Posts Tagged ‘ psychology ’

Neuroscience Friends!

I’ve just returned from a thrilling weekend at the BIL Conference in Long Beach, California (yes, the pun on “TED” is very intentional) where I met all kinds of smart, fun people – including lots of folks who share my love for braaaiiins!

The conference was held in... The Future!

So I thought I’d introduce you guys to some of the friends I made. I think you’ll be as surprised – and as excited – as I am.

Backyard Brains
Their motto is “neuroscience for everyone” – how cool is that? They sell affordable kits that let you experiment at home with the nervous systems of insects and other creatures. They gave a super-fun presentation where I got to help dissect a cockroach and send electrical signals through its nerves.

Interaxon
They build all kinds of cutting-edge tools that let home users study their brain activity, and even control machines and art projects with it. Their founder, Ariel Garten, has a great TED talk here – I’ve rarely met anyone else who was so excited to have weird new neuroscience adventures.

Deltaself and Dangerously Hardcore
Two blogs by the very smart Naomi Most – the first is about how scientific data is changing the way we all understand our minds and bodies; the second is about hacking your own behavior to stay healthier and live better.

Halcyon Molecular
Their aim is to put the power to sequence and modify genomes in everyone’s hands within the next few decades. They’re getting some huge funding lately, and lots of attention in major science journals.

Bonus – XCOR Aerospace
They’re building a privately-funded suborbital spacecraft for independent science missions. If there’s anybody who can help us all join the search for alien life in the near future, I bet it’s these guys.

So check those links out and let me know what you think. I’d love to get these folks involved in future videos, especially if you’re interested in any of them.

5 Ways to Fight the Blues…with Science!

So you’re stuck in that mid-week slump…the weekend lies on the other side of a scorching desert of work, and you have no canteen because you gave up water for Lent (in this metaphor, “water” refers to alcohol…just to be clear).

YAY SCIENCE!

But fear not! Neuroscience knows how to cheer you up! Nope, this isn’t another post about sex or drugs…though those are coming soon. This one’s about five things science says you can do right now – with your mind – to chase your cranky mood away.

1.Take a look around
Research shows that people who focus on the world around them, instead of on their own thoughts, are much more likely to resist a relapse into depression. This is easy to do – just find something interesting (or beautiful) to look at, and think about that for a few seconds…you’ll be surprised how quickly your worries fade.

2. Do some mental math
Scientists say doing a little simple arithmetic – adding up the digits of your phone number, for example – reroutes mental resources from worry to logic. Don’t worry; your emotions will still be there when you’re done…but they’re less likely to hog the spotlight if you don’t give them center stage.

3. Get out and about
Lots of studies show that physical activity raises levels of endorphins – the body’s own “feel-good” chemicals – and helps improve your mood throughout the day. You don’t have to run a marathon; even a quick walk around the block will get your blood pumping and help clear your mind.

4. Find some excitement
Some very interesting studies have found that courage – a willingness to face some of your fears – feeds on itself; in other words, the more adventurous your behavior is, the fewer things your brain considers threatening. In a way, it’s a “fake it ’til ya make it” situation…but instead of trying to be someone you’re not, you’re becoming more comfortable with the person you are.

5. Remember, it’s not always a bad thing
It sometimes helps to remember that stress is a natural phenomenon…as natural as digestion or sleep. Though stress (or sadness, or worry) can sometimes get out of hand, our bodies have evolved these responses to help us, and there’s nothing “wrong” with you just because you’re feeling annoyed or down in the dumps today. Instead of trying to make the feeling go away, sometimes the best thing to do is acknowledge it, and think about what’s triggering it. You might surprise yourself with an insight.

So, those tips are pretty simple, right? Try some of ‘em out, and let me know which ones worked best for you. After all, that’s why scientists study this stuff – to help us all understand more about what our minds are up to.

Why I Love and Hate “Game”

Yes, it’s that special time of year again – time for flamboyant bouquets and chalky candy to appear at office desks – time for Facebook pages to drown in cloying iconography – time for self-labeled “forever aloners” to dredge the back alleys of OKCupid in last-ditch desperation – and time for me to load up my trusty gatling crossbow with oxytocin-tipped darts and hit the streets.

Valentine's Day also means it's time to enjoy the traditional dish of Earlobe.

Oh, and it’s time for everyone to complain about how misogynistic all this “Game” stuff is.

So, while I guess I could write about, say, a new study that says cutting your romantic partner some slack can make him or her more capable of actual change, or this one that says love and chocolate are good for cardiovascular health, I think it’ll be much more interesting to talk about what’s really on most of our minds today:

What does science have to say about “getting the girl” (or guy) of your dreams? And what do actual girls (and guys) think about it?

Let’s start with some full disclosure: about this time last year, I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and I read The Game for myself – and then I read some of the other works it cites, too. And I started talking to my friends (both male and female) about what they thought of the ideas in those books – and I tested a lot of the ideas I read, the same way I’d test any hypothesis: I wrote down the predictions various authors made, and checked how well those predictions lined up with my own real-world experiences.

In short, I went Full Geek on the topic.

What I learned is that, on the spectrum of scientific rigorousness – a scale from, say, astrology (0) to molecular chemistry (10) – most of this stuff falls somewhere in the 4-to-6 range: It tends to be more evidence-based than, say, ghost-hunting; but it still falls firmly into the realm of the “softer” sciences, like psychotherapy and so on.

The reason for this is that – as many pick-up artists freely admit – their craft is at least as much an artistic pursuit as a scientific one. Much like, say, Aristotle and Hobbes and Descartes, PUAs do their best to ground their conclusions logically in real-world data that anyone is free to test and refute – but at the same time, like those great philosophers of old, PUAs tend to be more intent on constructing elaborate thought systems than on presenting their “ugly” raw data for independent labs to crunch through.

This means pick-up manuals tend to read more like philosophical treatises than scientific papers.

And I think it’s this very feature of pick-up art that explains why it’s such a polarizing topic – why many women (and plenty of men) find the very concept insulting and distasteful, while other men swear that it’s transformed them from self-loathing losers into sexually fulfilled alpha males.

See, many women will tell you in no uncertain terms that pickup “tricks” don’t work on someone as intelligent and experienced as them; and that even if such tricks did work, they don’t want to be “picked up” –  instead, they want to fall in love (or at least in lust) with a man who’s honest about his real self and his real feelings. Many men, too, would agree that crafty seduction techniques somehow cheapen the process – that it’s better to be “forever alone” than to be surrounded by adoring women who were manipulated into their romantic feelings.

Meanwhile, men who’ve had “success” (however they choose to define it) as a result of a pick-up system’s techniques will often defend that system to the death – much like how a person who’s found inner peace thanks to, say, Buddhism will often defend it passionately against anti-Buddhist viewpoints.

What I’m arguing here, though, is that none of these reactions pertain directly to the underlying process of seduction at all – rather, they’re reactions to the (often sleazy-sounding) thought-systems that various writers have constructed around their experiences with that process.

Because – let’s get right down to it – in all our interactions with other humans, we’re hoping to manipulate the outcome somehow. Double entendres, pop-cultural references, stylish clothes and makeup, kind gestures, subtle dishonesty – even honesty itself – all these are tools and techniques that we hope will garner us a certain response.

For example, if you choose to callously manipulate the people around you, you may get a lot more sex than you would otherwise - but you’ll also end up with a lot of shallow relationships, which you’ll probably come to regret eventually. If you choose to be completely honest all the time, you may repel some people – but you’ll probably also find that those who stick around end up respecting you for who you really are.

It’s Game Theory 101: Players who “win” are those who understand the rules, risks and rewards of the game - and play accordingly. All the sleazy lingo and tricks – all the elaborate systems – are just various people’s attempts to explain these dynamics as they play out in gender relations, and to sell their vision of the process to a demographic of sex-starved men, whose desires they understand quite well.

But still – the underlying process itself is no more and no less sleazy than the mind of the person using it.

In other words, when you read between the lines of these PUA systems, most of them turn out to be geared toward the same premises: That to grow as a person, you need to 1) be fully honest with yourself about what you want from the people around you, 2) acknowledge the personal changes that need to be made in order to achieve those results, and 3) steadily work to make those changes in yourself.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, it’s hard for me to see how that’s inherently more “cheap” than, say, a woman learning how to dress and speak seductively in order to get what she wants.

Yes, there are a lot of sleazy men out there who objectify women and sweet-talk them into one-night stands. There are also plenty of sweet-talking women out there who milk men for the contents of their wallets, then move on. And so we label each other “douchebags” and “bitches,” and keep engaging in the same defensive behaviors, and no one’s really happy.

And I hate that Game. I despise it.

At the same time, though, it’s clear that we humans, like many other animals, have evolved to play competitive social games – there’s no getting around that fact. But unlike many animals, we don’t have to play the game exactly as our instincts tell us to – we’re metacognitive, so we can learn to play using strategies that don’t result in zero-sum outcomes: We can develop tactics that help both sides get more of what they want. We can harness our evolutionary drives to mutually-beneficial behavior patterns.

Doesn’t that make you want to learn to play more creatively, instead of trying not to play at all?

I mean, at the end of the day, it kinda fills me with love for the Game.

What do you think?

Learning Expectations

Researchers have isolated a specific pathway our brains use when learning new beliefs about others’ motivations, a new study says.

"M'lord! 'Tis improper to influence the lady's anterior cingulate!"

Though this type of learning, like many others, depends heavily on the neurotransmitter chemical dopamine‘s influence in a set of ancient brain structures called the basal ganglia, it’s also influenced by the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) – a structure that helps us weigh certain emotional reactions against others – indicating that emotions like empathy also play crucial roles.

As we play competitively against other people, our brains get to work constructing mental models that aim to predict our opponents’ future actions. This means we’re not only learning from the consequences of our own actions, but figuring out the reasons behind others‘ actions as well. This ability is known as theory of mind, and it’s thought to be one of the major mental skills that separates the minds of humans – and of our closest primate cousins – from those of other animals.

Though plenty of studies have examined the neural correlates of straightforward cause-and-effect learning, the process by which we learn from the actions of other people still remains somewhat unclear – largely because complex emotions like empathy and regret seem to involve many areas of the brain, including parts of the temporal, parietal and prefrontal cortices, as well as more ancient structures like the basal ganglia and cingulate cortex.

That’s why a team led by the University of Illinois’ Kyle Mathewson set out to track exactly what happens in our brains as we learn new ideas about other’s motivations, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.

The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study activity deep within volunteers’ brains as they played a competitive betting game against one another – focusing especially on moments when players learned whether they’d won or lost a round, and how much their opponents had wagered.

The researchers then used a computational model to match up patterns of brain activity with patterns of play – and found that the volunteers’ brains learned others’ behaviors and motivations through a complex interplay of several regions:

We found that the reinforcement learning (RL) prediction error was correlated with activity in the ventral striatum.

In other words, the ventral striatum – an area of the basal ganglia – was crucial for learning by reinforcement, much as the researchers expected…

In contrast, activity in the ventral striatum, as well as the rostral anterior cingulate (rACC), was correlated with a previously uncharacterized belief-based prediction error. Furthermore, activity in rACC reflected individual differences in degree of engagement in belief learning.

…while the anterior cingulate, on the other hand, seemed to dictate how attentively players watched their opponents’ patterns of play, and how much thought they put into predicting those patterns.

Thus, it appears that theory of mind is built atop an ancient “substructure” of simple reinforcement learning, which supports layers of more emotionally complex attitudes and beliefs about others’ thoughts, feelings and motivations – many of which are influenced by our perceptions of our own internal feelings.

And that points back to an important aspect of subjective experience in general: Many of our perceptions of the external world are extrapolated from our perceptions of our internal states. When we say, “It’s hot,” we really mean, “I feel hot;” when we say, “It’s loud in here,” we really mean, “It sounds loud to me.” In fact, the great philosopher Bertrand Russell has gone so far as to suggest that instead of saying, “I think,” it’d be more accurate to say “It thinks in me,” the same way we say “It’s raining.”

Anyway, no matter how you choose to phrase it, the point is that thinking isn’t a single process, but a relationship of many processes to one another. Which means that no matter how much we think we know, there’s always plenty left to learn.

Sacred Values

Principles on which we refuse to change our stance are processed via separate neural pathways from those we’re more flexible on, says a new study.

Some of our values can be more flexible than others...

Our minds process many decisions in moral “gray areas” by weighing the risks and rewards involved – so if the risk is lessened or the reward increased, we’re sometimes willing to change our stance. However, some of our moral stances are tied to much more primal feelings – “gut reactions” that remind us of our most iron-clad principles: don’t hurt innocent children, don’t steal from the elderly, and so on.

These fundamental values – what the study calls “sacred” values (whether they’re inspired by religious views or not) – are processed heavily by the left temporoparietal junction (TPJ), which is involved in imagining others’ minds; and by the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vlPFC), which is important for remembering rules. When especially strong sacred values are called into question, the amygdala – an ancient brain region crucial for processing negative “gut” reactions like disgust and fear – also shows high levels of activation.

These results provide some intriguing new wrinkles to age-old debates about how the human mind processes the concepts of right and wrong. See, in many ancient religions (and some modern ones) rightness and wrongness are believed to be self-evident rules, or declarations passed down from on high. Even schools that emphasized independent rational thought – such as Pythagoreanism in Greece and Buddhism in Asia – still had a tendency to codify their moral doctrines into lists of rules and precepts.

But as scientists and philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and David Hume began to turn more analytical eyes on these concepts, it became clear that exceptions could be found for many “absolute” moral principles – and that our decisions about rightness and wrongness are often based on our personal emotions about specific situations.

The epic battle between moral absolutism and moral relativism is still in full swing today. The absolutist arguments essentially boil down to the claim that without some bedrock set of unshakable rules, it’s impossible to know for certain whether any of our actions are right or wrong. The relativists, on the other hand, claim that without some room for practical exceptions, no moral system is adaptable enough for the complex realities of this universe.

But now, as the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences reports, a team led by Emory University’s Gregory Berns has analysed moral decision-making from a neuroscientific perspective – and found that our minds rely on rule-based ethics in some situations, and practical ethics in others.

The team used fMRI scans to study patterns of brain activity in 32 volunteers as the subjects responded “yes” or “no” to various statements, ranging from the mundane (e.g., “You are a tea drinker”) to the incendiary (e.g., “You are pro-life.”).

At the end of the questionnaire, the volunteers were offered the option of changing their stances for cash rewards. As you can imagine, many people had no problem changing their stance on, say, tea drinking for a cash reward. But when they were pressed to change their stances on hot-button issues, something very different happened in their brains:

We found that values that people refused to sell (sacred values) were associated with increased activity in the left temporoparietal junction and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, regions previously associated with semantic rule retrieval.

In other words, people have learned to process certain moral decisions by bypassing their risk/reward pathways and directly retrieving stored “hard and fast” rules.

This suggests that sacred values affect behaviour through the retrieval and processing of deontic rules and not through a utilitarian evaluation of costs and benefits.

Of course, this makes it much easier to understand why “there’s no reasoning” with some people about certain issues – because it wasn’t reason that brought them to their stance in the first place. You might as well try to argue a person out of feeling hungry.

That doesn’t mean, though, that there’s no hope for intelligent discourse about “sacred” topics – what it does mean is that instead of trying to change people’s stances on them through logical argument, we need to work to understand why these values are sacred to them.

For example, the necessity of slavery was considered a sacred value all across the world for thousands of years - but today slavery is illegal (and considered morally heinous) in almost every country on earth. What changed? Quite a few things, actually – industrialization made hard manual labor less necessary for daily survival; overseas slaving expeditions became less profitable; the idea of racial equality became more popular…the list could go on and on, but it all boils down to a central concept: over time, the needs slavery had been meeting were addressed in modern, creative ways – until at last, most people felt better not owning slaves than owning them.

My point is, if we want to make moral progress, we’ve got to start by putting ourselves in the other side’s shoes – and perhaps taking a more thoughtful look at out own sacred values while we’re at it.

Catchin’ Some Waves

Our capacity for short-term memory depends on the synchronization of two types of brainwaves – rapid cycles of electrical activation – says a new study.

Theta and gamma waves try get their dance steps synced up.

When the patterns of theta waves (4-7 Hz) and gamma waves (25-50 Hz) are closely synchronized, pieces of verbal information seem to be “written” into our short-term memory. But it also turns out that longer theta cycles help us remember more bits of information, while longer gamma cycles are correlated with lower recall.

These patterns are measured using electroencephalography (EEG), a lab technique with a long and successful history. Back in the 1950s, it helped scientists unravel the distinct brainwave patterns associated with REM (rapid-eye movement) and deep sleep. More recently, it’s been used to help people with disabilities control computers, and it’s even helped home users get an up-close look at their own brain activity.

Though more modern techniques like fMRI and DTI are much better at mapping tiny activity patterns deep within the brain, EEG remains a useful tool for measuring the overall patterns of synchronized electrical activity that sweep across the entire brain in various wave-like patterns – hence the term “brainwaves.”

Several types of brainwaves have been well studied since the 1950s: alpha waves, which are correlated with active attention; beta and delta waves, which are associated with logical processing; theta waves, which are associated with meditation and acceptance; and gamma waves, which burst rapidly across the brain when we come to a realization or an understanding.

And now, as the International Journal of Psychophysiology reports, a team led by Jan Kamiński at the Polish Academy of Sciences has discovered a new way of mapping relationships between these patterns of wave activity, to arrive at a new understanding of how theta and gamma waves work together: they studied the lengths of these two cycles relative to one another - and what they found was pretty amazing:

We have observed that the longer the theta cycles, the more information ‘bites’ the subject was able to remember; the longer the gamma cycle, the less the subject remembered.

The researchers discovered this in a very straightforward way – they simply kept tabs on volunteers’ EEG activity as they sat with eyes closed and let their minds wander; then they compared these recordings against ones taken as the volunteers memorized longer and longer strings of numbers - from three digits up to nine.

The correlation between long theta cycles and greater memory for digits turned out to be quite strong – and for gamma waves, the reverse turned out to be true. This means that gamma waves are probably much more crucial for forming ideas than they are for rote memorization.

Though this finding might not seem all that revolutionary, it provides an elegant demonstration of how even older technologies like EEG can still be used to help us make brand-new discoveries. Which means that in the brains of those of us who keep pluggin’ away at home EEG experiments, there’s probably still a place of honor for those wonderful little gamma waves.

The Colors, Man! The Colors!

Scientists have discovered direct neural correlates of synesthesia, a new study reports.

They sound like unicorns and rainbows.

Not only have they detected activation patterns corresponding to synesthesic activity (such as “seeing” certain colors when thinking of certain numbers or sounds) – they’ve isolated an actual functional difference in the brains of synesthesic people. And what’s more, they’ve discovered a way to crank up synesthesic activity.

Let’s break this down and talk about what they’ve done here.

To understand what’s going on, let’s take a quick glance at history. Synesthesia’s fascinated artists and scientists since way back - in fact, the first people to write about it were the ancient Greeks, who composed treatises on the “colors” of various musical sounds.

Centuries later, Newton and Goethe both wrote that musical tones probably shared frequencies with color tones – and though that idea turned out to be incorrect, it did inspire the construction of “color organs” whose keyboards mapped specific notes to specific shades.

The first doctor to study synesthesia from a rigorous medical perspective was Gustav Fechner, who performed extensive surveys of synesthetes throughout the 1870s. The topic went on to catch the interest of other influential scientists in the late 19th century – but with the rise of behaviorism in the 1930s, objective studies on subjective experiences became taboo in the psychology community, and synesthesia was left out in the cold for a few decades.

In the 1950s, the cognitive revolution made studying cognition and subjective experience cool again – but it wasn’t until the 1980s that synesthesia returned to the scientific spotlight, as neuroscientists and psychologists like  Richard Cytowic and Simon Baron-Cohen began to classify and break down synesthetic experiences. For the first time, synesthesic experiences were organized into distinct types, and studied under controlled lab conditions.

Today, most synesthesia research focuses on grapheme → color synesthesia - in which numbers and letters are associated with specific colors – because it’s pretty straightforward to study. And thanks to the “insider reporting” of synesthetes like Daniel Tammett, we’re getting ever-clearer glimpses into the synesthetic experience.

But as the journal Current Biology reports, today marks a major leap forward in our understanding of synesthesia: a team led by Oxford University’s Devin Terhune has discovered that the visual cortex of grapheme → color synesthetes is more sensitive – and therefore, more responsive – than it is in people who don’t experience synesthesia.

The team demonstrated this by applying transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to the visual cortices of volunteers, which led to a thrilling discovery:

Synesthetes display 3-fold lower phosphene thresholds than controls during stimulation of the primary visual cortex. … These results indicate that hyperexcitability acts as a source of noise in visual cortex that influences the availability of the neuronal signals underlying conscious awareness of synesthetic photisms.

In short, the visual cortex of a synesthete is three times more sensitive to incoming signals than that of a non-synesthete – which means tiny electrochemical signals that a non-synesthete’s brain might consider stray noise get interpreted into “mind’s-eye” experiences in a synesthete’s visual cortex.The question of what, exactly, causes this difference in the first place remains a Science Mystery, ripe for investigation.

But wait – this study gets much, much cooler.

There’s a technology called transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), which changes the firing thresholds of targeted neurons – making them more or less likely to fire when they get hit with a signal. The researchers applied TDCS to specific parts of the visual cortex, and found that they could “turn up” and “turn down” the intensity of the synesthesic experience:

Synesthesia can be selectively augmented with cathodal stimulation and attenuated with anodal stimulation of primary visual cortex. A control task revealed that the effect of the brain stimulation was specific to the experience of synesthesia.

In other words, they’ve discovered a technological mechanism for directly controlling the experience of synesthesia.

So Burning Question #1 is, Could TDCS be used to induce synesthesia – or create hallucinations - in non-synesthetes? With the right neurological and psychological preparation, it certainly seems possible. And Burning Question #2 is, could it be used to “turn down” the intensity of hallucinations in people with schizophrenia and other psychological disorders? It’ll take a lot more lab work to answer that question with any certainty – but I’d say it merits some lookin’ into.

In the meantime, I’m going to find some nice green music to listen to.

______________

1. This means synesthesia is somewhat similar to Charles Bonnet syndrome - in which blind patients see vivid, detailed hallucinations when their under-stimulated (and thus, hyper-sensitive) visual cortices catch a stray signal – and to musical ear syndrome, in which deaf people vividly hear singing. Here’s an amazing TED talk by Oliver Sacks on that very topic.

Psychopathic Anatomy

The brains of psychopaths have a significant physical difference from those of non-psychopaths, says a new study.

Inside the mind of a psychopath. (I was expecting it to be...scarier...somehow.)

In a psychopath’s brain, white matter (connective neural tissue) links between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and amygdala are unusually weak. This means a major brain area involved in anticipating risk (the vmPFC) is only weakly connected with an area crucial for processing fear and sadness.

Though the word “psychopath” gets thrown around a lot, it doesn’t necessarily refer to a maniacal killer. It’s simply a term used to characterize personality disorders in which a person has difficulty linking their actions with feelings like empathy, regret, and guilt.

Because many psychopathic individuals learn to mask their difficulty experiencing these linkages, they often don’t get the therapies they need – so many do, in fact, end up committing crimes; or at least making life tough for their friends and family. Even as we get better at understanding the symptoms of psychopathy, though, the causes have remained somewhat poorly understood.

But now, as the Journal of Neuroscience reports, a team of researchers from several institutions have joined forces to study the neuroanatomy of psychopathic prisoners in detail.

The University of Wisconsin’s Joseph Newman has spent years studying and working with psychopathic prisoners in the Wisconsin state correctional system. Newman teamed up with Kent Kiehl, a psychologist from the University of New Mexico, who brought a mobile fMRI scanner to a Wisconsin prison and took detailed scans of 20 psychopathic prisoners’ brains. The team also took diffusion MRI scans, which are useful for precisely mapping tiny anatomical structures deep within the brain.

When the team compared this data against equivalent scans of 20 non-psychopathic prisoners’ brains, they found that psychopathic prisoners’ brains showed some significant structural abnormalities:

Using diffusion tensor imaging, we show that psychopathy is associated with reduced structural integrity in the right uncinate fasciculus, the primary white matter connection between vmPFC and anterior temporal lobe.

In short, the white matter connecting the vmPFC to the amygdala isn’t particularly sturdy in psychopaths’ brains. This abnormality is also related to some major functional differences:

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we show that psychopathy is associated with reduced functional connectivity between vmPFC and amygdala as well as between vmPFC and medial parietal cortex.

In other words (as you might expect) the lack of healthy white matter connectivity means the vmPFC doesn’t communicate with the amygdala very well in psychopaths’ brains.

This study provides some of the first clear data on just what it is, in specific anatomical and physiological terms, that makes the brain of a psychopath different from yours or mine.

While these discoveries don’t let these prisoners off the hook for the crimes they committed, the data does provide encouragement that more targeted therapies could help prepare psychopathic individuals to lead healthy lives in the outside world. It also reminds us that “the criminal mind” may be as much a medical concern as it is a moral one.

And that, I think, is good news both for psychopathic individuals and for the rest of us.

Harry Potter and the Nature of the Self

Hooray for Google Image Search!

Yup, this is what we’re doing today. I finally got to see Deathly Hallows Part 2, and it got me thinking about neuroscience like frickin’ everything always does, and I came home and wrote an essay about the nature of consciousness in the Harry Potter universe.

And we’re going to talk about it, because it’s the holidays and can we please just pull it together and act like a normal family for the length of one blog post? Thank you. I really mean it. Besides, I guarantee you that this stuff is gonna bug you too once I’ve brought it up.

So in the movie, there’s this concept of Harry and Voldemort sharing minds; mental resources – each of them can occasionally see what the other one sees; sometimes even remember what the other one remembers.

That idea is not explored to anywhere near a respectable modicum of its full extent.

First of all, are these guys the only two wizards in history who this has happened to? Yeah, I’m sure the mythology already has an answer for this – one that I will devote hours to researching just as soon as that grant money comes through. Ahem. Anyway, the odds are overwhelming that at least some other wizards have been joined in mental pairs previously – I mean, these are guys who can store their subjective memories in pools of water to be re-experienced at will; you can’t tell me nobody’s ever experimented; bathed in another person’s memories; tried to become someone else, or be two people at once. Someone, at some point, must’ve pulled it off. Probably more than one someone.

OK, so there’ve been a few pairs of wizards who shared each others’ minds. Cool. Well, if two works fine, why not three? Hell, why not twelve, or a thousand? With enough know-how and the right set of minds to work with, the wizarding world could whip us up a Magic Consciousness Singularity by next Tuesday.

But there’s the rub: Who all should be included in this great meeting of the minds? Can centaurs and house-elves join? What about, say, dragons, or deer, or birds? Where exactly is the cutoff, where the contents of one mind are no longer useful or comprehensible to another? As a matter of fact, given the – ah – not-infrequent occurrence of miscommunication in our own societies, I’d say it’s pretty remarkable that this kind of mental communion is even possible between two individuals of the same species.

Which brings us to an intriguing wrinkle in the endless debate about qualia – those mental qualities like the “redness” of red, or the “painfulness” of pain, which are only describable in terms of other subjective experiences. Up until now, of course, it’s been impossible to prove whether Harry’s qualia for, say, redness are exactly the same as Voldemort’s – or to explain just how the concept of “exactly the same” would even apply in this particular scenario. But now Harry can magically see through Voldemort’s eyes; feel Voldemort’s feelings – he can experience Voldemort’s qualia for himself.

Ah, but can he, really? I mean, wouldn’t Harry still be experiencing Voldemort’s qualia through his own qualia? Like I said, this is a pretty intriguing wrinkle.

The more fundamental question, though, is this: What  does this all tell us about the concept of the Self in Wizard Metaphysics? (It’s capitalized because it’s magical.) Do Harry and Voldemort together constitute a single person? A single self? Is there a difference between those two concepts? Should there be?

I don’t ask these questions idly – in fact, here’s a much more pointed query: What do we rely on when we ask ourselves who we are? A: Memories, of course; and our thoughts and feelings about those memories. Now, if some of Harry’s thoughts and feelings and memories are of things he experienced while “in” Voldemort’s mind (whatever that means) then don’t some of Voldemort’s thoughts and feelings and memories comprise a portion of Harry’s? You can see where we run into problems.

Just one last question, and then I promise I’ll let this drop. When you read about Harry’s and Voldemort’s thoughts and feelings and memories, and you experience them for yourself, what does that say about what your Self is made of?

I’ll be back next week to talk about neurons and stuff.

Autism & Reputation

People with autism process the concept of their social reputation in a fundamentally different way from non-autistic people, a new study finds.

"No animal shelter donations for you, Cratchet!"

Suppose I give you $100, and tell you you can donate some or all of it to the no-kill animal shelter across the street – or you can just pocket the whole wad and walk away. My guess is that a) you’d donate at least some of the money whether or not you really care about adorable puppies - and that b) the amount you donate would be higher if I’m standing right there watching you.

That, of course, is because whether or not I tell you explicitly to donate some of the money, you probably have no desire to behave like Ebenezer Scrooge in front of me. In short, your brain is wired to warn you that a public act of pointless selfishness is, socially, a non-starter.

But people with autism process this dynamic in a completely different way.

As the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports, a team led by Caltech’s Keise Izuma presented autistic volunteers with similar situations, and compared their behavior against that of a control group of non-autistic people. They found that when social reputation came into play, people with autism just didn’t seem to find it significant:

When asked to make real charitable donations in the presence or absence of an observer, matched healthy controls donated significantly more in the observer’s presence than absence… By contrast, people with high-functioning autism were not influenced by the presence of an observer at all in this task.

In other words, volunteers with autism consistently donated the same amount of money whether they were being watched or not. It’s not that they’re more selfish than anyone else – it’s that a reputation for altruism simply doesn’t factor into their thought process as they make those particular choices.

This groundbreaking work represents the first hard scientific evidence of a specific, quantifiable difference between the cognitive processes of autistic individuals and those without autism.

The research team confirmed their results by comparing how autistic people vs. control subjects performed on a simple math exam when they were being watched, as opposed to when they weren’t:

Both groups performed significantly better on a continuous performance task in the presence of an observer, suggesting intact general social facilitation in autism.

Thus, the team’s conclusion is that people with autism seem to lack – at least somewhat – a cognitive process that would allow them to intuitively take others’ moral opinions into account. Since autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are widely regarded as more developmental than strictly physiological, this study’s results help support the idea that our instincts about others’ opinions are learned, rather than inborn.

To understand exactly why the brains of autistic people work in such an fascinatingly unusual way, we’re going to need to do some diffusion and/or functional MRI scans of their brains as they make these choices.

But as for the rest of us, our minds are calibrated to flood us with reward chemicals when we perform generous acts – and evidently, those rewards are greater when we perform those acts in the presence of people whose opinions we care about.

So this holiday season, why not start a new tradition: gather all your friends together and go volunteering, or babysitting, or donating – or, hell, go save a kitten from a burning building. Whatever floats your happy little boat.

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