After providing all the funding for The Brain from Top to Bottom for over 10 years, the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction informed us that because of budget cuts, they were going to be forced to stop sponsoring us as of March 31st, 2013.

We have approached a number of organizations, all of which have recognized the value of our work. But we have not managed to find the funding we need. We must therefore ask our readers for donations so that we can continue updating and adding new content to The Brain from Top to Bottom web site and blog.

Please, rest assured that we are doing our utmost to continue our mission of providing the general public with the best possible information about the brain and neuroscience in the original spirit of the Internet: the desire to share information free of charge and with no adverstising.

Whether your support is moral, financial, or both, thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen




Thursday, 14 January 2021
Being rich makes you less empathetic (even when it’s just Monopoly money)

Today I’m going to talk about the work of social psychologist Paul Piff, whose research interests revolve around social hierarchies, economic inequality, altruism and co-operation. I learned about Piff while working on a French-language documentary inspired by the book Capital in the 21st Century, by French economist Thomas Piketty. In this documentary, Piff explains an experiment in which people playing the board game Monopoly showed disturbing changes in behaviour when they won repeatedly because the researchers had rigged the rules in their favour (more money to begin with, more dice to roll to pass Go more often, etc.)—in other words, had given them more power. I have touched on this same subject in an earlier blog post, about Dacher Keltner’s research on how wealth alienates the wealthy from their humanity. And it turns out to be no accident that these two authors’ findings are so consistent: as I just discovered this morning, they have published many articles together!

In a 2013 TED Talk, Piff describes the behavioural changes in the subjects who had been given these special advantages. They made more noise when they moved their pieces, displayed more dominant body language, even ate more of the pretzels that had been placed on the table. But most disturbingly, as Piff relates, once they had won a game, they took much of the credit for their success even though they knew that the rules had been rigged in their favour. One can’t help being reminded of something that Piketty has demonstrated over many years of research: the self-satisfaction and lack of empathy shown by so many millionaires even though they owe their wealth mostly to an inherited family fortune. (In this respect, I find the tribute to Bill Gates at the end of Piff’s TED Talk somewhat puzzling.).

Maybe the best hope for breaking this vicious cycle of concentration of wealth that predisposes the rich to exploit the poor even further lies in exposing the rich to environments that, according to Piff’s and Keltner’s research, can generate empathy faster than you might think, In a 2015 article in The New York Times, they write:

In still other studies, we have sought to understand why awe arouses altruism of different kinds. One answer is that awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger. Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another. In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.

Emotions and the Brain | Comments Closed


Monday, 14 December 2020
Using science to create art.

Some scientists use science to create art. One good example is Greg Dunn, a neurobiologist and visual artist. They are a startling combination of the precise images captured by neuron-imaging technology and the traditional techniques of Japanese ink-wash painting, also known as sumi-e.

More recently, I have discovered the impressive image of David Goodsell, who transforms deadly viruses into stunning works of art. Goodsell is a biologist who studies the molecular structure of cells at Scripps Research in San Diego, California. The watercolours that he paints with such precision represent the molecules that compose human cells and the bacteria and viruses that attack them constantly (such as the HIV, Ebola and Zika viruses below, as well as coronaviruses). (more…)

From the Simple to the Complex | Comments Closed


Friday, 13 November 2020
Serious problems in the reproducibility of brain imaging results

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, the results produced by brain-imaging technologies such as fMRI are subject to at least two limitations. First. they detect neural activation only indirectly, by monitoring blood flows in the brain. Second, the methods used to analyze such images are subject to many forms of bias. These limitations were confirmed in a troubling study by Tom Schonberg, Thomas Nichols and Russell Poldrack, entitled “Variability in the analysis of a single neuroimaging data set by many teams ”, published in the May 20, 2020 issue of the journal Nature. (more…)

From the Simple to the Complex, From Thought to Language | Comments Closed


Monday, 26 October 2020
Behaviour as a control loop located outside the organism

With his famous Chinese Room Argument, philosopher John Searl raised an important question: can a computer understand Chinese (or French or English)? Probably not, if the results of some of today’s computer-translation programs are any indication. Unlike computers, we human beings can usually grasp the meaning of things fairly effortlessly, while a computer cannot. Many neuroscientists believe that to explain why, we must look more closely at the biological substrate of the brain, and in particular its long evolutionary history. (more…)

Uncategorized | Comments Closed


Tuesday, 13 October 2020
Our perceptions are shaped by the possibility of imminent actions

Affordances are a key concept in cognitive science, first advanced by J.J. Gibson in 1966. As I explained in an earlier post in this blog, an affordance is an opportunity that an object offers to take action. A hammer, for example, offers the opportunity to be grasped by its handle, and a chair offers the opportunity to sit down. What is interesting about this concept of affordances is that the opportunity for action does not depend on an object’s characteristics in any absolute sense, but instead is relative: it depends on the possible relationships that a particular organism may establish with that object. A tree, for example, offers different affordances to humans, who may use it as shelter from the rain, or crows, which may use it as a perch, or to woodpeckers, which may use it as a place to hunt for food. Moreover, as the above illustration suggests, any given object (again, such as a tree), may inspire different affordances for a given organism (such as a human) depending on that organism’s motivations and/or the broader general situation. (more…)

Body Movement and the Brain | Comments Closed