Category Archives: About Neuroscience

Delving Deep into Human Emotion

As we move farther away from rational /emotional dualism–a tough habit to break–psychobiological research is increasingly focusing on the development and role of emotion in the brain.  

The first of three videos below features neuroscientist Antonio Damasio contending that even though we view emotion as a human trait, it is probably one of the earliest evolutionary advancements, significantly predating human evolution. He explains that emotions are “a way to live for as long as possible”, asking “if you were a gene, what would you do?”

In the  second video social psychologist Dacher Keltner discussess the evolution of emotion with a focus on Darwin’s principle of antithesis, which attempts to illuminate the role of body langauge in the matrix of human emotion.

Both of those videos are short (less than 10 minutes total), but the last one is a full-scale lecture from neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, called: “Ancestral Memories: Brain Affective Systems, Ancient Emotional Vocalizations, and the Sources of Our Communicative Urges.” Panksepp’s book, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions, is the definitive textbook for the field of affective neuroscience. Settle in with a beer or two for this one.


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Neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe Discusses How We Read Each Other’s Minds

We know that we can sense the thoughts and feelings of others, but how do we do it?  From the TED 2009 Global Conference, Rebecca Saxe, professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT, shares fascinating research that uncovers how the brain thinks about other peoples’ thoughts — and judges their actions.

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Who Are Really the Loneliest People?

alone-in-a-crowd-1Social neuroscientist John Cacioppo recently gave a talk on the topic of loneliness for the Zócalo Public Square Lecture Series.  Cacioppo was interviewed here on Neuronarrative not long ago about his research and had several interesting things to say, especially about the physiological effects of loneliness.  In this lecture (a five-minute clip of which is provided below) Cacioppo discusses whether people in individualist or collectivist cultures are more prone to loneliness, why we feel lonelier during the holidays, and whether introverts are lonelier than extroverts.

On that last topic — Cacioppo says that during his research he expected to find physiological differences between introverts and extroverts, but he didn’t.  Rather, the big difference between them is how many social contacts they need.  An introvert may only need one, or a handful, to not feel lonely, while an extrovert may need many more.

His remarks on introversion-extroversion reminded me of a study, conducted a few years back, about the relative happiness of introverts and extroverts.  Extroverts reported higher levels of sociability than introverts, and sustained social relationships are generally considered a self-evident source of happiness. But, a substantial minority of the study subjects were classified as ‘happy introverts’ despite having fewer social contacts — and when the happy extroverts were compared with the happy introverts, no real differences could be found.  Quoting from the study:

In terms of preference for solitude, relations with friends, and taking part in potentially introspective activities, the behaviors of happy introverts and happy extroverts were virtually identical.

The conclusion: introversion and extroversion are not variables that predict levels of happiness, but rather “mediate the ways individuals choose to achieve their own happiness.”  Coming  back to Cacioppo’s research — introverts and extroverts differ in how they choose to make social connections, be they many or few, but at the end of the day they reach the same place with respect to how lonely they feel.  This is mainly a vindication of introversion, since many people (mostly extroverts) believe that it’s a beeline route to more loneliness and less happiness.  Not so.  



You can watch the complete 50-minute lecture here.

Here’s a link to a terrific and very funny article by Jonathan Rauch from The Atlantic a couple years ago entitled, “Caring for Your Introvert”.


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The Peculiar Power of Music on Memory

Though the psychology of music is an old field of study, the last 20 years have seen tremendous strides in understanding music processing in the human brain. Daniel Levitin from McGill University is on the leading edge of advancing this understanding, with particular focus on how music effects higher order cognitive processes.  Everyone has wondered why they can recall a song that was popular when they were in elementary school, but forget where they put their keys. Levitin enlightens us on why this happens, among other topics, during this talk at Unlocking the Secrets and Powers of the Brain, sponsored by the NSF, The Franklin Institute, and DISCOVER magazine. Video is just over six minutes long.


You can read more on the neuroscience of music in this comprehensive paper co-authored by Daniel Levitin

Link to Daniel Levitin’s website


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Children, Chimps and Overimitation

Courtesy of Neuroanthropology and Abnormal Interests, I came across the video below from a National Geographic show about how humans learn. The video features an experiment that gauges differences in learning styles between human children and chimps, with some fascinating results.

Several possible conclusions can be taken away from this experiment. One, as discussed at Abnormal Interests, is that the experiment captures something essential about how rituals are learned and subsequently repeated. The children in the experiment consistently repeated the adult’s actions even when it was clear that they were not needed to reach the goal — definitely smacks of ritualistic behavior. Once engrained, the repeated action reinforces itself, as do rituals.

Another overlapping possibility is that when the children are instructed to repeat the adult’s behavior, they aren’t doing so only to reach the goal — the behavior itself becomes as important as the goal.  This touches on what’s evidently the uniquely human trait of “overimitation.”  Even when the kids can plainly see the treat inside the clear box, they still repeat the behavior they’d learned to imitate; the act of imitating itself trumps the treat. 

This may be because human children can be easily persuaded to believe what adults tell them even when it contradicts their own senses, or because our most potent, hard-wired learning strategy is imitation, even when such imitation seems illogical.

A study entitled “The Hidden Structure of Overimitation”  in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focused on that last point.  Using a repeat-this-action method similar to that shown in the video, researchers tried to gain a better understanding as to why children will repeat irrelevant adult actions, something chimps aren’t prone to do.  They determined that this tendency is more than a human social dynamic in the making — it’s a cognitive encoding process at the core of how we learn, but it comes at a cost. From the study abstract:

Children who observe an adult intentionally manipulating a novel object have a strong tendency to encode all of the adult’s actions as causally meaningful, implicitly revising their causal understanding of the object accordingly. This automatic causal encoding process allows children to rapidly calibrate their causal beliefs about even the most opaque physical systems, but it also carries a cost. When some of the adult’s purposeful actions are unnecessary-even transparently so-children are highly prone to mis-encoding them as causally significant.

So this study suggests that the same encoding process that allows us to develop a sense of an action’s causal significance also makes us prone, as children, to mis-encoding purposeless actions as casually significant.  (Why are humans plagued with these sorts of “too much of a good thing” tics?) This effect is so potent that once engaged it’s extremely difficult to break. From the study:

The resulting distortions in children’s causal beliefs are the true cause of overimitation, a fact that makes the effect remarkably resistant to extinction. Despite countervailing task demands, time pressure, and even direct warnings, children are frequently unable to avoid reproducing the adult’s irrelevant actions because they have already incorporated them into their representation of the target object’s causal structure.

Perhaps the moral of the story is this: be careful when you’re modeling a behavior in front of your kids — they may be learning it more intensely than you think.

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Can We Really Multitask?

8066better-multitasking-through-caffeine-postersThe latest post at PsyBlog discusses a classic study on multitasking, in which two participants were reportedly taught to read and write at the same time.  From the post:

Professor Elizabeth Spelke and colleagues at Cornell University wanted to know whether we can really divide our conscious attention between two demanding tasks, like reading and writing. To find out they recruited two participants willing to put in 29 hours of practice over a 6 week period: Diane and John were their volunteers (Spelke, Hirst & Neisser, 1976). Before the training Diane and John’s normal reading and comprehension rates were measured, so it could be compared with post-training. Then Spelke and colleagues set about their three-phase training regime.

There are a number of objections to this study, all discussed at PsyBlog (the most obvious being that two people is not a legitimate sample size). The one that’s most relevant to the current debate on this topic is this:

Diane and John were learning to switch their attention from one task to the other very quickly, not focus on both at the same time.

The multitasking vs task-switching debate is an important one because it touches on a fundamental aspect of brain functioning: whether attention can be simultaneously divided between two or more tasks–each performed with equal precision–or if attention must be switched between the tasks, like a railroad switch redirecting a train. 

The University of Michigan Brain, Cognition and Action Labortatory has done quite a lot of work on this topic, which you can review in depth here.  Great information to be found there if you want to learn more about the essential aspects of the debate.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules, is an outspoken critic of multitasking. I’ll wrap this post with a snippet from his Brain Rules video series–another good resource for those wanting to pursue this topic further.


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What Does Expert Advice Really Do to Our Brains?

saupload_jim_cramerA new study in PLoS suggests that expert advice causes the brain to “offload” calculations of expected utility (loss or gain) when making a financial decision under risk.  This is an intriguing result, but we should take a closer look to see why this study really only examines one aspect of decision-making, and does not suggest, contrary to headlines, that expert advice causes the brain to “switch off rationality” or “shut down.” 

Study participants were asked to make financial choices both inside and outside an fMRI scanner (choices were divided into two categories: “sure win” and “lottery”).  During the scanner session, researchers introduced a financial expert variable, and provided the expert’s credentials to enhance his influence.  The expert’s advice was presented to participants on a computer screen above their financial choice options. If the expert recommended an option, the word “Accept” was displayed above it; if he advised against the option the word “Reject” was displayed. During half the trials, the word “Unavailable” was displayed, indicating that the expert had no advice for that decision.

The results: both behavior and neural activation patterns were significantly affected by expert advice.  When given an “Accept” signal by the expert, participants tended to make decisions based on the advice.  Simultaneously, neural activation patterns correlating with valuation were witnessed in the absence of expert advice; no significant neural correlations with valuation were witnessed in the presence of expert advice.

expert_imageIn other words, the brain appears to offload the burden of figuring out the best decision when given expert financial advice. At first glance, that’s what the study tells us. But, of course, there’s always a but.

Study participants were given a mean of 3.5 seconds to make a decision, which means that they did not have time to deliberate to even a modest degree. Debriefing at the end of the study trial bears this out; quoting from the methods section: “participants indicated that they had not identified any way to engage in strategic behavior.” 

Seldom is anyone faced with making a risky financial decision in seconds. More reasonably, most of us take hours if not days to make an important risk decision – and certainly we’d consider a decision important if seeking expert financial advice to sort it out.  The point being, the study does not tell us anything substantial about real-world decision making. 

What the study really tells us is that the brain defers to the expert when first given expert advice, much as we’d expect.  If then immediately challenged to make a decision, we’d also expect someone to go ahead with the expert’s advice. The study evidences that.  But we know this isn’t really how decision-making works. Rather, the expert’s advice gets folded into a more lengthy process of figuring out the right way to go.  That process will probably include information from other sources, perhaps other experts, family members impacted by the decision, associates who have faced similar decisions, etc. 

With the backdrop of the financial crisis, this study supplies fodder for critics to lay blame on financial experts, especially those on TV, for the misguided decisions of investors. But that’s a painfully simplistic conclusion that at best applies to people who are not careful decision-makers to begin with. Anyone sitting in front of the TV with stock-happy trigger fingers caressing his or her laptop is playing a game, not making a careful decision.

As to the brain “shutting down” or “switching off,” nothing in this study indicates either. Results show an “attenuation” of neural activity correlating with valuation – that is, a tapering or reduction of activity. And again, in the context of how decisions are actually made, this attenuation would presumably reverse as soon as more factors are considered (as soon as, to use the words of the study, “strategic behavior” is engaged).  It would be interesting to study how much time it takes for valuation-linked neural activity to rebound after the expert’s advice has been digested with a stew of other variables.

To sum up – immediately upon receiving expert advice, the brain appears to offload value calculations and the words of the expert carry the day. If all risk decisions were made in an instant, this would be extremely important to know. But thankfully they are not, at least not by most of us.
Jan B. Engelmann, C. Monica Capra, Charles Noussair, Gregory S. Berns (2009). Expert Financial Advice Neurobiologically “Offloads” Financial Decision-Making under Risk PLoS


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