On not being a horrible person

Reading The Human Mind by Paul Bloom for New Scientist, 11 May 2023

Inspired, he tells us, by The Origin of the Universe, John Barrow’s 1994 survey of what was then known about cosmology, the Canadian American psychologist Paul Bloom set about writing an introductory tome of his own: a brief yet comprehensive guide to the human mind.

Emulating Barrow’s superb survey has been hard because, as Bloom cheekily points out, “the mysteries of space and time turn out to be easier for our minds to grasp than those of consciousness and choice.”

The first thing to say — though hardly the most interesting — is that Bloom nevertheless succeeds, covering everything from perception and behaviour to language and development; there’s even a small but very worthwhile foray into abnormal psychology. It’s an account that is positive, but never self-serving. Problems in reproducing some key studies, the field’s sometimes scandalous manipulation of statistics, and the once prevailing assumption that undergrad volunteers could accurately represent the diversity of the entire human species, are serious problems, dealt with seriously.

Of course Bloom does more than simply set out the contents of the stall (with the odd rotten apple here and there); he also explores psychology’s evolving values. He recalls his early behaviourist training, in a climate hostile to (then rather woolly) questions about consciousness. “If we were asked to defend our dismissal of consciousness,” he recalls, “we would point out that intelligence does not require sentience.”

Intelligence is no longer the field’s only grail, and consciousness is now front and centre in the science of the mind. This is not only a technical advance; it’s an ethical one. In 1789 Jeremy Bentham asked whether the law could ever refuse its protection to “any sensitive being”, and pointed out that “The question is not, Can [certain beings] reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Suffering requires consciousness, says Bloom; understanding one enables us to tackle the other; so the shift in interest to consciousness itself is a welcome and humanising move.

This strong belief in the humanitarian potential of psychology allows Bloom to defend aspects of his discipline that often discomfort outside observers. He handles issues of environmental and genetic influences on the mind very well, and offers a welcome and robust defence of Alfred Binet’s 1905 invention, the measure of general intelligence or “intelligence quotient”. Bloom shows that the IQ test is as robust a metric as anything in social science. We know that a full half of us score less than 100 on that test; should this knowledge not fill us with humility and compassion? (Actually our responses tend to be more ambiguous. Bloom points out that Nazi commentators hated the idea of IQ because they thought Jews would score better than they would.)

Bloom is concerned to demonstrate that minds do more than think. The privileging of thinking over feeling and intuiting and suffering is a mistake. “A lot depends on what is meant by ‘rational.’ Bloom writes. If you’re stepping outside and it’s raining and you don’t want to get wet, it’s rational to bring an umbrella. But rationality defined in this manner is separate from goodness. “Kidnapping a rich person’s child might be a rational way to achieve the goal of getting a lot of money quickly,” Bloom observes, “so long as you don’t have other goals, such as obeying the law and not being a horrible person.”

Bloom’s ultimate purpose is to explain how a robustly materialistic view of the mind is fully compatible with the existence of choice and morality and responsibility. This middle-of-the-road approach may disappoint intellectual storm-chasers, but the rest of us can can be assured of an up-to-the-minute snapshot of the field, full of unknowns and uncertainties, yes, and speculations, and controversies — but guided by an ever-more rounded idea of what it is to be human.

Dreams of a fresh crab supper

Reading David Peña-Guzmán’s When Animals Dream for New Scientist, 17 August 2022

Heidi the octopus is dreaming. As she sleeps, her skin changes from smooth and white to flashing yellow and orange, to deepest purple, to a series of light greys and yellows, criss-crossed by ridges and spiky horns. Heidi’s human carer David Scheel has seen this pattern before in waking octopuses: Heidi, he says, is dreaming of catching and eating a crab.

The story of Heidi’s dream, screened in 2019 in the documentary “Octopuses: Making Contact”, provides the starting point for When Animals Dream, an exploration of non-human imaginations by David Pena-Guzman, a philosopher at San Francisco State University.

The Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius thought animals dreamt. So did Charles Darwin. The idea only lost its respectability for about a century, roughly between 1880 to 1980, when the reflex was king and behaviourism ruled the psychology laboratory.

In the classical conditioning developed by Ivan Pavlov, it is possible to argue that your trained salivation to the sound of a bell is “just a reflex”. But later studies in this mould never really banished the interior, imaginative lives of animals. These later studies relied on a different kind of conditioning, called “operant conditioning”, in which you behave in a certain way before you receive a reward or avoid a punishment. The experimenter can claim all they want that the trained rat is “conditioned”; still, that rat running through its maze is acting for all the world as though it expects something.

In fact, there’s no “as though” about it. Pena-Guzman, in a book rich in laboratory and experimental detail, describes how rats, during their exploration of a maze, will dream up imaginary mazes, and imaginary rewards — all as revealed by distinctive activity in their hippocampuses.

Clinical proofs that animals have imaginations are intriguing enough, but what really dragged the study of animal dreaming back into the light was our better understanding of how humans dream.

From the 1950s to the 1970s we were constantly being assured that our dreams were mere random activity in the pons (the part of the brainstem that connects the medulla to the midbrain). But we’ve since learned that dreaming involves many more brain areas, including the parietal lobes (involved in the representation of physical spaces) and frontal lobes (responsible among other things for emotional regulation).

At this point, the sight of a dog dreaming of chasing a ball became altogether too provocative to discount. The dog’s movements while dreaming mirror its waking behaviours too closely for us to say that they lack any significance.

Which animals dream? Pena-Guzman’s list is too long to quote in its entirety. There are mice, dogs and platypuses, beluga whales and ostriches, penguins, chameleons and iguanas, cuttlefish and octopuses — “the jury is still out on crocodiles and turtles.”

The brain structures of these animals may be nothing like our own; nonetheless, studies of sleeping brains throw up startling commonalities, suggesting, perhaps, that dreaming is a talent to which many different branches of the evolutionary tree have converged.

Pena-Guzman poses big questions. When did dreaming first emerge and why? By what paths did it find its way into so many branches of the evolutionary tree? And — surely the biggest question of all — what are we do with this information?

Pena-Guzman says dreams are morally significant “because they reveal animals to be both carriers and sources of moral value, which is to say, beings who matter and for whom things matter.”

In short, dreams imply the existence of a self. And whether or not that self can think rationally, act voluntarily, or produce linguistic reports, just like a human, is neither here nor there. The fact is, animals that dream “have a phenomenally charged experience of the world… they sense, feel and perceive.”

Starting from the unlikely-sounding assertion that Heidi the octopus dreams of fresh crab suppers, Pena-Guzman assembles a short, powerful, closely argued and hugely well evidenced case for animal personhood. This book will change minds.



How to live an extra life

Reading Sidarta Ribeiro’s The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams for the Times, 2 January 2022

Early in January 1995 Sidarta Ribeiro, a Brazilian student of neuroscience, arrived in New York City to study for his doctorate at Rockefeller University. He rushed enthusiastically into his first meeting — only to discover he could not understand a word people were saying. He had, in that minute, completely forgotten the English language.

It did not return. He would turn up for work, struggle to make sense of what was going on, and wake up, hours later, on his supervisor’s couch. The colder and snowier the season became, the more impossible life got until, “when February came around, in the deep silence of the snow, I gave in completely and was swallowed up into the world of Morpheus.”

Ribeiro struggled into lectures so he didn’t get kicked out; otherwise he spent the entire winter in bed, sleeping; dozing; above all, dreaming.

April brought a sudden and extraordinary recovery. Ribeiro woke up understanding English again, and found he could speak it more fluently than ever before. He befriended colleagues easily, drove research, and, in time, announced the first molecular evidence of Freud’s “day residue” hypothesis, in which dreams exist to process memories of the previous day.

Ribeiro’s rich dream life that winter convinced him that it was the dreams themselves — and not just the napping — that had wrought a cognitive transformation in him. Yet dreams, it turned out, had fallen almost entirely off the scientific radar.

The last dream researcher to enter public consciousness was probably Sigmund Freud. Freud at least seemed to draw coherent meaning from dreams — dreams that had been focused to a fine point by fin de siecle Vienna’s intense milieu of sexual repression.

But Freud’s “royal road to the unconscious” has been eroded since by a revolution in our style of living. Our great-grandparents could remember a world without artificial light. Now we play on our phones until bedtime, then get up early, already focused on a day that is, when push comes to shove, more or less identical to yesterday. We neither plan our days before we sleep, nor do we interrogate our dreams when we wake. It it any wonder, then, that our dreams are no longer able to inspire us? When US philosopher Owen Flanagan says that “dreams are the spandrels of sleep”, he speaks for almost all of us.

Ribeiro’s distillation of his life’s work offers a fascinating corrective to this reductionist view. His experiments have made Freudian dream analysis and other elements of psychoanalytic theory definitively testable for the first time — and the results are astonishing. There is material evidence, now, for the connection Freud made between dreaming and desire: both involve the selective release of the brain chemical dopamine.

The middle chapters of The Oracle of Night focus on the neuroscience, capturing, with rare candour, all the frustrations, controversies, alliances, ambiguities and accidents that make up a working scientists’ life.

To study dreams, Ribeiro explains, is to study memories: how they are received in the hippocampus, then migrate out through surrounding cortical tissue, “burrowing further and further in as life goes on, ever more extensive and resistant to disturbances”. This is why some memories can survive, even for more than a hundred years, in a brain radically altered by the years.

Ribeiro is an excellent communicator of detail, and this is important, given the size and significance of his claims. “At their best,” he writes, “dreams are the actual source of our future. The unconscious is the sum of all our memories and of all their possible combinations. It comprises, therefore, much more than what we have been — it comprises all that we can be.”

To make such a large statement stick, Ribeiro is going to need more than laboratory evidence, and so his scientific account is generously bookended with well-evidenced anthropological and archaeological speculation. Dinosaurs enjoyed REM sleep, apparently — a delightfully fiendish piece of deduction. And was the Bronze Age Collapse, around 1200 BC, triggered by a qualitative shift how we interpreted dreams?

These are sizeable bread slices around an already generous Christmas-lunch sandwich. On page 114, when Ribeiro declares that “determining a point of departure for sleep requires that we go back 4.5 billion years and imagine the conditions in which the first self-replicating molecules appeared,” the poor reader’s heart may quail and their courage falter.

A more serious obstacle — and one quite out of Ribeiro’s control — is that friend (we all have one) who, feet up on the couch and both hands wrapped around the tea, baffs on about what their dreams are telling them. How do you talk about a phenomenon that’s become the sinecure of people one would happily emigrate to avoid?

And yet, by taking dreams seriously, Bibeiro must also talk seriously about shamanism, oracles, prediction and mysticism. This is only reasonable, if you think about it: dreams were the source of shamanism (one of humanity’s first social specialisations), and shamanism in its turn gave us medicine, philosophy and religion.

When lives were socially simple and threats immediate, the relevance of dreams was not just apparent; it was impelling. Even a stopped watch is correct twice a day. With a limited palette of dream materials to draw from, was it really so surprising that Rome’s first emperor Augustus found his rise to power predicted by dreams — at least according to his biographer Suetonius? “By simulating objects of desire and aversion,” Ribeiro argues, “the dream occasionally came to represent what would in fact happen”.

Growing social complexity enriches dream life, but it also fragments it (which may explain all those complaints that the gods have fallen silent, which we find in texts dated between 1200 to 800 BC). The dreams typical of our time, says Ribeiro, are “a blend of meanings, a kaleidoscope of wants, fragmented by the multiplicity of desires of our age”.

The trouble with a book of this size and scale is that the reader, feeling somewhat punch-drunk, can’t help but wish that two or three better books had been spun from the same material. Why naps are good for us, why sleep improves our creativity, how we handle grief — these are instrumentalist concerns that might, under separate covers, have greatly entertained us. In the end, though, I reckon Ribeiro made the right choice. Such books give us narrow, discrete glimpses into the power of dreams, but leave us ignorant of their real nature. Ribeiro’s brick of a book shatters our complacency entirely, and for good.

Dreaming is a kind of thinking. Treating dreams as spandrels — as so much psychic “junk code” — is not only culturally illiterate — it runs against everything current science is telling us. You are a dreaming animal, says Ribeiro, for whom “dreams are like stars: they are always there, but we can only see them at night”.

Keep a dream diary, Ribeiro insists. So I did. And as I write this, a fortnight on, I am living an extra life.

David Jane: Inner visions

A virus that robbed David Jane of his language and memory left him struggling to understand what had happened to him. His salvation was to recreate his condition on canvas. For New Scientist, 10 January 1998


DAVID JANE’s studio in south London is falling to pieces. Plaster has come
off the walls, revealing the wattling and brick beneath. Felt sags from a hole
in the roof. Every fractured surface frames another deeper, broken layer. It is
easy at first—and painful—to see parallels between the dereliction
of Jane’s studio and his paintings, which are based on magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI) scans of his own, damaged brain. “It can be a very heavy
experience to be drawing things that you know are inside you,” muses Jane. “They
look like animals—like they have separate lives.”

Jane calls his work self-portraiture, albeit of a unique, and at first
disturbing, kind. Wax surfaces bleed away to reveal other surfaces beneath.
These frames within frames reflect the way the medical scanner slices his brain
into a sequence of flat, two-dimensional images. But Jane’s fusion of art
and science is not about deterioration. It is about understanding—and more
than that, it is about recovery and regeneration.

Until 1989, Jane enjoyed a growing reputation as a painter. But that year,
while on holiday in Rio de Janeiro, he collapsed. When he woke up in London some
weeks later, he could not speak, write or recognise his family or himself. At
first he had no memory, and no awareness of the passage of time. Days, minutes,
months all seemed of equal duration, so that even when some memories did return,
he could make little sense of them. On one occasion he left the hospital in his
dressing gown and boarded a bus to visit his mother, who was dead. Much of his
recovery since then has been spent organising his experience into some kind of
sensible order.

What Jane didn’t know during his stay in hospital—what nobody could
tell him—was that he had contracted herpes simplex encephalitis. For
reasons that are still unknown, the virus has a predilection for certain areas
of the brain in some people. The body’s response is to dispatch immune cells to
the site of infection. This causes swelling which, together with the virus, can
kill off neurons and literally leave holes in the brain. In Jane, the virus
targeted the left temporal lobe, which is responsible for memory and

Jane’s basic faculties began to return within a few weeks and he was able to
leave hospital. But it was not until June 1990—when new MRI scans were
taken—that he began to understand what had happened to him. Because he had
lost his language skills to the virus, Pat, his wife, realised that pictures
would be the easiest, most direct way of explaining to him what had happened. It
was she who first showed him the brain scans.

“The doctors were reluctant to show me them,” he remembers. “But the fact is,
I found them beautiful.” Jane could also see from the scans that the left-hand
side of his brain was different from the right. “So I began to understand what
had happened inside my brain.”

Jane began to use his skills as an artist to make simple ink and pencil
copies of the pictures he was shown. The copies were crude and amorphous,
literal reflections of the scans. But in the eight years since the virus struck,
Jane has made a remarkable recovery—and it’s all there in his work. His
drawings of tissue have given way to paintings that depict images of the mind
and then to full-scale exhibitions. Visceral and urgent, Jane’s images are an
amalgam of abstract style and biography, combined in ways which he could never
have imagined before his illness. And his originality is attracting attention:
the canvases have fired the enthusiasm of critics and collectors.

Jane’s growth as an artist has coincided with a burgeoning ability to face
hard truths. “I’ve been using a computer lately to manipulate some recent
scans,” he says. “It’s been depressing, seeing so clearly how much brain I’m

The herpes infection left Jane inhabiting a very strange world. Just how
strange can be gleaned from the fact that he had to relearn many things from
scratch, such as the names of different parts of the body. His regained mastery
of speech is something he can largely credit to his son, Frank, who was born in
1991. The child’s appetite for bedtime stories gave Jane a perfect
reintroduction to words. Reading to his son, he acquired the language by easy
stages, as a child might.

Jane’s recovery is not total. Names still elude him, and reading is difficult
and slow. “Even manipulating images on a computer is taking me ages,” he laughs.
“I can’t follow the bloody menus.” Nevertheless, it is staggering how much he
has relearnt—and how he relearnt it. His damaged brain’s appetite for
learning continues to amaze him. “I remember I wanted to learn English,” he
says, “but what I ended up with at first was something completely different. The
spellings were all wrong, but they had this weird internal consistency. It was
as though my brain knew better than I did how to learn. It was rewiring itself
into a shape that suited itself. Me, I was just along for the ride.”

That sense of alienation—of surfing a healing wave over which he has no
control—has never entirely gone away. “I feel I have a relationship with
what’s inside of me,” he says. “Obviously I can’t actually separate `it’ from
`me’, but there is some sort of dialogue there.” Jane has learnt to harness that
dialogue in his work. “The distance I feel between my self and the brain I see
in the scans—I try to turn that into the distance that an artist has to
their subject,” he says.

Over the past eight years he has continued to succeed at his task. As he got
better, the images from which he works—the scans
themselves—underwent remarkable technical improvement. Unlike the earliest
images of his brain, MRI today generates high-resolution colour pictures. These
advances have helped to fuel Jane’s imagination. “Over time, my paintings get
less and less like illustrations,” he explains. “These days you won’t find
literal correspondences between the paintings and the scans. On the other hand,
thanks to those scans, my understanding of what happened, and what each part of
the brain does, gets more and more precise.”

In 1994, Jane began to add solidity and texture to his works by painting in
wax. For a long time he has wanted to get rid of the signatures in his
work—the array of distinct brush strokes. “You don’t necessarily want to
put your emotion into every stroke,” he says. “The emotion belongs to the piece
as a whole.”

He has found a way to “draw with heat”, often burning holes in a painting
with a blowtorch. By putting several such sheets together, Jane mimics the
effect of looking at the scanned slices of his brain. Behind one layer of tissue
lies another. He turns the canvases as he works, forcing the wax to run in all
directions, creating images that echo the destruction of his own brain. “Looking
at the scans,” he says, “it’s clear my disease wasn’t very interested in
gravity. It moved freely in three dimensions. The damaged shape has a weightless

In cultural terms, Jane sees his brand of portraiture, with its scientific
foundations, as a completely natural part of a continuing tradition. “I don’t
think there’s a clear distinction between art and science,” he says. “They
change at the same time.” This progressive partnership has been in evidence
since at least the 16th century, he says. He speaks with authority, although it
is a curious consequence of his condition that he cannot give the names of the
artists who would prove his point. Those memories are no longer there.

But he remains undeterred. His latest venture is also his most ambitious: a
collaborative exhibition with his neurologist, Michael Kopelman of St Thomas’
Hospital in London. Kopelman, together with Alan Colchester’s image-processing
team at the University of Kent in Canterbury, has taken a new series of scans of
Jane’s brain and created three-dimensional images of it. Jane intends to enlarge
these pictures to about 2 metres square and then work wax, pigment oil, charcoal
and other materials into the images to enhance their 3D appearance. Then he will
overlay pages of text taken from reports by doctors, critics and scientific
commentators, so the pictures become a palimpsest of experience and

“We can meld science and art together,” says Jane. “And we’ll do that not to
obscure what’s going on, or prettify it, but to make it clear. Dr Kopelman and I
want to open the doors of understanding into the scientific interpretation and
artistic vision of brain scan images, so that people can see them as things of
beauty as well as knowledge.”

For many critics, however, Jane’s work far exceeds these stated ambitions.
“When you look at David Jane’s work,” says Denna Jones, curator at the
London-based Wellcome Centre for Medical Science, “your reactions aren’t
anything to do with disease. It’s not even to do with that interest in
body-mapping you see so much of these days. It’s simply a continuation of
self-portraiture—part of a tradition five centuries old.” If the
18th-century painter William Hogarth had had access to the technology Jane uses,
“he’d probably have done the same thing”, says Jones.

Jane doesn’t disagree. “I was always considered an abstract artist and I
never felt happy with that,” he reflects. “I certainly can’t be called
`abstract’ now, at any rate. You can’t get more visceral than to paint your own