Donald Rubin on Philanthropy
Donald Rubin is Co-Founder of the Rubin Museum of Art and Co-Chair of the Board of Trustees. He also serves as the museum’s CEO. Shelley and Donald Rubin started collecting Himalayan art in the early 1970s and amassed a large and significant collection, a major portion of which was given to the museum to seed its nascent collection. He was the founder of MultiPlan, Inc., a major general service PPO health provider. He serves on the board of The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation and is a member of the Global Philanthropists Circle.
Question: What guides your philanthropy?
Rubin: We try to… for the big projects initiate most of them ourselves, but we do give a lot of what we did before the crash, I don’t know what’s going to happen after the market went down, and I’m sure you have looked at our website, the foundation website to see what we’re doing. One of them another website we did years ago and funded it and spun it off to the group that was working on it is laborarts.org. My father was a very important labor leader in New York, Jay Rubin, and he founded the Hotel Workers Union. And one of the things we do with the hotel union for many years is every year we have a writing contest for the children of the hotel workers, and the union does a thee-page, full page write-up with pictures of the award ceremony where on there with all these kids almost all from Asia or Russia, but not too many Russians, but few years ago there were a lot of Russian kids. And all of these kids are immigrants to America and were all going to Bronx Science and studies in the best schools in the city. And the union then does this newspaper, you know, and it’s very exciting to do that. We do writing contest for the American Civil Liberties Union with the New York Chapter. I think there are four or five chapters. And it started out on looking at First Amendment Rights and they’ve done a contest on the Rockefeller Drug Laws and it’s to get these youngsters involved in thinking about it and writing about these very big issues. My wife is on the board of Human Rights Watch. I don’t know if you saw that on the web. She’s on the board of Human Rights Watch and Channel 13. So, we our interest range in a lot of human rights, a lot of issues on poverty and education. It’s not a big foundation. It’s not a humongous foundation, but you can give modest grants and do great things with them.
Question: What does Obama’s presidency mean for philanthropy?
Rubin: We are very optimistic, but I think it’s going to take a long time. I mean, the economy and the public services is close to being in a cesspool and it’s going to be very hard to clean that cesspool out and we all have to take a metaphoric shower and scrub ourselves and just move on and build a good healthcare and education system and a great economic system. And I think it’s going to take somewhere between 5 and 12 years to right all the destruction that we’ve had.
Question: How will the recession affect philanthropy moving forward?
Rubin: It’s going to be a very difficult thing. First of all, Shelley and I are at the age that the first priority is us surviving, because without us surviving there will be no foundation. And so, that’s a very important thing. It’s very, very hard with all the endowments for non-profits that have been basically partially destroyed by the economy and the corruption in the financial system to get on the feet again. And it’s like to us it’s going to be like starting over again where we were 5 or 10 years ago, you know, to get the money back to be able to donate it, to say yes rather than no and I’m a kind of person who likes to say yes to anything I believe in and it’s very hard for me to say no. I don’t… one of the ways that the museum survived and went is my whole philosophy is getting around the word no. I never take no for an answer. And when we bought the building over 10 years ago, the [Bonny Barney’s] Store, and I was driving down from my office, which we could see from, our old office which we could see from your window across 17th Street, there was a big sign saying “bankruptcy auction” and we were looking for space for the collection and thinking little more modest terms and it took me two weeks. It was the [Bonny Barney’s] Store was closed. It was going in auction. It was probably going to be bought by a real estate [mogul] who would turn it, tear it down and may put up condos. And I went into… it took me two weeks to get in and I took the elevator to the top floor where it has a beautiful marble staircase and a great skylight and the skylight was full of dirt from the outside you could hardly see through it and one of the workers must have written an obscenity on it. So, that was my first, my first… and I would put it in now, you’ll probably edit it out, but I looked up and it said “Fuck You” that was my first introduction at the building. And there were broken display cases and racks and the place was filthy and cold and unattractive. And I walked down two flights of stairs and I knew this was it. When you fall in love with somebody, you know it instantaneously. You don’t have to, you know what’s right and what’s wrong, and on an emotional level mostly it works, and I knew that I was going to buy the building. And Mitch [Roth] who now works for us was the only staff person that was working for [Bonny Barney’s] at that time and I said Mitch, “I'm going to buy this building.” And he said, “You’re crazy.” He says, “I’ve shown this to dozens of real estate people and they are going to tear it down and make condos.” And I said, “The only approval I need is to have my wife come, and if she says yes, we’re in good shape.” So, it took two more weeks for her to come down and she was a little more thoughtful than I am and little more cautious than I am and she got to the bottom, we both walked down to the bottom of the store. I didn’t say one thing because if I try to lobby it, it would have been no, and she looked at me and put a two thumbs up and said, “Let’s go for it.” And we didn’t know what we were doing. We never build out a building, we never did, we never had faced this kind of problems, you know, construction problems and all these other kind of problems. But I figured that we were intelligent enough that we would figure it out along the way. And the whole trick of it is not taking no for an answer. Who are you, what experience do you have, you’ve got to hire somebody that knows better, you know. And this is a great… you’re taking a great risk and we wouldn’t take it, we would recommend against it and I said we’ll figure it out, we’ll figure it out. I had a grandiose fantasy that I could do it in 2 or 2 ½ years because I don’t like to work slowly. I’d like to get up, you know, Star Trek is my guide. I’d like to get up to Warp 5 to 6. I know I can getting up to warp 9 is mythical but Warp 5 to 6, but the reality is it takes an architect two years to drew up the plans and do the engineering and the air-conditioning and this and that, you know, it’s unbelievably hard. But we made it happened and we do great shows, we get rave reviews almost all the time and people love it and I love to have the museum to go to everyday and it gives me a lot of pleasure to be able to come up with ideas for shows and I’m totally directly involved. And we have Tim McHenry who does a whole lot of theater programs and, you know, we have music Friday nights and every kind of movies and we have a fairly big following.
Question: What are the Rubin Foundation’s future initiatives?
Rubin: Some foundation projects that we are doing. Another website that we have been working on and we’ve done it out of our office for the last two years and now it’s going to be separated and another organization is going to take it over, but we developed it mostly with a few other people is the website called the Arts of the Islamic World. And it was our feeling that if people appreciated in and, you know, it’s not only Muslims, it’s Christians [IB]. It’s the whole religion that comes out of, you know, the Muslim community. If people had more pride in their own background and culture, I thought they would be more accepting of other people and less violent. So that website is done, and we are having the other website that we set up, we go to the museum and asking permission to bring it. So in that website, the Brooklyn Museum, the Aga Khan Foundation and a number of other museums have dipped their toes and have given us their words. But there are a lot of other, it’s been very, very hard to… It’s not cooperation to deal with bureaucracies, and a museum is a bureaucracy and I think arts even is to some extent, but I viewed myself all my life as a bureaucracy buster ‘cause I want to go around, over and under any bureaucracy. My goal is to make things happen and not just to sit on somebody’s desk and get the whole bunch of rules, and I sometimes get myself in trouble for doing that. The other project that we’re doing which we’re very proud of is a building manual that we have developed with the architect who offices right across the street, Stephen [Forneris]. A building manual on how to build a home in the Third World – Ecuador, South America or Middle East that’s earthquake resistant. It’s possible to build a building that’s earthquake resistant for approximately the same money. This is mostly one storey, maybe two-storey buildings. It would have been great in China for the schools and it doesn’t cost more money. It’s just building technique. And we spent two years, Steven Stephen mostly doing the work under my encouragement and support and financing, which wasn’t too much as amazing how much we’ve accomplished with very little. We have a very large, big manual that is going to be published by the International Code Council. And my condition for putting this thing and Stephen’s condition for putting this forward was that it had to be made available free and we are going to put it on the website free. So all these techniques which not something proprietary and nothing that we’re going to make money on, nothing he is going to be able to build extra for as an architect. Just make it available, put it in the public sector where it should be, and if they used these techniques when they, you know, in Turkey or Iran or in China, probably 80% or 90% of the damage and most of the deaths would have been prevented. So that’s one of our foundation’s stellar projects and one that I am, you know, is the top head for dozen projects we funded over the years.
Question: What is Circopedia?
Rubin: It’s anything about circus history, circus acts, circus memorabilia. You are going to go home tonight or get on it now. And year from now, we’ll probably be triple in size. And what it is it’s a visual library of the circus and they are going to other circuses for them to give their acts. When if you are a circus performing [high and why] a person or a juggler or a clown, it dies with you. When you’re dead or you retire, there might be some photographs of it and a lot of those photographs are lost. Years and years ago, one of the TV stations had a half hour, I think, it was once a month or once a week circus, you know, on circus and they probably did 30 or 40, half hour, they can’t find them. There’s no record. The TV station doesn’t have it. There’s no record. This was something that’s ephemeral, you know, it’s impermanent. As the Tibetan Monks talk about, this is impermanence. And for the web is to make it permanent and the same with the manuscripts and the art is to make it permanent, not just let it disappear and be burnt or destroyed, but to put it out to the public in a way that creates permanence to it.
Donald Rubin elucidates his gift-giving activities.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.
In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.
But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?
In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?
Popularizing medical language
What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?
To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.
If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.
LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER
"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.
"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.
"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."
The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.
"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.
Too much reading causes... heat rashes?
But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.
Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."
In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."
"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.
"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."
Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."
Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.
"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."
Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?
People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.
JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW
There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.
For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.
"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.
"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."
In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.
"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.
"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."
Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.
"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.
"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."
This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.
"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.
The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'
"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."
So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?
"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.
Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.
"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.
But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.
For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.
The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.
- This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
- Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
- The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Some countries value self-expression more than others.Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
Question: On what map is Lithuania a neighbor of China, Poland lies next to Brazil, and Morocco and Yemen touch?
Answer: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map. To be precise, the 2017 map. Because on the 2020 version, each of those pairs has drifted apart significantly.
These are not, strictly speaking, maps but rather scatterplot diagrams. Each dot represents a country, the position of which is based on how it ranks on two different values (discussed below). The dots are corralled together into geo-cultural groups:
- Catholic Europe, which comprises countries as diverse and far apart as Hungary and Andorra■ Protestant Europe, taking in both Iceland and Germany
- The Orthodox world, from Belarus all the way to Armenia
- The three Baltic states
- The English-speaking world, including both the U.S. and Northern Ireland
- The huge African-Islamic world, ranging from Azerbaijan to South Africa
- Latin America, which goes from Mexico to Argentina
- South Asia, which comprises both India and Cyprus
- The Confucian world, encompassing China and Japan.
The placement of the dots indicates cultural proximity or distance. Some countries from different groups can be more similar than other countries in the same group.
See the examples indicated above: cultural neighbors China and Lithuania belong to the Confucian and Baltic groups, respectively. Poland is part of Catholic Europe; its 2017 neighbor Brazil is in Latin America. Morocco and Yemen are closer culturally to Armenia, in the Orthodox group, than they are to Qatar, despite all belonging to the African-Islamic group.
The 2017 version of the map places Malta deep inside South America and lets Vietnam, Portugal, and Macedonia meet.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Creating a culture map
So, what exactly are the criteria used for plotting these dots in the first place?
These maps are part of the World Values Survey, first conducted by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the late 1990s. With his colleague Christian Welzel, he produced an update in 2005. The WVS has been revised several times since, most recently in 2020.
The WVS asserts that there are two fundamental dimensions to cross-cultural variation across the world. These are used as the axes to plot the various countries on the diagram.
- The X-axis measures survival versus self-expression values.
Survival values focus on economic and physical security. There is not much room for trust and tolerance of "others." Self-expression values prioritize well-being, quality of life, and self-expression. There is more room for tolerating ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.
- The Y-axis measures traditional versus secular-rational values.
Traditional values include deference to religion and parental authority as well as traditional social and family values. Societies that score high on traditions typically also are highly nationalistic. In more secular-rational societies, science and bureaucracy replace faith as the basis for authority. Secular-rational values include high tolerance of things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.
As indicated by the significant changes on the 2020 map, the cultural values of nations are not static:
- Countries that move up on the map are shifting from traditional to more secular-rational values.
- Countries that move to the right on the map are shifting from survival values to self-expression values.
- And, of course, vice versa in both cases.
According to the authors of the map, changes in cultural outlook can be the result of socioeconomic changes — increasing levels of wealth, for example. But the religious and cultural heritage of each country also plays a part.
The world's cultural landscape is dynamic — you could even say promiscuous, producing new bedfellows every few years.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Some notable features of the 2020 map:
- The Baltic group has been dissolved; Lithuania is now part of Catholic Europe, Estonia a lone Protestant island in a Catholic sea. More worryingly, Latvia seems to have dissolved completely.
- In general, survival values are strongest in African-Islamic countries, self-expression values in Protestant Europe.
- Traditional values are strongest in African-Islamic countries and Latin America, while secular values dominate in Confucian countries and Protestant Europe.
- The United States is an atypical member of the English-speaking group, scoring much lower on both scales (that is to say, lower and more to the left). In other words, the U.S. is more into traditional and survival values than the group's other members.
- Shifting attitudes don't just separate; they also unite. Belgium and the U.S. are now culture buddies, as are New Zealand and Iceland. Kazakhstan is virtually indistinguishable from Bosnia.
The Inglehart-Welzel map is not without its critics. It has been decried as Eurocentric, simplistic, and culturally essentialist (that is, the assumption that certain cultural characteristics are essential and fixed, and that some are superior to others). Which is, of course, a very self-expressive thing to say.
For more on these maps, on the WVS surveys, and on the methodology used, visit the World Values Survey.
Strange Maps #1098
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla
- For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
- The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
- The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Considering how much sharks are feared by humans, it is a bit of a surprise that scientists don't know much about the predators. For example, until recently, sharks were thought to be solitary creatures searching the seas for food on their own. Now it appears that some sharks are quite social.
Another mystery is how these prehistoric swimming and eating machines digest food. Although scientists have made 2D sketches of captured sharks' digestive systems based on dissections, there is a limit to what can be learned in this way. Professor Adam Summers at University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs says:
"Intestines are so complex, with so many overlapping layers, that dissection destroys the context and connectivity of the tissue. It would be like trying to understand what was reported in a newspaper by taking scissors to a rolled-up copy. The story just won't hang together."
Summers is co-author of a new study that has produced the first 3D scans of a shark's intestines, which turns out to have a strange, corkscrew structure. What's even more bizarre is that it resembles the amazing one-way valve designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1920. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What a 3D model reveals
Video: Pacific spiny dogfish intestine youtu.be
According to the study's lead author Samantha Leigh, "It's high time that some modern technology was used to look at these really amazing spiral intestines of sharks. We developed a new method to digitally scan these tissues and now can look at the soft tissues in such great detail without having to slice into them."
"CT scanning is one of the only ways to understand the shape of shark intestines in three dimensions," adds Summers. The researchers scanned the intestines of nearly three dozen different shark species.
It is believed that sharks go for extended periods — days or even weeks — between big meals. The scans reveal that food passes slowly through the intestine, affording sharks' digestive system the time to fully extract its nutrient value. The researchers hypothesize that such a slow digestive process may also require less energy.
It could be that this slow digestion is more susceptible to back flow given that the momentum of digested food through the tract must be minimal. Perhaps that is why sharks evolved something so similar to a Tesla valve.
What is Tesla's valve doing there?
Above, a Tesla valve. Below, a shark intestine.Credit: Samantha Leigh / California State University, Domi
Tesla's "valvular conduit," or what the world now calls a "Tesla valve," is a one-way valve with no moving parts. Its brilliance is based in fluid dynamics and only now coming to be fully appreciated. Essentially, a series of teardrop-shaped loops arranged along the length of the valve allow water to flow easily in one direction but not in the other. Modern tests reveal that at low flow rates, water can travel through the valve either way, but at high flow rates, the design kicks in. According to mathematician Leif Ristroph:
"Crucially, this turn-on comes with the generation of turbulent flows in the reverse direction, which 'plug' the pipe with vortices and disrupting currents. Moreover, the turbulence appears at far lower flow rates than have ever previously been observed for pipes of more standard shapes — up to 20 times lower speed than conventional turbulence in a cylindrical pipe or tube. This shows the power it has to control flows, which could be used in many applications."
A deeper dive
Summers suggests the scans are just the beginning. "The vast majority of shark species, and the majority of their physiology, are completely unknown," says Summers, adding that "every single natural history observation, internal visualization, and anatomical investigation shows us things we could not have guessed at."
To this end, the researchers plan to use 3D printing to produce models through which they can observe the behavior of different substances passing through them — after all, sharks typically eat fish, invertebrates, mammals, and seagrass. They also plan to explore with engineers ways in which the shark intestine design could be used industrially, perhaps for the treatment of wastewater or for filtering microplastics.
It could fairly be said, though, that Nikola Tesla was 100 years ahead of them.
A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.
- Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
- The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
- Scientists believe human babies also prime their visual motion detection before birth.
Imagine opening your eyes for the first time as a brand new baby. The world is so mysterious, full of obstacles and strange shapes. And yet it does not take babies all that long to get their bearings, to latch on to their parents, and to start interacting. How do they do this so quickly? A new study published in Science proposes that babies of mammals dream about the world they are about to enter before being born, developing important skills.
The team, led by professor Michael Crair, who specializes in neuroscience, ophthalmology, and visual science, wanted to understand why when mammals are born, they are already somewhat prepared to interact with the world.
"At eye opening, mammals are capable of pretty sophisticated behavior," said Craig, "But how do the circuits form that allow us to perceive motion and navigate the world? It turns out we are born capable of many of these behaviors, at least in rudimentary form."
Unusual retinal activity
The scientists observed waves of activity radiating from the retinas of newborn mice before their eyes first open. Imaging shows that soon after birth, this activity disappears. In its place matures a network of neural transmissions that carries visual stimuli to the brain, as explained by a Yale press release. Once it reaches the brain, the information is encoded for storage.
What's particularly unusual about this neonatal activity is that it demonstrates a pattern that would happen if the animal was moving forward somewhere. As the researchers write in the study, "Spontaneous waves of retinal activity flow in the same pattern as would be produced days later by actual movement through the environment."
Crair explained that this "dream-like activity" makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as it helps the mouse get ready for what will happen to it after it opens its eyes. It allows the animal to "respond immediately to environmental threats," Crair shared.
Retinal waves in a newborn mouse prepare it for vision www.youtube.com
What is creating the waves?
The scientists also probed what is responsible for creating the retinal waves that mimic the forward motion. They turned on and off the functionality of starburst amacrine cells — retinal cells that release neurotransmitters — and discovered that blocking them stopped the retinal waves from flowing, which hindered the mouse from developing the ability to react to visual motion upon birth. These cells are also important to an adult mouse, affecting how it reacts to environmental stimuli.
Graphic showing the origin and functionality of directional retinal waves.Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
What about human babies?
While the study focused on mice, human babies also seem to be able to identify objects and motion right after birth. This suggests the presence of a similar phenomenon in babies before they are born.
"These brain circuits are self-organized at birth and some of the early teaching is already done," Crair stated. "It's like dreaming about what you are going to see before you even open your eyes."