Yes, it is time to restart, reboot, rehash and get onwards. After some time doing science and teaching, we are most motivated (read: not only using incentive salience) to continue with the BrainEthics blog.

So, why not scale it up a bit, too?

Why not make more fun?

Why not add more (kinds of) content?

We are now moving to a new site, http://brainethics.org, and we invite you to come along. We believe that the move gives us some further benefits:

  • getting slight income – oh yes we need just something to have the site running, so please check our links and buy books through us
  • more services – hosting our own site makes us less restrained with regard to content, media types, copyright issues
  • more fun – yes we are considering adding more kinds of contents than before, such as video or audio interviews with some of the prominent researchers we have, and include recordings of our talks and lectures

So, please come with us to our new site: brainethics.org

-Martin and Thomas


How are values computed in the brain? Rewards can be as many things: the expectation when having just ordered your favourite dish; the child’s joy at Christmas Eve; the enjoyment of good music or the wonderful taste of strawberries.

But how does the brain process these many different kinds of rewards? Does it treat all types of rewards equally or does the brain distinguish between different kinds of rewards? Rewards can come in many different forms: from sex, social recognition, food when you’re hungry, or money. But it is still an open question whether the brain processes such rewards in different ways, or whether there is a “common currency” in the brain for all types of rewards.

Guillaume Sescousse and his colleagues in Lyon recently reported a study on how the brain reacts differently to money and sex. A group of men were scanned with functional MRI. While being tested, subjects played a game in which they sometimes reveiwed a reward. The reward could be money or it could be the sight of a lightly dressed woman. So there were two types of rewards. Money can be said to be an indirect reward, and the sexual images can be seen as more immediately rewarding (at least for most heterosexual men). But how did the brain process these rewards?

The researchers found that there were unique activations for both sex and money, but that there were also overlapping regions of activity. On one hand, for both types of reward was a general activation of what we often refer to as the brain’s reward system (ventral striatum, anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex and midbrain; see figure 1). The brain thus uses the some structures to respond to both types of reward.

Regions of common activations

But there were also specific activations for erotic pictures and money. And this difference was primarily made in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, especially the orbitofrontal cortex (OfC). Here, it was found that monetary rewards engaged more anterior OfC regions, while erotic images activated more posterior OfC regions.

This could suggest that the brain also treats the two types of reward differently. The crux of this paper, however, is how one explains the difference. As noted, the researchers used two different kinds of reward, but they differ in several ways which I will try to summarize here:

  • Direct vs indirect
    • Money is indirectly rewarding, because money can not be ‘consumed’ in itself. They are rewarding to the extent they could be exchanged for other things. Erotic images are in themselves directly rewarding. Not because they symbolize sex, or the possibility of sex, but because they have an immediate rewarding effects.
  • Abstraction level
    • Another option is to say that erotic pictures and money differ in their level of abstraction: Erotic images are concrete, while money is an abstract reward.
  • Time interval
    • A final possibility is that there are differences in the time interval: Erotic images are immediately rewarding, while the money can only be converted into real value after a while (for example, after scanning, or after a few days where you spend the money). We already know that the frontopolar regions of the brain is among the regions that are most developed in humans compared to other primates, and is linked to our unique ability to think about the future, i.e. prospective memory and planning, and through this to use complex abstractions for rewards, including money.

Regions of distinct activations: orange = monetary rewards, green = sexual rewards

What the exact cause of this common currency as well as the separation between money and erotic pictures is still unclear and warrants further studies (which I am currently undertaking). The essential addition of this study is the separation between the posterior and anterior parts of the OFC in processing different kinds of rewards. By showing common and distinct regions, this study may resolve some of the ongoing debates in the decision neuroscience / neuroeconomic literature. But as always found in science, this study generates more questions than it resolves, and we can only hope that future studies can add to this knowledge.


Yes, now it’s out as a second edition. The big cognitive neuroscience textbook entitled “Cognition, Brain and Consciousness” is edited by Bernard J. Baars and Nicole Gage, and has already received good reviews, among one prominent and positive review in Nature Neuroscience. (Both my chapters survived the revision process, with minor changes.)

I’ve been using this book for courses with around 200 students with great success. It has been entertaining, and most wonderful to use (inspiring to students both with regard to text and graphics).

I’d recommend the book to anybody with a keen interest in cognitive neuroscience, ranging from new students to the field, to researchers (like me) who want to catch up on how cognitive neuroscience is being taught, and what’s considered “standard knowledge” outside my own domain of research.

Patricia Churchland’s review puts it right:

“Masterfully organized and comprehensive in its coverage, this textbook will surely be THE introduction to cognitive neuroscience. The contributing authors are highly accomplished experts, and details are deftly selected to illustrate principles as well as to launch the curious reader into the exciting but vast realm of the nervous system. Anatomy, sometimes the bane of introductions to the brain, is gracefully interwoven on a need-to-know basis. In a clever use of IT, the accompanying website provides videos of human patients as well as powerpoint slides for anatomy and physiology. The companion website will be updated regularly with the latest results, and in the open-source tradition, website ideas are solicited from imaginative readers. A powerful pedagogical achievement, and a boon for both the novice and the advanced student.”

Book description

This is the fully revised and updated second edition of the very sucessful introductory textbook on cognitive neuroscience. Written by two leading experts in the field, this textbook book takes a unique thematic approach to introduce concepts of cognitive neurosciences, guiding students along a clear path to understand the latest findings whether or not they have a background in neuroscience. New to this edition are Frontiers in Cognitive Neuroscience text boxes; each one focuses on a leading researcher and their topic of expertise. There is a new chapter on Genes and Molecules of Cognition, and all other chapters have been thoroughly revised, based on the most recent discoveries.


1 Mind and brain
2 A framework
3 Neurons and their connections
4 The tools: Imaging the living brain
5 The brain
6 Vision
7 Hearing and speech
8 Attention and consciousness
9 Learning and memory
10 Thinking and problem-solving
11 Language
12 Goals, executive control, and action
13 Emotion
14 Social cognition: Perceiving the mental states of others
15 Development
16 The genes and molecules of cognition
Appendix 1

– Thomas

Yes, we just got an Awarding the Web Award, for getting the Top Ethics Blog award in the Medical category!

And, I should add, thanks a lot for all the good emails we receive from time to time about our blog. It’s been a year since we blogged last time. We’re still alive and kicking. Indeed, doing so well that Martin and I are now having our own research group, the Decision Neuroscience Research Group (DNRG), a collaboration between the Copenhagen Business School and the Copenhagen University Hospital. This has not only provied us with many new things to do, but an increasing number of such, too.

But with the many nice emails, and now awards, ticking in it may be time for us to get back up on the blogging horse. Instead of promising gold and all from now on, let us just hope that we may add spice again to this blog. It deserves it…

Cheers, Thomas

KonferenceplakatI am one of the organizers of a three day conference on neuroaesthetics that takes place at the University of Copenhagen from September 24 to September 26. If you are interested in the relation between art and the brain please consider joining us for what I believe will be an exiting event.

Neuroaesthetics is a fairly new field of inquiry. This conference is convened to discuss the state of the art of the field. It will bring together a number of leading researchers working on all aspects of neuroaesthetics. The conference will include sessions on Visual Art, Music, Literature, Dance and Film, Aesthetic Preferences, Neuropsychology of Art, Experimental Aesthetics, and Evolutionary Aesthetics, as well as one poster session. You can download the full program here.

Among the many great speakers who will speak at the conference I will only mention a few: Anjan Chatterjee (University of Pennsylvania), Ellen Dissanayake (University of Washington), Karl Grammer (Ludwig-Boltzmann-Institute for Urban Ethology), Torben Grodal (University of Copenhagen), Andrea R. Halpern (Bucknell University), Stefan Koelsch (University of Sussex), Helmut Leder (University of Vienna), David Miall (University of Alberta),  Christa Sütterlin (The Max-Planck-Society), and Dahlia W. Zaidel (UCLA). There will be many more. Please take a look at the whole program at our conference website where you can also register for the event.


In March, the Center for Academic Research & Training in Anthropogeny hosted a conference on the “Evolutionary Origins of Art and Aesthetics”. The list of speakers was pretty impressive. Luckily, the lectures were taped and are now available on You Tube. Here is a video with lectures by Antonio Damasio on emotion, Helen Fisher on love, and Isabelle Peretz on music. I will probably post some of the other talks at a later point.


neuroaesthetics coverI am sure loads of you neuroscience buffs out there will be interested in hearing that a new book on neuroaesthetics has just been published. Edited by myself and Oshin Vartanian, it is published by Baywood. You can buy it directly from Baywood, or from retailers such as Amazon. To learn more about the book, read the introduction [pdf].

Research into the neurobiology of aesthetic behavior, one of the truly unique human traits, has undergone a revolution in the last ten years. In large part due to the possibility of imaging the human brain in various non-invasive ways it has become possible to investigate the neural mechanisms behind the perception of visual and auditive art, creative behavior, or aesthetic valuation of works of art. Quite a few psychologists and neuroscientists have heeded this call.The result is an ever-increasing number of research reports in peer-reviewed journals. Still, many of these results remain unknown, even overlooked. To take an example, when science writer Jonah Lehrer recently wrote a short article entitled “Unlocking the mysteries of the artistic mind” in Psychology Today, he restricted his discussion to a rehash of Semir Zeki [pdf] and V.S. Ramachandran’s [pdf] two famous papers published ten years ago in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. True, these two papers in many ways ignited the recent interest in neuroaesthetics, but much have happened in the decade since, and one of our ambitions in publishing this new book lies in the highlighting of this body of work.

Besides a lack of publicity, the field of neuroaesthetics is also marred by two other concerns. The first and most important is a lack of a coherent theory of what neuroaesthetics amounts to and, consequently, which kind of questions neuroaesthetics should be concerned with. This kind of methodological befuddlement is hardly unheard of in the early days of a new scientific field, but to make any headway naturally such questions need to be raised and debated. A central aim of the book is to further this debate. Secondly, research on the major art forms are too separated from each other. Scientists interested in visual art seem to know very little about the work going on in the labs of music researchers, and vice versa. To rectify this misère a little, and to insist that neuroaesthetics encompass all art forms, we have included chapters on visual art, music, literature, and film in the book. (If the book had been put together today, it would also had been possible to include chapters on dance and architecture as distinct forms of visual art.)

I shall not be the judge of whether or not the book accomplishes these goals. But I do hope that some of you will take the time to take a look at it.


Dear all,

We are currently running a survey on people’s attitudes towards neuromarketing and related topics. We hope that you will all take this survey, as well as shard this link to as many people as you like. We hope to get as many people’s opinion as possible, and report the results through appropriate channels (i.e. journal paper, Master’s paper, and online here)

The original text and link goes as follows:


We would like to invite you to take part to this survey. Your answers will help to gather information about the perceptions and thoughts about the use of brain science methods in non-medical settings.


Any information that you provide will be confidential. All participants will be anonymous such that no personal information concerning you or your company will be made public either during, or after the completion and release of this study. The questionnaire should take about 10 minutes of your time. If you wish to receive a summary of the results (that you can pass on to your home company) please indicate at the end of this questionnaire and include your e-mail address. We will not use this e-mail for other purposes than for sending you the summary.


My name is Matteo Bellisario, and I am completing my final report for my Master Degree in Strategic Market Creation at the Copenhagen Business School, in Copenhagen, Denmark.

My academic supervisor for this research is Dr. Thomas Z. Ramsøy, head of the Decision Neuroscience Research Group at the Copenhagen Business School and Danish Research Centre for Magnetic Resonance at Copenhagen University Hospital.

The results will be part of my Master Thesis, and may, if suitable, be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.




Where’s the voodoo?

I just love this title: Independence in ROI analysis: where is the voodoo? by Russel Poldrack and Jeanette Mumford. Lately, there has been much fuzz about so-called voodoo correlations in social neuroscience, and questions have been raised about the legitimacy of the claims put forward by Vul et al. (PDF of in press manuscript) and see criticism from Tania Singer and other colleagues here (PDF). Crucial to the criticism by Vul et al. is that the correlations between behavioural/social data and brain activation data show a correlation level that is highly improbable, or as Vul et al. put it:

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition have drawn much attention in recent years, with high-profile studies frequently reporting extremely high (e.g., >.8) correlations between behavioral and self-report measures of personality or emotion and measures of brain activation.  We show that these correlations often exceed what is statistically possible assuming the (evidently rather limited) reliability of both fMRI and personality/emotion measures.  The implausibly high correlations are all the more puzzling because method sections rarely contain sufficient detail to ascertain how these correlations were obtained.

In the recent paper in SCAN, Poldrack and Mumford add to the criticism of Vul et al.:

We outline the problem of non-independence, and use a previously published dataset to examine the effects of non-independence. These analyses show that very strong correlations (exceeding 0.8) can occur even when the ROI is completely independent of the data being analyzed, suggesting that the claims of Vul et al. regarding the implausibility of these high correlations are incorrect.

I am not going to give you the details of the whole voodoo story here, since it has been covered nicely in the blogosphere. But what is interesting is that this discussion demonstrates just how easy it is to get pre-publication media and blogosphere coverage for researchers criticising brain research, much in the same vein as we saw in the case of criticism of neuroeconomics by Gul and Pesendorfer’s neo-conservative “A case agains mindless economics” (PDF), long before the article actually appeared… I guess in the end that as neuroscience and neuroimaging in particular becomes even more popular, it will always have the extremists of either side, saying either that it shows nothing/too much/fake information, or the wholesale version that lets people get away with anything, as long as they point to a brain…


I just love the way that YouTube is developing these days. If you just spend some time searching this wonderful site, you can get access to so many different teaching resources for psychology, neuroscience and philosophy that you could ever dream of. Seeing an interview with the younger Michael Gazzaniga speaking about the callosotomy procedure, BF Skinner speaking, even an item on Pavlov, just just blows my mind.

Below is just a few examples:

Gazzaniga on the split-brain procedure (good thing it’s not in colour)

And here is a thing on split-brain mind-blowing behaviour:

BF Skinner on operant conditioning

Or how about giving a demo of how patients with unilateral neglect actually behave (I’ve seen this many time when I was working clinically, but it’s like “what are you doing?”)