Preview: Mind as matter

The human brain is endlessly fascinating, much misunderstood and disconcertingly squidgy. A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, Brains: the Mind as Matter will bring together both new commissions and artefacts from the archives in characteristic interdisciplinary style - tools used to examine the brain sit alongside works from contemporary artists, human specimens are accompanied by short films, even Einstein's grey matter will make an appearance. The show's guest curator, Marius Kwint, makes it clear the approach isn't a purely scientific one: "The exhibition takes a look at the history of scientific practices rather than the technicalities of the brain's processes. We look at the physical matter of the brain as a way to unravel cultural practices. In many ways, I suppose you could call it the material culture of science".

To organise such a large quantity of material, the exhibition is divided into four sections: "Measuring/Classifying" looks at the history of how societies have attempted to use brain assessments to grade humans according to race, intelligence, class and other social attributes; "Mapping/Modelling" features a variety of representations of the brain's anatomy, including early visualisations by Reisch, Vesalius and Descartes; "Cutting/Treating" explores the history of surgical intervention, or as Kwint calls it, "a glorified form of DIY"; finally, "Giving/Taking" looks at the politics of brain donation and harvesting in more detail.

It's not all gore and taboos, however. "There is, we hope, an upbeat finish," says Kwint. "The final section features interviews with people who have decided to donate their brains to medical research after they've died, and highlights the real need for more research into neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and dementia, the likes of which are reaching near epidemic levels." The exhibition will also draw attention to the lack of progress in the development of treatments for brain tumours, an area that continues to lag behind research into other forms of cancer.

The works range from a 5000-year-old skull to contemporary pieces from Helen Pynor and Andrew Carnie. So why are we still so in awe of this particular organ? "With all our technology," says Kwint, "it is still impossible to wholly understand the processes of the brain. Its capabilities are not dependent on genetics - the brain is in constant dialogue with the environment, and I think that's the thing that fascinates people. It's the almost incomprehensible idea that this tissue, this object, can produce such strong and vivid emotions within us."

It all sounds very enlightening, but won't visitors find it all a bit gruesome? Kwint is reassuring: "We don't intend to shock, but I'm sure it will provoke some strong reactions! It's certainly anatomically unflinching - we want it to be a truly visceral experience."

"Brains: the Mind as Matter" opens on 29 March at the Wellcome Collection.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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