Neuroscientists have made a brain implant that restored decision-making ability in laboratory monkeys whose faculties had been experimentally addled by cocaine. Eventually, researchers hope, such prostheses could boost cognitive abilities of brain-damaged patients.
Behavioral economists have documented the all too many ways that humans are predictably irrational. Emotions and biases often just get the better of us. In a new study in Psychological Science, however, psychologists found that people forced to think in a foreign language made more rational decisions. C’est vrai!
Psychologists took classic scenarios from behavioral economics and posed them to students in their native and foreign languages. Here’s an example of one:
There’s a disease epidemic sweeping through the country, and without medicine, 600,000 people will die. You have to choose one of two medicines to make:
If you choose medicine A, 200,000 people will be saved. If you choose medicine B, there is a 1/3 chance of saving 600,000 people and a 2/3 of saving no one. Which medicine do you choose?
Most people would go with A, the less risky bet, because we’re risk-averse when the choice is framed as a gain—as in “saving people.” But what if we framed the question a little differently in this second scenario?
If you choose medicine A, 400,000 people will die. If you choose medicine B, there is a 1/3 chance of saving 600,000 people and a 2/3 of saving no one. Which medicine do you choose?
Getting better at chess, it turns out, isn’t merely a matter of thinking harder, or using one specific area of the brain—it has more to do with the neural links between brain regions. Neuroscientists from Japan studied the brainy blood-flows of both professional and amateur shogi players (a chess-like game from Japan) and found that professionals have certain brain circuits that may allow them to put on their intuitive thinking caps.
The study, published in Science, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine which brain areas showed the most blood flow as professional and amateur shogi players tested their mettle during a match. The experts showed more activity in two regions: the precuneus region in the parietal lobe, which is involved in pattern recognition, and the caudate nucleus, an area in the basal ganglia that is involved in learning, memory, and cognition.
The research team found that the precuneus-caudate connection showed up consistently when professionals were asked to come up with a rapid-fire choice of moves, but not as much for the amateurs. “These results suggest that the precuneus-caudate circuit implements the automatic, yet complicated, processes of board-pattern perception and next-move generation in board game experts,” the researchers reported. [MSNBC]
The size of a small part of the brain, right behind the eyes, is connected with a person’s ability to gauge how likely they are to be right about factual questions, according to a study published in Science last week. This faculty is important in many real-world decisions; it can make the difference between relying on our mistaken judgment and asking for help if we realize we might be wrong.
The study’s lead author uses the game show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? as an prime example of this kind of “metacognition,” or thinking about our own thinking:
“You might have the opportunity to ask the audience or phone a friend,” says Steve Fleming, a neuroscientist at University College London. But, he adds, “You need to know how sure you are about your own answer before you opt to use those lifelines.” [NPR]
“Halo: Reach,” the newest installment in the long-running Halo video game saga, comes out today. While players are rampaging around in the digital universe and slaughtering everything in sight, they might be doing something else too: improving their decision-making skills.
Action-packed video games, including first-shooters like those in the Halo franchise, can lead people to make better and quicker rapid-fire decision, according to a Current Biology study by Daphne Bavelier and colleagues.
“What’s surprising in our study is that action games improved probabilistic inference not just for the act of gaming, but for unrelated and rather dull tasks,” Bavelier says. [Science News]
Touch comes first. It’s the first way that people interact with the world, MIT’s Josh Ackerman says, and touch can change the way you feel about the world or engage with it.
Ackerman and colleagues published a study in Science this week further uncovering the ways that what we touch influences what we think. In a series of experiments, his team demonstrated numerous examples of the tactile altering the mental, like people negotiating more stubbornly when sitting in hard, uncomfortable chairs, or taking decisions more seriously when holding a weighty object like a clipboard.
The idea, then, is that due to the strong connection between our senses and our thoughts, touching a surface can trigger feelings related to the metaphorical value we assign to it. Or, more simply, the feeling of weight makes us feel like a decision is more “weighty,” a harsh surface like sandpaper leads to harsh feelings toward other people, and the touch of smoothness makes us feel like things are going to smooth over.
“The tactile sensation is extremely important early in development. The idea that other associations would be built on that makes intuitive sense,” said Franklin & Marshall College psychologist Michael Anderson, who was not involved in the study. “Brain regions that may initially have been dedicated to one particular task, turn out to contribute to multiple tasks” [Wired.com].
For more on this, check out Ed Yong’s in-depth post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Heavy, Rough, and Hard: How Things We Touch Affect Our Judgment And Decisions
80beats: In a Sensory Hack, What You Touch Affects What You See
80beats: Fingerprints Are Tuned to Amplify Vibrations and Send Info to the Brain
80beats: Warm Hands Give People a Friendly, Generous Outlook
80beats: Hand Washing After a Decision Scrubs Away Those Lingering Doubts
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth may have had the right idea when she scrubbed her hands following the murder of King Duncan. An odd new study suggests that hand washing may help people deal with the emotional consequences of decisions–and not just big decisions, like whether or not to participate in regicide, but also minor calls, like which free CD to take home.
[Psychology researcher Spike W. S. Lee] and a colleague named Norbert Schwarz decided to test hand washing’s effect on one kind of bad feeling: the lingering tension we feel after being forced to choose between two attractive options, because picking one option makes us feel that we’ve lost the other. Psychologists know that people usually try to soothe this inner conflict by later exaggerating the positive aspects of their choice. “In other words, after they make the choice, they will like the chosen option more than before the choice,” Lee explains [NPR].
For the study, published in Science, the researchers told students they were evaluating products for a consumer survey. The students first ranked 10 CDs in order of preference, and were then told they could take home either their fifth- or sixth-ranked CD as a token of appreciation. After they made their choices, they were told it was time to evaluate a liquid soap–but some students washed with the soap, while others only looked at its packaging. Finally, the students were asked to rank the same set of CDs again.
A team of French scientists have proposed that when it comes to multi-tasking, our brains can handle only so much. In a new study, published in Science, scientists Sylvain Charron and Etienne Koechlin found that while the brain can easily divide its attention between two tasks, a third task will begin to slow it down–suggesting there is an upper limit to our multi-tasking abilities.
The scientists asked volunteers to do two complicated matching tasks simultaneously. With two tasks to deal with, the brain’s frontal lobes swung into action, working together to get the job done. The left side of the brain picked up one assignment while the right managed the other. But when scientists threw a third task into the mix, the brain began to fumble, with the volunteers making mistakes and slowing down, leading Koechlin to suggest that our frontal lobes “can’t maintain more than two tasks.”
To find out more about how the brain maxes out on multi-tasking and what this means for people who drink coffee and text while driving, head to Not Exactly Rocket Science’s for Ed Yong’s post: When multi-tasking, each half of the brain focuses on different goals.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: When multi-tasking, each half of the brain focuses on different goals
Not exactly rocket science: Information overload? Heavy multimedia users are more easily distracted by irrelevant information
80beats: Multitaskers Are Bad at Multitasking, Study Shows
80beats: Key Brain Section Never Multitasks—It Just Switches Very Fast
80beats: How Ritalin Works in the Brain: With a One-Two Dopamine Punch
80beats: Prescribe Ritalin to Everyone, Provocative Essay Suggests
Image: Etienne Koechlin
Beauty may lie in the eyes of the beholder, but morality, apparently, lies just behind your right ear–in an area scientists call the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ).
In a study that helps explain the mechanics of morality, neuroscientist Liane Young and her colleagues found that activity in the RTPJ is linked to the types of moral judgments we make–and those judgments can easily be tinkered with using a mere magnet. The researchers found that by delivering magnetic pulses to the RTPJ they were able to impact moral judgments; the magnetic pulses made people less likely to condemn others for attempting but failing to inflict harm [Nature]. The findings were published in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Says Young: “You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior. To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing” [BBC].
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 little children and people with mental illness aren’t judged as harshly for their actions, because their intentions usually aren’t bad. It’s not just a matter of what they did, but how much they understood what they were doing [Nature].
The process of figuring out how much blame to attribute to a person involves the RTPJ. So for this study, scientists used a non-invasive technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to deliver small magnetic pulses to the RTPJ; the pulses temporarily stop brain cells from working normally. Then the researchers asked their subjects questions based on different scenarios while monitoring brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
For years, scientists have debated where humanity’s sense of fairness came from. Some proposed it was a glitch in the brain’s wiring that causes people to be kind and fair to strangers, while others said it was a remnant of Stone Age thinking--that deep in our brains we see everyone we meet as part of our tiny family, and can’t imagine encountering someone who won’t ever be seen again [Wired]. But now, in a new study published in Science, scientists studying groups of people from different societies have suggested that our sense of fairness may depend on the type of society we live in.
The researchers found evidence that the more complex the society, the more developed those people’s sense of fairness. You can’t get the effects we’re seeing from genes,” said Joe Henrich, a University of British Columbia evolutionary psychologist and co-author of the study.” These are things you learn as a consequence of growing up in a particular place” [Wired].
For this study, scientists observed 2,100 people from different societies–from African herders, Colombian fishermen, and Missouri wage workers. The groups varied in size, and researchers also evaluated the people’s involvement in organized social activities like markets and religion–a common marker, scientists say, of the presence of a moral code that extends beyond kin. They then administered a series of games to study how group members viewed selfish behavior and how willing they were to punish it.