in the New York Metropolitan area and is available on XM and Sirius. There’s also a version online, but because my Internet connection is so slow right now, I can’t really watch it: go to http://www.charlierose.com/ if you want to check it out.
Cornelia Bargmann is the Torsten N. Wiesel Professor, head of the Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior at Rockefeller University, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a behavioural geneticist who works on Caenorhabditis elegans, little tiny bacteria-eating worms. You can you can read more about Bargmann at The Scientist or see her 2005 biography at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA).
Giacomo Rizzolatti, originally from Kiev, is Professor of Physiology and Head of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Parma (his biography at Parma also has links to some of his recent publications). He’s famous for the discovery of mirror neurons in macaques, and has a slew of honours and recognition for his ground-breaking work.
Gerald Fischbach is Scientific Director of the Simons Foundation Autism Project, and former Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine at Columbia University, former Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the N.I.H., and past-President of the Society of Neuroscience.
Kevin Pelphrey is Harris Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University, and uses neuroimaging to study child development, especially social cognition and emotional regulation, in both normal and autistic spectrum children.
Eric Kandel is founding Director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia and the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine recipient for his research on the neurology of memory storage. He’s done research on a range of topics, from the neuroanatomy of the primitive sea slug Aplysia to the role of the hippocampus in memory formation.
Here’s Kandel’s autobiography from the Nobel Prize website; it’s a great read, not just for science, but also for the sheer drama of Kandel’s extraordinary life story:
There’s also a nice interview, Speaking of Memory: Q&A with Neuroscientist Eric Kandel, on the Scientific American website where he specifically talks about the sciences and humanities cooperating:
On the Charlie Rose website, they list the future episodes as:
February 23: The Developing Brain
March 23: The Aging Brain
April 20: The Emotional and Vulnerable
May 25: The Anxious Brain
June 22: The Mentally Ill Brain
July 20: The Disordered Brain
September 28: The Deciding Brain
October: The Artistic Brain
November: The New Science of the Mind
I’m sure that these dates might get pre-empted for other things, but at least it’s great to have a sense of the whole series, and to see serious researchers getting a chance to talk about new findings in the brain sciences.
In general, the discussion is interesting and wide ranging (I’m taking this from the transcript), but not overly deep as you’d expect. I like the show, but blogging is not terribly well served just by saying that you agree with something, so I’m going to focus a little on a few minor issues with what’s going on. In particular, I want to talk about one exchange that occurs towards the end of the transcript.
Specifically, I want to highlight a rather lengthy exchange on ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in humans. Bear with this – I’m going to intermingle my own commentary with the transcript a little, but I want to capture the slow shift in the subject.
CORNELIA BARGMANN: So it’s really, it’s thinking about this — you know, human aggression is much more complicated than animal aggression, again. But you have to recognize when you’re working with biology and when you’re working against it. And there are situations where aggression is going to be much more common than others.
Since aggression is designed around a limiting resource, when resources are limited, there’s going to be more fights. There’s going to be more conflict, and that’s just going to be a basic rule no matter where you are.
Another thing we’ve learned from animal studies is how greatly aggressive behaviors are modified by stress. So your brain under stress is a completely different brain.
CHARLIE ROSE: More likely to be aggressive?
CORNELIA BARGMANN: Much more likely to be aggressive, much less likely to sort of remember properly what your place in the hierarchy is, and much more likely to lead to conflicts in the future.
So these kinds of understandings of biology can help you to evaluate what the causes of aggressive behavior might be and how you can go about creating situations where those are more or less likely to occur.
Okay, let’s pause for just a moment. Bargmann is, of course, correct in everything she’s saying here, but the way it’s getting put together is interesting, and perhaps a bit misleading.
First, she states that human aggression is really complicated, but then goes on to say that you ‘you have to recognize when you’re working with biology and when you’re working against it.’ The implication is that there is this ‘biology’ which has a pattern to it, and you can only work ‘against biology’ if you like to waste your time. My point would be that the simple assertion that there is ‘biology’ that you’re either working with or against conceals a terribly complicated process with highly variable outcome, emergent properties, and psychological effects like desensitization which mean that there’s no single ‘biology’ to work with or against.
She brings up the case of stress, and it’s a great example of exactly this sort of process, how people habituate to certain levels of stress, how the nervous system recalibrates itself after trauma, and how there’s no single biology to be working with or against. I KNOW that Bargmann gets this, she even brings up the wholesale changes brought about by stress, and I sympathise with her attempt to push back against those forms of psychology that are ignorant completely of biology, but the problem is that what she goes on to describe is not just ‘biology’ at all.
The stress-related difficulties in remembering hierarchy are precisely bio-social-behavioural, only understandable if you take an integrative approach. For example, some of the confrontations that are causing the stress are not just fighting, they are competitive social displays – threat behaviours – that themselves need to be learned and understood as well as experienced in social interaction to have their effects.
So I agree with Bargmann completely that understanding the ‘biology’ is crucial, but it’s just as crucial to understand the social interaction and communicative dimensions of the stressors. And just as likely that the ameliorative therapy, especially in humans, is going to involve social and cognitive dimensions, such as learning to interpret ‘threatening’ stimuli in a new context. We’ve got a language problem, and this is precisely why I think we need to work hard to put in place new frameworks for talking about neuroanthropology that don’t just try to drag in the old terminology, but hope it will have no detrimental effect on the conversation; we need new skins for new wine. But so far, I’m still on board with the discussion, still happy, still following along, ‘yeah… yeah… okay…’
CHARLIE ROSE: And at some point you get into the very controversial area and what people will suggest that the reason for some aggressive behavior or some obscene behavior had something to do with biology rather than — and that’s where the morality and ethics and science — am I right or wrong?
ERIC KANDEL: Absolutely.
Hmmmm… not sure that I follow this. Either Charlie is suggesting that it’s human nature to commit certain aggressive or ‘obscene’ behaviour, or he’s arguing that it’s some particular individuals’ ‘biology’ that causes them to commit these behaviours. I can at least agree that this is ‘controversial’ and that it involves ‘morality and ethics and science’ – that’s for damn sure. So when I read this in the transcript, my eyebrows are starting to climb up. Just where are we going here?
CORNELIA BARGMANN: But humans are complicated. We start from children, we learn throughout our lives what the right way is to act within our environment. We’re educated for many years until we encounter each other.
And we learn that the football field is an acceptable place to give aggression under well-defined circumstances with protective headgear. And we learn other situations are incorrect situations in which to display them.
GIACOMO RIZZOLATTI: I don’t deny the aggression and everything you said about it in biology. But I think we are born to be good, as a matter of.
CHARLIE ROSE: That’s the point I wanted to get to.
Okay, now I’m really screwing up my brow and wondering how we get here. I actually think Bargmann’s point is pretty important, especially for understanding groups of people who engage in levels of aggression that might make the observer uncomfortable. We need to understand internal definitions and standards of violence, thresholds, social protections against excessive violence – otherwise we wind up with the unproductive assumption that violence always begets greater violence, which is not empirically sound nor is it terribly useful as a suggestion, as it means we point at well-regulated contact sports and assume that they lead to assault, sexual violence, and other unacceptable interpersonal violence.
Born to be good?
But what really gets me to start questioning what’s going on is Rizzolatti’s assumption that we are ‘born to be good.’ Look, I’m as optimistic and sunny-side-of-the-street as anyone, but ‘born to be good’? In what sense is that empirically founded and what planet do you have to live on for this statement not to seem patently absurd?
GIACOMO RIZZOLATTI: I think we are born to be good, because, for example, when we see somebody in pain, we have exactly the same feeling as if we had been in pain ourselves. In other words, we have a mechanism which elicits the same reaction when we are in pain or disgusted because of nature or when we see somebody else in the same condition.
So seeing him in pain is as if I was in pain. So we have this link between emotion, mine and the others, which practically means it’s necessary that the other are happy. When the other are happy, I’m happy. If he is happy I’m happy. So that’s the kind of nature of biological link that we’re born with.
Then of course during life there are many conditions in which this could not be. We can be trained to become not good. But I think we have been born not like (inaudible) — we are born to be good. And then there’s the society and stress and all the difficulty which Cory mentioned which make us to be bad.
Okay, wait, wait, wait…. Is Rizzolatti saying that, when I see somebody with burns, it’s like I’m burning, too? No, he can’t be saying that; that’s absurd. He’s seen an injured person and not become incapacitated, right? He might even have considered the possibility that someone could observe neutrally another person in pain, or even take some sort of pleasure in it. I can’t have read that right. Let me reread that….
‘…when we see somebody in pain, we have exactly the same feeling as if we had been in pain ourselves…’ ‘So seeing him in pain is as if I was in pain…’ ‘…link between emotions…’ ‘…practically means it’s necessary that the other are happy…’ ‘…society and stress and all the difficulty which Cory mentioned which make us to be bad…’ …yup. He said it.
Ho boy. Where do I go with this? Has he ever watched a very small child do something cruel to another child, or to the family dog? Maybe it was society that trained them to do cruel things to the family pet at an early age? Seriously, he’s been around children, right? And he still thinks that human beings are innately good, empathetic and incapable of observing neutrally someone else in pain?
Look, we all know that this is not an either/or situation. In fact, crying children do provoke other children to cry, but we don’t know that it’s because the sleepy child innately causes other children to feel their pain. Likewise, we have all seen situations where children demonstrate enormous sympathy; but we’ve also likely seen them demonstrate extraordinary callousness, not just because society has warped and twisted their innately good mirror neuron-filled souls… errr, brains.
I’m one of those people who think that mirror neurons are very interesting, but I’m not persuaded of the innatist argument that Rizzolatti is putting forward here, that the presence of mirror properties in a mature brain necessarily means that those mirror properties are a) present in infants, b) determined entirely by genes and internal determination, and c) even necessarily a trait of all humans (see the discussion of autism, for example, which might be either a syndrome that includes unusual development of mirror neurons or – more likely, in my opinion – another developmental property that either snuffs out mirror properties by denying reinforcement or impedes the formation of mirror properties, or both).
So I think Giacomo is out on a bit of a limb here. He’s assuming a lot about the neurogenesis of mirror neurons, their functioning, that they are not checked by other neuronal systems that are less innately ‘good,’ that sympathy leads to ‘good’ behaviour rather than being a way that we can anticipate other people’s activities and motives in order to manipulate or counter them. But then things sort of get scrambled into a heap as the discussion moves along…
ERIC KANDEL: Giacomo makes a very good point. Reinhold Niebuhr, the great protestant theologian, once said “The capability of people for good makes democracy desirable. The capability for evil makes democracy necessary.”
CHARLIE ROSE: Right.
GIACOMO RIZZOLATTI: That is a very good point.
ERIC KANDEL: Social custom often determines how we behave. The capabilities for good may in fact be the predominant built-in mode, but we can be corrupted.
Alright, alright, wait a minute. Let me get this right: because our brains have mirror properties, our brains determine that we are innately good but capable of evil, so therefore democracy is both desirable and necessary? Apparently the presence of mirror neurons also does not impede dexterity in mental leaping.
And I’m not even going to try to draw together tightly the Rizzolatti mirror neurons to Reinhold Niebuhr Protestant theology to social determination model that Kandel deftly sketches out in the space of about twenty seconds or less. I just can’t keep up.
The bottom line is that, well, it’s f****** hard to get from neurological properties to normative political philosophy, and you can look like a pretty big goofball, even if you’re very smart, if you just swing for the fences. You can try – the presence of a limbic system, sometimes called the ‘reptilian brain,’ means we’re really lizards deep down; Jim Morrison was the ‘Lizard King’; therefore, our natural government as humans is musiocracy with a single messianic rocker to lead us.
I’m being facetious, but the point is quite simple. No single brain system characterizes human character completely, and no matter how compelling the neuroimaging data, it cannot logically tell us that human character is ‘naturally’ anything other than the variety that we see. If someone tries to use brain scans to tell us that humans are other than they appear, they are arguing upstream. And more than this, even if we do get an accurate picture of human neurological character, that still does not necessitate any particular political system as being both more desirable and necessary than any other. The simple range and variety of political systems over the last 14,000 years or so, since humans started to form groups larger than foraging bands, suggests that human nature is compatible with a wide spectrum of political systems, for better or worse.
Concluding on a bizarre note
In general, I thought that the discussion was pretty good, although the use of some terms that seem to line up according to old models of nature vs. nurture – talking about the ‘genetic’ components of disorders against their ‘developmental’ dimensions, for example – makes it hard for some of the points not to seem ambivalent. That is, sometimes one of the commentators will say that he or she wants people to understand the biological dimensions of a disorder or issue (presumably because they are arguing against a perspective that says these disorders are purely autobiographical or rooted in a non-biological ‘mind’), but then the same person will flip around and say that plasticity or development or experience is crucial (presumably to counteract either genetic determinism or pessimism about these disorders as inevitable). It gets pretty confusing, as the language seems to imply one perspective on causation or the other, and the reality is that contributing factors arise from multiple causes.
But there’s lots of nice points; I especially liked how Gerald Fischbach highlighted similarities – not just differences – between behaviours of children with autism spectrum disorders and ‘normal’ kids, how certain kinds of insistence, resistance to change, and body movements are considered normal, and the extreme version is a modification of the pattern, not something entirely out of the ordinary.
The discussion does get a bit garbled, however, when Fischbach introduces twin data. In twin studies, there’s almost always the assumption that any difference between twins and normal siblings (or between identical and fraternal twins) must necessarily be genetic, but the reality may be more complex. For example, both twins may possess an identical gene that still doesn’t cause a disorder unless it interacts with something in the environment. In the case of autism, the assumption that it is genetic comes up against some quite difficult-to-explain trends, such as the increasing prevalence of the disorder. Even the genetic contributor that gets cited — de novo copy number variants — is not exactly inherited genetic trait, but often an effect of the aging of the individual on sperm and eggs. So, even though it’s in the DNA, it’s as developmental as it is inherited.
But the real strangeness comes at the very end, when the discussion returns to the idea that people are ‘born to be good,’ an idea which I clearly think is a bit problematic. At the end of the discussion, Rose asks each participant what she or he hopes the audience will take away from the episode.
Most of the responses are a bit ambivalent. Gerald Fischbach, for example, wants to emphasize ‘there’s an element of indeterminism here and of learning and plasticity and a great deal of hoping in learning the biological mechanisms, because the real hope is they will be able to be used to alter pathological states,’ but then goes on to say that genetics and biology ‘influence these important social, cognitive phenomena.’ Kevin Pelphrey wants to emphasize a ‘developmental perspective on all this’: ‘So the reason why autism is such a profoundly difficult thing to understand is development. We’re talking about a neuro-developmental disorder, and things are changing constantly, and you take all of that into account.’ Giacomo Rizzolatti wants to know the neural mechanisms underlying ‘theory of mind.’
But things really get going when Eric Kandel offers the following as his ‘take away’ point for the discussion:
ERIC KANDEL: I think there are two themes that struck me that have come out of this discussion. One is how important it is for biology for our understanding of using a number of different experimental approaches, including different organisms varying in complexity from worms to non-human primates to people. I think this is essential, this comparative approach that is critical to understanding behavior, number one.
Fantastic! Yes! Here, here! Multiple methods, comparative approach, non-human contrasts… all excellent. Oh, wait, he’s going to continue…
And number two, given the fact that we are born to do good, as Giacomo would have us believe, but we’re capable of evil — to understand better how one flips from one to the other, and to see a way where we can prevent this tribalism from becoming a dominant force. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had some biological insight into how to contain that?
Some ‘biological insight’ into how to ‘contain’ the flipping from good to evil, and a way to prevent ‘tribalism’ through biology? Hmmmm… where are you going with this? Can we identify the gene for potential for evil and give parents likely to have evil children counseling against it? Could we identify populations with potential for tribalism and be really, really nice to them, or have social mixers with other groups to stop the tribalism in its tracks?
Or by talking about ‘preventing’ tribalism from becoming a dominant force in the context of a biological discussion, could we possibly conceive of a biological intervention into the process, like slipping Happy Laughy juice, say some serotonin uptake inhibiter and a bit of liquid MDMA? Or perhaps anti-tribalism patches that deliver the ‘evil switch’ inhibiter drug at safe, low levels to those with a potential to make the switch…
Again, I’m being facetious, but the point is that biology doesn’t get you everything, and even if you understand the neurobiological dimensions of stress and aggression, and perhaps even the genetic roots of ‘evil’ (alright, maybe not), you still have to understand sociology, history, and even communications technology to understand ‘tribalism.’ The excitement of finding out stress processes in the brain, for example, doesn’t make obsolete research about workplace dynamics, holistic therapy, class-linked conflict, and other stressful facts. In fact, knowing the neurological dynamics may not help much at all to design effective therapies, which would instead be evidence based using tried and tested methods of discerning effective strategies.
On the other hand, Fischbach ends his comments on a really interesting note, pointing out, indirectly, the necessity of old fashioned psychology, psychiatry, social sciences and the like, even with the advent of advanced imaging techniques…
GERALD FISCHBACH: Yes. And so Charlie, I think this also a theme throughout every session of the program, that basic science has taught us a lot about human disorders or predicaments. But conversely, it’s the human predicament that has taught us enormously about science of the brain.
We talked about this in the very, very first show, and nowhere is that illustrated more profoundly than in autism and related developmental disorders. Autism runs the spectrum between normal behavior and the other end of the spectrum, really compromised, severely compromised individuals.
That was a nice note to end on, I felt, a generous gesture toward the wide breadth of effective research techniques for learning more about how the human brain functions. Though I may have my criticisms, I finished up reading with a very positive sense of the effort.
On the whole, I liked the program. It was great for a general audience but still seemed to have some intriguing ideas woven in and out, even for the specialist (well, except or the evil switch discussion). I would have liked to actually watch it, but I’m partially to blame for having used up our monthly allotment of high speed internet connection at home: I downloaded some free software to draft my conversion of our garage into my office…