Henry Cole Lecture 2010: Professor Uta Frith
Beth McKillop, Deputy Director, V&A:
The purpose of the Henry Cole lecture is to celebrate the legacy of the Museum’s founding director and to explore his legacy and its implications for museums, culture and society today. We are delighted to present the 2010 Henry Cole lecture in association with the 350th anniversary celebrations of the Royal Society. Founded in 1660, the Royal Society is the academy of science for the UK and the Commonwealth. Over the course of its history it has played a leading role in the development of modern science.
I have great pleasure in welcoming this evening’s speaker, Professor Uta Frith. Professor Frith was born in Germany and studied history of art at the Universität of Saarlandes in Saarbrücken. In 1964 she moved to London where she trained in experimental and clinical psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry. She specialised in child development and its disorders, in particular autism and dyslexia. She’s been affiliated with UCL since 1968 and, with funding from the MRC, has worked as an independent research scientist. In 1996 she became one of the founding members of UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and is now Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development as well as Visiting Professor at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. Professor Frith is currently interested in the impact of cognitive neuroscience in education and chairs a working group at the Royal Society that is preparing a report on this topic. Professor Frith has received many honours including degrees from the universities of Gotenburg, St Andrews, Palermo, Nottingham and York. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society and at the British Academy she currently chairs the Psychology Section. At the Royal Society she chairs the Library Committee. She is also a Trustee of the Sir John Soane Museum.
Please join me in welcoming Professor Uta Frith.
Professor Uta Frith
Well, I think I do need to explain why it is me who is giving this third Henry Cole lecture. The lecture this year also celebrates the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society and there are connections between the V&A and the Royal Society, in fact all over the place. Even when you just came this evening you might have noticed the little exhibit about chocolate. Did you notice it, just coming in here? Well, Sir Hans Sloane was, of course, a Fellow of the Royal Society and he brought a particular recipe to make – to add milk to chocolate – to make milk chocolate. So I’m very pleased that all of this is just casually mentioned here, but there are the British Galleries in the museum where there is quite a section around the time of 1660 which was the year when the Royal Society was founded. In fact, it was November in that year, so we have now November and in fact this is me here, pointing to a bust of Charles II who gave the Royal Charter to the Royal Society.
So I’m here as a neuroscientist who might say something that’s interesting to museum education. What I’m really trying to do today is to answer a question that was put to me by Morna Hinton, the new Director of the Sackler Centre. She just said – I’m anticipating here – what goes on in the mind of people who visit the museum? Now first of all, I want to show you a really famous Fellow of the Royal Society. This is Albert Einstein, probably as you do not know him. He is in the Royal Society portrait collection and perhaps also you may not know that there is a marvellous collection of portraits and all sorts of other artefacts and wonderful archives that is always used for continuous exhibitions at the Royal Society and you can look at the website and come and have a look round. You may also perhaps not know that there is a Centre for the History of Science at the Royal Society. But the real reason why I choose this particular Fellow of the Royal Society to start this lecture with is because he has said this marvellous sentence. ‘I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.’ Now isn’t that a nice thing to say and perhaps quite a few of us, if it wasn’t presumptuous, would say ‘Yes, I feel like that as well’.
Now there are connections, way back, between science and art at the V&A when it was still called the South Kensington Museum. And I thought I should point out that the original entrance to this museum – and you can see this wonderful building just if you go into the garden – just look at the door, you will see a relief portraying science and another one portraying art. And it is science AND art, not, as we often see it, science versus art. And this was because the museum, the South Kensington Museum, was interested in both science and art and it took some time until the museums were split into science, across the road, and the art and design collections here. So this is the door and you can see these panels where indeed we see these nice pairs with twins – we have chemistry twinned with architecture – Davy with Bramante, we have astronomy twinned with sculpture – Newton and Michelangelo on one side. You should really look at these doors one day. Mechanics and painting – we have Watt and Titian.
Now inside the museum, of course, there are other souvenirs of this original connection of science and art. For example, the wonderful, flamboyant ceramic staircase that goes up to the National Art Library which you can see is still decorated with symbolic figures of science and art. But there are other connections very much alive now in the very, very vibrant Sackler Centre which is the V&A centre for public learning through creative design and the arts. And you’ve just entered through this particular centre. And I have talked to quite a lot of the staff there over the last year and have been incredibly impressed by the work that’s being done here. It really is a model for, I think, museum education all over the world and it is completely inspiring to see the activities that are being done, the workshops and of course that whole work with school classes or with families. So really one of the striking things to me was that actually this work did use a scientific approach to evaluate what was going on and I’m really delighted about this so that even, I suppose, the very fact that I’m giving this lecture shows that the people at the Sackler Centre are interested in using science to inform and perhaps even enrich the work on education they’re doing.
Now let’s go at least now to Henry Cole himself. Here I obtained a photograph of Henry Cole in his garden with his friend Richard Redgrave who was the head of the schools of design at South Kensington. Again, right at the beginning of the museums, the schools of design were part of the whole enterprise. So Cole’s vision was very, very much that of education and improvement. And here is, I think, a quote by him which is absolutely to the point, so it really does bear reading this out. ‘By proper arrangements a Museum may be made in the highest degree instructional. If it be connected with lectures and means are taken to point out its uses and applications, it becomes elevated from being a mere unintelligible lounge bar for idlers into an impressive school room for everybody.’ And I think it is an impressive school room for everybody.
So what insights can neuroscience contribute at this stage? As I’ve already said, this is a question that I’m trying to address – ‘What goes on in the mind of people who visit the museum?’ Now I should warn you that I’m going to use the words ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ completely interchangeably. They’re really the same thing. And another thing I want to point out is that I shall quite often use strange language – I shall say ‘our brain does this or that’ rather than ‘we do this or that’. So when I say the brain does this or that, it always implies that we are completely unaware of it. This is something that just happens, probably automatically, and we can’t do anything about it. When I say ‘we’ do this or that, then we are very consciously aware of it. Now the interesting thing, of course, is that probably most of what the brain does is on this very, very unconscious level and we are only just beginning to get more into the mechanisms of that.
Now this is a sort of brief outline of what I’d like to cover tonight. What are the things that matter to our brain and also matter in museum education? So I’ll talk a little bit about how natural it is for human beings to teach others and how natural it is to learn from others. We don’t learn equally well from everybody. We learn best from people we trust. Our brain can very automatically look for intentions in things, not just in people and what they are doing, but also in objects that were made by people. So it is an automatic question again at an unconscious level – why was the work created at all? But the brain does more than that. It also very automatically computes something about actions – how was the work created? And we are not aware of this most of the time. For the brain to learn, authenticity matters. And I think that this is also really something that is essential in museum education. And then I have to talk a little bit about values and rewards and things like that, because they matter – they are the engine of learning in the end. Expectation matters. We need to know what we see in order to learn about what we see. And perhaps it will mystify you slightly when I say that I’ll talk about exploration and exploitation, but I hope it will become clear in the course of this talk. And finally we get to what is curiosity actually? How is it working in the brain?
So I would propose immediately that the museum is like a brain for society. All these coloured bits and all these white bits really are all the unconscious part of the brain. So in the museum too. When you go just slightly behind the doors you see a different world. Many, many specialised things, rooms, facilities, cleaners, people who conserve things, people who do all sorts of jobs – very specialised jobs. And that’s the same in the brain. But of course there are also the public galleries, things that are shown off. All of these wonderful objects that we can see everywhere. And this, I would say, is more like our conscious brain. And if we can say, many people believe that the brain is the most complex structure in the world, we can also say that the V&A is greatest and most comprehensive treasure house in the world. And indeed I believe that there are 4.5 million objects in the V&A and maybe there are 4.5 million objects in your brains. Names of objects and objects and things and events.
Now human beings are the only species who teach deliberately. And our brain has a natural disposition not only to teach, but also to absorb what is being taught, to learn from being taught. So there are particular signals that our brain is responsive to. For example, a pointing gesture. I hope you would follow my pointing finger because that seems to be something very automatic, we think there might be something interesting there, you will probably attend to me because I’m making gestures, I’m addressing you as somebody who wishes to say something that might be of interest to you. You see in this picture, the teacher here she has exactly that kind of expression and she shows something which sets the context for learning to happen – quite natural and quite informal learning can happen in this way. But of course in the lecture theatre the learning is very, very explicit, very conscious and very different. So it is always a mixture of all of these things.
We learn very much by observing others. This is very good because we don’t all have to make our own mistakes. We don’t just have to experience everything and see what goes on. We learn from others not only by observing people and interacting with them, but we also learn just by observing objects that were made by others. And how can objects teach us? This is, of course, of interest in museum education. What do you do? They don’t have these signals of race, voice or gestures or pointing. You need to place them in a particular way so that they attract attention. So that’s one way that you can do a sort of ‘wow’ thing – you place an object in the limelight and then you can’t fail to be attracted to it. Another trait is that we tend to attend to things that other people attend to – a sort of herd instinct here at play. But that’s all not quite enough. We have to get closer. Objects have to be displayed in a context so that the learner can perceive the essence, the why and the how. Not just be attracted and then go away and be attracted to something else.
There are these social pressures in museum education. We learn from others, we have a sort of herd instinct, we like what others like. And here is actually an experiment that shows that this is true for even 3 year old children. So they are introduced in the following way. A child is shown this picture and a little game and it says here ‘My name is Jordan. I love playing Kazoop’. Nonsense word. ‘Kazoop is my favourite thing to play.’ Here, ‘My name is Bailey. I love playing Baba. Baba is my favourite thing to play.’ And now comes the test question, the child is asked which one would you like to play? And what happens is the 3 year olds choose the novel toy which they’ve never seen before if it’s endorsed by a child of the same age and the same sex. That’s what they like. So that’s how you decide. And of course we know very, very well that this kind of influence from peers is particularly strong in adolescents. And I’ve got something here from the V&A collections of costumes. Of course, this is also true for adults. Now I want to show you how in this, trying to see how we can like objects or value objects that trust is really, really the important, the key word. Trust matters. And I’m going to show you this with the example of this extraordinary puzzle box. So here I will submit to you that you could just by being an adult and showing that box and how it works to a child, you are already imbued with trust by the child. The child will learn from you immediately. In fact the child will learn from you something very silly, because that’s how the experiment is set up. So in the middle of this puzzle box there is a little toy. The adult goes and pushes various levers, rings a bell, all in a particular fashion until finally he can lift the flap and takes out the little toy. But really there is a much quicker way. You could get this little toy straight away by going to that flap. Now the interesting thing is that children copy the adult’s wasteful strategy in opening the puzzle box. They assume the adult must have a good reason to do all these funny movements. In a way when they are asked afterwards, ‘Why do you do that? Why do you do all these silly things?’ They are very offended and they say, ‘This is the proper way. This is the way to do it.’ Clearly it has to do with trusting the adult and it is known as ‘over-imitation’. Because it’s very interesting that only human beings who do this over-imitation and chimpanzees do not do that. They know that there are these silly movements that they don’t have to make. They can go straight to the object. Now the interesting thing is that young children persist in this over-imitation, even when they are in a competitive game where the competitor beats them by going straight to the object. They will not do that because this is not the way to do it. So I believe that this is one of the mechanisms that is really crucial in the transformation of culture. It’s crucial behind valuing a design, works of art. It’s not enough just to have a leaf to drink water from, you want to have all sorts of interesting instruments – porcelain perhaps, silver and all sorts of beautifully decorated things to drink your water from. So children over-imitate because they trust the actions that they see the adult performing, more than they trust their own senses. And the brain is automatically geared to do this. Adults do this too. They learn from people they trust, but this is a funny thing about trust – it has to be earned and it can easily be lost. I believe that museums have built up enormous social capital in trust and this is really quite unique, especially if you compare it to such institutions as banks, for example. This, of course, enhances their role and their success in teaching.
Now which of these pictures do you think is the real Rembrandt? ‘Once …’, this is what Martin Kemp says in his paper – ‘Once you know it’s this one, that’s the real Rembrandt, you let go of your liking of the other portrait in case you choose that as your preferred one.’ Here it is. Is it true? It’s no longer as nice. As Martin Kemp says, ‘Like a former lover, no longer blinded by love.’ So of course it matters very much that we know what it is that we are looking at and it is culture that shapes what we enjoy about it. Our brain is not a camera. What matters is not the thing as it appears to our senses, but what matters is what we think a thing really is, hence our great preference for the real Rembrandt. What matters is why a thing was made and how it was made, the object’s history and the intentions of the person who created it, the techniques that were used to make it. Our likes and dislikes are influenced by our belief and our trust in others, telling us about the ‘why’ and ‘how’.
Why it is done matters. This is the brain’s automatic concern with beliefs and intentions behind the work. I’m going to briefly tell you about this experiment carried out by my friend Paul Bloom who says that if you want a foolproof recipe to make a 3 year old cry, this is what you have to do. You take a scribble – the child probably has made a drawing and says, ‘Mummy’. Then you say to the child, ‘No, it’s not, it doesn’t look like mummy, it’s not mummy’. And this, according to Paul, will invariably result in wails. Here he did the experiment where he asked a child first to draw a lollipop and then to draw a balloon. And then, because they look so similar, he says he tries to name them with different names, but the children protest. They will not wish to name the lollipop a balloon, even if they look as similar as this because it is meant to be a lollipop.
Actually I’ve put in this hobbyhorse, again from the V&A collections because I’m now coming onto one of my hobby horses. This is about attributing intentions and beliefs in a very automatic and spontaneous way without any conscious effort at all. So the brain is spontaneously taking into account these intentions and beliefs, our own and those of others. And even when we are looking at objects – it doesn’t have to be a real person there – and of course it’s even more so when we observe an artist creating something or even more so when we create art ourselves. To me the interesting thing is that individuals with autism are not able to spontaneously attribute intentions and beliefs. So that is very, very interesting because what on earth is it like not to spontaneously attribute intentions? And one experiment that we tried to do asked this question – let alone attributing intention, but what about can they remember intentions? Can they remember their own intentions after they did a drawing like with the lollipop and the balloon example, except we had much older children and this wasn’t quite the right thing to ask them to do. We also asked whether they could remember another person’s intention and this is how it was done. Can you see it? Roughly, so we have four airplanes and they are absolutely identical except for the colour. And we asked the child to draw just one of these planes, but we gave the child only a black pencil. A very nasty trick, because that means there is no visible sign of intentions, the intention is in the child’s gaze, that’s how we could establish which plane they were actually drawing. Now, ten minutes later, after other things happened, from memory, the child was given this drawing back and they had to say which airplane they drew. So, for example, the child could say, ‘The red airplane’. And exactly the same was done with the experimenter drew a plane and he looked intently at one particular plane to reveal, as it were, at this point, the intention, but the intention was not in the drawing itself. And again, the question was asked, what plane did this experimenter intend to draw? These, very briefly are the results. They were 6 year old normally developing children with 20 11 year old children with autism. And as you can see here, most of the normally developing children can recall their own intention, there’s a little bit of memory loss, but not very much. But not so the autistic children – very surprising that they couldn’t remember that they wanted to do the red plane, even though they were asked just to do this one plane. The others’ intention could be recalled OK, but again the autistic child couldn’t do that. And this was not to do with any failure of memory because their memory for other things is usually very good.
Now let’s come to another chapter. This is ‘how it is done’, the physical actions behind the work. Again, I claim that the brain is automatically computing this kind of thing and, of course, the underlying mechanism you might have heard of are the mirror of the brain. These were recently discovered and they are extraordinary neurons that are distributed in the brain that code, at the same time visual input and motor output. So the brain spontaneously links an observed and a performed action. For example, you see here a ceramicist making beautiful leaves. Just watching that person or even just looking at a still photograph of that person means that mirror neurons fire that code what is being done and these would be the same mirror neurons that would fire if we did the same action ourselves. The mirror system also allows us to align with other people. Again, I took this picture from the photographic collections of the V&A to show you two things. First of all, we see an emotional expression and we automatically configure subliminally the relevant face muscles. We are also ready. If we see a smiling person, we are ready to smile, we don’t usually suppress it, but it there is you measure it in the muscles. Of course, this is a kind of alignment between people, this is why we have groups and of course groups are a very important part of museum education. You know that groups can do things together and also it’s very nice to see such a happy group, which reminds me that I must say something about pleasure and reward. Reward really matters to the brain. It really is the engine of learning. The way this is done is by prediction. The brain seems to predict what’s going to happen and it values outcomes accordingly. Unexpected rewards really are valued most highly.
Now let’s come to authenticity, which is such an interesting topic. Why does that matter so much to the brain? Does it matter that, for example, the museum has a website where you can see all the collections, you can look at all the pictures, why should you even go to the museum? Actually it turns out that the visitor numbers have not fallen since the collections are visible on the website and I’m reminded here of what actually happens in a slightly similar way with money. Because money is worthless paper, but there is something interesting and strange, if you really look very closely on your banknote, it says ‘I promise to pay the bearer £20’. Of course, I have no idea what would happen if you did go the Bank of England and said ‘You promised to pay, now please pay me’. But I think that in the museum this promise is fulfilled. If you know there is this object in the collections, you know, it’s not just a picture, there is the real thing somewhere, you can actually go and see it. It’s a kind of trust in authenticity that is certainly no longer matched by the banks.
Now here is an interesting experiment, at least to me interesting, which shows that authenticity matters even in early childhood. This is an extraordinary experiment where the experimenter built themselves a perfect copying machine. You can see this. It copies 3D, real little objects. It’s all done by collusion with the parents. The parents brought the children in and one of their favourite objects they could bring in. The experimenter already knew this in advance hence that perfect copying machine. But what happened was that they said to the child ‘I am copying your exact object. Which one do you want to take home?’ It’s quite obvious, they preferred to keep the original they’d brought in and they didn’t want the copy even though it was absolutely identical. And the reason? Because it’s mine. Older children were actually shown a spoon, sometimes just a spoon with nothing else, just a silver spoon or wooden spoon. And sometimes they were told it once belonged to Queen Elizabeth. The 6 year olds valued spoons that once belonged to Queen Elizabeth much more and wouldn’t have the copy, only the real thing. So there is value in the very hidden and immaterial property of special objects, even though they were absolutely the same copy, they are not the same in the way we value them.
And I’d like to do an experiment with you, just like that. Here you see a gold and diamond snuff box and you see a silver snuff box. This gold and diamond snuff box was once owned by Herr Bonne in Vienna and this silver snuff box was a gift from Edward Jenner – and you know who Edward Jenner was – an incredibly important doctor who gave us the vaccine. He sent the vaccine in paper quills in this snuff box to this professor at Harvard who asked for them. In fact, the professor begged that vaccine material to convince the faithless. He vaccinated his four children and two servants. As he said, the six were then exposed to the smallpox without ill effect. Now my question is, I’m going to have this perfect copying machine, atom by atom. You have the gold snuff box, the real thing and the copy thing, would it matter to you which one you could take home, the real thing, the copy thing? And you have the silver snuff box, the real thing and the copy thing. I would guess that in the case of the silver snuff box that once belonged to Edward Jenner and had the vaccine that was taken to America, that the copy would just not do.
Here’s another picture from the V&A collection about Grace Kelly. This is actually about lack of authenticity and the very strange findings that can have negative effects on social behaviour in Essex. This is the experiment where they showed this. People were given Chloe sunglasses costing $300 to wear when they came to the experiment. Other people were given fake Chloe sunglasses which cost about £30 to wear. While they were wearing these sunglasses they were given some tests. It was quite easy to cheat on these tests. It turned out that the people wearing the fake sunglasses cheated more. And it also turned out, when they filled out some questionnaire while wearing these sunglasses about motives of other people and so on, they were far more cynical about the motives of other people than the people who wore the real Chloe sunglasses. So the conclusion from this interesting experiment is that being associated with a counterfeit product increases dishonesty and cynicism.
Now experts matter. Here again, is a photograph from the V&A collection. We have here one of the leaders of style and taste of the 1960s, Vidal Sassoon. Of course, leaders of style and taste were very much in evidence at the very beginnings of the V&A. We need experts to guide us. We have a special liking to be aligned with experts and this is the experiment that tells us about this. So people could freely choose pop songs that they did not yet own. You know how easy it is to do. You have a pair of new pop songs and you could say that this one I will have and then would then be very likely given that to take home. Then they went to the scanner and sometimes they were given this chosen song, sometimes not. When they were given their chosen song then the reward centres of the brain would light up, much more so when they were forced to take the song that they hadn’t actually chosen. But what was very interesting is that the reward centres lit up even more when the chosen song was one that experts valued more highly. Because what happened in the scanner, was there was the transmission of two DJs, experts on these pop songs, and they might agree with your choice or not. So if they agreed, people felt that it was very rewarding, as you can see here.
But prior knowledge, in general, matters. And this is another very interesting and strange experiment that was conducted at a subway station in Washington DC. Joshua Bell, a very famous violinist, was persuaded to play one morning at the subway wearing a baseball cap. And what happened? Well, no crowd gathered, very few coins were collected, nobody stayed for the whole performance, people lacked the right expectations and nevertheless many of those commuters would have paid hundreds of dollars to listen to Joshua Bell in a concert hall, but that’s when they would have had the right expectations. So this was the advert for him playing in a concert hall. So again here is something about the importance of having a little bit of prior knowledge, having some expectation in order to actually judge what comes into our brain through the senses.
So again, I want to say our brain is not like a camera and only values what it sees, but we perceive what we know and we guess and we send out little probes to test our prediction, unconsciously, of course. And when our predictions turn out to be wrong, then we get interested because we learn from prediction errors. But still, we need some knowledge to start with.
Now here is my very simple person’s view of two systems in the brain. There’s one system here at the back – that’s basically the driving neurons that process bottom-up information and here are the controlling neurons, the controlling system that processes top-down information – that’s where the prior expectations are. And just let me explain what I mean by top-down expectations. Any idea what this is? Hah! Now look at the same picture again. Is it now completely obvious what it is? This is an example of how top-down information changes your perception. And it’s not just a matter of waiting until all this information comes in – you’ll never get it. Do you know what these are? Perhaps you can see that they’re two male faces. Can you recognise them? Hah! Now I’m showing them to you – Prince Albert and Henry Cole. And I’m going back to one of the older ones and I hope you didn’t recognise them then, but I think now you can after having seen who they are. It might not work in this lecture theatre, but people have done experiments exactly along these lines.
Now I need to come to the curious brain. And I really tried to find research that was done and there was very, very little, but one paper interested me very much and the title of this paper was ‘The Wick in the Candle of Learning’, which seemed very, very interesting. So what the experimenters did here was that they gave people a kind of trivial questions game and they somehow did a very ingenious trick about finding out how curious people would be about the answers that they didn’t know. So now we get the questions where they didn’t know the answers and they had to, as it were, indirectly pay for the answers. So the more they paid the more interested they obviously were in that particular answer. They were paid by tokens. So the experimenters had a way of classifying the questions they were really interested in and the questions that they couldn’t care less about. They could then compare in the scanner the difference between the questions that aroused this high curiosity and those that didn’t. But what was really interesting in the experiment that a week or two later, the information was much better retained of those answers that they were particularly curious about and much less well than those that they couldn’t particularly care about the answer. They heard the answer, but they didn’t really remember it.
Now in the same experiment they also measured pupil size. Again, this comes from the V&A collection of jewellery and I doctored the pupil. You see when the person is very curious, the pupil widens and therefore it can reveal something about curiosity - this made it quite small. So they actually found that it is true, that the pupil opens more widely when an interesting answer is revealed in this questions game. So this is the time line in seconds, here are the answers as displayed and immediately after that there’s a real peak of pupil widening and it’s widest when it is the questions which had the high curiosity value where people paid more to get the answer.
Now I come to this mysterious juxtaposition of explore and exploit, which I’m really very interested in and I think it does relate to curiosity. Because the brain exploits when it consistently chooses the same option believing it has the highest rewards and it explores when it tries something completely new, something that might be better. Now here, imagine yourself with a tribe, millions of years ago. You find a fruit tree, you stay and you eat. That’s all very well, but you know it will run out some time and maybe just round the corner there is an even better source of food. So when is it time to move on? That’s a very interesting question because there’s a cost to exploring and usually in the tribe there are some people who are more likely to explore and some people who are more likely to just hang round and be quite greedy and just be rewarded by the fruit that they have at the moment. So the explorers are rewarded by novelty. And, of course, it’s good for the tribe to have both explorers and exploiters. And again, I want to show you my simple system – two systems of the brain. I think the exploiting uses this driving system where all these primary rewards are and exploring is using the controlling system. So you need to overcome your delight in eating when the fruit is still there and then you go and explore into something else. Now in the museum, I think maybe there is something like that as well, that you explore and then familiarise yourself in the sense that you find out more and more, you exploit, and then you move away again to explore and exploit. And maybe we have a very dynamic cycle all the time.
Now here is an experiment about this exploring brain, which I claim is in the front of the brain and indeed, in this experiment, it was shown very, very much in the front of the brain where these centres are, these activity centres. Now this is a very strange experiment which talks about a slot machine – a four arm bandit. And people can choose to have one of four slots to see if they win. And again you have the choice between staying with one that was good and useful or trying a totally untried new one. That would be the exploring. So there is this cost that you can try out and you can find out that when you explore you really have to overcome some kind of … suppress some other centres in the back of the brain. And these particular regions of the brain are known to be active in very, very high level kind of multi-tasking programmes that the brain does, all unbeknownst to us. It just works like that, but it has to inhibit. It’s a very high level of activity to explore and to go and be rewarded by novelty.
Now, does the brain do everything behind our back? I think almost everything. But an as yet hidden aspect of the brain gives human beings a self and self consciousness. Of course, many of my colleagues say that the self is completely deluded. It assumes that it is aware of everything, it controls everything. In fact, it doesn’t even control the controlling brain. So what is it that the self actually controls and what is self consciousness for? Very, very big questions, but I’ll try and give you a possible answer. I think the self is in charge and in control in communicating with other beings. And that’s when I come back to the analogue with the museum as a brain. These public galleries of the museum are the place for communication and this communication flourishes in millions of different ways.
Now, just a quick summary. What insights did I quickly go through from neuroscience that might have some relevance for museum education? I talked to you a little bit about sequence of communication and naturalness of teaching in the museum. We learn from others and there’s things being made. I talked a little bit about trust and the immense social capital of the museum. I talked about authenticity and that it enhances self worth. That we depend on prior knowledge, I think we would all agree. We attend to the why and the how of objects and we need experts to guide us. We love to explore and to exploit and to explore again. And if curiosity enhances learning and remembering, then it follows that the museum has a key role in lifelong learning. In fact, the museum is the curious brain of society.
Do you remember what this is? You can see it very clearly? This is one of the interesting things. Once you have that knowledge and that expectation, it’s there. It’s in your brain. And you can see this in a different way from how you ever saw it before. And you won’t forget it.
Now I think it’s time for the lecture to end. This little girl apparently fell asleep during the second sermon. Now boredom, of course, signals that some more rewarding task exists elsewhere and the right response is to explore elsewhere. Maybe the right time has come now for you to ask me some questions. I just want to finish with saying that inspiration and wonder are freely on offer both in the museum and in science. And I would like to thank the Royal Society and the V&A and of course I would like to thank you for listening.
I will catch your eye and direct your questions to her. Do I have a question? Yes – here.
Q: I have a question about curiosity. I’ve got some grandchildren and they’re very curious. And one’s experience is that children are very curious. And then one’s experience is that they tend to lose this – I’m speaking as a layman – they tend to lose this curiosity when they go to school – or quite a lot of it. That seems a very bad thing. Now could one measure that with your objective measure in the eye?
A: Yes, I think pupil size would be a way to measure it. You see that there are various experiments that can be very ingenious about distinguishing situations where curiosity is aroused and where it isn’t. I think it may be a little bit pessimistic to think that curiosity is only there early in childhood and then it’s all killed or dies down. I think that maybe, as the little girl I showed you, that the rewards in the novelty are not big enough to go and do something else. But I would guess that it is possible to find out what it is that might interest different people. This is not a necessarily very easy thing and there differences, I think, in the level of novelty seeking or curiosity in different people.
Q: Thank you very much. I just wondered if you would mind going back to the cow again because I missed it. I think I might have been looking away when you showed us it and I feel very left out now.
A: We’ll deal with this. You can’t see at all what this is?
A: Excellent. So we really use you now as an experimental subject? We have to go back. Have a look at this. Have good look at this. OK? I’m not using words, just have a look at this whole picture. And now have a look at this again. Do you see it?
A: Try again. You see this? You see how it relates to the body? Now we just get that cut-out picture, so you have the eyes here, yes? What about the faces? Did that work better for you? This would be very difficult to guess who they are, but as you know who they are you can already say which one will turn out to be which, which is very interesting at this stage when you only see these squares.
Q: It’s about mirror neurons – I’m just curious – does each neuron have a corresponding mirror neuron or is it the same neuron that lights up with the action of observing?
A: What you said last. There are neurons in the brain – in fact they seem to be all over the brain - that have this function of coding at the same time what the action that is observed and the action that is performed. This has actually only be properly demonstrated in monkeys and not yet in humans. In humans, to go to the very single neuron, the very single cell, is extraordinarily difficult. There are some examples where this has been done with patients who have undergone surgery where you can possibly stimulate a single neuron under very difficult conditions and it certainly has been verified that they seem to have the same function as in the monkey. So yes, there are neurons that code both the actions that we do and the actions that we perceive. They are mainly in the motor cortex rather than in the visual cortex. It’s all to do with action – it’s really understanding the world that you see through action. It’s very much highlighting the importance of doing things. This is what the brain probably originally evolved for – action.
Q: Thank you very much, Uta. I agreed with almost everything that you said, but I think that there was one thing where you might have been a bit – how shall I say it – Europocentric. That was about the added value of knowing the intentions of the maker and the processes of the making. And I’m just thinking about the vase that was found in Pinner last week which was sold for £43 million, not including the auctioneer’s fee – and the buyer didn’t know who made it, didn’t know who it was made for and had to just make inferences from the object itself. And I wonder if this is that the Chinese have a different approach to these things than us or whether there are exceptions to your general rule?
A: Well, I think it is very interesting that you raise this question because it’s quite obvious that sometimes we value a particular individual behind a particular work of art and very often this is completely anonymous and we don’t know who did it, but we know somebody did it and maybe that is sufficient. I don’t know whether you really would go as far as saying that there are cultural differences in this respect. As far as the existence of mirror neurons goes, that is so universal. That is absolutely - it would be very strange to find that mechanism working a different way. But of course, culture shapes our brain to a very large extent and we may become just slightly blind to certain things, like having a blind spot about intentions. You could imagine that if you really want to do it. I think do it deliberately. I don’t think your conscious brain is in control of that, but you can perhaps by habit or practice get that way.
Q: Just going back to somewhere at the beginning where you said that human beings were the only species to teach deliberately, I’m just drawing on animal films on television which may be an invalid source, but I’ve several times seen footage where a mother cheetah, for example, having previously brought back dead kill, brings back a stunned animal which is going to respond when the young have a go and so they’ve got to learn to kill it. There seems to be a deliberate change of strategy at a certain point of development. I just wondered if that counted?
A: Yes, I think you are absolutely right. This is a controversial issue. In particular, dolphins have been claimed to teach deliberately and of course, also cats, but also meerkats, I think and some other animals have been recorded in that way. Yes, it is controversial, but I am very persuaded by the fact that in human beings it is so very, very persuasive. It’s not just confined to hunting or foraging or something simple like that or at one age. Mostly what is observed in these examples of so-called teaching is that the adult animal, the mother, doesn’t make any special effort to be in the view of the child. If it happens, it’s a good thing, but it’s not done necessarily in that kind of interaction that we find very strongly in the way that natural teaching occurs with children, for example, the way that children pick up words that they learn. They really respond to certain signals in such a very automatic manner and we also behave towards children we want to teach something in a very strange way, like raising our voice and grinning and laughing and sort of looking at them. So there are these built-in things that are probably – I still would like to claim that they are quite unique to humans. There’s something else about this kind of learning, natural teaching and learning in humans which I find very interesting and that is, that it is claimed that what you learn is not particular facts – that’s what you learn in a lecture or in really explicit teaching – but in that kind of natural teaching you learn more generalities, which is an interesting idea and of course it’s still one that is just being – you know – put forward. People will do work on this. They will decide whether it holds up or not.
Ladies and gentlemen. I think we have been in what Professor Frith has aptly described as an impressive classroom and certainly feel that I have learned a lot. I don’t know whether I really have or whether my brain’s just telling me that I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to explore, but personally I’d like to express my great thanks and I’m sure you’d like to join me, before we move to the lounge for idlers, which awaits us outside and have a drink with our distinguished speaker, I think we all must put our hands together and thank you very much, Professor Frith, for a wonderful lecture.