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George Paxinos, the mind mapper, turns to fiction with his novel A River Divided

At 78, Professor George Paxinos is a pillar of the scientific group. He’s a former president of each the Australasian Neuroscience Society and the World Congress of Neuroscience, and at the moment a Scientia professor on the College of NSW, along with his personal lab at Neuroscience Analysis Australia (NeuRA). In his profession as a cerebral cartographer – actually, a mapmaker of the mind – he has recognized and named extra mind areas than anybody in historical past: solely 4 years in the past, he found a wholly new construction, considered concerned in fine-motor motion, which he gave the snappy-among-brain-experts title of Endorestiform Nucleus.

These accomplishments are much more spectacular on condition that Paxinos himself, a slim, wiry determine in a white shirt and bicycle-friendly trainers, sitting in a modest workplace stuffed with preserved cross-sections of human and animal brains, isn’t even a educated neuroanatomist. Born in Ithaca (and lately honoured as one among Greece’s most influential scientists of the previous 200 years) he educated at Berkeley and Yale as a psychologist.

Certainly, he was on sabbatical at Cambridge when he first observed that the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which was getting used within the lab for unrelated work on rat brains, truly delineated cerebral buildings and cell groupings much more dramatically and distinctly than conventional stains. “So I thought, ‘I will do an atlas of the rat brain using this stain, then I will go back to psychology.’ ”

Paxinos did return to psychology – he lectured at UNSW, together with introducing its first course in environmental psychology, till 2001 – however along with his long-time collaborator, Charles Watson, he additionally saved making atlases. Even right now, if you would like somebody who can take a mind (rat, marmoset, human) and slice it into a number of thousand 40-micron cross-sections (about half the width of a human hair); stain it; {photograph} it, and – crucially – find and determine its buildings extra clearly and precisely than anybody else on this planet, Paxinos is your man. He has printed 57 books; his very first, The Rat Mind in Stereotaxic Co-ordinates, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this 12 months, stays probably the most cited work in neuroscience of all time.

However science isn’t every little thing. Which may be why Professor Paxinos did one thing surprising. He stepped off the excessive street of empirical reality he’d adopted for nearly half a century, and started to frolic on the wild and rocky shores of inventive creation.

In different phrases: he wrote a novel.


A River Divided is a couple of feminine scientist who clones Christ. Twice, actually. For a primary novel, by a scientist, about such a wild matter, it’s an unexpectedly partaking learn (Bryce Courtenay was a mentor, after Paxinos attended a writing workshop). The e-book tracks the lives of two boys, genetically an identical to Jesus Christ, and their responses to the crises of world warming, rainforest destruction, and a planet on the point of environmental destruction.

Christopher and José – the results of a (surprisingly plausible) cloning experiment by an Australian scientist utilizing the bones of Christ – develop up on reverse sides of the world, Christopher in middle-class Sydney, Jose within the slums of Buenos Aires. One turns into a hydroelectric energy firm govt, one an environmental activist. Each are unaware of one another’s existence till their paths collide – as all environmental journey paths inevitably should – within the Amazon.

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Printed final October and lately dubbed one among “five eco-fiction must-reads” by wellness web site Carousel, alongside Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winner The Overstory and Barbara Kingsolver’s bestseller Flight Behaviour, it’s additionally the expression of George Paxinos’s personal views about human beings: how our brains dictate the way in which we’re, and the way we have to change to save lots of the planet.

Paxinos has lengthy been all in favour of environmental causes. He based the Mild Rail Affiliation in NSW in 1989 within the hope of lowering atmospheric air pollution, and spent 10 years preventing to protect the tramway infrastructure of Sydney. He additionally based the Randwick Environmental Group, and is a eager bike owner – he stood as a candidate for the Australian Cyclists Social gathering on the 2015 NSW state election. So what can arguably one of the best cerebral cartographer on this planet, who can also be a psychologist with a deep private curiosity in environmental points, inform us about averting ecological catastrophe?

My secret hope is that he’ll instantly announce that we truly possess a bodily construction inside our brains that governs morality, ethics, altruism: all of the qualities we require to do the suitable factor by one another, and by the planet. Then he’ll clarify how, just like the well-known London cab drivers and their super-developed hippocampus (the mind’s mapmaker), we are able to train this construction, stimulate it, and develop it to its full potential.

Surprisingly sufficient, nevertheless, it’s not fairly that straightforward. The neural buildings underpinning moral behaviour are terribly advanced and never but absolutely understood: a single ethical determination may contain enter from a number of sectors of the frontal, parietal, temporal and limbic mind areas, in addition to varied subcortical areas. Besides. Isn’t there an opportunity, at the very least, that we (or fairly, Paxinos) may uncover a single construction, someplace deep inside our gray matter, that would mediate our potential to save lots of the world?

“Let me answer that indirectly,” he says. “We don’t know of any place that if you lesion it, you can make somebody moral.” Mind harm can change an individual, he agrees: “You can suffer damage to the frontal lobe and have disinhibition: so you express feelings or opinions you might otherwise keep to yourself. But that’s not ethics or morality. And damage to the thalamus can make rats very aggressive; and this is known also in humans: there are areas of the brain that dictate attack behaviour. But one region that changes attitudes, codes of morality? No.”

“I saw the brain of Einstein in San Diego. It looked absolutely unremarkable.”

What in regards to the mind of somebody completely exceptional – an Einstein or a Jesus; a Muhammad or a Confucius? A River Divided is actually a narrative about how Christ may reply to the worldwide environmental disaster, in spite of everything: may his mind, or that of another genius, maintain a solution we are able to’t see in different brains? Would possibly it’s structurally totally different to the typical mind, in a type of Phar Lap’s-enormous-heart type of means?

Paxinos smiles. “I saw the brain of Einstein in San Diego,” he says. “It looked absolutely unremarkable. You can see the physiology of many super-abilities: larger organs, greater muscle mass, things like that. But not in brains.”

He pauses. “And yet there would have to be some difference in the brain [of Einstein compared to Joe Average]. Consciousness is certainly the product of the brain – there’s nothing ghostly about it – and we know a number of things about how it is created: about neurons and connections and systems. So perhaps for someone like Einstein, the speed of conduction is higher; or there are greater synapses … certainly, something is different there than in ordinary people. But we don’t know what. We haven’t found anything that holds water.”

MRIs of a living human brain.

MRIs of a residing human mind.Credit score:

After all, Paxinos is a cartographer; figuring out the neurological capabilities of the buildings he finds is as much as others. However his unparalleled expertise among the many brains of different species offers him a singular perception into ours. “Unfortunately, we are a Stone Age animal,” he says, smiling. “And in evolutionary terms, we have a Stone Age brain. What you realise when you study animal brains is how very similar they all are – even the human brain.”

In response to Paxinos, regardless of our trendy “adoration” of the human mind as distinctive and extraordinary, it’s truly not such a world-beater; not even, maybe, a world-saver. “Certainly, at the moment, we are busy building the conditions of our own extinction,” he says matter-of-factly. “And we have to consider the limits of evolution. To address things like climate change requires enormous, large-scale behavioural modification: is that even possible, given the intellectual, motivational and emotional capacities of our brains? I don’t see that it is.”

Nonetheless, it was with this objective – large-scale behavioural modification – that he started writing his novel. “I wondered if, by writing something, I might be able to change behaviour upstream. Not by telling someone, ‘Don’t cut this tree down,’ but by making them not want to cut trees down in the first place.” To do that requires altering the human mind not through genetics or bodily intervention, however by asking individuals to query their assumptions, interact their powers of empathy, and – actually in addition to figuratively – change their minds.

And really, this type of change is one thing the human mind is extraordinarily well-equipped for: it’s our potential – unequalled in another species – to analyse, adapt and be taught. It’s nurture fairly than nature, surroundings versus inheritance. “Neural plasticity is well understood,” agrees Paxinos. “The fact that after you leave here you will remember that we met: that has to be through some change in your brain – some physical change on a microscopic level. Perhaps synaptic formation; facilitation of existing synapses; even expression of some gene rather than another. However it happens, the brain is altered in a tiny way.”

This doesn’t imply such change is straightforward. “I used to give my students in environmental psychology a questionnaire when they entered the course, and when they finished after a semester. Hardly anything moved, I have to say! It’s very hard.”

Nonetheless, Professor Paxinos presses on. His novel will probably be printed in Greece this 12 months, and plans for UK publication are underway. By way of his day job, in the meantime, he’s additionally engaged on a brand new, gold-standard atlas, this time utilizing residing brains through magnetic resonance imaging that can permit for a 3-D digital viewing alongside typical laborious copy.

“I don’t have confidence that our brains are pliable enough to change significantly to meet the problems that we face.”

“They’ll be the highest-resolution images of a living brain in the world,” says Dr Steve Kassem, Paxinos’s co-author (together with Dr Mark Schira) on the brand new atlas. “There are other people doing brain mapping in the world, but there’s nobody like George. At the 2019 Society for Neuroscience conference – which is the international conference in the field – they had a comparison of George’s 2008 atlas, not even his most recent one, with the brand-new online atlas from the Allen Institute [a multimillion-dollar American organisation that employs more than 100 researchers]. And they were showing all the ways George’s was superior, because of its resolution and its accuracy and its detail. There’s no one better.”

“Well,” says Paxinos modestly. “[The Allen Institute’s] got a lot of good things. But you actually just need one or two good people to do the work and have the experience. If the work is good, it stands up.”

George Paxinos’s profession is proof of this. As for the way forward for the world – effectively, pessimism isn’t any excuse for inaction. “I don’t have confidence that our brains are pliable enough to change significantly to meet the problems that we face,” he concludes. “But there is nothing more important we can do than try.”

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