“Only a root vegetable would not find it interesting…”
That’s how Irving Biederman, Harold W. Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at USC, describes the method by which our visual systems bring the world into our brains.
Not only is the visual area in our brains just about as efficient as it can possibly get, it also contains opioid receptors.
Bringing the World Into Our Brains
So we have pleasure-inducing chemicals in the neural pathway dedicated to vision. What gives?
The linking of perception and cognitive pleasure creates a theory of aesthetics as well as our preference for new experiences.
Humans obviously get great pleasure from the novel. Think of humor, which is most successful when it’s unexpected and creative.
Episode #188 was the “debut episode” for the partnership between Smart Drug Smarts and VitaMonk. Learn all about VitaMonk here, or if you want in on the Launch List that Jesse talked about on the episode, the details and sign-up are here.
What’s the Point of Meditation?
Meditation is so hot right now. But (controversial perspective alert) Dr. Biederman doesn’t see much point.
His perspective is this: We need novelty to stimulate the production of opioids, and novelty is found outside the brain. Our lives are so much more interesting than making our minds go blank.
If meditation is helping you, by all means continue on. But if you struggle with sitting still and would rather get out into the world, consider this your permission slip.
Taking Advantage of Your Brain’s Chemistry
Humans are naturally prone to taking advantage of novelty. As Dr. Biederman puts it, we’re all infovores to various extents.
The key is to recognize that, although we’re all driven by novelty, we’re not all engaged by the same novelty. So seek out the new information that calls to you, and avoid being bogged down in daily administration. Routine tasks suppress our desire for new stimuli.
And while you’re at it, knock off the celebrity gossip rags. Tune in to the episode to find out why.
Dr. Irving Biederman: I got interested in the brain and behavior when I was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College many decades ago. For me, the question is how one could not be interested in how we get mind from brains? Only a root vegetable would not find it interesting. The way we understand shape in a fraction of a second is through a series of stages in the cortex, and images first projected on to the retina then gets transmitted very quickly in about 20, 30 milliseconds to the occipital cortex where we get some representation of that image. We don't have understanding yet, but we get the world into our head, and the visual system is extraordinarily efficient at doing that. Actually, it's as efficient as you could possibly get in terms of requiring the fewest number of cells.
Once it's in the brain, it's in the cortex where then a series of stages, about four or five by which we achieve understand it, and each of those stages takes about 10 milliseconds with one synapse per stage, and we're understanding that we've activated our high-level interpretation of what that scene is. I guess the topic for today is based on another discovery in that pathway, which is there's a gradient of opioid receptors.
If we start with the V1, which is the first cortical visual area in the back of the occipital cortex, we have, in V1, a very sparse density of these opioid receptors, and as we go forward towards the interior of temporal lobes toward the front of the brain, we get a greater and greater density of these opioid receptors until in what's called the associative cortex where we have things that we've learned over the world and we already have the benefits of what's called perceptual organization that those areas are chock-full of opioid receptors. The question that intrigued me was, "What are they doing there? Why would we have these happy chemicals in this pathway dedicated to vision?" and from that, we developed a theory of perceptual and cognitive pleasure, that is what controls what we most spontaneously look at or think about, and this can go on to account for an enormous range of human behaviors that had previously not been well studied, such as humor or creativity.
Jesse Lawler: Yeah, and also things like beauty, things that everybody has an intuitive understanding of, but is difficult to quantify.
Dr. Irving Biederman: This theory becomes a theory of aesthetics, essentially, about what would you enjoy looking at. Let's say you went into a new room. The window on the right was a brick wall, the window on the left, there was this fantastic vista of the shoreline with people there, and whales, and dolphins, and boat. We, of course, look at the window that gave us a view. Rooms with a view cost more. If you're in Southern California, it could be 10 million if you could get a view of the shoreline, if not more. People will pay for that, of course.
One of the things that prison has complained about the most is that, in their cells, they don't have a view. Even animals. If you put a monkey in an enclosed box, it will work very, very hard so that a window in the box will open up and he'll be able to have a 10-second peek into the lab to see what other people are doing and so on.
Indeed, in thinking about it, we're not surprised about that. This is indicating that same drive for information, and indeed, we've coined this term called "infovores" that this system makes us infovores, always looking for new and richly interpretable experiences. So, we can get this, again, by having new experiences, or something that has a lot going on, like that view of the shoreline.
We'd love sitting at a Paris cafe with the view of the sidewalk where we see people walking by and so on, where we could see this dynamic life, and why would we pay $20 for a cup of coffee for that experience? Well, it's worth it. We are feeding our inner infovore. We're getting information about the world.
There is an ambiguity in our use of the term "aesthetics". It can often be used for something that's pretty, like a rose, or pretty face. But, there's another aspect of aesthetics, and one could think of a photography exhibition where it's not so much pretty, but it's interesting and engaging. You want to know more about it.
An image that I'd like to use in demonstration talks, again, was taken in 1904 at the Gare de l'Est in Paris, and it shows this locomotive from a railroad station from what would be, maybe, the third floor, has burst through the facade and is hanging down at like almost a 90-degree angle.
Jesse Lawler: Yeah, it's a great photo. I know the one you're talking about.
Dr. Irving Biederman: And it's in black and white. We wouldn't call it pretty, but boy, we'd rather look at that than the rose. So, the theory I'm describing, as it relates to aesthetics, is that aspect of aesthetics rather than prettiness.
Jesse Lawler: One question. Maybe backtracking a bit, you mentioned that half the brain is devoted to perception, which that's an amazing statistic, I guess, just because humans have such large brains compared to most of the animal kingdom, and yet, lots of the animal kingdom also has eyes, has noses, and basically the same sensory apparatus, and presumably, they operate in the world physically as well as we do, so we have to expect that their senses are kind of on-par with ours, but they're doing it with a much smaller brain. How can we sort of reconcile that weirdness?
Dr. Irving Biederman: That's an excellent question. The vast tracks of the brain dedicated to vision are giving us this rich interpretation of the world. So, the monkey, which does have a logical portion of its cortex also dedicated to vision differs from us in that first part of vision, getting a clear image, and its sensitivity to, let's say, the orientation of a line, or the size of a line, or some stimulus is indistinguishable from human data. That is, it would be hard to know, from very simple tasks, whether one is looking at a monkey or a human other than the fact that the monkey has faster reaction times because they have shorter axons.
But, the monkey, as almost all other animals, for the most part, lives in the here and now. It sees a piece of fruit, an attractive female, and that's it. For us, for humans, so much of our understanding of the world is not as something that occurs in the immediacy of the scene. It's what we bring to it in terms of our prior learning and understanding, and that's where we have these gigantic areas in interior temporal lobes that gives us our whole world about what we've learned about the world and the interpretation, so when we look at a scene, we bring so much to bare about what it means, and that's how we differ from so many other animals.
That's the part that is loaded with these opioid receptors, that they guide us into coming up with these interpretations and there's an aspect of that that relates to a characteristic of what we prefer looking at, where as I said, we want a rich interpretation. What would be awful is to be locked into a room with no features, like a prison cell.
Let's say, sometimes, we're at the doctor's office, and we're called into the examination room, we forget to grab a magazine, and we're there waiting for the doctor, but we're reduced to counting the holes in the acoustical tile in the ceiling just to keep this system engaged. Because, when it's not engaged, we're feeling bored. Preference is for new experiences. Having seen the movie, read the book, had the conversation, it's been there, done that, I want something else. We're sensitive to when we're not getting new information very quickly.
Let's say we're cornered at a party with someone who's making small talk. You've got to get out of it quickly, so it's an aversive state not feeding this natural opioid system, but of course, that's a healthy system. It's directing us to get new but interpretable information, to make us smarter.
Jesse Lawler: Right, it's all in the service of learning even if we're not sure it's going to be useful.
Dr. Irving Biederman: Right, and there are two aspects of this I might mention. One is how do we get this sensitivity to new information versus something we've experienced before? Second, why would this system have evolved in the first place? There has to be some evolutionary advantage for the system. It turns out having this system gives us an advantage in both senses of Darwinian adaptation. Let's say you need an axe quickly and you happen to notice, a few days earlier, where it was in the cave, and now you could get it quickly. It's something you noticed, you remembered, and you stored that information.
Being an infovore gives us a natural advantage in terms of natural adaptation in the Darwinian sense. But, curiously, it also gives us a sexual advantage. There is an elaborate study by David Buss at the University of Texas who examined 38 different cultures from those in modern-developed countries like Western Europe and U.S., two cultures that would be just this side of the Stone Age, very hunter-gatherer, tribal cultures, and he asked this very simple question: what do you desire in a potential mate? One thing that, in every culture, both males and females specified they wanted someone who would be intelligent. So, intelligence is taken as a positive trait in potential mates all over the world. The question is how do we know who's intelligent or not? We don't have our IQ's tattooed on our forehead.
Eiko Shimojo, a social psychologist associated with Caltech University did a study of exactly that about it's limited to East Asian countries and the U.S. She asked both males and females, "How do you judge whether someone is intelligent?" and there were a number of things that differed amongst cultures, like whether someone has a good sense of humor, or whether they make decisions quickly. In some cultures, that was positive; in others, it was negative. But, what was a universally positive trait was having lots of information. This system for being an infovore, it gets us lots of information. That will make us more attractive in sexual selection.
Let me just, if I can, knock one other nail in this story about what is it, what's the underlying mechanism leading us to new experiences rather than old experiences? Because, classical reinforcement theory said that if we enjoyed the movie, we should go back and get it again, or we enjoyed the book, or had the conversation, we got reinforced, we liked it, and it's decidedly not the case. It becomes aversive.
Well, it turns out, the cells in these interior temporal areas, the areas that are richly immersed in these opioid-releasing neurons or opioid receptors show adaptation. That is, if you repeat a stimulus, and you could show this in FMRI in human behavior or with recordings of individual neurons in the monkey, if you repeat a stimulus, you get less activity the second time, and less the third, and so on. There's a strong response to novelty, and then a diminished response as that stimulus is repeated.
Jesse Lawler: If you had a really good microscope, you could see the little neurons yawning.
Dr. Irving Biederman: Exactly. It turns out that this is likely reflecting a very critical mechanism of the brain. Why would it do that? Why would it reduce its firing? We normally think of learning, we should get more firing. We're learning this experience better, but we see less. So, how does that come about then? What actually happens - or this is the theory, and there's a fair degree of evidence for this - when a new stimulus is shown, let's say you have a person in the MRI scanner, and he's looking at scenes, and you repeat a scene or some stimulus, the first time, you get a lot of activity. But, what happens then is the neurons that were most activated by that stimulus, by that experience inhibit those neurons that were only weakly or moderately activated by that experience. So, as you repeat stimuli, only a few neurons winds up coding that experience, and they've inhibited the others that were initially not as strongly activated by that, the experience.
Jesse Lawler: Those neurons sort of become like the designated expert pathway for that stimulus in the future?
Dr. Irving Biederman: Exactly, and don't feel sorry for the inhibited neurons. They are now freed up to code something else. So, this becomes the brain's own exquisite way to divvy up its resources so it never runs out of synapses.
Jesse Lawler: Do we see parallel behaviors in other areas of the brain with different types of learning? Like, for muscular movement, let's say that you're a bowler and you're trying to get down your perfect bowling move, do we see the same sort of inhibition of neurons in the same region that are sort of close but no cigar as you get your perfect move down?
Dr. Irving Biederman: That's a good question, and likely, yes. There's some cortical structure called the striatum, and let's say you played the piano, and there's a sequence of notes that you might play, or when you're learning to type, let's say you have some name that has an unusual spelling pattern, initially what happens, if you have that sequence, there are cells that are called "associative cells" in the striatum that code those sequences. So, they are activated when you're learning a new sequence. But, at some point, you'll get that automatically. It's a shift in the neurons from these perceptual motor neurons to what are called sensory motor neurons in the striatum.
This process, this phenomenon by which strongly-activated neurons for a given stimulus, or a given input or experience inhibit weakly or moderately-activated neurons has been called neural Darwinism: the strongest win out over the less acclimated, the weaker. So, what we're seeing in this shift in the striatum, essentially, may be doing that and there would be, also, a mechanism designed to give you a shift from something that you're learning fresh to something that becomes automatic and you don't have to think about. We may have fewer neurons actually coding that experience.
Humans, and likely monkeys too, have a built-in system for face recognition. We see their parts of the brain that are, more or less, dedicated for individuating faces so we're able to distinguish one face from another. So, if you're walking in the jungle 30,000 years ago, and you think there may be face peeking out from this dense foliage, those people who said to themselves, "Nah, it's nothing; just a pattern of leaves," their genes are no longer with us.
Jesse Lawler: That's one thing that I think was so fascinating, that evolution has put us on a hair trigger for recognizing what might be other agents, other entities that can do things to us, and it's better to be wrong and have your tripwire tripped more often than it is to be wrong in the other direction.
Dr. Irving Biederman: Exactly. There's another term that this research has taken us based on this discovery. At the back of the New Yorker Magazine, the last page, they have a contest every week, and it's one of their staff or cartoonist draws a picture, and it's published without a caption, and the contest is for people to come up with a caption, and if you look at that, you get these brilliant responses. But in any event, this work on perceptional cognitive pleasure very reasonably led to humor, which hadn't been well-studied, and our interpretation of this, which is also the same interpretation that we have for creativity is that a humorous response, as well as a creative response links distant association. So, if we ask someone, "How much is five and three?" and he says, "Eight," we don't think of that as a creative response.
Creativity has been a difficult study. In our judgment, humor is a great test aid for studying creativity. If you ask someone to come up with a creative music selection or poetry, it's difficult to know is it really creative, or is it just something different? The criteria are ambiguous. But, in humor, you have a clear criteria on this to whether the response is creative or not: does it make you laugh?
We've been studying about the experience of humor when you look at a cartoon and then see the caption, and it just makes you laugh, where are the areas in the brain that are being activated by a funny caption versus one that would be more mundane or simply describing the picture, but not really linking the incongruous element to something else that gives an interpretation.
The point about why it would be funny, our perspective is that a funny caption links distant associations, and in doing that, it has a long way to travel, which will lead, if it's successful, to lots of opioid release. It's the same feeling we have when we're creative. So, the kindergarten teacher who has her charges during finger-painting holds them up as being creative, well there's no criteria for that. They're novel, but they're not creative. A creative solution has to be both novel and solve some problem.
We've been studying that, actually, both in terms of humorous response and humor creativity. I don't know if you're familiar with The Groundlings?
Jesse Lawler: Yeah, they're sort of like the firm team for Saturday Night Live out of Los Angeles.
Dr. Irving Biederman: Right. So, these people, we've given them these like cartoon-like drawings that they haven't seen before. While they're in the magnet, their brains are being scanned, and they have to come up with a funny response. What we're finding is that humor, in general, when you appreciate it, is activating these opioid-rich areas in the interior temporal lobes, and the creativity part is we run these professionals, and we run some who are merely novices. They are just starting out and they're not as good as the professionals, like the people in the Groundlings.
What we see is the amateurs, or let's say, novices, show a lot of prefrontal cortex activation, the kind that's associated with deliberate search. They see this cartoon, this drawing without a caption, and they have to come up, in the magnet, with something funny, and they're searching for something. The professionals, they show very little prefrontal cortex activation. They're not deliberately searching. They show activation in the interior temporal lobes. What they're doing is reaping the fruits of their spontaneous associations, or mode associations. They're not searching; they're just laying back and letting it happen.
Jesse Lawler: That leads to a question that I wanted to ask, which is what do we see about the activation of new opioid receptors when we're introspecting on something? Like, I can look out into the world and see photons coming into my retina, or I can also close my eyes and visualize the face of somebody I know well, or visualize a vista, or whatever. Do we see similar levels of activity when people are introspecting on sensory detail?
Dr. Irving Biederman: That's a good question. Now, one thing with using imagery is you're generating the imagery from things you already know, so there's less novelty there. Let's say you ask people to imagine an elephant wearing a wristwatch with an expandable band on his left front foot, okay? What we see when you're doing something like that, it's not clear it goes all the way back to V1, but certainly in areas V2, V4, and these areas called the lateral occipital complex where we do a lot of the visual heavylifting in terms of shape that we see activity there when you're imagining things.
Let's say you're imagining something big, like an elephant, that takes you more time to image the watch than if you imagined the watch is around the mouse where it's something small. The watch around the mouse's waist will be at the same scale as the mouse, so it will be readily receptible. But, around the elephant's, just a teeny part. So, you have to zoom in to get it, and people have done research like that about the scale of things in their imagination. That's something we're quite adept at, and it's not necessarily something that will give us a differential response in terms of this opioid system.
Jesse Lawler: It's interesting. In the last couple of years, meditation has been so much in the news, all the positive science coming out about various benefits. But, in a lot of ways, the things you're studying show just why it's so difficult for people, because really, you're trying to squeeze all the novelty out of your brain, out of your thinking.
Dr. Irving Biederman: I can't meditate. It's like being in prison. Frankly, I don't see what the benefits are. I can see, in some cases, people who are stressed out a lot, that it may be relaxing to them. But, all this mindfulness, I fail to see the benefits or clear evidence, and your life is so much interesting than making your mind grow blank. I don't get it. It's not something that, in our evolutionary history, if the guys just sat around the cave and meditated, they'd starve to death, or slime would eat them or something. I get great joy, and I think many people do, from an active probing of dedication of their mind to problems rather than sitting there and letting their mind go blank. Some people, I know, think it's a valuable experience, okay. There are differences of opinion. I'll let them do their meditation while I'll do my science.
Jesse Lawler: I feel like we need to schedule a future episode that could be a neuroscientist cage match between you and a meditation advocate. Looking at your studies, as a whole, what are some ways that people could take information about the pleasure gradient of novel information, the joy that we can get from gathering up information even though it might not necessarily be useful later. What are some of the real-world takeaways or prescriptive tips to take advantage of the fact that we are infovores?
Dr. Irving Biederman: I think we're naturally prone to do that, which is why when we're prevented from doing it, like in a prison, or sometimes, at least when I went to elementary school, you'd have these mindless exercises where you'd just have to do rote repetition of something to learn something. Again, many of us found that aversive. I think we're all infovores to a different extent. But, what engages us will vary greatly, and there are other motives.
I should say something about this motive. It's a default system. If we're searching for a car in a parking lot, or we're looking for our keys in the morning, or looking for a restaurant in a given street, then we turn up. We're not so much interested in getting opioid hits; we're interested in solving those tasks, and if you're not doing something else, then you want to get new and interpretable information. We have this yin-yang, this motivation to be doing things we have to do, which meet our goals in life. We have to eat, we have to avoid threats, and so on and so forth, and then we suppress this desire for new and interpretable information.
One thing that I've found interesting is that Karl Marx said that, "Religion is the opioid of the masses." I think he was right at the time, and certainly right for a segment of the population. But, I think, for much of the population what has substituted for religion is celebrity. People are just entranced by a celebrity. Look at all these magazines. The most popular ones: People and so on. You go to the supermarket checkout counter and you see all these magazines and they're dedicated to celebrity or that website, Daily Mail. It's loaded with celebrities. People are just tuned into that.
Some of that, you can understand from an evolutionary sense. It's in your interest to know what the powerful people in your tribe are doing and thinking. Though, when we get involved in the minutiae of it, it's, of course, crowding out other things, though it gives you a social bonding experience, or your friends. We know what these popular celebrities are doing.
So, that's become their opioid needs when they learn something new about what the celebrity is doing, who's breaking up with whom, so we get that information. The problem with it, it doesn't go very far. You get these current opioid hits that will keep you engaged. It's interesting to read People Magazine, but at the end of the day, what do you do with that? People have an advantage who are not so entranced, let's say, with celebrities, and typically brighter people are not, and some of that is they'll understand things that less bright people have difficulty understanding.
Jesse Lawler: I'm finding myself nodding as you're saying this, but you're living dangerously saying this in Los Angeles.
Dr. Irving Biederman: Though I have great admiration for the people who do the entertainment industry. Those people who make movies know a lot. USC, of course, a very famed film school, I'm not so much talking about them as about people who are obsessed with the products of that industry, not the people who know how to do lighting, or the film, good directors, film editors. These people are clearly masterful. So, it's not them. It's people who are just consuming this, often, of celebrities who it's not clear what you're getting from them. So, the Kardashians, you may know all about them. It's not quite clear what you gain from that.
Jesse Lawler: Yeah, it's not useful information. Your point is a great one though. In the old days, 50,000 years ago, when the celebrity was whoever the top dog in your tribe was, it made a lot of sense to know the minutiae about his or her interests because you would be interacting with that person at least peripherally, and it would directly affect your life. But, yeah, that no longer holds.
Dr. Irving Biederman: It's interesting that we have this response. You want to show loyalty to the powerful people in your tribe and support them that they're going to be fighting with the next tribe, and in my view, that's what fuels fandom for teams. It's very interesting to see the Rams, after 19 years or something like that, return to Los Angeles the year before last, and right away, there are these people who are painting their face blue, wearing Rams stuff, and you just wonder, there's no direct gain from that. If anything, the profit centers for the teams, the teams are going to charge them lots of money to buy tickets and all this gear that people wear, and again, it may a Darwinian motive that this is your tribe and you want to support it. It's not that the PR departments of these teams are so efficient, I think, that they could engage people like that, get them to care so much about the teams. Well, what you're doing is exploiting a pre-existing motive, or drive we have to be supportive, to be involved with our own tribe.
This Week In Neuroscience
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Introduction to Dr. Irving Biederman
Interview with Dr. Irving Biederman
The Great Input Into Visual Cognition: Shape
Understanding Shapes Through Stages In The Cortex
Why Are Opioid Receptors In Pathway Dedicated to Vision?
Opioids Of The Masses
Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Your Scientific Justification For Cussing