The root of fearby Paul Broks / May 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
I am in a church. It was once a church, anyway. Now it’s a university building. I’m here for a neuroscience symposium and people are milling around taking coffee before the final morning session. I keep an eye on the time because I’m presenting a paper.
The programme has reunited me with two colleagues from my postgraduate days. I haven’t seen them for 20 years. We stand in a triangle. Mundane facts of biography slot together as planks in the conversational platform. We all have wives and children and dogs. Rick affects embarrassment. So bourgeois. Why haven’t we had more interesting lives? “You don’t like commitment, you get married. You don’t want kids, they take over your life. You get a dog, you’re forever scooping shit into plastic bags.” Steve and I concur, but we don’t mean it either. Steve has been ten years in the US. His voice follows mid-Atlantic contours. “I guess the myth of romantic love is where the rot sets in,” he says. “If you let it.” Life and relationships are more random than we think but in the end most of us fall into a pattern. With whom, it doesn’t much matter. It’s the pattern that counts.
I climb the spiral stairway to the upper lecture theatre. The sun-filled, stained-glass window sends curves of purple, yellow and red along the steel handrails. My audience trickles in. There are not many of them. They are scattered about the place like a congregation. With a click of the mouse, a quotation rolls across the screen behind me. “We should take care not to make the intellect our god. It has, of course, powerful muscles but no personality.” This was Einstein. It sets the tone of my talk, which is about how the brain generates emotions and how emotions regulate social behaviour. There are structures for analysing the geometry of the face, and others for interpreting expressions. These feed into systems for decoding people’s intentions and dispositions, calculating their desires and beliefs. Then there are mechanisms for selecti…