worthy links

Nice piece from the Boston Globe on the positive benefits of solitude. (My friend Adam Waytz, from the Harvard psychology department, gets a mention.)

Congenitally blind people use visual cortex to do language processing

An essay by June Carbone regards the role of neuroscience in determining punishment for adolescents who commit crimes such as murder. Focused on a recent US Supreme Court decision on the juvenile death penalty, the piece points out some of the limitations of applying neuroscientific findings to issues of jurisprudence.

A new study from researchers at Northeastern University says day traders make more money when they stay with the herd.

Love in the time of oxytocin research

Often referred to as the “love drug” or “love hormone”, oxytocin has attracted increasing interest from researchers in recent years. It was originally shown to modulate aspects of social attachment and pair bonding in animals such as the female prairie vole, whose monogamous nature is dependent on oxytocin. Recent research in humans has shown that oxytocin increases trust behavior in economic exchanges and increases perception of trustworthiness in human faces, as well as promoting emotion recognition and altruism. This evidence inspired hopes among some, particularly in the mainstream media, that science might have found a possible pharmacological target for humans who show deficits in prosocial behavior.

But recent evidence has complicated the narrative a bit.

Research has shown that oxytocin plays a role in increased emotional reactivity to both positive and negative social cues. For example, one study from 2009 (Shamay-Tsoory et al) had participants engage in a game of chance with another player (the actor). In one condition, the actor was made to win more than the participant, evoking feelings of envy in the participant. In another condition, the actor was made to lose more than the participant, evoking feelings of “schaudenfrude” or gloating. Participants who were administered oxytocin before playing showed increases in both envy and schaudenfrude (if oxytocin was involved only in enhancing prosocial behavior, we would expect to see the opposite result.) Other research has shown oxytocin increased approach behavior or affiliative drive rather than regulating positive or negative responding per se. And one recent study showed that oxycotin led humans to self-sacrifice for their own group while showing increased aggression toward out-group members. The gist of this set of findings is that oxytocin doesn’t seem to bias individuals toward the positive, but rather can magnify whatever “stimuli” happens to be in someone’s attentional spotlight, be it bad or good, thereby generating an increase in corresponding positive or negative emotional responses.

Jennifer Bartz and colleagues (2010) were curious to explore whether oxytocin could “correct” deficits in pro-social behavior in individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD), a population famous for emotional instability, extreme impulsive behavior and identity confusion. People with BPD tend to be involved in intense, emotionally volatile relationships characterized by frequent arguing, repeated breakups and extreme aggression. This behavior often extends beyond their romantic relationships, as BPD individuals have also been shown to have difficulty cooperating with strangers. The existing body of research, Bartz et al suggested, offers up contrary predictions. On the one hand, oxytocin could be helpful in reducing the negative behaviors normally associated with BPD in favor of kinder, gentler behavior towards others. Alternatively, oxytocin might have increasingly negative effects for people with BPD, who are chronically concerned with (lack of) trust and abandonment and have difficulty cooperating with others. They’re essentially fixed in a constitutively negative state when it comes to social interactions and increased oxytocin could decrease prosocial behavior even further. Additionally (or alternatively), the oxytocin system might be dysregulated in BPD and could produce different responses (vs. control) to oxytocin as a result.

Bartz and company designed an experiment in which the participant was paired with a partner (in reality, a virtual “computer” partner) to engage in an economic game. In this game, the participant was to make one of two choices that involved financial rewards. The catch was that the amount of the reward was also dependent upon the choice that their “partner” made.

Both players clearly make the most money if they both choose strategy A. But because the player has to make the choice before the partner, the decision involves an element of trust (if your partner defects, you get nothing. If your partner trusts you and you defect, you get $4 and she gets nothing.)

So, what did they find?

Results showed the following:

1. BPD people trusted their partners in an economic game less after they received oxycotin than when they received a placebo.
2. Additionally, when asked if they would be more likely to make a hypothetical decision that would punish their partner, even when they knew their partner had extended trust toward them, they were more likely to punish after Oxytocin than placebo.

Administration of oxytocin to BPD individuals actually decreased pro-social behavior (and increased antisocial behavior). As the experimenters suggest, increasing the salience of a social cue that makes trust issues salient may have caused BPD participants to rely on their normal strategy for trust-dependent social interactions; that is, defect and punish the partner. Or it might have motivated approach/affiliative behaviors which triggered memory of past experiences gone awry and set off chronic and ever-present concerns about trust and rejection (e.g. “reject and punish them before they can do the same to me.”). Finally, the experimenters suggest the possibility that the oxytocin system itself may be dysregulated.

In short, the evidence doesn’t offer overwhelming support for the notion that exogenously-administered oxytocin will be a useful clinical treatment for people with pro-social deficits, such as those with BPD. Additionally, it’s difficult to imagine long-term benefits of oxytocin given that it’s half life when administered intranasally is only about three minutes. It’s been said that the most of the real action with regards to oxytocin is on the receptor end.

Bartz, J., Simeon, D., Hamilton, H., Kim, S. Crystal, S., Braun, A., Vincens, V., & Hollander, E. Oxytocin can hinder trust and cooperation in borderline personality disorder. (2010). Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience

Shamay-Tsoory SG, Fischer M, Dvash J, Harari H, Perach-Bloom N, Levkovitz Y (November 2009). “Intranasal administration of oxytocin increases envy and schadenfreude (gloating)”. Biological Psychiatry 66 (9): 864–70.


People love pictures of brains. And, as a result, companies have been trying hard to find ways to incorporate MRI data into their sales pitches and business plans. One such company, Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, has jumped on the bandwagon in a big way, having recently added a brain scan to the standard occupational aptitude test they offer to job seekers (they charge around $700 for the assessment):

The Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation is a nonprofit scientific research and educational organization with two primary commitments: to study human abilities and to provide people with a knowledge of their aptitudes that will help them in making decisions about school and work. Since 1922, hundreds of thousands of people have used our aptitude testing service to learn more about themselves and to derive more satisfaction from their lives.

See the Neurocritic for a spot-on criticism of the “study” upon which their new marketing pitch is based.

Bad neuroscience seems to be appearing increasingly frequently in the public media space. From misleading articles in the mainstream press to the poorly conducted studies that often form the basis for one or another misconceived business plan, fMRI research runs the danger of being victimized by its own success. Part of the problem stems from the general public’s inability to properly interpret neuroscientific data in the context of human psychology studies. Not that they should be blamed. Neuropsychology is a somewhat complicated discipline, and there isn’t any reason to believe that someone lacking in understanding of the basic principles of neural science, or psychology, or both, should be able to parse such data out correctly. The problem, however, is that the average public citizen isn’t neutral toward such data, but tends to be more satisfied by psychological explanations that include neuroscientific data, regardless of whether that data adds value to the explanation or not. The mere mention of something vaguely neuroscientific seems to increase the average reader’s satisfaction with a psychological finding, legitimizing it. Even worse, its the bad studies that benefit the most from this so-called “neurophlia”, the love of brain pictures. That’s according to a study from a research team led by Jeremy Grey at Yale University.

Participants read a series of summaries of psychological findings from one of four categories: Either a good or bad explanation, with or without a meaningless reference to neuroscience. After reading each explanation, participants rated how satisfying they found the explanation. The experiment was run on three different groups of participants: random undergraduates, undergrads who had taken intermediate-level cognitive neuroscience course and a slightly older group who had either already earned PhDs in neuroscience, or were in or about to enter graduate neuroscience programs.

The first group of regular undergrads were able to distinguish between good and bad explanations without neuroscience, but were much more satisfied by bad explanations that included reference to neural data ( The y-axis on the following figures stands for self-rated satisfaction):

Nor were the cognitive neuroscience students any more discerning. If anything, they were a bit worse than the non-cognitive neuroscience undergrads, in that they found good explanations with meaningless neuroscience more satisfying than good ones without :

But the PhD neural science people showed the benefits of their training. Not only did they not find bad explanations to be more satisfying by the addition of meaningless neuroscience, they found good explanations with meaningless neuroscience to be less satisfying.

As to why non-experts might have been fooled? The authors suggest that non-experts could be falling pray to the “the seductive details effect,” whereby “related but logically irrelevant details presented as part of an argument, tend to make it more difficult for subjects to encode and later recall the main argument of a text.” In other words, it might not be the neuroscience per se that leads to the increased satisfaction, but some more general property of the neuroscience information. As to what that property might be, it could be that people are biased towards arguments that possess a reductionist structure. That is, in science, “higher level” arguments that refer to macroscopic phenomena often refer to “lower level” explanations that invoke microscopic explanation. Neuroscientific explanations fit the bill in this case, by seeming to provide hard, low level data in support of higher level behavioral phenomenon. The mere mention of lower level data – albeit meaningless data – might have made it seem as if the “bad” higher level explanation was connected to some “larger explanatory system” and therefore more valid or meaningful. It could be simply that bad explanations – those involving neuroscience or otherwise – are buffered by the allure of complex, multilevel explanatory structures. Or it could be that people are easily seduced by fancy jargon like “ventral medial prefrontal connectivity” and “NMDA-type glutamate receptor regions.”

Whatever the proximal mechanisms of the “neurophilia” effect, the public infatuation with all things neural probably won’t be fading any time soon and, as such, its imperative that scientists, journalists and others who communicate with the public about brain science be on the lookout for bad, and incorrectly presented good, neuroscience, and be quick to issue correctives when it appears.

Go here for the Yale study.

The Rational Vulcan

“It is more rational to sacrifice one life than six.”

– Spock

Consider the following two situations:

Situation # 1: You are among a group of 25 people who are hiding during World War II in the attic of an old country house while a group of enemy soldiers, who have been searching for your group and will kill everyone if they discover you, are on the floor below. The slightest sound from anyone in your group will give you all away. Your baby makes a face as if to cry, and you quickly cup a hand over the baby’s nose and mouth to keep it quiet. You realize that if you takes your hand away, the baby will cry, and your group (including you and the baby) will be discovered and killed, but if you keep your hand in place, the baby will suffocate and die, but everyone else will survive. What should you do?

Situation #2: You are a participant in an experiment of the following nature: There is a revolving $10 pot and another person will repeatedly offer you an amount varying from $1 to $9 from that pot, keeping the rest for himself. If you refuse any given offer, you both get nothing. The size or number of offers you refuse will have no affect on subsequent offers. You will never encounter this person ever again. Here’s what the experiment looks like:

What is the lowest offer you should accept?

Both of the above dilemmas suggest difficult but somewhat obvious utilitarian choices (utilitarian=providing the maximal benefits for all). If you’re thinking rationally (like Spock), you should kill the baby to save the group of 25. And in Situation #2, you should accept any and all offers, even if you’re only unfairly offered $1 (while the giver keeps $9), because something is better than nothing. However, perhaps not surprisingly, humans often don’t make the rational decisions in situations like these, and often rely on emotional responses to lead them towards rationally incorrect choices. I will discuss the two psychological mechanisms by which decisions such as these are made, offer some compelling examples showing how neuroscience is shedding new light on the science of moral decision making and discuss the real-life implications of this research.

The Role of Emotion and Reason in Human Decision Making

Philosophy has long been concerned with understanding the basis for human morality. Rationalist philosophers, such as Plato and Kant, characterized moral judgment making as a rational exercise, based upon deductive reasoning and cost-benefit analysis. Contrastingly, philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith held that automatic emotional responses played a primary role in moral judgments. And although many contemporary psychologists and philosophers have continued to favor one position over the other, modernists are increasingly integrating these two views, suggesting that moral decisions are the result of the confluence of both fast, automatic emotional responses and controlled, deliberative reasoning. In recent years, psychologists have been using the tools of neuroscience – namely, fMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging – to help better understand the mental processes underlying such “dual process” models.

In order to examine how these two systems interact in decision making, we’ll look at two experiments.

The first experiment utilizes fMRI to shed light on the conditions under which we might engage emotion vs. reason when making a moral judgment. The second experiment involves patients who have suffered brain damage in a region of the brain known to play a role in social emotional responding, and we’ll look at how this type of localized damage can actually lead to better decisions (in a utilitarian sense) in some moral decision tasks.

Moral Decisions and the Trolley Dilemma

The first experiment we’ll discuss comes from a problem originally discussed by philosophers Phillipa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thompson, known as the “trolley” problem, which presents the following two dilemmas:

(1) A train is speeding down some tracks. You glance ahead and notice that there are 5 people working on the track who don’t see the train coming and will be killed. However, there is a switch within your reach, which, if you pull it, will switch the train to another set of tracks, saving those five people but killing one person working on the other track. Is it ok to pull the switch?

(2) Again, the trolley is headed for five people. You are standing next to a man on a footbridge overlooking the tracks and if you push him off the bridge and in front of the train, it will cause the train to stop, saving the five. Is it ok to push the man off of the bridge?

Most people say yes to #1 (its ok to pull the switch) but no to #2 (not ok to push the man), even though the situation are identical in a utilitarian sense. The presents a puzzle: Why is it the case that most people make those decisions?
And what kind of mental calculus are people doing in order to consistently make these choices?

According to Harvard psychologist Josh Greene, the difference lies in the emotional responses we experience to either case. In the track switching case, our role in the man’s death is somewhat passive. He happens to be on the other track and we happen to pull the switch that directs the train to the track, but we’re not directly involved in his death. It doesn’t feel wrong – or at least not wrong enough to overwhelm our rational analysis of the situation (which is that 5 lives are worth more than one.) Greene refers to this scenario as the “impersonal case.”

The footbridge situation – ”the personal case” – is quite a different scenario. We’re playing an active role in the man’s death; the idea of pushing the man certainly “feels” more wrong than the idea of pulling the switch. I would venture to say that for many people it feels a little like murder and would evoke an extremely negative emotional response. This emotional response would seem likely to drive the subsequent decision to obey the rational calculus of the situation and let the man pass on by. This explanation, if correct, offers some specific predictions regarding the neural networks that should be actively driving these decisions. Greene ran people through the experimental paradigm while they were in the scanner and found the following:

– In cases where people said it was ok to pull the switch, active brain regions were those involved in deliberate reasoning (the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and the inferior parietal lobule). In other words, in order to make the decision to pull the switch, people seemed to engage deliberate, rational thought processes.

– In cases where people said it wasn’t ok to push the man, active regions were those involved in the processing of social emotions (the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), and the posterior cingulate). The thought of pushing someone in front of a trolley seemed to evoke a strongly negative emotional response that drove moral dissaproval of the act.

But perhaps the most interesting finding was revealed in the brain data of those subjects who decided it was ok to push the man off of the bridge. Greene (2004) found that the selection of a more utilitarian choice revealed a conflict between the “rational” and “emotional” systems (I’m quoting the terms “rational” and “emotional” because these are not entirely distinct systems in functional terms, but rather quite interconnected). Additionally, he found activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area in which activation is thought to reflect conflict between competing brain processes. In other words, the thought of pushing someone in front of a trolley would evoke a strongly negative emotional response, which would then have to be overridden in order to the make the more utilitarian or rational response.

Again, most people chose not to push the man over the footbridge. Greene’s experiment strongly suggests that it was activation in brain regions known to be active during emotional responding that are responsible. But an even better test of whether a particular brain region is responsible for a given behavior is to look at people who have damage to that area of the brain. That is, would people with damage in the “social emotional” centers of the brain be more likely to push the man off of the bridge? A group of Italian researchers (Moretto 2009) recently recruited people with damage to a region of the brain active during social emotional responding (the vmPFC) to test Greene’s claim.

Vmpfc damaged brains above (orange highlights show the focal point of the damage).

These patients participated in the same task as in Experiment #1 (the trolley task). And as predicted, brain damaged patients more often chose to push the man off the bridge to save the five people on the tracks. This is presumably because they didn’t experience an emotional signal (which would normally have been reflected via activity in the mPFC) that would prevent them from endorsing such an action, thereby allowing deliberative mental processes to reign supreme. Simply put, these patients’ lack of emotional response led them to the more rational choice. Does this data suggest mean that people with vmPFC damage are generally better equipped to make more rational moral decisions? Although this kind of brain damage does sometimes result in the kinds of limited benefits described herein, it also leads to a much larger set of deficits, including difficulties making economics decisions as well as a tendency to exhibit exaggerated anger, irritability, emotional outbursts and tantrums, particularly in social situations involving frustration or provocation. People with this kind of brain damage also often have difficulty making sound economic decisions (Damasio 1994).

Real Life Implications
One of the biggest challenges inherent to experimental psychology lies in the push and pull between naturalism and control (the more control we impose upon the conditions of the experiment in order to isolate the variable of interest, the less “ecologically valid” the results are likely to be.) The moral choices people make from the comfort of a psychology lab may or may not replicate out in the real world. But naturalism is not the most important aspect of the trolley problem. What is important is the mental processes that underlie two conditions which differ not in terms of their rational calculus, but only in the personal role we play in the outcome. Consider the case of Flight 93, the ill-fated plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on 9-11. The White House was notified about the possible hijacking about 50 minutes before the plane came down. And in that time period, a difficult decision was made. In an interview with Tim Russert shortly after 9-11, vice president Dick Cheney talked about the decision:

Yes. The president made the decision … that if the plane would not divert … as a last resort, our pilots were authorized to take them out. Now, people say, you know, that’s a horrendous decision to make. Well, it is. You’ve got an airplane full of American citizens, civilians, captured by … terrorists, headed and are you going to, in fact, shoot it down, obviously, and kill all those Americans on board?”

And although this decision is difficult to argue against, it was certainly still a difficult one to make. As in the trolley problem, it requires that rational, deliberative thinking take precedence over the negative and aversive emotion, the revulsion and guilt, that most people would feel if forced to play an active role in the death of one (or several) innocent humans. And although the president and his cronies had to make the decision “on paper”, the fact of the crash obviated the need to actually issue the order to shoot the plane down. In this sense, the incident resembles a lab experiment in which decisions aren’t actually enacted but are merely theoretical. The tougher decision would have come later, with the order to fire. Furthermore, imagine the intense internal conflict for the pilot who would have been ordered to actually pull the trigger. It’s a reminder why military organizations train their soldier to blindly follow orders. A soldier is optimally neither rationally analyzing the moral parameters of nor reacting emotionally to any given situation, but only acting upon his orders. If a military commander could peer into the brains of a soldier faced with such a dilemma, he would ideally want to see none of the brain activity found in Greene’s conflicted rationalizers.

So what does this all mean for you and me? For one, its should serve as a reminder that there are times when we’ll arrive at the optimal solution to some moral quandary not by “trusting our gut” but rather deliberately and rationally working through a problem. We need to develop a healthy distrust of our common sense instincts, as they can often mislead us. But that’s not to say that rational deliberation will always lead us to respond more accurately to moral challenges. On the contrary, sometimes the emotional system is exactly the tool for the job. After all, the Enterprise couldn’t have survived without both Spock and Kirk.

Greene, J., Nystrom, L., Engell, A., Darley, J., & Cohen, J. (2004). The Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment Neuron, 44 (2), 389-400 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2004.09.027

Moretto, G., Làdavas, E., Mattioli, F., & di Pellegrino, G. (2010). A Psychophysiological Investigation of Moral Judgment after Ventromedial Prefrontal Damage Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22 (8), 1888-1899 DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21367

Damasio, A.R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, Reason and the human brain. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.