The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘cognitive neuroscience’

“We Didn’t Start the Scanner”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 3, 2012

From PsychCentral:

“A History of Cognitive Neuroscience…in Three Minutes.” Set to the melody of Billy Joel’s classic song “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” new lyrics highlight significant scientists and advances in the field over the years, interspersed with comedy bits reminiscent of silent films. A lively and fun history lesson, this student video won the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience Brains on Film Competition 2012 at University College London. Full lyrics are available here in the video’s description.

Sample of related Situationist posts:

Posted in Environment, Neuroscience, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Dehumanized Situation of Atrocities

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2011

From Duke Today, a story about recent research by Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske:

A father in Louisiana bludgeoned and beheaded his disabled 7-year-old son last August because he no longer wanted to care for the boy.

For most people, such a heinous act is unconscionable.

But it may be that a person can become callous enough to commit human atrocities because of a failure in the part of the brain that’s critical for social interaction. A new study by researchers at Duke University and Princeton University suggests this function may disengage when people encounter others they consider disgusting, thus “dehumanizing” their victims by failing to acknowledge they have thoughts and feelings.

This shortcoming also may help explain how propaganda depicting Tutsi in Rwanda as cockroaches and Hitler’s classification of Jews in Nazi Germany as vermin contributed to torture and genocide, the study said.

“When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds. Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human,” said lead author Lasana Harris, an assistant professor in Duke University’s Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Harris co-authored the study with Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Social neuroscience has shown through MRI studies that people normally activate a network in the brain related to social cognition — thoughts, feelings, empathy, for example — when viewing pictures of others or thinking about their thoughts.  But when participants in this study were asked to consider images of people they considered drug addicts, homeless people, and others they deemed low on the social ladder, parts of this network failed to engage.

What’s especially striking, the researchers said, is that people will easily ascribe social cognition — a belief in an internal life such as emotions — to animals and cars, but will avoid making eye contact with the homeless panhandler in the subway.

“We need to think about other people’s experience,” Fiske said. “It’s what makes them fully human to us.”

The duo’s previous research suggested that a lack of social cognition can be linked to not acknowledging the mind of other people when imagining a day in their life, and rating them differently on traits that we think differentiate humans from everything else.

This latest study expands on that earlier work to show that these traits correlate with activation in brain regions beyond the social cognition network. These areas include those brain areas involved in disgust, attention and cognitive control.

The result is what the researchers call “dehumanized perception,” or failing to consider someone else’s mind. Such a lack of empathy toward others can also help explain why some members of society are sometimes dehumanized, they said.

For this latest study, 119 undergraduates from Princeton completed judgment and decision-making surveys as they viewed images of people. The researchers sought to examine the students’ responses to common emotions triggered by images such as:

– a female college student and male American firefighter (pride);
— a business woman and rich man (envy);
— an elderly man and disabled woman (pity);
— a female homeless person and male drug addict (disgust).

After imagining a day in the life of the people in the images, participants next rated the same person on various dimensions. They rated characteristics including the warmth, competence, similarity, familiarity, responsibility of the person for his/her situation, control of the person over their situation, intelligence, complex emotionality, self-awareness, ups-and-downs in life, and typical humanity.

Participants then went into the MRI scanner and simply looked at pictures of people.

The study found that the neural network involved in social interaction failed to respond to images of drug addicts, the homeless, immigrants and poor people, replicating earlier results.

“These results suggest multiple roots to dehumanization,” Harris said. “This suggests that dehumanization is a complex phenomenon, and future research is necessary to more accurately specify this complexity.”

The sample’s mean age was 20, with 62 female participants. The ethnic composition of the Princeton students who participated in the study was 68 white, 19 Asian, 12 of mixed descent, and 6 black, with the remainder not reporting.

The study, “Dehumanized Perception: A Psychological Means to Facilitate Atrocities, Torture, and Genocide?” appears in a recent issue of the Journal of Psychology.

Image from Flickr.

Related Situationist posts:

Susan Fiske’s New Book

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality, Neuroeconomics, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Thomas Nadelhoffer on Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 12, 2010

From The Project on Law & Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School (PLMS):

Below is a fascinating and enlightening 51-minute interview of Thomas Nadelhoffer by Harvard Law Student Brian Wood.  The interview, titled “Developments in Neuroscience and their Implications for Criminal Law,” lasts just over 51 minutes.  It was conducted the Law and Mind Science Seminar at Harvard (taught by Situationist Editor Jon Hanson).

Bio:

Situationist Contributor Dr. Thomas Nadelhoffer was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned degrees in philosophy from The University of Georgia (BA), Georgia State University (MA), and Florida State University (PhD). Since 2006, he has been an assistant professor of philosopy and a member of the law and policy faculty at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He is currently at Duke University as a Visiting Scholar in the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

His main areas of research include moral psychology, the philosophy of action, free will, punishment theory, and neurolaw. He is particularly interested in research at the cross roads of philosophy and the sciences of the mind. His articles have appeared in journals such as Analysis, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Mind & Language, Neuroethics, and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. He is the coordinator of the blogs Flickers of Freedom and the Law and Neuroscience Blog. He is also a contributing author to blogs such as The Situationist, The Leiter Reports, and Experimental Philosophy.

* * *

* * *

Table of contents:

  • What have you been working on recently?  0:22
  • What are some areas of the legal system in which this science is relevant? 1:07
  • What are the problems with the traditional approaches to using science in the criminal system, and how are new scientific methods relevant to fixing them? 2:15
  • How could these newer scientific methods be employed? 4:09
  • What are the rationales society has traditionally cited as justifying criminal punishment? 6:55
  • Can you explain what Compatibalism is? 10:17
  • Aren’t there problems with notions of moral responsibility under Compatibalism? 12:26
  • How do neuroscience, Compatibalism, and determinism relate to our notions of law? 12:55
  • What do you see as the problems with the classic approaches to punishment? 15:25
  • Is there anything especially strange about Retributivism to you? 20:37
  • Can you detail what you believe to be the just reasons for punishment and how society can punish people more justly? 23:41
  • In your view, how would you punish psychopaths under the consequentialist rationale? 30:40
  • Can you give an example of the distinctions psychopaths cannot draw? 34:50
  • What’s the most interesting experiment you have conducted? 37:01
  • Do you think these participants just misunderstood what determinism is? 38:15
  • What qualities do you believe you and other researchers and philosophers need to be successful? 40:03
  • How has what you have learned through your research influenced the way you live you life? 41:35
  • How do you see the relationship of law and mind science developing in the future? 44:55

Posted in Experimental Philosophy, Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Situationist Contributors, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 20, 2009

The good folks at Big Think interviewed Situationist friend Dan Gilbert and asked him about the future of psychology.  Among other things, Gilbert had this to say.

Surely the other big problem facing psychology is the problem facing any behavioral science in the United States of America, which is we have leaders who don’t much appreciate behavioral science. It’s an odd thing, given that virtually every problem you’re trying to solve is a problem of human behavior. These aren’t sciences that gather much respect. And as a result, they’re not sciences that are doing very well in terms of funding. It’s quite possible that psychology as we know it won’t exist as a science in 10 or 15 years if we follow the present course of funding in the U.S.A.

The video of his complete response is below.

* * *

To review previous Situationist posts by or about Dan Gilbert’s work click here.

Posted in Neuroscience, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 16, 2008

Michael Craig Miller, M.D. has a helpful article, “Sad Brain, Happy Brain,” in this week’s Newsweek.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

The brain is the mind is the brain. One hundred billion nerve cells, give or take, none of which individually has the capacity to feel or to reason, yet together generating consciousness. For about 400 years, following the ideas of French philosopher René Descartes, those who thought about its nature considered the mind related to the body, but separate from it. In this model—often called “dualism” or the mind-body problem—the mind was “immaterial,” not anchored in anything physical. Today neuroscientists are finding abundant evidence . . . that separating mind from brain makes no sense. Nobel Prize-winning psychiatrist-neuroscientist Eric Kandel stated it directly in a watershed paper published in 1998: “All mental processes, even the most complex psychological processes, derive from operations of the brain.”

Neuroscientists consider it settled that the mind arises from the cooperation of billions of interconnected cells that, individually, are no smarter than amoebae. But it’s a shocking idea to some that the human mind could arise out of such an array of mindlessness. Many express amazement that emotions, pain, sexual feelings or religious belief could be a product of brain function. They are put off by the notion that such rich experiences could be reduced to mechanical or chemical bits. Or they worry that scientific explanations may seduce people into a kind of moral laziness that provides a ready excuse for any human failing: “My brain made me do it.” Our brains indeed do make us do it, but that is nonetheless consistent with meaningful lives and moral choices. Writing for the President’s Council on Bioethics earlier this year, philosopher Daniel Dennett made the point that building knowledge about the biology of mental life may improve our decision making, even our moral decision making. And it could enhance our chances of survival as a species, too.

. . . . The brain is responsible for most of what you care about—language, creativity, imagination, empathy and morality. And it is the repository of all that you feel. The endeavor to discovery the biological basis for these complex human experiences has given rise to a relatively new discipline: cognitive neuroscience. . . .

. . . .Neuroscientists . . . have a rapidly growing appreciation of the emotional brain and are beginning to look closely at these subjective states, which were formerly the province of philosophers and poets. It is complex science that holds great promise for improving the quality of life. Fortunately, understanding basic principles does not require an advanced degree.

* * *

Fear is a good place to start, because it is one of the emotions that cognitive neuroscientists understand well. It is an unpleasant feeling, but necessary to our survival; humans would not have lasted very long in the wilderness without it. Two deep brain structures called the amygdalae manage the important task of learning and remembering what you should be afraid of.

Each amygdala, a cluster of nerve cells named after its almond shape (from the Greek amugdale), sits under its corresponding temporal lobe on either side of the brain. Like a network hub, it coordinates information from several sources. It collects input from the environment, registers emotional significance and—when necessary—mobilizes a proper response. It gets information about the body’s response to the environment (for example, heart rate and blood pressure) from the hypothalamus. It communicates with the reasoning areas in the front of the brain. And it connects with the hippocampus, an important memory center.

The fear system is extraordinarily efficient. It is so efficient that you don’t need to consciously register what is happening for the brain to kick off a response. If a car swerves into your lane of traffic, you will feel the fear before you understand it. Signals travel between the amygdala and your crisis system before the visual part of your brain has a chance to “see.” Organisms with slower responses probably did not get the opportunity to pass their genetic material along.

Fear is contagious because the amygdala helps people not only recognize fear in the faces of others, but also to automatically scan for it. People or animals with damage to the amygdala lose these skills. Not only is the world more dangerous for them, the texture of life is ironed out; the world seems less compelling to them because their “excitement” anatomy is impaired.

* * *

[We’ve excluded, here, interesting overviews of how the brain experiences with anger, happiness, sadness, and empathy.]

* * *

But empathy depends on more than an ability to mirror actions or sensations. It also requires what some cognitive neuroscientists call mentalizing, or a “theory of mind.” Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading researcher in the study of autism, has identified the inability to generate a theory of mind as a central deficit in that illness. He has coined the term “mindblindness” to designate that problem. The corollary, “mindsightedness,” requires healthy function in several areas of the brain. The processing and remembering of subtle language cues take place toward the ends of the temporal lobes. At the junction of the temporal and parietal lobes, the brain handles memory for events, moral judgment and biological motion (what we might call body language). And the prefrontal cortex handles many complex reasoning functions involved in feelings of empathy.

Not surprisingly, love also engages a whole lot of brain. Areas that are deeply involved include the insula, anterior cingulate, hippocampus and nucleus accumbens—in other words, parts of the brain that involve body and emotional perception, memory and reward. There is also an increase in neurotransmitter activity along circuits governing attachment and bonding, as well as reward (there’s that word again). And there’s scientific evidence that love really is blind; romantic love turns down or shuts off activity in the reasoning part of the brain and the amygdala. In the context of passion, the brain’s judgment and fear centers are on leave. Love also shuts down the centers necessary to mentalize or sustain a theory of mind. Lovers stop differentiating you from me.

Faith is also being studied. Earlier this year the Annals of Neurology published an article by Sam Harris and colleagues exploring what happens in the brain when people are in the act of either believing or disbelieving. In an accompanying editorial, Oliver Sachs and Joy Hirsch underscored the significance of what the researchers found. Belief and disbelief activated different regions of the brain. But in the brain, all belief reactions looked the same, whether the stimulus was relatively neutral: an equation like (2+6)+8=16, or emotionally charged: “A Personal God exists, just as the Bible describes.”

By putting a big religious idea next to a small math equation, some readers might think the researchers intend to glibly dismiss it. But a discovery about brain function does not imply a value judgment. And understanding the reality of the natural world—how the brain works—shouldn’t muddle the big questions about human experience. It should help us answer them.

* * *

To read the entire article, click here.  For a collection of related Situationist posts, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Neuroscience, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Smart People Thinking about People Thinking about People Thinking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 7, 2008

Anne Trafton in MIT’s news office has a great summary of the fascinating research (and background) of MIT’s Rebecca Saxe.

* * *

How do we know what other people are thinking? How do we judge them, and what happens in our brains when we do?

MIT neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe is tackling those tough questions and many others. Her goal is no less than understanding how the brain gives rise to the abilities that make us uniquely human–making moral judgments, developing belief systems and understanding language.

It’s a huge task, but “different chunks of it can be bitten off in different ways,” she says.

Saxe, who joined MIT’s faculty in 2006 as an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, specializes in social cognition–how people interpret other people’s thoughts. It’s a difficult subject to get at, since people’s thoughts and beliefs can’t be observed directly.

“These are extremely abstract kinds of concepts, although we use them fluently and constantly to get around in the world,” says Saxe.

While it’s impossible to observe thoughts directly, it is possible to measure which brain regions are active while people are thinking about certain things. Saxe probes the brain circuits underlying human thought with a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a type of brain scan that measures blood

flow.

Using fMRI, she has identified an area of the brain (the temporoparietal junction) that lights up when people think about other people’s thoughts, something we do often as we try to figure out why others behave as they do.

That finding is “one of the most astonishing discoveries in the field of human cognitive neuroscience,” says Nancy Kanwisher, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and Saxe’s PhD thesis adviser.

“We already knew that some parts of the brain are involved in specific aspects of perception and motor control, but many doubted that an abstract high-level cognitive process like understanding another person’s thoughts would be conducted in its own private patch of cortex,” Kanwisher says.

* * *

Because fMRI reveals brain activity indirectly, by monitoring blood flow rather than the firing of neurons, it is considered a fairly rough tool for studying cognition. However, it still offers an invaluable approach for neuroscientists, Saxe says.

More precise techniques, such as recording activity from single neurons, can’t be used in humans because they are too invasive. fMRI gives a general snapshot of brain activity, offering insight into what parts of the brain are involved in complex cognitive activities.

Saxe’s recent studies use fMRI to delve into moral judgment–specifically, what happens in the brain when people judge whether others are behaving morally. Subjects in her studies make decisions regarding classic morality scenarios such as whether it’s OK to flip a switch that would divert a runaway train onto a track where it would kill one person instead of five people.

Judging others’ behavior in such situations turns out to be a complex process that depends on more than just the outcome of an event, says Saxe.

“Two events with the exact same outcome get extremely different reactions based on our inferences of someone’s mental state and what they were thinking,” she says.

For example, judgments often depend on whether the judging person is in conflict with the person performing the action. When a soldier sets off a bomb, an observer’s perception of whether the soldier intended to kill civilians depends on whether the soldier and observer are on the same side of the conflict.

* * *

Saxe earned her PhD from MIT in 2003, and recently her first graduate student, Liane Young, successfully defended her PhD thesis. That extends a direct line of female brain and cognitive scientists at MIT that started with Molly Potter, professor of psychology, who advised Kanwisher.

“It is thrilling to see this line of four generations of female scientists,” Kanwisher says.

Saxe, a native of Toronto, says she wanted to be a scientist from a young age, inspired by two older cousins who were biochemists.

At first, “I wanted to be a geneticist because I thought it was so cool that you could make life out of chemicals. You start with molecules and you make a person. I thought that was mind-blowing,” she says.

She was eventually drawn to neuroscience because she wanted to explore big questions, such as how the brain gives rise to the mind.

She says that approach places her right where she wants to be in the continuum of scientific study, which ranges from tiny systems such as a cell-signaling pathway, to entire human societies. At each level, there is a tradeoff between the size of the questions you can ask and the concreteness of answers you can get, Saxe says.

“I’m doing this because I want to pursue these more-abstract questions, maybe at the cost of never finding out the answers,” she says.

Posted in Education, Morality, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 874 other followers

%d bloggers like this: