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As a psychiatrist, I am fortunate to have a lot of time to ponder how the brain works. And this greatest of all mysteries is beginning to yield up some secrets.  This blog is an attempt to tie what I am learning about the brain with some of my major interests: photography, music, and our experience of consciousness.

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This is a followup to my previous comments about black and white photography, and the peculiar spell it casts over us. In short, why would removing information (color) from a picture make it more dramatic and interesting?

What and Where Areas of Cortex

What (or How) and Where Areas

Lacking a good answer to this question, I was helped by a (not altogether flattering) discussion of my post on the Philosophy of Photography Forum on In particular, my thanks to Craig Cooper for providing a link to this lecture by Dr. Margaret Livingstone. Here is another interesting link with more detail. For a really fascinating discussion with examples see Phantoms in the Brain, chapter 4, “The Zombie in the Brain,” by V.S. Ramachandran.

Here is a nice drawing representing the visual processing areas which I owe to Dr. David Heeger who posted his lecture notes on the internet here. The small cartoons represent the kind of information being processed in these brain areas: edges, binocular vision, angles, curves, color, location, and face recognition, for instance.

The take home lesson is that after a number of intermediate steps, luminance (black and white) information and color information are processed by separate areas of the cortex. In particular, luminance information is transmitted to the parietal cortex and color information to the temporal cortex.

Luminance information ends up in what is called the “Where” area (marked by a compass) of the parietal cortex. This area is so named because in specializes in analyzing information about location, visually guided movement, contrast, and depth. Ramachandran prefers to call this the “how” area because it directs actions like avoiding objects, reaching out to touch something, etc.

Color information, however, is routed in an entirely different direction to the “what” area of the brain located in the temporal lobe. This area of the cortex is required to identify objects, faces, as well as associated memories and emotions. This evolutionarily newer area of the cortex is involved in attributing meaning, via emotional systems, to what we see.

The Light

Reaching For Light

Now imagine what happens if we look at a black and white photograph. The “where” or “how” area immediately receives input. But the “what” area is deprived of information, particularly color information, that it expects. I suppose that we might expect to find the black and white image devoid of emotion and uninteresting. But this is the opposite of what happens. Why?

My theory is that the brain makes up for this missing information by drawing on memory and imagination. After all, the brain is amazingly good at “filling in the blanks” when expected input is not there. We never miss information from the blind spots in our visual fields. More dramatically, consider the cases of phantom limbs so elegantly discussed by Ramachandran, Oliver Sacks, and others. Following amputations some individuals experience complete feeling, and often pain, in the missing limb.

Hence, black and white photography stimulates our inner imagination and creativity. We make emotional associations that otherwise might be absent. This effect is powerful and dramatic. In fact, many people complain of being “distracted” by color if it is added back to an image. Black and White forces us to look in the shadows of our own perception. There we see reflections of ourselves.

Definition of Paradox: A seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true.

A paradox is supposed to define what is false.

The statement below is false.

The statement above is true.

You can go around and around on this one. But most of us try to work it out a couple of times, say, “Oh, it’s a paradox.” and go about our business. Unlike a computer, which could cycle over this classic paradox until eternity, or Windows crashes, which ever comes first.


Mideival Thought

What is it about our brains that allow us to tolerate paradox as well as we do? In general, it is considered incompatible with good math or physics. Godel’s theorem,  discussed in a previous post, suggests that all mathematical systems, however rigorous, will turn up paradoxes, or fail to prove things that are true or both. How does Godel establish truth or falsity? By reference to common sense attributes of the real number system which we know to be true or false.

This is all related to the time-honored philosophical battle between ontology versus epistemology, or what is true versus what can be known. As they delve into relms of physics further removed from everyday experience, physicists have settled on the principal of falsifiability. A theory or hypothesis in physics may be considered true if it predicts the outcomse of experimental tests. Such tests accumulate and continue to be consistent with the hypothesis, the hypothesis is more likely to be true. If any such experiment fails, the hypothesis may be considered false. Read More »

Sigmund Freud reportedly was once asked what make for a healthy mental life, and answered, “lieben und arbeiten,” to love and to work. In his book “The Power of Play” David Elkind argues that he should have included “spielen” … to play. As the developmental psychologist  Jean Piaget said,  “Play is the answer to the question, ‘How does anything new ever come about.'”

leaves1All children play. If toys are not available to children in primitive cultures or in areas of poverty, they will utilize whatever items are available. Imagination animates sticks, old cans, blocks of wood, and discarded cooking utensils. Dolls, toy animals, and imaginary playmates develop lives of their own. Children re-create the world and manipulate it in play, stimulating neurological development and creating the inner space which we call the mind and which will be used to understand the external world and plan for the future. Read More »

If our advances in understanding brain modularity represent one of the great advances of the last decade, a couple of central mysteries remain. The first is the phenomenon of consciousness, which I don’t intend to take on today. For me, at least, the second mystery is music. In particular, how do we understand the evolution of the capacity to create, appreciate, analyze, and respond emotionally to music. It is likely that human music in some form evolved in parallel to the use of pictograms, the use of tools, and, presumably, the development of speech and piano-color1conscious awareness. Intense scientific research has been devoted to these eveolutionary topics (see Geary for instance). But music remains most puzzeling. One might imagine that musicality evolved along with speech. However, different parts of the brain are used for music and speech. Patients with aphasia due to damage to core speech areas may retain the ability to recognize songs, sing, and even produce lyrics (swearing is also preserved, interestingly). Dr. Kenichi Ikuta, a Japanese psychiatrist, used to work in a nursing home.He found that patients suffering from severe Alzheimer’s Disease who were  mute and failed to recognize family members are caregivers were able to participate in Karoke, carying the tune and adding lyrics. We know that music communicates more directly with the emotional parts of our brain. Perhaps it resonates with the most basic, central aspects of self, only partly available to consciousness. Read More »

Several years ago I began to notice that there was something not right about time. As a scientist, I always thought of time as a dimension, much like the three dimensions of space. But unlike space, time seemed to lack a consistence of measurement, a metric. Recent events of the last few days sometimes seemed to have happened a century ago. Events from the distant past were often as fresh and sharp as if they had occurred yesterday.

This sense of time differs from my experience of physical distance in space. The metric is much clearer. It doesn’t matter if I drive from Colorado to San Francisco or walk or fly there by plane. The distance feels the same. I know what lies between Colorado and San Francisco and what it takes to get from here to there and back. Of course, with some effort I can fill in all the events between two points in my lifetime. But I remain unable to explain where the time went (if it went anywhere). Read More »

Or Why We Couldn’t Get it Together Even if we Wanted To

You would expect the most exciting developments in psychiatry to have something to do with medications, or diagnostic procedures, or even some mysterious power of magnetic fields or crystals.

Instead we have learned that we are seldom really conscious. Rather than sitting in the drivers seat, we ride the crest of a multitude of mental functions. Perhaps we attend a kind of secret committee only a minority of whose members are known to us. Read More »

I am one of the few living people old enough to remember something called a “darkroom”. Roaming the streets of Boston with my friend David Goldes and with Robert Frank as our hero, I shot tons of bulk rolled B&W film. Four hours in the darkroom and I might have one or two mediocre prints, if I was lucky. I knew one or two adventurous souls who tried to make prints from color negatives in huge home chemistry laboratories. I am not sure I ever saw a print emerge from these attempts.

Wizardlings 1

Wizardlings 1

The digital revolution in photography has been an unquestionable step forward (although I miss the wonderful graininess of silver images). Digital cameras shoot color effortlessly. I always assumed black and white photography would fade away in time like gaslights, the extended family, and barber shops.

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