30 October 2012

Neuroscience and Economics

"The Marketplace in Your Brain" by Josh Fischman over at The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept 24, 2012) has an interesting look at how economics may want/need to start using neuroscience findings to help explain and model decision-making.  On the economics side, there is some feeling that brain findings do not necessarily add anything to simply observing behavior, and I have to say I tend to agree.

One experiment explores the finding that people will often reject what are perceived to be 'stingy' sharing offers (even though it means they will get nothing rather than something).
Jonathan D. Cohen, a neuroscientist at Princeton, went looking for the seat of that impulse. He asked 19 people to play ultimatum games with stingy offers. Two areas of the brain were active when people considered what to do. One, near the front of the brain, is called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and is linked to deliberative thought and calculation. The other, deeper in the brain, is tied to emotions like disgust. It's called the insula. The stingier the offer, the more insula activity Cohen's team saw. When people actually rejected the offer, this activity peaked higher than did activity in the deliberative-thought area. It appears, Cohen says, that two areas are competing in some way, and that negative emotions—or the desire for justice—can trump people's rational desire to get more.
While the brain findings here perhaps are interesting, and shed light on brain function, I'm not sure it really explains the behavior at any deeper level than we can observe without them.

The article also discusses the funding angle.
Much of the NIH money comes from its institutes for drug addiction, mental health, and aging. "Most of us, to get funding, have to sell our ideas along disease lines," says Phelps. "Drug addiction is an obvious area where understanding reward-seeking behavior is important, and our work is clearly related to that."
The NIH wants to know more about choices because it's clear that many people understand what's needed to stay healthy but choose not to do it, says Lisbeth Nielsen, chief of the branch of individual and behavioral processes at the National Institute on Aging. "We're very interested in decision-making and aging," she says. "And that's not just health decisions but choices about insurance plans or how to manage your retirement savings. Are changes in choices related to the underlying neurophysiology? Or is it the environment? You won't know unless you get input from different sciences, and that's what neuroeconomics brings to us."
Again we see that often the neuroscience is driven by perceived disease rather than study of 'normal' behavior.  But it does seem worthwhile to get to a better model of human decision-making, in particular around areas where it seems like the decision-making is generally poor.

22 October 2012

The Meaning of Mind (1996) - Thomas Szasz

The subtitle of The Meaning of Mind by Thomas Szasz is "Language, Morality and Neuroscience" - but it's important to note the Szasz was a professor of psychiatry.  This is a short book, and a dense one as well - I never read more than about 20 pages at a time.  I felt that Szasz makes some important points that I agree with, and he is also pretty damn funny at times.  His approach may also be described as arrogant.

One of his main points is to argue against the common (mis-)use of language that equates mind with brain.  At a purely linguistic level this equation seems to fall apart quickly.  As he puts it on page 92, "When a journalist wants to categorize a crime as particularly heinous, he calls it 'mindless,' not 'brainless.' The point is obvious. A brainless person cannot commit a crime, just as an eyeless person cannot see."  Further down the page,
The terms 'brain' and 'mind' belong to different conceptual categories and different modes of discourse.  The brain is a bodily organ and a part of medical discourse. The mind is a personal attribute and a part of moral discourse.  So long as we view personal conduct commonsensically, we attribute (bad) behavior to the mind or, more precisely, to the person who displays it.  However, once we view such conduct psychiatrically (and legally), we typically attribute it to the brain: We say that the bad man is mad, or that the madman is bad, because he has a brain disease.
For Szasz, the role of personal responsibility is key, and he sees both psychiatry and neuroscience as chipping away at responsibility, turning many matters into questions of the neuro chemical mix.  Szasz argues that in fact mind is more of a verb than a noun - i.e. we can't point to a thing identified as the mind, but we can talk about a person 'minding'.  If we reduce all behavior to brain activity, then there's no telling how creative people will get about claiming behavior as brain disorder, and then coming up with neuro-chemical 'solutions.' (see also this earlier post:  Did your brain make you do it?)

I agree with the point that 'mind' and 'brain' are in two different categories, and while mind (or minding) seems dependent on an operating brain (and nervous system and sensory inputs and some body!), to explore the mind is to speak about experiences, not neurons and neuro-chemicals.  I'm not sure about the mind being only part of a "moral discourse" however.  The point of this blog is that there can be scientific explorations of the experiences of mind, and how these experiences seem to create a feedback loop with the brain (i.e. from simple attention/learning to meditation and its impact on brain waves, etc.).

Thus I fully agree with this point from Szasz in his epilogue (p. 140):
I dare say there is something bizarre about the materialist-reductionist's denial of persons. To be sure, brains in craniums exist; and so do persons in societies. The material substrates of a human being - a person - are organs, tissues, cells, molecules, atoms and subatomic particles. The material substrates of a human artifact - say a wedding ring - are crystals, atoms, electrons in orbits, and so forth. Scientists do not claim to be able to explain the economic or emotional value of a wedding ring by identifying its material composition; nor do they insist that a physicalistic account of its structure is superior to a cultural and personal account of its meaning. Yet, many scientists, from physicists to neurophysiologists, claim that they can explain choice and responsibility by identifying its material substrate - that "life can be explained in terms of ordinary physics and chemistry."  (Editorial note: the last bit is a quote from a Nature article).
I frequently get this same sense about neuroscientists' writing - it's trying so hard to do away with any kind of dualism that it also seems to go hard reductionist about all human behavior, and I don't think it's a necessary or appropriate way to learn about minding.

21 October 2012

Scientists read dreams

This article from Nature, "Scientists read dreams" on October 19, 2012 by Mo Costandi, reports on some findings of brain scans performed just prior to waking dreaming subjects.  Basically the researchers linked activity in various visual processing areas to the reported dream content of the dreamers.  The basic finding comes down to this:
The findings, presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans, Louisiana, earlier this week, suggest that dreaming and visual perception share similar neural representations in the higher order visual areas of the brain.
I think this is interesting as a confirmation of how at least some part of dreaming operates in the brain, but as lead researcher Yukiyasu Kamitani of the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan says,“Knowing more about the content of dreams and how it relates to brain activity may help us to understand the function of dreaming.” Maybe!