Links on the Brain

A little roundup of recent articles and thoughts on neuroscience, the brain, the mind, and what’s going on in there.

>> Study: Psychopaths’ Brains Wired To Seek Rewards at NPR (27 March): People who score high in psychopathic traits (superficial; lacking fear, regret or empathy; and deviating widely from normal social behavior) also  “have a hyperactive reward system [more dopamine] in their brains — the same reward system that drives drug addicts to seek another dose.”

>> Goodies behaving badly in the Guardian (16 March):  A recent study (PDF) showed that “the greener people are, the more likely they are to lie and cheat”: “Doing the right thing by the planet earns us credit in our ethical investment accounts that we can then spend by dumping on our fellow human beings. ” It’s not just environmentalists, of course:  “The general truth lurking behind these findings is that the feeling of being pure is a moral contaminant.” Could be due to complacency, more likely that “we have earned some sort of pay back,” that we’re entitled.

>> Magnetic Zaps to the Brain Can Alter People’s Moral Judgments at Discover (30 March): Stimulating an area in the brain behind the right ear, the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), causes study participants to change their moral judgments instantly: “Most of us make moral judgments based on not just what the consequences of an action were, but also on what the person’s intentions were.” So when we judge that someone ‘s intentions are good or harmless, we don’t judge them harshly for their actions, regardless of the outcome. We take into account “how much they understood what they were doing. The process of figuring out how much blame to attribute to a person involves the RTPJ,” and researchers found that applying magnetic pulses to the RTPJ “made people less likely to condemn others for attempting but failing to inflict harm.”

More on this study here:

Minds, Magnets and Morals by Jon Mandell at Crooked Timber (30 March): Mandell notes that “I don’t think anyone ever doubted that manipulating the brain in various ways can lead people to alter their judgments – moral and otherwise. This is obvious to anyone who has observed the results of alcohol, for example, or – much more indirectly – framing effects.”

>> How Our Brains Make Memories at Smithsonian magazine (May issue):  “Most people have so-called flashbulb memories of where they were and what they were doing when something momentous happened. … But as clear and detailed as these memories feel, psychologists find they are surprisingly inaccurate.” Why? Perhaps “the very act of remembering can change our memories. … [In fact] it may be impossible for humans or any other animal to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way,” and this is especially so of memories that we replay over and over. Neuroscientist Karim Nader challenges the idea that memories are consolidated and remain stable over time; his idea is that “a memory is re-formed in the process of calling it up.”  When we re-tell a memory, “the memory becomes plastic, and whatever is present around you in the environment can interfere with the original content of the memory.”

long ago and far away

>> Your Brain on Computers: Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price in the NYT (6 June):  “Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. … Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. ”

I did well on both focus tests, yet I am a multi-tasker, especially by this description:  “Multitaskers tended to search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work.  … Multitaskers seem more sensitive than non-multitaskers to incoming information.

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