Art & Culture

Yngve Holen

Extended Operations
Reading time 57 minutes
Yngve Holen, Purify glial, 2019, bronze, 44 x 33.5 x 25 cm, Courtesy the artist; Galerie Neu, Berlin; MODERN ART, London; Neue Alte Brücke, Frankfurt. Photo: Ben Westoby.


The camera team from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is coming in an hour, so let's see how much time we have.

Ok, an hour is probably good.

Let's see how far we get. What do you want to discuss today?

Well, we want to see the monkeys. Is it possible to see the monkeys?

There are no experiments done today because of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is coming with a camera team. The animal house is closed.


Closed. Nothing to be seen.


I can tell you it's boring.

Boring. Okay.

All you will see is a black painted booth where the monkeys normally sit, and they sit in the plastic chair, and they watch a monitor in front of their head. They have electrodes implanted in the brain, and then there is a plug on the surface of the skull. They get plugged with a flexible wire, and then they sit in this flesh. They have to sit in the chair because we do not want them to have their hands free -

To take the plugs off?

That's the only reason.

They're like us.

So they sit there. They have buttons to press, which they can manipulate. And they look at the video monitor. We ask them to fix a small dot on the screen so the eyes are at rest - so we have control over the eye movement during the whole trial. The dot appears, they fixate on the dot, and they have to remain stationary. Then we present patterns at places we preselect, places where we know the response areas of the neurons.

And what do they do?

They have several tasks, they have a simple detection task, they have a movement in the pattern - just to keep their attention. Or if you want to examine the effects, we show two patterns, so the color changes a little bit. So, for example, it's now pink, ignore the stimulus on the left side, you have to pay attention to the one on the right. Respond to a change here, respond to a change there, and it further complicates.

Pretty boring. I wonder if people could do it. They might need ADHD drugs.

Monkeys do not use the internet so they do not have ADHD.

That's true. Another task is to study memory. We show them on the monitor, a sample on the monitor. It could be artificial, a graphic, natural images. Then you switch off, there's a delay. The monkey has to remember what they've seen. And then you show them a test picture, and they have to decide: Have I seen this? Is it from the samples or is it new? And it's also how you arrange it. The same: press button right. Different: press button left. But they do not have a chance to be rewarded.

How do you reward them?

For correct performance, they are rewarded with a few drops of fruit juice - stuff that they like. And then they work while we record activity from their brains, until they had enough.

How long do they work?

Sometimes they work three hours, and they stop working, and sometimes they fall asleep. We then wake them up again. But if they do not want to, they do not have to - we do not force them. So they go back to the animal colony and we revisit them two days later. That's the procedure.

Animal colony?

That's what we call where they live.

Where is that?


Can we see that?

Not today.

So they work for juice?

They work for fruit juice. After a while-well-trained monkeys get pleasure from just getting it right. We associate with correct responses, and another one with incorrect responses. So they know beforehand if they got it right or not. So they know if they're doing well or not. If they quit fixing, then the trial is aborted. Even if you do not give rewards, they have feedback.

You're working with the visual system right?

I take the visual cortex as a model structure, but I could work in the auditory cortex, or in other parts of the cortex. Assuming that the functions realized by this very special circuitry are generalizable. The visual cortex is probably on the same computational algorithms with the information it gets as the auditory or tactile cortexes.

Why the visual cortex?

Because it's well explored. Because we have experience with it. I worked a lot on development in the visual cortex.

Doing what?

What we try to achieve is this huge amount of information that we have accumulated in our brain. The body of knowledge is stored in the cerebral cortex, and it is possible to access it so quickly. You make an eye movement every 200 milliseconds, meaning that every 200 milliseconds the sensory evidence that you get changes. And you have to match this on the fly with these stored priors, and you have to pull out the right priors in the image and identify the object.

How can this be done? What is the storing space like for such a thing?

Clearly it's not like in computers where you have it in your list or serially. Memory must be highly parallelized, you must superimpose all this information some-how, and then have rapid access to it. The hypothesis that I propose is that this can only be done if you do these operations in a very, very high-dimensional-state space. For this you need high-dimensional dynamics, and there is a very relevant structure in the cerebral cortex. You have nodes or columns in the network made up of cells. And these cells have certain responses, they are attuned to certain fea- tures - orientation, direction, motion, color, contrast, and so forth. These are some of the more complex, represent combinations of elementary features. These and other nodes, columns, or classes of cells, they are all reciprocally coupled in the visual cortex, it is the same principle. These couplings decay in an exponential fashion with distance, so everyone talks to everyone directly. To talk to someone further And the very important feature of these connections is that they are adaptive, they can learn. They learn according to the well-known grouping-sensation rules, or feature-detecting neurons that have a high pro- bability of co-occurrence in natural envi- ronments. They are here, there, because there is so much collinearity in the outer world - there is a lot of order in the visual world, in the world in general. What happens is that neurons code for features that tend to co-occur very often, like oriented lines that are colinear. Gold same texture here, same texture there. Or coherent motion, which is also a globally coherent pattern that sequentially activates neurons that prefer the same direction of motion.

Are these regularities in the environment captured by the gestalt principles?

The gestalt psychologists have put together a whole set of principles that can be used in the context So the idea is that ... Well, there is evidence that these connections learn these contingencies, which they do not know when they exist between features that are very often co-activated in a correlated way.

What does that mean?

Meaning that these features tend to co-occur very often. So these neurons look at all the features in the scene and encode for features that are worth being bound. With all likelihood they belong to the same object because they have occurred together. They then form - those neurons that are preferentially coupled - they form an ad hoc set of coherently active neurons that become synchronized. Much more easily than neurons that are only weakly coupled. So what you get is very dense, very dense network of recurring connections, these reciprocal couplings between all these feature-detecting neurons that have been learned in the past about the statistic regularities of the environment. This knowledge is now sitting in the functional architecture of these connections. It's latently there, it's not read out yet. The asymmetry in these couplings are the latent storage of this knowledge that you need of these priors.

What is your chaos? The input is chaos?

I should first say that this is a complex, but very complex, high-dimensional pattern of activity that evolves or emerges from this network. It is as though all these priors, all this knowledge, was latently encoded to be understood. It's hovering around everything and superimposes very quickly. And then you get sensory evidence from the visual or touch system or whatever. Then signals come in that match some of the in-built priors. That will drive the neurons that are preferentially coupled, and these neurons will immediately exchange their activity and become coherently active and synchronize them. 40 Hz, 30 Hz, gamma frequencies are shown in the brief oscillation in the particular frequency ranges.

What does that do?

All of a sudden it reduces the dimensionality of this state space. There are more of these synchronized, less complex, more orderly, and these substates, they now represent the result of a match of the incoming sensory evidence with the already stored knowledge. And because they produce these low-dimensional synchronized soft states, they are propagated forward, and can be very easily classified. They are more consistent than what you had before.

What if you have a stimulus that has never been seen before? Something unique?

That would not have much internal structure. It will also create a substate, but it is a substitute that is much less ordered. It would be the collapse of low-dimensional, and it's much more difficult to classify. This is the hypothesis we pursue. It has a little bit to do with reservoir computing or liquid computing. Echo-state computing -

Is that like neuromorphic computing?

In a sense, it is of course neuromorphic, because you're adding neurons to it. It's quite different from what you read about these deep learning networks that do packet classification. All these recurrent connections, they are simply feet-forward connections, many layers. They are good in classifying feature constellations, but they do not extract semantically meaningful objects, let alone relations between objects. They just classify a bunch of features. So it's a very different principle. You find recall networks in the brain, in all cortical structures. You also find them in the hippocampus. You do not find them in other structures. They are an invention of evolution.

Why did it evolve?

Because recurrence allows you to create these very high-dimensional dynamic states. You can imagine if you have a lot of things to do and a lot of things to do. You can not intuitively imagine them. Some people say the dimensionality of this system is infinite. You can not really imagine what it is. Nor can you get a good intuitive grasp of dynamics. We talk about time being the fourth dimension. Here we're talking about very, very, very many dimensions. It's quite strange that you have a machine in your head that does not have any good intuition.

What role do concepts play in this?

Basic. If you had no concept in mind, no working hypothesis, you would just collect data and you would not know what to do with it. The space that you can explore is really infinite, recording the activity of all those neurons. If you would not have a hypothesis, or at least an intuition or what is the case, you would not know what to look for. So usually this type of research is hypothe- sis-driven.

But what is a concept?

A concept?

An idea. How does it emerge?

It's part of our ability to reason. I guess what you have to do is content with a certain level of abstraction that you can establish semantic relations among the different elements of this content, following logic and principles in general. And trying to arrive at a coherent picture or interpretation of facts that you are aware of. That's usually what we have as a concept. It should be free of contradictions and it should have explanatory value.

But how do we form this in the brain?

We have no idea. It is probably closely related, in humans at least, since we are speaking animals, to the organization of language in our brains. This painting is finished. But you need to make judgments, it is also based on a concept. Where that concept comes from is unknown. We do not know much about that.

I first read your work in the context of the debate about free will, more than 10 years ago. It was a big topic. We were reading an old manifesto today from 2004, discussing how we know a lot about brain regions, and what we can study small things, neurons, but what is happening in between is completely unknown. Is this still the case?

I think we have accumulated a huge amount of new data using new technologies, but conceptually we have not advanced that much. We are at the turn of the moment of what we consider 20th-century neuroscience and 21st-century neuroscience - the difference being that 20th-century neuroscience was still more in the framework of cybernetics.

What do you mean cybernetics?

It was more in the framework of serial operations in the hierarchical system, that is input-driven, does something, then there is an output. While we are seeing a lot of things, the self-organizing system of nonlinear dynamics, that is generative, that produces hypotheses, questions, all the time.

It talks mainly to itself?

Only a fraction of the synaptic activity in the cerebral cortex are made by input from the periphery. All the rest - 90 percent - comes from within. It is a constructive system that takes place in the environment and makes it more of a reality. We are very convinced that perception - the way we perceive the world - is a construction of the following results from a prior knowledge, from our expectations, and from a lot of implicit, covert knowledge that we have no control of. The brain computes on the basis of sensory evidence and presents this as an experiment. But very often we do not know it.

Making the question of free will -

I think neuroscience constructivist supports philosophical stanzas. The free will question, in my eyes, is a trivial one. If you believe that ... Unless you take a dualistic stance, and you really think about the world of consciousness and psyche and spirituality being a ontological entity apart. And then you have the material world on the other side, and the two in some mysterious way interact. Unless you defend this position, you have to assume the naturalist position that all of the mental functions, including our consciousness, our feelings, and so on are the result of neuronal interactions. If this is true, then what you do, what you decide, what you feel, what you see, must follow the laws that govern the activity in the brain. And these are the laws of nature. So causality is on important principle and obviously acts there as well. How do you think that you can only depend on your own brain, a little bit of serendipity, some noise. Dice sometimes falls to the right, and sometimes falls to the left.

But that does not make you free.

It just makes you dependent on hazards rather than laws. It does not help much. I think it's trivial. This whole debate only got heated because people came to the wrong conclusion, which they read out of the papers. I never said this. If you are not free, in the sense that you could have done anything else, but you just had this reason, this was your free will decision, I would say, the reason for this was because of the brain has a history It may be well aware of this history, even though you may not be aware of it.

So, you could have done anything, but just did this, then you can not be responsible for what you do.

This is of course nonsense. You are the author. Who else? It's you. So you are responsible, which implies that society must have the right to tell you: look, what you did not accept. We do not allow you to do that. It's what we do with our children, even though here we think they are not free, because we do not think they are mature enough to have free will. We punish them or reward them, so I think this whole debate was the media. The hype comes and goes.

But it triggers a lot of discussion on the level of law. Some people believe that neuroscience shows that the criminal justice system makes no sense.

But we do not know enough about the brain to abolish it. If you find a cause for an inappropriate behavior that is neurobiologically linked, using X-rays, MRIs, whatever, like a jury, you would be able to do this. If you can not find it because your measuring instruments are not appropriate, then that person goes to jail. This is an interesting thing. Neurobiologists would say you have a neuronal cause for mis-behavior. It may not be a problem but the brain could be misfiring - there are many reasons you are in some ways for which you can not see a cause from out-side. So detectability of abnormalities becomes the decision to decide whether to go to the clinic or to jail. And this is a point that needs to be discussed.

Do you believe that there will be a fundamental shift in how do we treat abnormal behaviors?

Whether we can discover the causes is the question. We know the causes of Alzheimer's but we do not know how to treat it. But yeah, maybe in the long run. I think education is an important treatment. You can change the architecture of the brain through education, that is, through experience. The brain develops until you're 25.

And then?

Well, the process until you're 25 is still developmental. You have new connections and retracted connections, depending on the use. You wire together what fires together. You use correlations. And this is your way to adult architecture.
And then you have what you have, and you have to live with it. All you can do is still can change the connections, the efficiency of the connections.

So you can not make a new connection and you can not do it?

You can only increase or decrease the efficiency by changing the synaptic gain, which is learning. You can learn to control strange behavior that you have because of genetic wiring. You can learn to suppress it. And this plateau phase lasts until about age, probably my age, 70 or 75 or so. And then even under normal conditions, a loss of synaptic connections, a loss of synaptic connections, And then, yeah, you become cognitively impaired. You become slower, less sharp, maybe wiser, because you do not care too much about details anymore.

What are the possibilities of shocking the brain into reconfiguring itself? Gold even slow massive shifts in brain func- tion, like those you've discussed with the Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard?

We do not know very well. If you practice a lot of meditative routines you get to know yourself better, and that allows you to perceive the world at a greater distance. You have a more objective view of the world, what is perception? If you've seen your internal mirror, if you want to clean up your internal stream, then your picture of the world becomes more realistic. And that is alleviates suffering, and you become a better person. This is what Mathieu would say. To which extent this works

What about too much meditation? Can that make you crazy?

I have a daughter who does real research on this. The outcome is ... There is evidence ... It does produce a change. To which extent this is lasting beyond the practice, I would not know. I had one of these crashes in Zen meditation for a fortnight, eight hours in front of a white wall. Counting from one to 10. It did change something. I got to know that I did not know before, that I can react when I sit and be quiet. It certainly did something. We also know from trauma research and from the perspective of life that we can not help you. What do I do not know. We start to know a little bit about the consequences of prolonged stress on brain functions. And of course, has changed resilience to stress changes your behavior. But to which extent you can change the character of a personality is not known. With adult brains, through meditation, it is said that you can become a reliable reflector of reality. It would be a good idea to have a clean, clean, clean, clean, clean, and then it can just come in - I do not know if that's possible.

Can not realizing emptiness or whatever lead to psychosis? Like all forms of isolation?

It's a research question, but so far we have no empirical approach to answer it.

How much is western scientific examination done on these states of mind? Can you scan a monk's brain with an fMRI?

This has been done. Rich Davidson in Wisconsin has done quite a lot on that. Other groups have taken well-experienced meditators and put them into the tube or used EEG to scan them. If you want to see what you are doing, or if you need to learn a lot about your cognitive control, you need to learn more about this. not the intrusions come. You need some centers in the brain, and they light up when you do this practice. There is also evidence that some cortical structures increase in thickness, which are part of the attention network.

What do you think of rebooting the plasticity in adult brains to behave more like children's brains? Like, chemically?

That's what everybody would hope for, especially after injury.

What about technology improves our performance? Like fMRI machines in our phones or something? Do you think spatiotemporal resolution will improve so much in the near future?

Well, you can not carry around an fMRI machine in your pocket, you need a 3-Tesla magnet. You can do EG, very lousy spatio-resolution, because you have all this volume production. You can plant electro chips. You do this with para- lyzed people for a robot robot, for example. I am more on the skeptic side.


First of all, we have not understood the essential principles of the brain. Silicon Valley people produce these good-looking machines and neural networks, and they have fantastic performances in classification, but that's it. Playing Go is nothing more than that. You just have to learn from examples. If you have enough time, and it's enough that it's a trial and error, then it's a strategy that's super good. They are outperforming us on particular tasks. My phone outperforms me when I do a numerical calculation. Let them do it. It's fine. Nice servants. I come from a time when I still used the ruler to calculate logarithmic numbers or tables.

So these tasks are abstractions of biological processes?

Abstractions, approximations, guess work. We do not really understand how the cerebral cortex does what it does - it only takes 30 watts of energy. Compare that with what computers use, it's like a city in which we can do our heads. We have much to learn from it. They probably will not understand it. My guess is that it's going to be another substrate, because it's analog computing, and it's not so much in silicon. So far they have no technical implementation of a clever learning rule. It all has to be calculated, embodied in a chip. So I'm very relaxed. And I know I'm in good company, because everyone who does not make big money with machines but who really wants to get to the point of the essence of what they are, they share my skepticism.

We've encountered a lot of optimism in tech. Do you think they'll catch up to your skepticism?

Certain computer people, those who really made the advances to the theoretical level before all the limitations, and they realize that they get the same problems: how is the relationship problem, how do you get a representation of a leaf on a branch of a tree in an environment. You have these many brackets, and in language construction you have the same thing. The way Google Translate This does not compare to the world literature in the original language. And they match it until it fits, but this is not how we do it. We try to get the meaning, we search the right vocabulary, it's a completely different science. And we call these functions generative functions. These machines can not do it because they lack essential features of organization that we have. But unfortunately these are the features that engineers hate. They hate the recurrent network.


Because it's not controllable. You can not analytically analyze it, not mathematically because it's too complex. It's too non-linear so you can not really predict what it's going to do. So it is this runaway kinetics that must be very well controlled or else it gets epileptic or it dies out. And all these problems make them find other solutions.

You could argue that airplanes do not flap their wings like birds.

But this is aerodynamics. The cognitive principles used in the brain, in my opinion, are still in some respects radically different from those used in supercomputers. It will take quite some time until we have done our job, and we can only build 30 watts, and start to be a little bit like a fly. If you look at a mosquito, and the intelligence of this mosquito - I'm sure you've tried to catch one at night - you start to admire these little machines: there's nothing in the world of energy efficiency and cuteness.

What are the challenges in the next ten years in neuroscience?

Cope with the dynamics and the complexity. We now have the tools, and this is really new in the field. Until we could look at more than one node of a network at the same time, people used to observe one node in different stages of the brain, one after the other. This precludes you from seeing relational constructs. You can not clap with one hand. As soon as you start this relationship, you are doing this and you are doing something else. As soon as you see that these two things are related, it's no longer noise. The more of these nodes you record simultaneously, the more you see that everything is coordinated with everything in a very subtle way.

So if you look at a single place it looks like noise, but if you look at many places it looks like a pattern?

We can finally do this. With modern technologies, optimal recording, we can look at thousands of nodes at the same time. We get this extremely high-dimensional data, it's just dots and curves - you can not make any sense out of it. So you need machines in order to detect patterns in there - machine learning - and you need mathematics to cope with these complex, high-dimensional vectors. It's not only vectors, it's trajectories, and the trajectory of vectors, because of activity changes in time all the time. It must, because it does not have a concept of time flowing. If it always stayed the same, time would not move.

It's like we need new mathematics.

Yes. We need more conceptual work to make sense of the data. We can collect it much better than interpret it. New technologies have opened the field up. We are able to record neurons at the same time, we have anatomical methods to see the whole network. You could definately trace it, but that does not really help you. What you see is complexity and very high-dimensional dynamics. And somehow this goes well together. A complex system will develop such dynamics. The real problem now is what to do with all these facts - how to make them work, what are they going to do? you get, as we said initially. You never know if it's a side effect or not worth pursuing if it's the real thing. Before you have a concept you do not know.

It's the most we know how to know the little we know.

This is exactly what my feeling is. 20 years ago, I thought I understand today. There is a lot of progress but the insight into not knowing has grown more quickly than the insight into knowing has.

What about neurological diseases? Do you have any insights into slowing the aging brain?

There are different aspects. Obviously with degenerative diseases we get more and more a handle on the mechanisms and the causes. Therapy is a big problem. It's not easy to interfere with these processes. We know roughly what's going on we are not yet able to stop it. That can change rapidly with technology, since we can really hunt down genes and manipulate gene expression, but we are not there yet. But I do think we will have a cure for certain degenerative diseases, so it's Alzheimer's I'm not sure. Maybe Parkinson's. ALS is about to be solvent - at least in the near future.

And what about psychiatry?

It's very different, because there we do not understand what the problem is, where it resides. All we know now - and we have a number of conferences on it, the Ernst Strüngmann Conferences, which used to be in Dahlem. We had three or four psychiatric diseases. The bottom line is the taxonomy, the diagnosis, is very coarse. What we call schizophrenia probably has a very different result, a very different mechanism to something else we call schizophrenia. It is probably very different diseases, and the same with autism and so forth. So we need a better classification and taxonomy of it before we can do systematic research. We have some hyimpotheses of what's going wrong if you look at all of them, they are not coherent yet. This is a reflection that we do not understand very basic principles of cortical functions sup- porting higher cognitive functions.

Does that mean that there is no progress pharmacologically?

Very little. All the drugs that we have now have been serendipitously discovered 50 years ago, with added modifications to alleviate certain side effects. There's no new principle so far. Lithium for depression. So the field is failing, and the field is searching for solutions, and the field does not quite know where they will come from. It's a big problem. We are helpless here.

What does lithium do for depression? I just watched Homeland recently, and Carrie's prescribed lithium -

It acts like sodium in the brain, but it works in some patients because it changes excitability levels. But we did not really come to grips with it. Deep brain stimulation has also been developed.

For Parkinson's?

We do not know how to work for Parkinson's. It has been examined in animal experimentation, and there is a good concept behind it, and they have realized that when they got it wrong, they did not want to stimulate it. So there was this revival of psychosurgery, which we had already condemned 50 years ago.

Is it bad for the brain?

Stimulation is thought to be reversible, but I doubt it, because if you stimulate the brain, it must change something. It is an active field, trial and error, ethically questionable sometimes, because these interventions, unlike prescribing a drug, are not subject to the same ethical criteria as drug development.

So the FDA is something we should hold on to?

They require endless trials, double-blind and so forth, before treatments are approved. With deep brain stimulation it is enough, because it is a method, if the patient and the psychiatrist agree that they should have an intervention. If they find a neurosurgeon to do it, they can do it. They do not have to ask an ethical committee and so forth. And of course money is involved. It started in patients who are so-called helpless, who can not be helped pharmacologically. So desperate cases, who do they agree because they see the last resort. And if you look at what they do, they try here and there. I was directing the Academy of Sciences for a while, asked to analyze the situation, stop it, and do what you have to do on ethical committees. These patients, long-term follow-up and long-term care, have a long way to go, and they also publish negative findings. I hope this will stop this hazardous, aleatoric playing around with brains.

We were in touch with DARPA-associated institutions - the Lawrence Livermore Institute in San Francisco. These are implanting these chips - electronic devices - in the brain, with the hope of being remotely. It's not there yet, but proof of concept is. But for Parkinson's it seems to work.

There's something to it. I can imagine that certain forms of major depression can be treated that way. By stimulating the reward centers in the brain. But so far there is no canonical recipe.
We did transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Ah yeah. We have these machines here.

The idea is that early artforms made by prehistoric humans - from the north and the south - resemble each other because trance states activate the visual cortex in the same way that TMS does. It sounds dangerous when you talk about it.

No, TMS is not dangerous. Maybe it can trigger epilepsy.

He just triggered it a little above the neck.

You see phosphenes. You've got to bring it up in the cortical area, and all of a sudden you'd see faces appearing. Imagery. The question is why do we draw stick figures all the time? This might be a genetic imprint. Because the body is so similar in all mammals. A head, a trunk, and four paws. Either you could take the stance that it is a very high degree of abstraction, or it is the most primitive representation of a mammal. That's always the discussion, right?

What do you think?

I think it's both.

What do you think about virtual reality?

Ah, great opportunity for art. I've been to several symposia recently on the chances of using virtual reality and augmented reality. Because it can really be absorbed completely, which can not be more I know Daniel Birnbaum, the former director of the Städelschule.

Yeah, I was studying there. He taught a philosophy seminar.

Ah, I know him well. He is moving from the modern art museum in Stockholm to a virtual reality, because he wants to make this technique available to artists. It's certainly something that should keep in mind. Cinema started to outperform theater to some extent. This will certainly replace the current video monitors in exhibitions.

In terms of simulating experiences, it can also work much better with emotions like empathy.

Yeah yeah. Because you can fool the brain if you simulate the sensory evidence. You can also take a flight simulator at the airport. They have all noise and vibrations.
There you can really embed it. I saw these pilots sweating. There they were sitting in a simulator, and they really felt they had to do it right. So you forget very quickly that you are in a simulator.

We saw Star Wars in 4DX. The seat was rattling, and there was a plastic tube that tickled your legs, and was squirted in your face. I put my jacket on, it was freezing.

VR becomes reality again. It capitalizes on the knowledge that the brain has about the world. You give it a few things to eat and it will rebuild the rest.

© Yngve Holen 2019. ETOPS IIII, edited by Yngve Holen and Mathew Evans.


What do you want to know?

How did you end up here?

I was invited to, uh ... I was given the job 36 years ago. And I've been working with INPA ever since.

We spoke with your colleague, Charles.

Uh huh.

And we're in touch with Susanna. Something we had discussed with the challenges of biodiversity. How to manage these unknown quantities? How do you fund biodiversity management?

Well, from my end we have almost no money. Brazil's in a crisis. But before Brazil was in a crisis we had very little money. We did a calculation and it came out to be something like 1 cent per hectare per year. It's almost 1 / 100th of a hectare per year for the most of the Amazon. People have trouble because they are not understanding how big the Amazon is, and just how few researches there are, and there is little access to it. People often think of a 1-million-dollar project, which is a lot of money for the most famous people in the US or Europe, where you're talking about a couple of square kilometers, and there's easy access to get there by road or trail. But here, when you spread that over 7 million square kilometers, it's very little. That's our biggest problem-the scale of the area. Things can happen that you do not know happen, because you're not there. And local people do not have education. They have the laws, but they do not know their rights. So they tend to get walked into big business and corporations in the Amazon.

And it's hard to control that business, because of limited monitoring possibilities. You do not know who they are, and what they do with that.

It's still easy ... Well, it's not easy. There are a lot of people in the Amazon. So we could get that work force organized, then they would do a lot of protecting themselves. But at the moment they are not thinking about that. They're thinking about high technology themes. Thinking about going in and finding that leaf that will cure cancer. And very few people are thinking about the Amazon as a productive system, and that there are lots of people living off it. And other things like world climate are so popular.

What many people in the world consider the project of saving the Amazon.

People think that there's nobody in the Amazon, but there are millions of people here. And the spells of agriculture they had done, and had sustained the ecosystem. If you replace that with large-scale monocultures and the size of the ecosystem, you usually do not make a lot of money. There are a lot of perks and strange business deals that go on. A few people make a lot of money. But for the area, there's very little production.

There's all these factories here in Manaus. We've been here for about 5 days. Electronics factories, automobile factories. We see them everywhere. How do you look at Manaus as a city that is inte- grated in the rainforest, that works with it?

In a way it does. General Manaus a lot of money. And that money can be used to sustain people and all sorts of things. And Manaus effects a very small area in the forest, because it makes little demands on the forest. It's sort of a little enclave. There's virtually no hinterland around Manaus. No agricultural production. Most things are flown in. The Free Zone-the original idea was put by the military government. In order to attract a lot of people to the Amazon, they would cut down the trees. And the military also thought that communists would not be able to hide in the grass then, so they would solve their problems. They wanted to get rid of the jungle. It did not work that way. But what it has been doing is an enclave of generals, which is good in general. The State of Amazonas is one of the best preserved states in the Amazon. But it's also one of the richest states. That's because it's living on a Free Zone. And there are all sorts of opportunities for high technology, and there are more opportunities for education and healthcare. Other states like Pará and Rondônia and Acre, they do not have those benefits, so they try to make money by cutting down forest and putting in cows, soybean, and other things. I'm not against the Free Zone for very large reasons.

The Amazon stretches across 6 countries. And those countries do not have the same political or ecological agenda. There are also European and Asian countries coming together, interested in the hydropower possibilities, for example. What kind of environmental scopes does scientific research have and what do you do?

One of our biggest projects at the moment is to do an environmental evaluation of all the sites where hydroelectric dams are planned. At the moment, the government requires an environmental impact statement. The problem is that they're already putting in the dam when they're doing the environmental impact statement. And it costs lots of money to take away the dam. So what we are going to do when they are planning the dam, because they plan these dams 20 or 30 years before. So if we can go in and evaluate the biodiversity in these places, we might be able to determine the potential of the potential for the area, or the potential loss if the dam is built. And then the idea is to try to optimize, to get as much energy for the least loss of biodiversity. We have to do the surveys now, and that's what we can not get money to do. If we invest now, we save money later. But there are a lot of advantages in the planning process, and there are even more biologists, because they are used for nothing. So, one of our biggest projects at the moment is the integration of environmental planning and biodiversity. But another big problem is in those countries that supply water to the Amazon. They're putting in an enormous number of hydroelectric dams, and we have very little influence there. Ecuador, so we can influence what goes on in those other countries. But it's much harder.

Yngve's from Norway. And we know that Norway invested 100 million euros or something into saving the rainforest.

We're having a lot of joking about what's happening with that money. Charles said that he was going to Brasilia, where they were ... People were brainstorming about how to use money. And he said if you're going to save the rainforest, why do not you just build a fence around it, with guards? Why invest in a bio pepper seed?

Why invest heavily in the extraction economy? Why not just put a fence up?

I talked to the people, but they were really interested in investing in carbon. And carbon trading. And that's a good example of the size of the problem we have. So they have all the money, but they can spread it so thin that they end up not being able to do anything. Because what you have to do is integrated planning for the whole basin. And they end up for a bit of money, and it's a bit of a normal program, it's not ... the whole of the basin. And it has to be integrated.

And what about this fence?

I think they're not against ... They want to work with the people, give them other opportunities to make money. It's just, we do not have a good deal for the whole of the Amazon, we do not know where it's best to invest. So people have been putting lots of money into the Amazon for a long time now, in terms of trillions of dollars. But it just seems to disappear. It's not going into a system that builds for the long-term. So I do not know how to make this money go well, but we do not know any of it.

There seems to be a lot of unknown aspects of the Amazon.

Yeah, that's the thing. There is a movement within the biodiversity section of the Ministry of Science and Technology that is more efficient in that way. But that movement came just at the time when Brazil went into a crisis. When we had a little bit of money, there was no planning, but now there's no money, we're getting around to planning.

How do the Amazonian people feel about monoculture?

You see, there's very little organization and there's no communication. So people then see it. These things just eat away from the Amazon, and those local ideas and knowledge. These people are all very poor, need money, and they do not have very much employment. So cutting down the forest looks good for them for a while. And then they find that when monoculture goes in, there's no more forest. They can not live there anymore, so they might go to the periphery of the city and become city dwellers. People do not see it happening. It's just going to be up on them.

So there's no real economic alternative to chopping down the rainforest?

It's not going to happen, because we've got a lot of poor people out there, and they're worried about the health of their kids and better conditions. And the only way they see they can do it is to have roads and cell phones. And they do not see what's happening. It just keeps nibbling away. The only place you have to go back to when you're going to be in the forest.

Chico Mendes, in the 80s.

Yeah, but that's 30 years ago. That is not happening now at all really.

We've been hearing that they're trying to create more economy through extraction products. Brazil nut, acai.

Well that was ... The idea then and now is that the people would have standing forest products. And basically they've never had the support. They have never had the government doing these tests in those production systems. Because it's very different to invest in a lot of very small-scale farms, which produces a small amount each. You have to have an organization to get that going. Each person working individually does not work. You could say the same thing about Europe. You could say the small farms in Europe, they're trying to keep them going in Europe, but they want to do something about it. And here it's even more difficult. And so the Sustainable Development Reserve in the other reserves, the people do not have the lifestyle, the basic education and health requirements, and it's really hard to make that work in the long term.

Aesthetic industries are never going to be efficient enough to justify the fate of the Amazon. Basically, the Amazon does provide all of the water to all of the growing regions of the southern part of Brazil, and there's all these carbon things. The world wants the Amazon status, so the Brazilian government wants the Amazon status. But they do not want to invest the money they need to make the lives of the local people better. So the local people do not see any alternatives. So what's really needed? The state of Acre even subsidizes the rubber, because it's better to subsidize the rubber than have people cut down the forest. But we do not have that we have a larger scale. We need it, but we're not going to get it. Let's go to the Amazon, what we need to do to consolidate the infrastructure, consolidate the health and education. And that would not take that much money, instead of wasting money making new roads. You can see the same thing in the south of Brazil. 40 percent of Brazil's agricultural production is just wasted. It never actually gets to the table, because of the bad infrastructure. They're always trying to start something new instead of investing in consolidating infrastructure that's already there.

Maybe some kind of longterm partnership with an outside investor? One of the energy partnerships? Or is that asking too much?

There is big hydroelectric potential in the Amazon, and there's no way that people are not going to use it. It's just to use it sensibly. They put in Belo Monte, but there will be enough water to run it. And so they're going to say, we've all these trillions, and the problem is the Indians who will not let us down the drain. They will not let the water flow into it. And then they'll want to go to the Kayapo lands and destroy those. And this frontier mentality ... instead of saying yes, you're not going to be able to preserve the whole Amazon. People are going to want it, and they're going to use it in new ways. But we should go carefully, consolidating. And part of that consolidation is the products, the small agriculture, the standard crops, the tree crops. And putting it in the system so they function, instead of trying to expand. We have to get rid of the frontier mentality. That's the problem.

So what is the Amazon if it's not a frontier. If we think about it globally?

Firstly it's a mitigation system. It stores 1/4 of the total carbon.

Hence the carbon trading.

Well, yeah. Do not get too complicated ... We've been discussing dams. The Amazon is a giant water pump. Basically, the northeastern trade winds, as they go past, they collect water vapor. And that brings water to Latin America. The rain falls in Uruguay, Paraguay, the plains of the basin. Argentina. Mato Grosso. All these areas are the grainery of Latin America. These agricultural economies are worth something like 1 trillion dollars. Of course, they are necessary for those economies to function. Of course no one country Amazonas for providing that function. And that of course is a problem we have globally of not recognizing public goods and services.

It's also the North-South issue.

Globally, yes.

Nice caiman head. And that crocodile over there. Where does your fascination come from? Are you from Australia?


Because we went to the floating forest, near Tefé. And we saw caimans for the first time and they were terrifying creations. What's attractive about them?

Everyone's attracted to seemingly terrifying animals. Tigers, elephants. There are all sorts of things that are terrifying. But I do not know. I had an opportunity to work with them when I was in Australia. Caimans-like this one-are compared to crocodylidae. If you were up by Tef, you saw these caimans floating around the lodge. But if they were crocodiles, they would eat people. It's very different. So I just ... There was a time when it seemed like it would be a good opportunity for local people to hunt caiman. They've always hunted caiman. They've always eaten caiman. Not so much in the State of Amazonas, but they export to the State of Pará. For a long time they thought it would be a good business for the people. But they have run to all sorts of problems, mainly from the agricultural industry, which wants to kill them. Take them to a house slaughter, and hang them up. But that does not work for a wild animal. Although it does work for some animals, but not for these. They just become inedible if you do that. It's the only country in the world that requires that. All the other countries in the world-like Australia, the US-where they hunt crocodilians, they treat them like fish. So there's a big opportunity for the local people to have ... to make money out of these caimans, but we're not making much use of it yet.

You can make more money from the skin than the meat probably.

Both. The skin has a reasonable value, but it's the meat that makes it worthwhile. If you can not sell the meat, it's not worthwhile to hunt. It's also ethical, to go out and kill a big animal like that. Just taking the skin and throwing the meat in the water.

They have an amphibious style.

Well, yeah, in the sense that it lives in the water and it nests on land. It can walk on land. They're not amphibians. They're pretty interesting animals. The can do all sorts of things. They have the most complex vertebrate heart. They can do all sorts of things that birds and mammals can do, and they can do all sorts of things that amphibians can do. They can swim like a fish, gallop like a horse. Their eyesight is much better than bear. They see well at night, in black and white. They also see more colors than us. They have color vision like birds. So a crocodile looking through our eyes would think that he's color blind. They do all sorts of amazing things. They're special creatures. And they've been around a long time. They used to feed on dinosaurs, and they're still feeding on us, and they'll still be feeding 50 million years from now.

I read somewhere that the crocodile was around when the mammal was still extremely small. It was not evolved into a large order.

Mammals were pretty small back then, skidding around. They did not take off until the dinosaurs died out. Though all of the archazoes died at the end of the Jurassic Period, except for the crocodilians and the birds. And the birds are dinosaurs. They're just dinosaurs. But all of the other dinosaurs died out. Only the fangs and birds survived.

Is there any explanation?

Nobody really knows. There are a lot of freshwater things that survive. Possibly because they live in fresh water. They think that the meteorite hit the earth, and cut out the sunlight for years. There are no green plants producing anything. And so the animals eating the green plants died out. How the birds did it, with their high metabolic rate, nobody knows. But perhaps they were able to migrate to the little bits of food that were left.

Felipe told us to be in touch with you. Do you have any relationship to his restaurant? I know that INPA and the restaurant are trying to work together. Do you have a food passion?

I coordinate a very large project called CENBAM. It's the National Institute for Science Technology and Innovation for Amazonian Biodiversity. And one of our researches is Noemia Ishikawa. And Noemia studies the fungi. And she's interested in that. She's descended from Japanese immigrants. And she had a lot to do with-I think it was her grandfather who started growing shiitake in Brazil. And so when she came here, she was trying to promote the use of the Lentinus strigo- sus species. She just spent some time in Roraima, with the Indians up there. The Yanomami. And they have dozens and dozens of species of mushrooms that they eat. So it looks like it could be an industry. Either an extracting industry for the Indians, or an opportunity to grow them. Noémie has been working with the people who have the nut plantations, and they have to cut the excess branches of the Brazil nuts, and they use those excess branches to grow shiitake. With all of that, it's no good having production unless you can sell it. So people like Felipe have been helping you, because you need a whole production chain. It's not enough to just go there, and say, who can grow it, who can it, and who can sell it. You have to make sure you keep going and be consistent. So that's why we work with Felipe.

What kinds of technologies are used to map biodiversity?

Well, there's been some advancement. And people of the race are looking at the map. Mosquitos, for example. Which are very dangerous, and very expensive to get rid of.

Did not the Americans kill them with gasoline when they were building the Panama Canal? Just drenched the whole landscape with gas.

They are still trying to commit specicide on around 30 different types of mosquito worlds. But there's a lot of different species of mosquitoes, and if we get rid of a few, the landscapes will hiccup, and who knows better. We're still a long way from knowing the extent and complex behavior of these ecosystems.

What about smartphones? Bird apps?

Those are being developed too. [Laughs]

Is it like sleep? With all these apps we can now test sleep patterns.

Nature does not use the same apps as us. People are really interested in these things. Things like the food and the small industries and what not. We do work with that. But it's not going to make a big difference over the Amazon. The mosquito technology is useful immediately, but that's a whole other story. Our technology is about environmental impact statements, and how you can do it, and put it in a system where you can do conservation planning. So the system that we developed is on biodiversity monitoring. That system, the repel system, is used as a basic-impact evaluation system for dams. It's used by Obama. We work with the federal government and the private sector. We do a lot of training. We're developing that. Each one of these little industries is really interesting, and everyone likes to do it. If you can stand there and hold out: I've developed this tomato. It's something that's palpable. But it's harder to get people interested in long-term planning. Because nobody sees it. If you plan well, everyone expects what you should have done. If you plan badly, everyone complains. If you do it, everyone thinks it's normal. That's our main line of attack- get people planning between different sectors, like mining, the energy sector, the transport sector. So that we can integrate that with biodiversity.

How is the political sphere responding to this?

Surprisingly well, but slowly. There's not much money. That's the whole problem. As we were starting to get there, the money dried up. There's often resistance from places you would not expect. Like from biologists, who have been used to doing their own little research and not having to interact with anybody, and they are publishing it in some journals, and it has very little impact. So it's really changing culture. And scientific culture is very interlocked. We actually have ... It's not more difficult to work with politicians than it is to work with the biologists.

We spoke with a chef who has this restaurant in São Paulo. Fancy restaurant. It also has this social-ecological branch, called ATA. And they help the Baniwa produce this really delicious pepper in the Northwest.

© Yngve Holen 2015. ETOPS III, edited by Yngve Holen and Mathew Evans.

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