A Tourist in Neuroworld
Virtually every day, it seems, we learn some new tidbit — about our brains’ biases, their illusions, their malleability, their idiosyncrasies, and, yes, of course, also their capabilities. It seems our most basic ideas about how human beings function are under constant assault (or at least are subject to constant revision). How do we perceive? How reliable are our perceptions? How do we remember? How do we decide? When do we decide? How do we translate intention into action? All of these questions and more… The truth is: We don’t really know. But the answers are opening up before us in a way, and at a rate, unprecedented in human history.
The brain (or “the mind” if you wish — though, the idea that there’s any difference is a topic of hot debate) has been, for the vast majority of the time humans have roamed the earth, a black box, as they say. We, as a species, haven’t exactly opened the box. You’ll see a lot of flashy pictures in the media (and I’m sure here, too) of brains “lit up,” in red and blue and all colors of the rainbow, by fMRI scanners, and other contraptions. But these are still only crude tools, measuring things like blood flow or electrical activity in different areas of the brain. Really, what scientists are giving us is peeks inside the box. And, like the blind men describing an elephant, they’re giving us varying, and sometimes conflicting, stories about what’s going on in there.
My goal is to highlight for you the most interesting and the most useful insights they’re finding in that box — whether from neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics, or any other field that offers insight into the brain/mind. And to highlight the most innovative ways people are trying to put those insights to use, for the betterment (or not) of mankind.
Did you know, for instance:
- That oenophiles are label whores? Our experience of a wine, as measured in a brain scanner, is determined not by the quality of the wine, but by how expensive we’re told it is?
- That having people pay more for painkillers has been shown to make those drugs work better?
- That exposure to the chemical oxytocin can make us more generous?
- That we have the same concept of personal space in virtual worlds, like Second Life, as we do in the real world?
- That old folks can literally lose their sense of humor due to changes in the brain?
- That neurotheologists have replicated “spiritual” experiences by stimulating the brain with magnetic fields?
- That we’re building brain-computer interfaces that have allowed monkeys to eat marshmallows with their minds?
Some of these things are amazing, some are surprising — some confirm intuitions we’ve always had about how humans and their brains work.
My approach is that all of this fills me with (to sound wide-eyed about it) wonder. And, while these discoveries are made in the realm of science, it’s time for those of us outside of the scientific realm to start grappling with them and engaging with them. After all, the advances being made in our understanding of the brain will have ramifications in fields as diverse as economics, political science, law, health, relationships, foreign policy, architecture, marketing, product design, the military… the list, as you see, could go on and on.
To be clear: I’m not even a science major. I was a history major. And my area of expertise is American politics (which, of course, led me to wonder what the hell was going on in people’s heads). But I’ve been reading, auditing a course, attending conferences, and generally following the field.
If I make mistakes (and, in a field so complex, you can bet on it), I will correct promptly — as is blog tradition. If there are differences of opinion and interpretation, I’ll do what I can to air such differences and link to criticism.
But, of course, the point here isn’t contention. It’s conversation. And I hope to hear from you in the comments, or, with news tips, at my email address (editor -at- ryansager.com).
Thanks for reading. And, to any scientists who happen by: Thank you for the enlightening and illuminating work you do day in and day out.
Again, I’m just a tourist myself. I hope you enjoy the visit.