A subject to bring tears to your eyes

THIS is a stimulating, adventurous book from one of the interdisciplinary front lines of our time, named here variously as neuroanatomy, neuropsychiatry and neuroaesthetics. It focuses on weeping and offers a neurological description of crying together with an evolutionary account of its value for humanity.

Michael Trimble argues that an “explosion of findings in neuroscience in the last 50 years” has made neurology not only essential to the practice of psychiatry but a source of insights elsewhere too.

Taking a look at brains informs us not just about emotions but about the origins and experience of art.

The book has some vivid findings at the disputed boundary between hard science and social science. For instance, it describes how tears prompted by emotion have a different chemical composition from tears caused by pain.

It shows certain muscular contractions of the face not only express sadness but also induce some of its physiological effects; to that extent Botox can make you less sad (it might depress for other reasons).

Trimble cites a research project confirming the common view that women cry more than men (5.3 weeps a month as against men’s 1.4), though here we might wonder about the reliability of the research.

And there are other touches of weird science: “a recent study, in which males were given female tears to sniff, showed that they decreased sexual arousal in males, and lowered levels of testosterone”.

The central chapters of the book are a guide to the anatomy of the brain. They give an introductory but demanding general account, focusing on the physiological circuitry by which tears happen.

Trimble says that questions of localisation are problematic when it comes to brain function.

“There is a tendency after a while to think that everything in the brain is connected to everything else, and that any hypothesis can be verified by simply implying that two structures must connect.” His account of the brain shows that the links are more intricate than that. The illustrated lines of communication are complex, and it is good to know that new work of therapeutic value is being done through enhanced technologies of brain-imaging.

The book is full of phrasings that bridge the gap between brain physiology and human experience only by muddying the relationship between the two.

We read for instance that “the underlying neurology is akin to feelings associated with social bonding and love”, and “emotions are closely allied to the activity of the amygdala”.

When it comes to aesthetic considerations, it is misleading to think that any amount of physiological analysis of the brain can tell us about the actual experience of being moved by the likes of Sophocles, Wagner or Tolstoy.

It doesn’t help the argument that Trimble’s ventures into the aesthetic are the weakest part of the book.

To a layman it seems that the scientific analysis of brain states is still at a very early stage.

The gap between what can be empirically observed about brains and what we can say about complex states of consciousness is huge, and it undermines this book’s big claims to describe aesthetic experience in terms of neuroscience. – The Daily Telegraph

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