Brooks Goes Neuro
In today’s Times, David Brooks takes a little tour of the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting, being held in Chicago this year. I checked it out in 2007, in San Diego. It’s pretty overwhelming. So many speakers. So many posters. So many booths. Some of it the highly technical, and to the layman very boring, everyday work of science. Some of it mind-blowing. Brooks, like any good commentator, went looking for the mind-blowing and offers up some nuggets like these:
Keely Muscatell, one of his doctoral students, and others presented a study in which they showed people from various social strata some images of menacing faces. People whose parents had low social status exhibited more activation in the amygdala (the busy little part of the brain involved in fear and emotion) than people from high-status families.
Reem Yahya and a team from the University of Haifa studied Arabs and Jews while showing them images of hands and feet in painful situations. The two cultures perceived pain differently. The Arabs perceived higher levels of pain over all while the Jews were more sensitive to pain suffered by members of a group other than their own.
Mina Cikara of Princeton and others scanned the brains of Yankee and Red Sox fans as they watched baseball highlights. Neither reacted much to an Orioles-Blue Jays game, but when they saw their own team doing well, brain regions called the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens were activated. This is a look at how tribal dominance struggles get processed inside.
Jonathan B. Freeman of Tufts and others peered into the reward centers of the brain such as the caudate nucleus. They found that among Americans, that region was likely to be activated by dominant behavior, whereas among Japanese, it was more likely to be activated by subordinate behavior — the same region rewarding different patterns of behavior depending on culture.
The question as always, of course, is What Does It All Mean? Does knowing things like this actually help us live better lives, make better decisions, create a better society? Brooks argues that the answer is yes:
Many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 milliseconds. The anterior cingulate cortices in American and Chinese brains activate when people see members of their own group endure pain, but they do so at much lower levels when they see members of another group enduring it. These effects may form the basis of prejudice.
But a study by Saaid A. Mendoza and David M. Amodio of New York University showed that if you give people a strategy, such as reminding them to be racially fair, it is possible to counteract those perceptions. People feel disgust toward dehumanized groups, but a study by Claire Hoogendoorn, Elizabeth Phelps and others at N.Y.U. suggests it is possible to lower disgust and the accompanying insula activity through cognitive behavioral therapy.
In other words, consciousness is too slow to see what happens inside, but it is possible to change the lenses through which we unconsciously construe the world.
Of course, I would agree. I spend so much time thinking and writing about this stuff, it must be important! But, really, I do think it’s right. We have to understand human nature to know how to control it and channel it and improve it. For all the whizbang of today’s neuroscience, nothing is clearer than the fact that we’re at the very beginning of this road, not the middle or the end — if there is an end at all.