Ultimate envy

By now, only the most fundamentalist of libertarians cling to the belief that humans behave as Homo Economicus, the mythical self-interested rational agent on which much of free market economic thinking is based.  Studies of real humans behaving in the real world (or at least in research laboratory settings) have revealed that we all exhibit a variety of cognitive biases, and that these biases affect our decision-making in such a way that we regularly diverge from ‘rational’ behaviour.

If you wish, you could join the Less Wrong crowd who have, in recent years, been attempting to modify their own behaviours so that they conform better to pure rationality.  Their reasons for doing so vary, but include something along these lines: perfect rationality results in the best approximation of a condition conducive to human happiness. At a minimum, rationality is less wrong than what we have now.

It is not hard to demonstrate irrational behaviour among humans. One of the more compelling ways to do so is to ask people to participate in the Ultimatum game. A darling of neuroeconomists, in the Ultimatum game both you and a partner are given a sum of money (for best results, real money is used), let’s say $20.  Your partner is given the task of deciding how to divide the money between the two of you. Your task is to decide whether you accept the partner’s offer, in which case you both keep the money, or reject it, in which case you both get nothing.  If the partner offers you $10, the decision is easy and you both get 50% of the winnings.  But when the partner is viewed as acting unfairly, offering only $1 out of the $20 pot (5%), people often reject the offer. [Similar effects are seen if the pot is $200, but if the pot because sufficiently large – say a million dollars, most people say yes to an offer of only 5%.] The perfect rationalist idealized as homo economicus would never do such a thing – why, after all, would anyone turn down a free dollar?  The Less Wrong crowd would take a moment to consider what cognitive biases might cause individuals to turn down a free dollar under such circumstances, and work to try and nullify them. Real people in the real world turn down unfair offers with regularity.

What sorts of cognitive biases cause people to spurn an offer of free money? In the Ultimatum game, it seems that the unfairness causes people to feel pangs of disgust, and this emotional response is thought to modify rational thinking. The phenomenon is also a form of altruistic punishment, and has long been thought to act as a sort of social glue: members of society punish people who act unfairly, even if they do so at a cost to themselves. Put into this context, it might make a bit of sense to act this way – perhaps rationality plays out not in the self-interested way that libertarian economists would have us believe, but rather in the buttressing of a social order way that, in the long run, serves the interests of everyone.

Or so the theory goes. Continue reading


How is the internet changing the way that you think?

Edge is an organization that “promotes inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.” Every year, they ask their brain trust to address one big question, and this year it is this: How is the internet changing the way that you think?  Regular readers will recognize that we have occasionally touched on this topic before, most recently when we reviewed some issues related to the effects of multitasking on the brain.  But the respondents at Edge came up with a host of interesting comments, and I recommend reading the entire set of them if you have the time.  Below the fold, I have exerpted a few of the comments that I found most relevant to issues in neuroethics.

From my perspective, I think that the two major effects of the internet as we use it today is that it decreases the need for wetware memory and degrades our ability to pay attention.  The memory issue is good – I don’t have to remember as much as I used to because a tremendous amount of information is available at a moment’s notice.  But flip side of the internet in general and hyperlinking in particular is that they are unbelievably distracting, and Nicholas Carr famously described his experiences in this regard in his article in the Atlantic entitled,Is Google Making us Stupid?“.  I tend to think quite a bit about the effects of normal aging on memory, and one of the things that we have learned in the last few years is that as we age, it is not so much our ability to remember things as to avoid being distracted by irrelevant stimuli which impedes our ability to perform cognitive tasks.  The data is not yet convincing, but I suspect that this loss of cognitive control is substantially further degraded by regular internet use.  The impact that this may have on the aging of today’s young brains, developing so critically in an environment which promotes distractibility, is unknown.

Well, that’s my two cents worth.  If you see other comments on the Edge site that you like – or don’t like – by all means let us know.  And, of course, if you have an opinion on the subject, feel free to comment. Continue reading

Cognitive enhancement without drugs

Zen circleCognitive enhancement seems to get more press with each passing day.  Much of the hysteria discussion seems to involve concerns about the rising tide of the use of existing drugs such as methylphenidate for enhancement rather than therapeutic purposes; it is worth recalling that the data suggests that methylphenidate has both helpful and detrimental effects of cognitive performance. The dirty secret in the field of cognitive enhancement is that the current crop of drugs are hardly as effective as the press makes them out to be.  There is much optimism (but no guarantee) that new drugs based on solid science may turn out to be more effective; a study in this week’s Nature suggests that blocking the activity of a specific isoform of phosphodiesterase, PDE4A5, might be a fruitful avenue for ameliorating the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation.

Against this background of pharmaco-enthusiasm, the past few years have witnessed substantial advances in behavioural strategies to enhance cognition.  For one thing, there have been a raft of studies using ‘brain-fitness software’ (essentially, computer games) to improve cognitive function.  Although many of them merely improve performance on the specific strategies employed in the task, at least some show effects that generalize quite nicely [You can watch a You Tube video (also, an advertisement) about the Impact Study here.  Here at the Core blog, we don’t endorse products so the reader should be forewarned that while the study was published in a peer-reviewed journal, the program is owned and sold by Posit Science, a (reputable) commercial outfit that paid for the study].

Continue reading

Has the next generation cognitive enhancement arrived?

meditationAt the 35th meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC, the Dalai Lama gave the inaugural “Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society” lecture.  Delivered to an overflow crowd at a meeting of some 30,000 neuroscientists, the talk was a remarkable display of the areas of convergence between Buddhist thought and modern neuroscience.  It may come as no surprise that there was controversy over his being invited to deliver this lecture insofar as he is both a head of state and a religious leader, and for that reason he largely stuck to his prepared text.  But at least at one point he strayed, telling the audience that he was an enthusiastic proponent of new technology, even though he was computer illiterate.  Elaborating, he told the audience that meditating was hard work for him (even though he meditates for 4 hours every morning), and that if neuroscience found a way to put electrodes in his brain and give him the same result as he gets from meditating, he would be an enthusiastic volunteer.  A recent experiment moves us closer to making his wish a reality.  Before delving into the new paper, a bit of background is appropriate.  

The Dalai Lama’s interest in neuroscience has been reciprocated by at least some members of the neuroscience community who have reasoned that studying the brains of people who meditate might lead to novel insights about the human brain.  Some of the most remarkable observations have come from Richard Davidson’s laboratory at the University of Wisconsin.  In one particularly notable experiment, Davidson’s team studied the EEG of long-time (10,000 – 50,000 hours of practice) meditators practicing ‘open monitoring meditation’.  Remarkably, Lutz et al. found that these individuals exhibited much more gamma-synchrony than naive meditators.  Indeed, these long-time meditators were able to produce sustained gamma-activity in a manner that has never previously been observed in any other humans.  Although the precise significance of the gamma oscillations remains to be discerned in detail (an important point indeed), sustained gamma activity has emerged as a proxy for at least some aspects of the meditative state.

The strongest hypothesis for generation of the gamma rhythm is that it is due to the activation of fast-spiking interneurons in the cerebral cortex. In two new papers to be published in Nature, the laboratories of Christopher Moore and Li-Huei Tsai at MIT collaborated with Karl Deisseroth’s group at Stanford to test this hypothesis directly.  Using an elegant set of recombinant techniques, they used custom-designed viruses to infect only the fast-spiking interneurons of the cerebral cortex with genetically-engineered light-sensitive cation channels.  Using fine optical fibres, the experimenters delivered light to the cortex, activating only the fast-spiking interneurons.  The experimenters knew what they were after, for they did not inject just any part of the cortex, but rather the specific part of the cortex to which the mouse’s vibrissae project – the barrel cortex.  Essentially the mouse equivalent to our visual system, the barrel cortex is highly specialized for acquiring information about the outside world for mice (who are nearly blind).  When the experimenters evoked gamma oscillations, the tuning of the neurons in the barrel cortex was sharpened, precisely what one would predict were one’s attention to be focused.  It is hard to ignore the fact that the sustained gamma-oscillation in the mice was highly reminiscent of the type of electrical activity recorded from the long-time meditators.

There are numerous caveats about this conclusion, the most important of which is that despite the elegant experimental paradigm utilized by the investigators, sustained gamma-activity is not identical to mediation.  For these reasons, I doubt that the Dalai Lama would accept this experiment as satisfying his call to the neuroscience community to develop a technological replacement for meditation.  But given the growing body of evidence which suggests that meditation improves several measures of attention, it is fair to conclude that the field of cognitive enhancement has just undergone a seismic shift; the prospect of using advanced technology to mimic states that require many years of practice on the mat is certainly now one that merits consideration.  It is humbling to note that the hypothesis that gamma oscillation is due to activation of fast-spiking interneurons has been around since 1995, but only now have we developed the technology to test the hypothesis directly.  How long will it be before a new version of this technology is available for human consumption?  I think I will have to meditate on that.