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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.

-Thomas

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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:

NEUROMARKETING SURVEY

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.

CONFIDENTIALITY

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.

WHO IS BEHIND THIS STUDY

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.

PLEASE CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW TO START THE SURVEY

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=UrWT2vR9gSIXNSKooLsNuQ_3d_3d

-Thomas

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Antoine Bechara (left) and Antonio Damasio

Antoine Bechara (left) and Antonio Damasio

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am currently giving lectures on an April course on neuroeconomics together with Prf.s Elke Weber and Eric Johnson. Needless to say, these lectures are probably as entertaining and useful for me, and my attending colleagues, as they are to the students.

However, change is coming to Copenhagen. Through our newly born Decision Neuroscience Research Group (homepage soon to come), we have additional high-profile researchers coming to Copenhagen to provide lectures and hopefully to be attracted to collaborations with us. In May, Antoine Bechara will be in our group for a couple of weeks. Bechara is well-known for his excellent work on decision making, and the role of emotions in decision making processes. Besides his decades of work on the Iowa Gambling Task, his recent publications are much about the role of the insula in emotions and decision making, in particular addiction. Therefore, our current project on loss/risk aversion in decision making (and in pathological gamblers) will definintely profit from his stay.

In the same vein, Copenhagen will see another great name in June: Antonio Damasio, who will become an honorary doctorate at the Copenhagen Business School. Damasio is well-known for his theory of (and work with Bechara on) somatic markers, and the role of emotions and the body in decision making. Recently, we have been attentive to his criticism to the discussion about mirror neurons, where he points back to his older papers on convergence-divergence zones in the brain, and how they may provide an alternative explanation (and a dethronement of) theories of mirror neurons.

This spring and summer, we therefore hope that anybody with interest in these researchers may consider coming to Copenhagen, even if it’s just for a brief visit.

The Decision Neuroscience Research Group is shaping up, and there is plenty of more to come.

-Thomas

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picture-1Emergence of emergence abound, we are coming to life again. After a long a chilly winter here in Denmark, we have not been on the lazy side in our neuro-caves. At present, our newly founded (1-year old) Decision Neuroscience Research Group has grown rapidly from 2 persons to 9, and with an abundance of contacts all across the globe. Needless to say, we have been busy with this project, including setting up behavioural and scanning paradigms, applying for funding, giving talks, writing papers and so on.

But now, we hope to be back with more news from the quirky side of cognitive neuroscience, the problems associated by the science, and not the least the mind-blowing implications of research…

Currently, I am having the great pleasure of teaching a course in neuroeconomics together with Prof Elke Weber from Columbia University, and Prof. Eric Johnson from Columbia Business School. Obviously, we are teaching from our own outsets, and taking it as we go along. The best way to do teaching…

More is to come soon now, so stay tuned

-Thomas

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OK, here we go again. Remember the fuzz about the Iacoboni lab at UCLA, where they used fMRI to probe into voters likes and dislikes of politicians? Now,a good article in the Atlantic.com gives us a 1st person story about the trip through the fMRI experiment, the thoughts and results following this scientific un-rigourous and invalid approach. Jeffrey Goldberg reports in a funny and entertaining manner how it all goes about.

As with the previously mentioned NY Times article by the Iacoboni team, Goldberg is scanned while watching different famous people, including politicians, actors and musicians. After a few days, the imaging results come in and are presented and discussed with Iacoboni. To me, the dialoguoes could be referring to tea-leaf reading, astrology or ___ (put in your preferred method). As here:

(…) what happened when I saw a picture of my wife. This had me concerned, but Iacoboni explained: “The dorso-lateral prefrontal-cortex activity means you’re trying to exercise cognitive control, that you’re trying to protect the privacy of your relationship with your wife. I interpret this positively because there’s also medial orbito-frontal cortex activity, which is a region associated with positive emotion.” Iacoboni could not explain one other response to my wife’s photograph: “You have weird auditory-cortex activity, almost like you’re hearing her voice, even though we just showed you her picture without sound.”

OK, so give me some (peak) activation in the brain, and I’ll try to interpret it. I’m the Rorschach inkblot master, just bring it on! Actually, thes best thing with this article is the humorous angle that Goldberg puts to it. Just following the above citation, he notes:

When I told my wife about this, she asked me how it could be that I hear her when she’s not speaking, but don’t hear her when she is speaking. I said that this was a question well beyond the capacity of neuroscience to answer.

To newcomers and outsiders, it is crucial to understand that there is a substantial difference between studying brain activation related to specific behaviours and/or tasks, and to go the other way and interpret mental states or behaviour from brain activation patterns. The brain is much more than a collection of highly specialized regions, and there is considerable redundancy and degeneracy in the brain. This means that one structure can be involved in many different functions, and one function or state is often served by many different regions at any one time. So whether your brain responds with the amygdala to a particular face, compared to other faces, may not even mean that you fear or are concerned with this person. The amygdala may be involved in positive emotions, or even novelty processing. Brain-reading is a fascinating topic, but we should steer away from the absolute claims that one can sometimes see today.

One good example, in the present article, of what this approach may lead to is the finding that the author showed ventral striatal activation to the Iranian political leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So ventral striatrum is related to (expectation of) reward, right. And previously, activation in that region to other famous people was interpreted as a liking-effect, right. Now what? Does Goldberg like Ahmadinejad? Will the NSA knock on Goldberg’s door in the near future? Is it illegal or suspicious for his brain to respond favourably to Ahmadinejad?

This, and more puzzles are definitely going to come up in the near future, as Iacobini and other researchers are concinuing this flaky path of BS science. I’m a great fan of Iacoboni’s academic work, but I am nevertheless terribly dissapointed with his uncritical turn towards entertainment with fMRI.

-Thomas

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In relation to our previous and well-visited post about oxytocin, we should mention a new study that uses this very substance in a neuroeconomic set-up. In the study, recently published by Neuron, and headed by Baumgartner et al., it was found that the administration of oxytocin affected subjects’ in a trust game. In particular, it was found that subjects that received oxytocin were not affected by information about co-players that cheated. Or, as put in the abstract:

(…) subjects in the oxytocin group show no change in their trusting behavior after they learned that their trust had been breached several times while subjects receiving placebo decrease their trust.

That is extremely interesting. This suggests that oxytocin, a mammalian hormone + neurotransmitter that is known to be related to maternal behaviour and bonding, also is modulating social trust. So the brain link is obvious. But what happens in the brain when oxytocin is administered during the trust game?

This difference in trust adaptation is associated with a specific reduction in activation in the amygdala, the midbrain regions, and the dorsal striatum in subjects receiving oxytocin, suggesting that neural systems mediating fear processing (amygdala and midbrain regions) and behavioral adaptations to feedback information (dorsal striatum) modulate oxytocin’s effect on trust.

So oxytocin reduces fear and aversion responses, and this leads to the lack of effect in responding to cheaters. Excellent, why not use this for treating anxiety, phobia and other fear-related problems? Sounds promising, and yet other more ethically problematic issues remain to be resolved. Think, for example, about whether oxytocin makes us more susceptible to gambling, shopping and marketing effects? Or what if it may work as the first scientifically proven aphrodisiac? What if your next pick-up line would be “Hi, I’m Thomas, how are you” just followed by a few ‘puff-puff’ sounds.

Joke aside, studies like this demonstrates that emotions and decisions are often influenced by factors not consciously available, or at least only partially so. As the marketing industry is increasingly interested in multi-sensory inventions, oxytocin may be the next step in this endaveour.

-Thomas

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I have not been very good at blogging the conferences I’m attending. But I will try rectify this grave mistake in the future. Next weekend I am flying to Australia to attend the annual Human Brain Mapping conference, and I promise to write about it extensively. This year, the organizers have scheduled a session on “The relevance of Functional Neuroimaging to Psychology” so that, at least, promises to be engaging!

In the meantime check out this newspaper article about the neuroeconomics conference held in Copenhagen two weeks ago. (Sorry, the article is in Danish only!) I found the conference, with its unusual mix of marketing experts and neuroscientists, rather interesting. Among the highlights were a number of presentations of new fMRI studies from labs around the world, and a presentation by Graham Page, the director of Millward Brown’s innovation centre, who gave a highly informative talk about how much neuroscience techniques is actually employed by marketing agencies pendling their dark arts. The answer is: both more and less than you would imagine!

The picture shows Thomas lecturing at the conference on imaging genetics as a possible new methodological avenue for neuroeconomics research. Yes, he really looks that way!

-Martin

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