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KENICHIRO MOGI

Thinking beyond the brain

by Eric Prideaux

Kenichiro Mogi would be the ideal person to find sitting next to you at a dinner party, or one bleary post-sake morning over breakfast in a Japanese mountain inn.

As a celebrity neuroscientist with a doctorate in physics from the University of Tokyo, and with postdoctoral studies at Cambridge and many books to his name, Mogi oozes intelligence and sophistication. But as soon as he opens his mouth, it’s obvious that this mop-top’s interests extend way beyond mere science.

Whether discussing human cognitive development, 19th-century German philosophers or the Japanese tea ceremony, this man is equally at ease — even using sparkingly cultivated English when the situation requires. What’s more, as a big fan of the zany British TV comedy series “Fawlty Towers,” starring John Cleese, this 44-year-old Tokyo native has a sense of humor to boot.

Walking textbook he may be, but it’s Mogi’s knack of letting other people talk — showing genuine interest in what they have to say, and gently coaxing out their insights — that makes him perfectly suited to host public broadcaster NHK’s weekly interview program “Purofeshonaru Shigoto no Ryugi (The Professionals).”

In the 45-minute Tuesday-evening broadcast that launched in January 2006, he and lively co-host Miki Sumiyoshi explore how various high-flying Japanese bring creativity to their work. Recent guests have included the award-winning animator Hayao Miyazaki, creator of Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” and star ballerina Miyako Yoshida from The Royal Ballet in Covent Garden, London.

Rather than just fawn over high-achievers, though, Mogi and Sumiyoshi steer “Purofeshonaru Shigoto no Ryugi” well clear of such mediocrity by infusing their questions with a deep sense of spirituality. Not uncommonly, the responses they elicit offer glimpses into the subconscious mechanism of genius.

If Mogi tends to wax mystical, both on and off screen, it’s because his area of research is the highly philosophical realm of “qualia,” the psychological properties that accompany human sensual perception.

Little known outside the world of academia, qualia are a big focus of debate within it — particularly among philosophers who examine the relationship between the mind, consciousness and the physical body.

Ever since U.S. philosopher Clarence Irving Lewis (1883-1964) first used the term qualia to describe “recognizable qualitative characters of the given” in his 1929 book “Mind and the World Order,” scholars have argued over what role these intangible characteristics of perception might play in our relationship with reality.

Indeed, naysayers — dubbed “qualophobes” — say qualia don’t exist in any physical sense and are thus irrelevant. Mogi, however, is a convinced qualophile. He believes that scientific understanding of how billions of neurons in our brains create feelings about the world we live in — in other words, qualia — is “one of the most important research issues in cognitive neuroscience today.’

Whatever the case, the fact alone that thinkers even talk about qualia does suggest an exciting coalescence, albeit unintentional, of inward-looking Eastern philosophy and modern Western science.

During his recent Japan Times interview, Mogi hinted intriguingly at parallels between modern brain science and the ancient teachings of Buddhism, as well as with the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) and his notion of a hidden stratum of the human mind he called the collective unconscious which has, he believed, influenced behavior and emotions throughout time.

As a senior researcher in brain science at Sony Computer Science Laboratories, a lecturer on cognitive science at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and a lecturer on artistic anatomy at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Mogi is obviously a busy man. But if all that weren’t enough, he also writes critical essays on the arts and literature, finds time to hobnob with a range of cultural celebrities . . . and blogs constantly about it all in both Japanese and English.

Mogi is so busy, in fact, that he had to think for a moment before remembering the ages of his two sons — 6 and 11 — and he confessed with an embarrassed laugh that if he didn’t keep weekends open, Eucaly, his wife of 12 years who has a PhD in electrophysiology of the brain, “would get really, really mad.”

What do you personally get out of hosting “The Professionals”?

Sampling various kinds of lifestyles, I get to learn so many things that come in useful for my life — and not just from the standpoint of a brain scientist.

Science deals with standard brains, but that kind of approach doesn’t really give us access to the uniqueness of each individual way of life. So this program is a rare opportunity to look into these very unique people who have made it in Japanese society and worldwide, too.

In a word, what is a pro?

At the end of the program, we always ask the guest what he or she thinks a professional is. So actually the answer to this particular question is different from individual to individual.

There are books on the market which stress how to be successful and how to make big money. But the guests on this program all have one thing in common: Their priority is not money, but self-achievement and how to make other people happy. Nowadays, it appears that people only care about money. But these are people who really care about what they do and what the significance of their jobs will be in society at large.

One of the other themes in the program is failure . . .

Yes, one segment deals with low points in guests’ lives.

Why do you focus on that?

That’s the idea of the producer, Nobuto Ariyoshi. He was also responsible for “Project X” [an NHK documentary series that concluded in 2005]. The team making “The Professionals” . . . intuitively felt that by depicting how these very successful guests once failed, and then climbed up from this valley of their lives, that would give viewers deeper insight. We’re aiming at professionals who we and the viewers can aspire to be.

Another theme of the show is creativity. What is the source of creativity?

From a scientific point of view, experience is a very important element of creativity. Another important factor is will or volition, or the desire to be successful or create something. So the combination of experience and desire or aspiration . . . I think these are winning combinations that make people really creative. And we’ve verified this basic model with the guests who come on the program.

What is the status of the creative impulse in Japanese culture today, when you compare it to the corporate history that created, say, Sony?

Very interestingly, creativity is actually a cultural phenomenon as well as something that depends on individuals’ traits. People have always complained about the Japanese education system, which doesn’t put much emphasis on nurturing creativity compared with, for example, the U.S. system.

But in spite of that, some people have managed to become creative. As you mentioned, people like the founders of Sony and Honda have been very creative. Recently, lots of emphasis has been placed on creativity in Japanese society, because of the realization that knowledge can be translated into a lot of money nowadays — just look at IT companies like YouTube and newly emerging ventures. So I think there is an increasing perception among Japanese people that they need to be more creative, more outspoken and out of the norm.

At the same time, we have this very strong peer pressure to be the same. It’s very strong. I think the guests on our program are the rare ones who have not been crushed by this peer pressure. It is quite interesting to learn how these people have managed to stay unique and not care what other people say.

You are a scientist whose work is difficult for most of us to understand. You try to popularize it. But how do qualia play a role in the lives of ordinary people?

Do you know the British physicist and writer C.P. Snow [Charles Percy Snow; 1905-80]? He talked about confrontation between two cultures — the culture of natural sciences and the culture of humanities.

From an objective point of view, there are two different trends in society: One trend is toward more digitalization and no-nonsense fast food; Bill Gates is famous for caring very little about his food. On the other hand, there are these artistic types, with maybe a now-old-fashioned approach toward the sensuous things in life such as good cuisine, good music, arts.

These two different directions represent two important endeavors by humans within the past few centuries: to become technologically advanced, and to enrich our sensuality. These two trends are different. People can be differently oriented.

Qualia bridge these two worlds because, on the one hand, qualia are central when you’re dealing with sensual qualities. On the other hand, as a scientific fact, qualia generated from the activities of billions of neurons in the brain can be described by mathematical equations. We’re very apt at doing that today. We have devices that measure the brain’s activity as a subject performs actions.

For example, if I ask you what rating you’d give “The Professionals,” maybe you’d say 3.7 or 4.5. This number can be very subjective. But if we measure your brain’s activity at the same time, there is a very beautiful correlation between what you subjectively feel and what your objective brain state would be. These are exciting advancements in brain science connecting objective physical brain states to our subjective sensory qualities — qualia.

So if we successfully elucidate the origins of qualia, we can successfully bridge these two worlds: one, numerical, digital, technical, scientific; and one sensual, artistic, subjective.

Does that mean that you will be able to quantify emotion ?

Eventually, yes. Actually, we’re doing that already. There’s a newly emerging field called neuroeconomics. It attempts to understand how people make judgments, decisions and choices based on emotions.

Emotions are the main component of our choices and decisions. That has been known for the past few years. It’s quite an exciting new field. So there’s not such a large gap as there used to be between the subjective and objective. Of course, these two are very, very separate — even today — but the gap is rapidly narrowing.

Does this mean that if you took the output from my emotions and quantified and digitized it, you would be able to translate that through some kind of computer application and input it into your mind, to allow you to feel what I feel?

Well, not in a short time, but eventually it would be possible.

As a result of this field of research?

Yes.

Is what you are doing now an extension of Zen?

Zen? How do you mean?

My feeble understanding of Zen and Tantric Buddhism tells me that both involve the study of what appear to be qualia. In other words, the observation, within the mind, of how thought processes occur — and what they feel like.

It’s interesting that you mention it. I’m not an active Buddhist. I was born in a Buddhist family, but I don’t meditate or anything. I don’t know the English word for this . . . (Mogi gets out of his chair and draws the Japanese characters for yuishiki, which is a view within Buddhism that reality is a function of perception.) Some people have said that the idea of qualia is very much related to this concept in Buddhism.

I’m not normally aware of my cultural background, but having grown up in a particular social context, you are unconsciously affected by what you experience every day. So I think it’s fair to say that compared to Western scientists, scientists in Japan are unconsciously influenced by Buddhist or, in particular, Zen thinking.

I’ve been to a very famous (Zen) temple in Fukui Prefecture called Eiheiji, where I know a priest and we’ve talked a lot about these matters. He mentioned that my thinking on what modern brain science has to say about the mind, in general, has a lot to do with Buddhist philosophy. I suspect there are a lot of connections.

I understand from your blog that you are very interested in the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427?-347 B.C.), the German composer Richard Wagner (1813-83) and the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900). How did these people affect your life?

Modern brain science has been rapidly remodeling itself. Before we had a very mechanistic view of the brain, but nowadays our stress is more on emotions and feelings and how in general we humans conduct our lives in what is a very uncertain environment. The only certainty about life is that it’s uncertain, right?

In order to think through these difficult problems we need to refer to these thinkers’ philosophies of life.

For example, Nietzsche’s concept of the superhuman, although it has been tainted with connections with Nazis and so on, is very interesting from a modern perspective, because it refers to somebody who cannot draw his ethical principles from outside.

Before, there were gods. God made the Ten Commandments and people were supposed to follow these things. But in the modern era, people need to build up their own ethical rules. That is Nietzsche’s concept of the superhuman. It is actually very interesting from a modern scientific point of view.

Indeed, neuroeconomics is about people making decisions. It is about altruism and the perception of fairness. All these socio-psychological terms have come to play very important roles in modern brain science.

There’s also love and romantic love, and how we make the delicate balance between self-interest and working in the interest of other people. And that is also the theme of “The Professionals.”

You said “love” and “romantic love” . . .

Love’s many different forms have a lot in common. Romantic love and maternal love actually have very similar neural mechanisms.

Love, in general, has a lot to do with sharing, joy and working for other people — altruism in general. We are beginning to understand how altruism evolved in the history of the human as a biological form.

What is your view on Carl Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious?

Well, taken literally, it’s very difficult to find a scientific basis for collective unconscious. But on the other hand, there was an American philosopher of music and arts named Susanne Knauth Langer [1895-1986], who said that when it comes to emotions, there are no strong walls, no gaps between individuals. And we find that to be very true from a modern neuroscientific point of view, because when it comes to emotions it is very easy to transmit emotions to somebody else.

Take the example of a soccer stadium. People get excited at the same time. It’s a ubiquitous phenomenon that people share their emotions. Somebody else’s emotions are very easily reflected in your own emotions.

We have been discussing a certain discovery made about 10 years ago called “mirror neurons.” These are a cluster of neurons within your brain that mirror your own activity and the activities of others. If you pick up an object, the mirror neurons are activated, and when you see other people pick up something, they are activated. Some researchers have argued that mirror neurons are instrumental in making it possible for us to read other people’s minds and be affected by other people’s emotions. That, I think, is one of the most important bases for altruism and empathy.

Why did you initially become interested in the brain?

I used to be a physics geek. (Laughs) But then I got romantically involved with a person. I discovered that when you are in love, no matter how intelligent or how good- or ill-natured you are, your emotions exhibit a certain dynamic that is common to all people, such as jealousy, longing, joy — all these things.

It was a very interesting discovery for me. It showed that all these things that (Austrian psychiatrist) Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung used to say are actually true: Your unconscious affects your personality and your life.

That was a novel discovery for me. I needed this romantic relationship to realize that. That got me interested in how the brain works. From this experience, I realized that the brain is not simply a calculating machine like some computer. It’s got emotions; it’s got unconscious processing; it’s got memory. I realized how complex the system of the brain actually is. That got me interested in studying the brain.

I hear that you work extremely hard. How many hours a day do you work?

Yeah, well, I’m a workaholic. I don’t have any spare moments. Normally, I sleep six hours. In the waking hours, I’m constantly working, if you count meetings, then my whole life is work related.

I’ve heard that you’re attempting to re-create yourself through this brutal work routine. Are you trying to destroy something and rebuild it, like a muscle?

The way I see it is this: I come from a scientific background, but I also know many of my former classmates from the law department who have gone on to become government officials and corporate executives and so on. I know many art students and famous novelists in Japan. Also, musicians. Through meeting all these different people, I realize how divided modern society is.

I’ve discovered that even people with very high achievements actually live in a very closed context. Novelists only care about novels. Artists — painters, they only care about paintings. Musicians only care about music. Scientists only care about science. I find that very very unsatisfactory. That is why I try to push myself through all these different fields in modern society, in addition to doing my scientific work.

By doing that, I would like to make myself a kind of link, in the flesh, between these divided societies or subcultures. I think I’m doing an experiment with my own body. Maybe the product can be a book or a philosophy or a new concept or whatever, but I’d like to somehow, someday, reach or generate this something which would encompass all these myriad, miscellaneous aspects of modern life.

Besides crossing over subcultural divides, how do you break the norms? Do you have your own perspective on ethics?

Yeah, I do, actually. If I can learn from something, I’ll do it. That is my motto. I’m learning a lot from hosting this chat show. I’m learning a lot by writing literary criticisms and meeting with other people. There are many of these people in Japan who criticize my activities. They would like scientists to do just science, novelists to just write novels. There are many in Japan who think that specialists should stick to their chosen fields. I’m breaking that norm, I guess.

Obviously, you’re only human. What are some of your own personal complexes in facing life?

Complex? What do you mean — like in terms of inferiority complex?

If you have one. Are there any kind of psychological or spiritual obstacles you feel you have to overcome?

My long-term mission is to become an exporter.

Maybe I should explain that. Japanese intellectuals have traditionally been importers of foreign achievements, so to speak. For example, Japanese professors — especially those from cultural studies, humanities — import newly emerging fields in the United States or Britain or Europe. Cultural studies have been imported from England to Japanese society. They make an industry of it: They translate these English books into Japanese and make a happy living out of it.

Personally, I would like to change that trend. If there is one area where I haven’t really become active yet, it is cultural export. In other words, I’d like to make myself known more in the English-speaking world by writing books in English, not necessarily about science, but many things I find interesting.

For example, many people don’t know about really important issues in Japanese culture or history. There is a critic I respect very much called Hideo Kobayashi (1902-83). He is very highly regarded in Japan but virtually unknown outside. That, I think, is a very shameful situation.

When you go abroad, Japanese subcultures like manga and anime and films are really big. But Japanese intellectuals are virtually unknown outside Japan, and I’d like to change that. Maybe that is my biggest complex. Maybe I cannot do it alone, but I think there’s clearly a very serious problem.

So you’re saying your complex is that the intellectual culture of which you are a part is . . .

Unknown in the world! It’s not a nationalist thing. It’s more a way of giving, of making a gift. I think every nation has its unique values and interesting things to say about this strange world we live in, and I don’t think Japanese intellectuals have done their share in giving away their insights and inspirations and findings about the world.

I think it’s one major defect in what the Japanese have been doing over the last 100 years. Japan has become successfully industrialized and has produced these interesting animations and manga and so on, but Japanese intellectuals have been very lazy! (Laughs) Lazy.

For example, “Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji)” has been translated into English by Arthur Waley (1889-1966). He’s English. I can see that many English-speaking people enjoy reading “Tale of Genji.” There are certain very delicate observations about life and death and love and disappointment in this particular novel which is about 1,000 years old. But there are many gems still within Japan which have not really found their way to the non-Japanese-speaking world. For example, Hideyo Kobayashi and Hyakken Uchida (1889-1971), a novelist and essayist.

Even when people describe places like Ise Shrine (in Mie Prefecture), it’s very beautiful, but I don’t feel that the essence of Ise Shrine has been appropriately described yet. People can describe it through the eye of exoticism or orientalism, but I think the real essence is something different. I think if I try, I can probably do it.

Do you see the work you’re doing — the focus on the mind, spirit, thinking, qualia — contributing to the birth of a new consciousness in Japan or the world?

I do! That’s a difficult but fascinating question. I can’t say I am fully aware of all the implications, but I hope that if we understand ourselves in fuller terms, people will find more interesting and enriching ways of living.

For me, this separation between the sensual pleasure found in the great works of art and music, on the one hand, and the trend toward dry, digital, technological, scientific advancements — I think the separation of these two trends has been damaging to the human soul, to our psychological states in general. I feel our nation is also affected by this separation between these two different trends.

So I’d like to envision some direction in which we can merge these apparently different directions by studying qualia and related subjects. I think when we look deeply — you cited Jung earlier — when we think through, deeply, I think these two different trends actually originate from the same root. We have to really see that, I think.