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Archive for July, 2006

geek.jpgWe started this blog in late November last year. From November to April we used Blogspot to host it, but then relocated to WordPress. All in all we think it has been a good move. We had some 5000 visitors in our first four months at Blogspot; in just three months at WordPress this number has rised to 10000 new visitors. Also, using WordPress’ superior options we have started adding stand-alone pages, such as our reading list, and category tags to our posts. We aim to add new pages with downloads in the future (papers, audio, video), and to introduce new types of posts – interviews, conference reports, and other nifty things. We would also love to publish more discussions with other neuroethicists, seeing as neuroethics deals in very contentious issues.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to getting content online, is to find the time to write up the content in the first place! Being two authors has proved very beneficial in that regard. We are also toying with the idea of using guest authors from time to time. Our current goal is to put up at least four or five posts every week.

Now, feel free to let us know if you have any good ideas as to how we may improve the blog or just if you feel we are doing an OK job. We are always interested in comments and suggestions.

-Martin

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socneurosci1.jpgAt the forthcoming Social Neuroscience journal homepage, editors Jean Decety and Julian Paul Keenan have a nice intro to the field of social neuroscience. It contains an initial definition of the field:

Social neuroscience may be broadly defined as the exploration of the neurological underpinnings of the processes traditionally examined by, but not limited to, social psychology. This broad description provides a starting point from which we may examine the neuroscience of social behavior and cognition.

However, we see this definition as a guide, rather than as a rule and, as such, we see this field as inclusive, rather than exclusive. The behaviors and cognitions studied under the umbrella “social” are diverse. From complex human interactions to the most basic animal relationship, social research is an expansive, diverse, and complex domain. Likewise, exploring the neurological underpinnings allows for equally assorted and varied lines of research. The combination of the areas reflects such diversity, in which research is performed in domains as wide reaching as the maternal behavior of knockout mice and endocast examinations of early Australopithecus.

I guess they would accept the brief report about the empathic mouse? Furthermore, the editors pinpoint some interesting issues pertaining to this field, including the problem of relating general (folk-)psychological concepts and constructs to the macro- and microscopic data from neurobiology:

One main challenge of social neuroscience is that social psychology and its related disciplines involve psychological constructs, such as moral dilemma, empathy, or self-regulation, that are difficult to map directly onto neural processes. These constructs often need to be deconstructed. Further, given the complexity of social interaction in humans, social neuroscience research needs to combine and integrate multiple-level analysis across different domains. Social neuroscience requires a system approach rather than a single level of analysis. We strongly believe that social and biological approaches when they are bridged can achieve a more accurate understanding of human behavior.

And they even have some precautionary remarks:

One drawback of neuroimaging research is that it can be perceived as the new phrenology (see Uttal, 2003) and it may give an over-simplistic account of the neuroscience of social cognition and behavior. With neuroimaging, there are gimmicks and trends, claims that extend beyond the research, and debates that can reach fever pitch levels over seemingly mundane differences. While hardly unique to our field, we encounter the danger of labeling parts of the brain as the “love center” or the area responsible for psychopathological behavior. In this sense, we are certainly flirting with a new phrenology. Therefore, we agree with our sensible colleagues who remind us to replicate and rely on all of the tools at our disposal.

Finally, Decety and Keenan point to the emerging ethical issues that are becoming apparent through this emerging scientific field:

Beyond the clear impact of social neuroscience in various academic domains, including education, for which we are all excited, we must carefully consider how society uses research findings from social neuroscience. There is a tendency in public journals to report over simplistic interpretations of complex issues. As Wolpe put it, “history has shown us again and again that society tends to use science to reinforce the moral assumptions and biases of the cultural moment. There is clearly a role for a thoughtful social neuroscience, where findings become part of considered policymaking around controversial issues. For example, research into addiction has provided new perspectives and tools for policymakers willing to use them. But if scientists are not clear about the scope and nature of their work, eager policymakers can seize preliminary and speculative findings and implement programs unsupported by the science itself”

At the homepage you can also find a section for related books. A few books are added here, and I wonder why they, in such a small and emerging field, have not added obvious books such as The neuroscience of social interaction by Frith & Wolpert.

-Thomas

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iwake-up-call.gifThe Mixing Memory blog has a very nice critique of the Neuron prejudice article and hence the prejudice post I uploaded yesterday. Admitted, I feel guilty at not spotting these humongous errors in the research design! I stand corrected. Thanks MM for doing so in a gentle manner.

Hence, the issues I address at the end of the blog should be taken even more serious: we need studies replicating and doing variations on the Mitchell study. Now with the twist of doing the study right!

Saying all this, I think the follow-up post on the dehumanizing brain is a bit better regarding a critical view. Hmm, did I write that before or after the morning coffee?

-Thomas

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beggar.jpgHere’s a buzz — and strange conclusions based on neuroimaging data.

A forthcoming article in Psychological Science by Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske is studying how people react when they are shown images of people from social out-groups. What they find is that people react with disgust (rather than the socially correct fellow humanity). Subjects were shown images of people from different social groups, and other non-human and hoh-animal objects (from the Stereotype Content Model). The perception of a picture’s “warmth” was judged by friendliness, competence by capability. The two emotional extremes were pride and disgust; pride elicited high warmth and high perception of competence, and disgust elicited low warmth and low perception of competence.

The article is not available yet. However, from EurekAlert we can read that:

Medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) brain imaging determined if the students accurately chose the correct emotion illustrated by the picture (according to pretest results in which a different group of students determined the emotion that best fit each photograph). The MPFC is only activated when a person thinks about him- or her-self or another human. When viewing a picture representing disgust, however, no significant MPFC brain activity was recorded,

Well, that’s interesting. If you see a picture of a person whom you have rated as less favourable (i.e. “disgusting” (huh?)), the activity of your medial prefrontal cortex is less activated. According to EurekAlert, these results indicate that the subjects:

(…) did not perceive members of social out-groups as human. The area was only activated when viewing photographs that elicited pride, envy, and pity. (However, other brain regions — the amygdala and insula — were activated when viewing photographs of “disgusting” people and nonhuman objects.)

Furthermore, citing the researchers themselves, it is claimed that “members of some social groups seem to be dehumanized.”

I have not read the article yet, but I can’t see how the results warrant this kind of conclusion. To put the argument very simple:

  • area X is activated when we look at people (of our own kin)
  • area X is not activated when we look at non-kin people
  • ergo: we don’t look at non-kin people as being human

That’s just plain bad logics to me. Did these guys ever look at other areas that are known to involve face perception? An obvious example would the fusiform gyrus, so often found to activate when we see HUMAN faces? I guess that this area would be showing activation to non-kin faces, too. That’s just a guess. I need to read the article. But there is a hint that “other brain regions — the amygdala and insula — were activated when viewing photographs of “disgusting” people and nonhuman objects”. So if we find fusiform activation, that indicates that at least part of these people’s brain (be it conscious or unconscious perception) show that they perceive these faces as human.

So the lacking medial PfC activation should probably be viewed in a different light. Maybe it rather reflects how people judge other people as in-group or out-group (or, kin vs. non-kin)? To me, that sounds much more favourable. If your medial PfC activates, you have identified a kin member. If not, and it is still a face you’re looking at, you perceive it as a human non-kin.

I guess I’ll have to wait until the article comes out. Just as everybody else. Buzz-buzz-buzz.

-Thomas

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prejudice2.jpgIs your social brain wired to differ between how you relate to other people? Is your basic empathic ability changing – in the brain – according to whether you can relate to another person or not? Following some very interesting findings in a study reported in a Neuron article, the brain makes such a difference. Neuroimaging is consolidating its role in the domain of social psychology.

The study comes from the Banaji’s laboratory at Harvard. In the study the researchers showed a group of college students pictures of two target individuals who were described as having liberal or conservative political views — a step designed to make the students either identify or not identify with those individuals. While their brains were scanned using functional MRI, the students were asked to predict the feelings and attitudes of the two targets in various situations. For example, they were questioned whether the target would enjoy having a flatmate from a different culture or think that European movies were better than their Hollywood counterparts. Finally, the students completed a version of the Implicit Association Test (see also this link), which was designed to index how strongly they automatically associate themselves with the liberal or conservative target (citation from NRN).

The brain responses differed significantly whether the subjects saw pictures of people with politically similar or dissimilar views as themselves. The ventral medial prefrontal cortex was more engaged when the students were mentalizing a target with similar political views, whereas the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex was more active when the students were considering a target with views on the different end of the political spectrum from their own.

prejudice.jpg

How the brain changes according to social relations: (A) A region of ventral mPFC showed greater activation during judgments of the target to whom participants considered themselves to be more similar. For participants who associated self with the liberal target (left set of bars), the response of the ventral mPFC was higher for liberal targets (middle, blue bar) than conservative targets (rightmost, red bar), and no difference was observed for judgments of self (leftmost, green bar) and the liberal target. In contrast, for participants who did not associate with the liberal target (right set of bars), the response of ventral mPFC was higher for conservative than liberal targets, and no difference was observed for judgments of self and the conservative target. (B) A region of dorsal mPFC showed the opposite pattern of results, that is, greater activation during judgments of the target from whom participants considered themselves to be dissimilar.

One may object and say that this dichotomy between democrats and liberals is an US-only study. Many other countries have a political system consisting of many political parties. But the human social world is filled with other examples that this study pertains to. Skin colour, for example, has alone led to prejudice and atrocities throughout history, and still occurs. Religious belief is another example.

Other differences are more covert. Think, for example, about the current World Championship in football. Football, or any team game, is a good example, because you find the same dichotomy between being “in” or “out” of a group as you find in the US study. You’re either with team A or B – even if you have no particular reason to favour one over the other (e.g. supporting Argentina while being a Norwegian). Strange as it is, football, being an innocent game of kicking and heading to a leather ball, is a prime example of how prejudice and in-out group social psychology comes to play. Maybe even more so. FIFA, the international football organization, has launched a campaign against racism. A recent article in the German Der Spiegel, however, has just demonstrated how “us against them” thinking leads to overgeneralizations and prejudice (the Spiegel article is now withdrawn, so see this).

In this way, the Neuron study hits the nail on it’s head by demonstrating that “even the brain” makes a difference between social group belonging. An entire field of social neuroscience is now emerging, even with an upcoming journal of its own! If one field in neuroscience is going to make the headlines, social neuroscience is bound to be it!

-Thomas

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