The Social Brain: Discoveries and Shared Delights with Prof. Vidita Vaidya

“This is the thing that makes you write poetry, this is the reason you dream, the reason you might sometimes be aggressive and nasty.” In conversation with Mumbai based neurologist Vidita Vaidya on what brain cells under the microscope have in common with the artistic masterpieces of the Grand Masters, on how we’ve been hoodwinking ourselves since the age of ten, and on the role of science in the evolution of art.

From the graphic novel ‘Neurocomic’ by Dr. Hana Ros and Dr. Matteo Farinella.

We all seek happiness, and yet historically much of our folklore and literature is testament to the fact that nothing endures like unrequited love. For a race which seeks happiness with such undisguised frenzy, what is this fascination with tragedy?

Ha! You’re asking a nightmare-ish question! To answer part of it – if you think about what your brain is exposed to visually, auditorily, smell-wise – it’s a sensory storm. If you paid attention to every single thing, you wouldn’t be able to function. The way we filter what matters to us is through emotion, by highlighting the things we feel strongly and passionately about in both positive and negative ways. It’s only those things that the brain spends a fair bit of its energy on – remembering, learning, recalling, and then putting away in storage. In a sense, sadness is as important as happiness is, and individuals who can make us feel that low or that high will always be more important than random noise. In a sense, our brain is inherently programmed towards things that make us feel intensely. It is largely these that the brain registers. And pain is, I believe, a byproduct of intensity.

The French Cuban writer Anais Nin wrote that “something is always born of excess – great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them”. She connects emotional excess to creativity. Do you agree?

I believe that anything that makes one feel intensely is likely to result – I don’t know about creativity – in an obsession. For those who can express it through art, it comes out like that. For the rest, it could come out through rumination. There’s a reason why there is a higher preponderance of synesthetes – individuals who can perceive in more than one sensory state at a time – among both artists and individuals who suffer from bipolar disorder. That perhaps is indicative of the fact that artists feel, and are also expected to feel, more intensely than the average person.

Can this be traced in their neurochemistry?

Oh absolutely. The question now is whether there are more hidden synesthetes, say people who can smell something when looking at numbers, or who use the word “silky” when referring to a raga. Even a connoisseur of food may refer to food in a sensory space, when space is not even an automatic association! In the same way, artists are capable of pairing across multiple sensory systems perhaps much more easily than the average person. The caveat of the ability to feel intensely, however, is that if you feel a little too intensely you may move off the spectrum of what society defines as normal. People may exist on the fringes of synesthesis, perfectly functional, and there may be people who are not in that functional range. Perhaps the cost of giving it up and becoming utterly normal is losing the ability to feel intensely This one of the reasons many bipolar disorder patients refuse to take drugs; in the process of losing the erratic intensity of emotions, they lose the finer abilities to appreciate things more deeply.

There are a lot of circuits in the brain – touch and smell pathways for example – that are linked through hidden connections. These are different in every individual. In that sense there is so much here that is unexplored, but it is also very clear that fervency evokes in a way neutrality cannot possibly hope to.

Playing with the opposite end of the spectrum, can detachment – on the social and personal level, not psychiatric – be considered an anomaly? 

In terms of brain circuits, it is absolutely an anomaly. As social organisms, we were not wired to be detached. Our world is created around a social architecture and our brain has evolved the way it has largely as a result of increasingly complex social relationships. We need to remember individuals and our relationships with them, the history of positive and negative emotions. We create hierarchies and associations. In order to remember all this, we have had to make bigger brains, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to pull it off!

From the graphic novel 'Neurocomic' by Dr. Hana Ros and Dr. Matteo Farinella.
From the graphic novel ‘Neurocomic’ by Dr. Hana Ros and Dr. Matteo Farinella.

We speak of connections – and today, a technologically active generation feels hyper-connected, and yet harbours a sense of alienation. How does one explain that?

This is because we weren’t meant to communicate without the presence of an individual’s face. We are social organisms in a world where the tools have evolved faster than our brain! Our brain requires us to be able to pair a voice with a face with an emotion with how this person is feeling – but we don’t see faces as often, so how do we receive social feedback now? In the past, feedback would have included eye contact, a touch on the shoulder – all the intricate details that would help decide whether or not the said interaction was an alliance that would be reinforced. Our brain isn’t designed for these bizarre virtual universes with practically no feedback mechanism. We’re a little bit at sea right now and will stay that way till our systems evolve to equip themselves. But you know, we’ve always pushed boundaries – we wrote letters! Today, we have a bunch of people who think it is utterly normal to create close friendships without spending physical time with the person. This was unheard of in the past.

So how do you think the brain will evolve to quip itself with these social realities?

That we just can’t predict, because what we know about evolution comes from experiments which have either worked or failed. The timescales of evolution are very long. But there is no question that as the environment changes, individuals with different skill sets may find themselves more able to cope. What interests me is what this means to our ability as a species to reproduce. For us, reproduction has involved physical senses of vision and smell. We’re a visual species; if we find someone attractive, we look at them. Now imagine a scenario eliminating all those things, or one with a species which doesn’t appropriately know the art of courtship. The species overall probably would not suffer because of more traditional people and the current population being what it is. However, when we and our tribe are in very small numbers, we have to be able to colonise a space.

We always said that “Necessity is the mother of Invention” – and today we’re surrounded not only by necessities, but also superfluous luxuries. Do these demands we make of our environment show up similarly in the brain?

Brain circuits have evolved to make sure that we are motivated to seek things that make us feel good. This is essential, because without this brilliant bit of wiring we would never have eaten, and eventually starved. The same circuit that makes us eat also makes seek pleasure, be it sex or otherwise. This old, evolutionary circuit is beautifully engineered, and we share it with the broad vertebrate species. The downside is that it’s easy to hijack, say by drug abusers. Feedback from our society is what eventually makes us feel good about ourselves. Luxury items are, in a sense, exactly that. They cleverly tap into the idea that our brains are engineered to create structures which allow social acceptance. As an example let’s take a monkey community in which all of them have to, in order to belong, do something daft like washing mangoes before eating them. This activity in itself isn’t essential to the monkeys’ survival, but once they watch everybody doing it and recognise that the punishment for disobeying will be ostracism, it then becomes an act of survival!

Just speaking of physical essentials then, the very basics—

That’s what I’m saying though – social isolation is as traumatic almost as being starved. In fact, there are people who would prefer the latter, because it is a severe stress inducer in every social species. It’s true for rats, mice, monkeys, us – it may not sound as important, but it is.

Then speaking of material requirements like food and shelter and man’s inventiveness through history to procure these for their community – is it possible that the brain, faced with all our basic needs taken care of, could evolve to become less inventive?

 No, I think not. Of course, if stripped of everything, our brain will focus on those things that aid just basic survival. However, if we do have all basics, our brains don’t take a break, it merely works on other things. It’s exactly what we’ve seen over evolution and time with mankind – when there was enough agricultural activity, people turned to doing pottery and this and that because the basic grain and milk and meat requirement dealt with allowed for other preoccupations.

Plus we’re not factoring in cultural revolution. The brain isn’t just evolving biologically based on the genetic traits, but also environmentally being constantly educated. Culture is a massive regulator of evolution. Not everything is inherent and as a consequence the cultural perspective becomes important – and this is where the arts come in!

Speaking of which – what is the role of science in the evolution of art?

That’s an interesting question. Perhaps, at a very crude level, we could go back to the time of the Renaissance – the time when many people who were interested in the sciences were by definition also interested in artistically representing that scientific material. Michelangelo, Da Vinci – they were all anatomists in an era in which people clearly crossed between the two disciplines. In a broader, more philosophical sense, science an exploration of what is out there, and art is an exploration of what is out there as well. The same forces are probably driving both these creative pursuits. In the end, both are either attempting to look at the world or are a reaction to the world. In my eyes, they are absolutely intertwined. And this could be extended to technology as well – it is a byproduct of science, and it motivates more scientific questions.  And  the second we have more mediums to play with, they immediately get exploited for art, as they must.

How do the arts and the sciences come together in your life?

I find it impossible to be someone who works on the brain and not be fascinated by art, because neurons and the brain are some of the most beautiful things out there. It’s as if you’re standing in front of a Grand Master’s work of art. When you look at the architecture of the brain and see how it works – it is like witnessing the best performance art showcase imaginable! For me not to approach science as art would be uncharacteristic. You still get the “Oh, wow!” moment when peering through the microscope, no matter how many times it’s been done before. It could even be compared to watching a play, when you have a quiet moment of inexplicable connect with the characters on stage! Science has the potential to move you just as much at the sheer wonder of new worlds discovered. “My gosh, I get this!” – the same feeling, evoked by different stimuli!

From the graphic novel 'Neurocomic' by Dr. Hana Ros and Dr. Matteo Farinella.
From the graphic novel ‘Neurocomic’ by Dr. Hana Ros and Dr. Matteo Farinella.

What about when you don’t get stuff – does that still happen?

Oh my, you don’t get stuff all the time. The “Aha!” moments if experienced a few times in one’s lifetime make one very grateful. You worry sometimes about being one of those people who happens to have a magnifying glass and torch but is looking in the wrong place, when all the action is happening somewhere else!

Have you spoken to children about the work you do?

I have, and with the young ones, I’ve let them hold a brain and said – “This is the thing that makes you write poetry, this is the reason you dream, the reason you might sometimes be aggressive and nasty.” The moment when they turn the brain upside down, when it opens up all these possibilities, is a magical one.

Any particularly interesting questions you remember being asked?

When I conducted the Chai and Why session at Prithvi Theatre a while ago, somebody asked me, “Can you ever know everything about the brain, when you are using the brain to know it?” It’s an interesting question because it asks whether there is a limit, whether there will always be things we don’t know because inherently there seems to be only so much the brain can learn about itself! Several people have talked about this, about our need to create worlds for ourselves – for instance, no other species seems to spend so much time ruminating about its death. We are perhaps the only species that can know that death is inevitable and yet spend a lifetime in happiness, not worrying about it every minute of our lives. Our brain is clearly able to protect us from the awareness of that eventuality. Other species do mourn the death they see around them, but they do not mourn and think “I could be next”, whereas we look and are immediately struck with the thought of our own mortality.

I wasn’t aware that other creatures weren’t aware of impending death.

They do appear to be bothered by it, but perhaps their brains – and this is of course mere anthropomorphizing – do not register the concept of the self ceasing to exist. Even human brains aren’t cognizant about our mortality till about a decade into our lives. Professor Ajit Warsi has done some lovely work on the theory that perhaps with the ability to know about our mortality came the ability to lie. If we cannot lie and cheat, we can’t fool ourselves.

Theoretically then, we can’t lie till we’re ten?

When you’re very young, you can’t lie very well. Other species do lie, but our lie is a huge one. Imagine when the first humans – the Neanderthal man – realized that somebody had irreversibly died, and had to still be able to get up the next morning and eat and mate without sitting there with their heads in their hands. How then do you ensure the survival of our entire species? You give them the ability to hoodwink themselves on a grand scale! We come up with afterlife, immortality, all sorts of ideas to escape the fear of the only thing that is certain.

Speaking of self cognizance – humans are very aware of their individuality, but this is not the case for other creatures – ants and the rest, who follow a more community oriented herd mentality. How differently does the individualistic or collective lifestyle register in our minds?

Even non-human primates are rather aware of their individuality – they move in and out of alliances to achieve the survival of the species, but they do have discerning individual characteristics and are more like our cousins in that respect. This is entirely different from social insects who live within a structure that is far more collective that our structure. But the shifting alliances routine is a characteristic feature of how our social self works – we might have had life altering-ly important friends in school but unless they had a salient role to play later in our lives what might just remain are pleasant memories.

Like us, other species also have a degree of self awareness and personal space – crows, whales and dolphins all seem to have it – but with our huge cortexes, we seem to have all the time in the world to spend focusing on it. It is literally a fallout of developing the cortex which perhaps was necessary to maintain complex social interactions. There was this article (I forget the authors) that explored societies which were more social and collective versus societies which were more individualistic. They did MRI scans of the residents to spot the regions of the brain that lit up when they said “I” versus when the family was spoken about. The circuits are very different in the West where the societies are majorly far more individualistic than those in the East, so it may also be culturally programmed to an extent where societies that really value and reward individuality will focus on it much more than societies that strongly reward the collective. And of course there are societies in flux – ours is one of those – where the same suppositions cannot be made for urban and rural settings and where the shifts from the collective to the individualistic are gradual but considerable.

Brazil’s Piraha tribe has no concept of time and the past. They don’t even have the vocabulary needed to talk about history. Does this translate into neurochemistry, and could it change the way they register and remember memories?

That’s actually a really interesting question. If we were culturally conditioned to say that anything that happened a period of time before was irrelevant, would our brains put in the effort to retain that information? To a large extent, memory happens because we retain things that are important to us. Some of us are culturally conditioned to believe that our memories define who we are. In any case, they are a collective regurgitation of what actually happened and can be perceived as storytelling, since we are constantly rewriting the truth. Every time we remember an event, we make it what is known as “lay-by” – available again for a transient amount of time – and bring it into what is considered to be Fresh Working Space so that it can be overwritten and changed.

Has it happened that the body has, through evolution, prepared for one eventuality for some purposes, but the way of living has gone the other way?

Many times – the classic example being metabolism. In the Indian subcontinent, our bodies were prepared for far less food than we are getting now.  Perhaps the people who lived here over the centuries experienced more famines and there was never enough. It is an old historical fact that our bodies were not prepped for this plentiful intake, as a result of which we are ridiculously prone to the metabolic syndrome as a people, far more than other communities. As our diet has changed, we’ve had the unmasking of diabetes and cardiovascular dysfunction in a way that didn’t happen even 60 years ago! There is a thing called the Mismatch Hypothesis which means that while our body is prepared for something, the environment we get is completely unpredicted, and then anomalies unmask.The environment obviously changes much faster than the evolutionary time scale.

Any other ways in which the brain prepped for something and is used very differently?

Drug abuse, no question about it. Talk about the most effective hijacking of a pathway! Sugar and caffeine being the mildest ends of the spectrum, which extends to cocaine, gambling, heroine – it’s classic. And it comes down to what society sanctions and what it shuns.

Speaking of social sanction – and we could refer to Amsterdam where soft drugs are legally sold and partaken – can you see a difference in consumption behaviour when it is allowed as opposed to when it is forbidden when it comes to brain networks?

That’s interesting. I’m sure people have looked at whether restricting access – which almost directly encourages criminality – changes attitude. But given the power drugs have, making them freely available comes with huge risks. The question then becomes “How does society as a whole draw the line?” It’s a tricky one.

We tend to identify the youth with dreaminess as well as cynicism and jadedness – the doe-eyed-ness and the disillusionment being nearly paradoxical yet accurate. Product of the age or the times?

Adolescence is a period in which many of the circuits which control emotion are going through a substantial reorganization. Independence is being asserted to identify oneself as distinct from the family unit. When one goes through such a process, associated with it is the questioning of whether all that one imbibes from the family unit is right or not, with the extremes ranging from total rejection to indoctrination. The human brain keeps reorganizing till the age of 25 – even myelination continues till then.

According to you, how important are the ideas of boredom and leisure in a world that values productivity above all else? Can our brain be conditioned to remove these feelings of anxiety and guilt which have begun to be associated with leisure?

Our brain certainly can, but if it is at odds with the social ethos and could result in exclusion, it simply wouldn’t work. We’ve moved into an era with the belief that at all times our value comes from what we produce. Just being and reflecting – we’ve lost the ability to enjoy that free of guilt. This wasn’t the case even 40 years ago, and rightly so considering how essential leisure is for keeping our brains healthy and retaining a perspective. Boredom is equally important, because you leave room for introspection as a consequence of it. Wipe these out and where is the time for any reflection? The brain’s ability to watch itself only comes in those states – unless you’re a yogi or somebody who has achieved a Zen state! These people can effectively discipline themselves to regulate emotion and reflection – using breath control (which is what women learn in Lamaze classes to alleviate the pain being perceived) and meditation.

Ray Bradbury said – “If there is no feeling, there cannot be art.” Does this relation scientifically make sense?

Absolutely. If there is no feeling, there can be no value associated through your brain with whatever you are doing, rendering it meaningless. In that sense, you might produce something, but it might not evoke any strong feelings either in you or your observer. You need somebody to valuate things – either the viewer or the generator. At the level of the brain it makes complete sense that things should move you in order for you to ascribe meaning to them.

A tangential query – do “high art” and “low art” affect our brain differently? Is it possible to favour i.e. not only tolerate but love the things you don’t initially enjoy?

The different socially ascribed statuses of art are irrelevant – the brain puts no conditions. Rock is now classic rock, but there was a point when everyone though it was just noise. It’s just what you feel works for you – your need to fit in might make you say a whole bunch of other things. “Low brow” and “high brow” is interesting – people have done all sorts of experiments with rats being exposed to classical music – the bottom line is, if it’s not terribly noisy and cacophonous, it can all cause a favourable response. Studies with humans and music suggest that it’s a great form of therapy. Not so for rodents, unless you pair music with other positive stimuli. For rodents, odour matters much more. They have many more odour receptors than we do, and their world is largely an olfactory one. An olfactory symphony might mean much more to them!

Is our sense of self set at a particular age, and do we act the way we do out of habit, thus depriving ourselves of the dynamics of our otherwise fluid personality?

That’s tough. We’re highly oriented towards habit forming behaviour – our circuits in the brain are programmed to develop habits; it’s a default stance. In terms of personality, it’s a separate question – could you default into your personality? I suppose once you’ve been labeled or you label yourself – but this isn’t a scientific musing, more a general understanding.

Back to the basics – how similar are the brains of rodents to brains of humans, which makes the extrapolation of results and behavioural habits onto humans possible?

Well, their neurons and ours have the same kind of properties. They have similar circuits that light up – with respect to the functions of our amygdalas and hypocampuses, similar locations – we have many more neurons than they do, and different preoccupations. We have much to learn from the rat’s brain because it’s the perfect prototype to start off with, but it obviously doesn’t supply all the answers. However, the kind of work I do and the questions I ask are often answered in that space.

From the graphic novel 'Neurocomic' by Dr. Hana Ros and Dr. Matteo Farinella.
From the graphic novel ‘Neurocomic’ by Dr. Hana Ros and Dr. Matteo Farinella.

You also study psychiatric disorders and the neurocircuitry of emotion that comes into play for diseases such as depression. Can you work with rats to answer these questions?

That’s a good question – we can certainly capture the symptoms that cause the disorder in the rats, not the full blown disorder. You won’t find a depressed rat, lying on a couch talking to a psychotherapist! Bottom line – you can understand what is potentially going wrong in the circuits. It’s a great model system because you can ask questions in a far better mechanistic detail, which you can’t do with monkeys – and ethically it’s easier too. In the end it all comes together like a jigsaw puzzle.

We know that the human body is wired for survival, but is it also wired for resilience and inventiveness, or is that more individualistic?

Oh, our brain is supremely wired for resilience – and it is also supremely wired for vulnerability. A lot of what our life experiences are will determine whether we’re better endowed with one or the other. It’s one of the central questions that I am particularly interested in – how does the environment educate the brain to tip you either towards resilience or vulnerability? It’s a constant dialogue between the environment and the brain – the latter does come with some sort of a blueprint, but it is life that educates this blueprint. This I find fascinating – that two individuals going down the same road will have utterly different reactions to it.

What has been your most interesting find on this whole journey?

I’m fascinated by the fact that there are windows in life which are considered to be critical periods where experience has a profound effect on the brain, and which can affect the brain for the rest of one’s life. These early windows of life experience – it’s almost as if the architecture of the brain gets structural alterations at these critical junctures – this is all that life does. It tweaks the details. Human experiences have such power over the brain – and the timeline varies. What might be the first decade of life in humans is equivalent to the first month in the life of rodents! We might remember little about our childhoods, but those experiences have wired our emotional responses in many cases. Maybe recall is tougher when your circuits prioritise the experience not as a memory but as a function. Not all circuits are concerned with memory – and those that are, are divided between active recall for immediacy and implicit recall which is subliminal.

What about inventiveness, are we wired for it?

I think it has come about as a byproduct in the entire primate evolution. Other species are also quite inventive, and this has independently come up in multiple evolutionary branches. This idea that we are sitting at the pinnacle of the ladder is a rather wrong way of thinking about our place in the grand scheme of things. The same things that have happened on our branch point have also happened on others. Inventiveness is something that all species show. We are just one branch point of a very big evolutionary tree.

William James said that “A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognise him.” Do you agree andI  does this mean we have a stock version of ourselves? And how do languages come into our sense of self?

Yeah, I agree absolutely. In the end, an interaction depends on both the people involved in it. It’s really interesting to bring in dominance hierarchy into the picture, determining who in a social interaction is more dominant. It sets a tone. It’s predictive behaviour. A crude example would be… if you have a smoking buddy and you quit, you are much more likely to relapse in their company than otherwise. This is true in multiple ways – we are different people in different situations. In any case, it’s all shifting sands, because no relationship can remain static in its intensity.

Even with language, our selves so strongly come through based on what language we use – it shines through when we pick up a baby and unconsciously decide the first language we’re going to talk to it in. The language of comfort, the language of terror – it’s very closely associated with our comfort zones and our ability to override pain and trauma, and even our ability to give comfort to others.

What we become has much to do with what we are surrounded by and what we consciously surround ourselves with. What about the negative space – what about the things we become that come from a space of lack? Carl Jung said that nothing is a stronger influence on people and especially their children than their “unlived lives”.

In the extremes, yes – depriving people of essential requirements like contact and touch would manifest in their personality – I’m talking huge impact. There is a disorder known as stress dwarfism which was seen among young children in Romanian orphanages – the kids were not nutritionally deprived, they were fed, but they weren’t touched at all. These children grew up with severe stress evoked growth hormone deficiency – nothing else apparently wrong with them, but all of them were dwarfs. That is an extreme example of what could happen as a result of deprivation. I’m interested in why nurture is such a powerful regulator of what the brain eventually becomes, emotionally. There’s no question that if you’ve never been taught the tolerance of differences and are surrounded by intolerance, you’re far more likely to be severely intolerant. The lack of seeing compassion is a huge loss. We’ve seen it in society over and over again haven’t we – seen ourselves dehumanize individuals which makes their pain and suffering irrelevant. We haven’t learned from our horrible past. We erase our history so quickly, we’re doomed to repeat it.

If you had to verbally sketch an entirely personal, unscientific mind map of your preoccupations and the things which matter most to you, what would it be comprised of?

I would put nurture in the centre of my mind map – nurture to me is common to what I do at work, and common to what I want in my space with family and friends. It’s a question I’m fascinated by, by how profoundly nurture can shape the brain. I’m also fully aware as a mother what power you have over another individual’s life just because you have the capacity to nurture. Even in my scientific life, nurture has the potential to change relationships and emotional circuits. If there was another word I’d want in the centre it’d be compassion. It’s what preoccupies my mind in multiple ways, because I find it the central, fundamental tenet that is worth working towards across one’s lifespan. It’s the hardest thing to do – it’s why certain Buddhist philosophies appeal to me, because at the core they seem to be a quest to find compassion for all beings at large. They talk about a very interesting philosophical idea which states a point when you cease to be an individual and become contiguous with another, where “you” dissolve and become part of the collective, and compassion emerges. Over millennia we’ve had examples of individuals who are capable of it, which tells you that in principle – and at great cost to the individual – it is possible. I was just watching Schindler’s List again and was telling my husband that at some point, I want my kid to watch it. It blows me away, because evolutionary theory should completely fall apart at the face of it because it is oriented only towards preserving oneself – so from where does this altruistic spirit emerge? Compassion is the best part of our species, and I think we spend too much time dwelling on the worst in us. We needn’t. We might be capable of dastardly horrendous acts but we’re also capable of phenomenal compassion. And it’s the same brain that does both!

Interviewed by Tanvi Shah

A special shout out to Utkarsh Verma and Shambhavi Priyam for their enthusiastic contribution!

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