It might not be immediately obvious why a neuroscientist should be interested in ancient Greek language, literature and history, but I believe the classics and the sciences are synergistic, and will increasingly be so as the 21st century unfolds.
My fascination with ancient civilisations began long before I set foot in a lab. Looking out from the grey and grainy Chiswick of 1960s London, the world of gods and goddesses provided an exotic contrast to contour maps, quadratic equations, dates of treaties, the life cycle of conkers and other classroom pre-occupations.
One particular mistress, Veronica Lemon, provided the intellectual turning point. Through her I discovered that reading and writing Greek was a way to gather wisdom. Greek stretched our schoolgirl brains to explore beyond the syllabus and exams.
One insight I've always remembered was the suggestion that the three Greek tragedians, spanning respectively three generations, reflected a transition in the human mind from a hapless pawn towards an accountable individual. The earliest, Aeschylus, described a blind determinism where human beings were mere victims of their fates, embodied in a collective Chorus. Then on to Sophocles, where the individual started to become differentiated and interweave with the divine; to be proactive as well as reactive. So, finally, to Euripides, where action and reaction were internalised as inner emotions and conflicts. One of our books described this transition as travelling "from the cathedral to the powerhouse".
It isn't hard to see why the Greek tragedies are still compelling. Questions about determinism, free will and individuality were heady stuff to a teenager. The perception that it is futile to plough through dead languages when science teaches us about real life was turned on its head. Greek opened up a window on that most intoxicating of subjects: philosophy. How would one distinguish an individual's "mind" from a generic "brain"? Is "consciousness" different from "mind"? (As surely it must be - since when you "lose" your mind, you are still conscious.).
Discussing these kinds of dichotomies became natural. In Classics lessons, we would compare anything and everything, from the lengths of vowels in Latin and Greek, to attitudes to empire. In Greek you can signpost two sides of an argument in one sentence: "on the one hand, and on the other": action, and reaction. Soon I was starting to see almost everything as thesis and antithesis.
We have three disparate strands to pull together: internal conflict; loss of mind; and the tension between equal and opposite forces. Euripides' The Bacchae is about the eternal theme of the strong psychological conflicts that occur within each of us. From it we learn how the human condition must encompass a ceaseless struggle for equilibrium.
The plot centres on King Pentheus of Thebes, who is attempting to stamp out the crazed, abandoned worship of the God of wine Dionysus, also known as Bacchus. Pentheus will not accept the frenzied rituals conducted by women carried away by wine and dance. These "Bacchae" have completely "lost their minds".
Consecrate yourselves to Bacchus, with stems of oak or fir,
Dress yourselves in spotted fawn skins, trimmed with white sheep's wool.
As you wave your thyrsus, revere the violence it contains.
All the earth will dance at once.
Whoever leads our dancing - that one is Bromius!
To the mountain, to the mountain,
where the pack of women waits,
all stung to frenzied madness to leave their weaving shuttles,
goaded on by Dionysus.
Early on in the story, Pentheus' attempt to censor the women is challenged by Tiresias, who draws a clear thesis-antithesis.
…among human beings two things stand out preeminent, of highest rank.
Goddess Demeter is one - she's the earth
(though you can call her any name you wish),
and she feeds mortal people cereal grains.
The other one came later, born of Semele -
he brought with him liquor from the grape,
something to match the bread from Demeter.
He introduced it among mortal men.
When they can drink up what streams off the vine,
unhappy mortals are released from pain.
It grants them sleep, allows them to forget
their daily troubles. Apart from wine,
there is no cure for human hardship.
Today this idea of opposing forces of wine and bread still has an instinctive appeal: in our minds there are sobering checks and balances to contrast with the ecstasy of abandonment.
The word "ecstasy" comes from the Greek "to stand outside of oneself". But as a neuroscientist, I ask: how could the forces of wine and bread transcend metaphor to be realised in the physical brain? Let's make a small excursion into the world of the neurons.
Although we are born with pretty much all the brain cells or neurons we will ever have, it is the growth of the connections between them that accounts largely for the growth of the brain after birth. These connections will reflect our individual experiences, and so we become unique individuals.
It's an incredible thought that no one has ever had - nor ever will have - a brain or rather, a mind, exactly like yours. So although we are born as passive recipients of our senses, our brain connections soon become personalised to the particular lives we lead and the culture to which we are exposed. Everything is evaluated in terms of previous experience and in turn each new experience will change our subsequent evaluations.
This process of malleability is what neuroscientists call "plasticity". For example, even after five days of learning the piano, we can see changes in the brain and, more excitingly still, a similar result after five days of merely imagining performing those exercises. The "mind" is therefore the personalisation of the brain, realised by individual configurations of neuronal networks driven, in turn, by individual experience.
But gradually these abstract sensations will coalesce into, say, a familiar face. And the more that face features in your life, the more connections will form: so you shift from the momentary hit of pure sensation to a subtler, continuing cognition.
"Meaning" - consistent recognition of your mother - will start to trump the raw experience of a sweet taste or a warm bath. Gradually you develop your mind as you accumulate in your memory all the various events in which your mother features.
You would only "lose your mind" if the neuronal connections were dismantled, which is what happens in dementia. However, a temporary way to lose your mind is to take a substance that leads to the connections malfunctioning: alcohol and psychoactive drugs work by impairing the function and communication of cells within these networks of neurons. You literally blow your mind.
In Euripides' play, this loss of mind and meaning is taken to an extreme: Pentheus, a prurient voyeur, ventures to watch the rituals. As a result, he gets torn apart by the frenzied Bacchants, one of whom, his mother, parades the severed head as a trophy, tragically unaware of what she is doing.
It is hard to imagine getting as insanely drunk as Pentheus' mother. An unremitting diet of drugs, sex and rock'n'roll - or wine, women and song - is something most of us would eventually tire of. The point of "letting yourself go" is that such interludes are intermittent - you have to return to ordinary life.
There's much to be said for developing a personalised mind, of finding meaning in the world around us, of escaping from a mindless, momentary experience. We humans want and need both: Pentheus the party-pooper is a caricature. The ideal would be to get the balance right.
Perhaps in the future such an equilibrium could be more elusive still, as the impact of booze and drugs is supplemented by an unprecedented new influence. Young people today are already spending an average of six hours a day in front of a screen. This fast-paced and sensory-laden experience could be cajoling the developing mind towards process over content, to medium over message, to sensation over significance, to wine over bread.
Science and the classics form complementary ways of approaching the big problems; indeed, one inspires the other. Neuroscience provides the appropriate tools and observations, and Greek tragedy the big questions and conceptual framework. The fact that neither discipline necessarily gives the answers is all the more reason for cross-fertilisation.
As Euripides writes in his conclusion:
The gods appear in many forms, carrying with them unwelcome things.
What people thought would happen never did.
What they did not expect, the gods made happen.
That's what this story has revealed.
For more on this, check out the BBC's segment on The Essay for March 4 ...