At 78, Professor George Paxinos is a pillar of the scientific community. He’s a former president of both the Australasian Neuroscience Society and the World Congress of Neuroscience, and currently a Scientia professor at the University of NSW, with his own lab at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA). In his career as a cerebral cartographer – literally, a mapmaker of the brain – he has identified and named more brain areas than anyone in history: only four years ago, he discovered an entirely new structure, thought to be involved in fine-motor movement , which he gave the snappy-among-brain-experts name of Endorestiform Nucleus.
These accomplishments are even more impressive given that Paxinos himself, a slim, wiry figure in a white shirt and bicycle-friendly trainers, sitting in a modest office full of preserved cross-sections of human and animal brains, is not even a trained neuroanatomist. Born in Ithaca (and recently honored as one of Greece’s most influential scientists of the past 200 years) he trained at Berkeley and Yale as a psychologist.
Indeed, he was on sabbatical at Cambridge when he first noticed that the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which was being used in the lab for unrelated work on rat brains, actually delineated cerebral structures and cell groupings far more dramatically and distinctly than traditional 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 go back to psychology – he lectured at UNSW, including introducing its first course in environmental psychology, until 2001 – but with his long-time collaborator, Charles Watson, he also kept making atlases. Even today, if you want someone who can take a brain (rat, marmoset, human) and slice it into several thousand 40-micron cross-sections (about half the width of a human hair); stain it; photograph it, and – crucially – locate and identify its structures more clearly and accurately than anyone else in the world, Paxinos is your man. He has published 57 books; his very first of him, The Rat Brain in Stereotaxic Co-ordinateswhich celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, remains the most cited work in neuroscience of all time.
But science isn’t everything. Which might be why Professor Paxinos did something unexpected. He stepped off the high road of empirical fact he’d followed for almost half a century, and began to frolic on the wild and rocky shores of artistic creation.
In other words: he wrote a novel.
A River Divided is about a female scientist who clones Christ. Twice, in fact. For a first novel, by a scientist, about such a wild topic, it’s an unexpectedly engaging read (Bryce Courtenay was a mentor, after Paxinos attended a writing workshop). The book tracks the lives of two boys, genetically identical to Jesus Christ, and their responses to the crises of global warming, rainforest destruction, and a planet on the brink of environmental destruction.
Christopher and José – the result of a (surprisingly believable) cloning experiment by an Australian scientist using the bones of Christ – grow up on opposite sides of the world, Christopher in middle-class Sydney, Jose in the slums of Buenos Aires. One becomes a hydroelectric power company executive, one an environmental activist. Both are unaware of each other’s existence until their paths collide – as all environmental adventure paths inevitably must – in the Amazon.
Published last October and recently dubbed one of “five eco-fiction must-reads” by wellness site Carousel, alongside Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winner The Overstory and Barbara Kingsolver’s bestseller Flight Behaviorit’s also the expression of George Paxinos’s own views about human beings: how our brains dictate the way we are, and how we need to change to save the planet.
Paxinos has long been interested in environmental causes. He founded the Light Rail Association in NSW in 1989 in the hope of reducing atmospheric pollution, and spent 10 years fighting to preserve the tramway infrastructure of Sydney. He also founded the Randwick Environmental Group, and is a keen cyclist – he stood as a candidate for the Australian Cyclists Party at the 2015 NSW state election. So what can arguably the best cerebral cartographer in the world, who is also a psychologist with a deep personal interest in environmental issues, tell us about averting ecological disaster?
My secret hope is that he will suddenly announce that we actually possess a physical structure within our brains that governs morality, ethics, altruism: all the qualities we require to do the right thing by each other, and by the planet. Then he will explain how, like the famous London cab drivers and their super-developed hippocampus (the brain’s mapmaker), we can exercise this structure, stimulate it, and develop it to its full potential.
Surprisingly enough, however, it’s not quite that simple. The neural structures underpinning ethical behavior are extraordinarily complex and not yet fully understood: a single moral decision might involve input from multiple sectors of the frontal, parietal, temporal and limbic brain regions, as well as various subcortical regions. But even so. Isn’t there a chance, at least, that we (or rather, Paxinos) might discover a single structure, somewhere deep within our gray matter, that could mediate our ability to save the world?
“Let me answer that indirectly,” he says. “We don’t know of any place that if you injure it, you can make somebody moral.” Brain injury can change a person, 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 about the brain of someone absolutely remarkable – an Einstein or a Jesus; Muhammad or Confucius? A River Divided is essentially a story about how Christ might respond to the global environmental crisis, after all: might his brain, or that of some other genius, hold an answer we can’t see in other brains? Might it be structurally different to the average brain, in a kind of Phar Lap’s-enormous-heart sort of way?
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.”
I have paused. “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.”
Of course, Paxinos is a cartographer; determining the neurological functions of the structures he finds is up to others. But his unparalleled experience of him among the brains of other species gives him a unique insight into ours. “Unfortunately, we are a Stone Age animal,” he says, smiling. “And in evolutionary terms, we have a Stone Age brain. What you realize when you study animal brains is how very similar they all are – even the human brain.”
According to Paxinos, despite our modern “adoration” of the human brain as unique and extraordinary, it’s actually not such a world-beater; not even, perhaps, 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 behavioral 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 goal – large-scale behavioral modification – that he began writing his novel. “I wondered if, by writing something, I might be able to change behavior 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 this requires changing the human brain not via genetics or physical intervention, but by asking people to question their assumptions, engage their powers of empathy, and – literally as well as figuratively – change their minds.
And actually, this kind of change is something the human brain is extremely well-equipped for: it’s our ability – unequaled in any other species – to analyze, adapt and learn. It’s nurture rather than nature, environment as opposed to inheritance. “Neural plasticity is well understood,” agrees Paxinos. “The fact that after you leave here you will remember that we met: that you have 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 mean such change is easy. “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 by him will be published in Greece this year, and plans for UK publication are underway. In terms of his day job, meanwhile, he is also working on a new, gold-standard atlas, this time using living brains via magnetic resonance imaging that will allow for a 3-D electronic viewing alongside conventional hard 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 (along with Dr Mark Schira) on the 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 career is proof of this. As for the future of the world – well, pessimism is no 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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