A buried artefact

Sometimes there is an accidental beauty in the most macabre of events. Having a bullet lodged in your brain can produce beautiful CT scans due to the scanner’s difficulty with imaging metal objects.

The scan is from an 8-year-old girl who was hit by a bullet that was fired into the air in celebration. She was reportedly fine but this scan is from her hospital admission.

This pattern is an unintended consequence. It’s called a ‘streak’ or ‘star’ artefact and is caused by a combination of the CT scanner beam being over-absorbed by the dense metal object and the image construction software not being able to make sense of the incoming information correctly.

There’s various other images online if you want more unintended brain glitter.

Does studying economics make you more selfish?

When economics students learn about what makes fellow humans tick it affects the way they treat others. Not necessarily in a good way, as Tom Stafford explains.

Studying human behaviour can be like a dog trying to catch its own tail. As we learn more about ourselves, our new beliefs change how we behave. Research on economics students showed this in action: textbooks describing facts and theories about human behaviour can affect the people studying them.

Economic models are often based on an imaginary character called the rational actor, who, with no messy and complex inner world, relentlessly pursues a set of desires ranked according to the costs and benefits. Rational actors help create simple models of economies and societies. According to rational choice theory, some of the predictions governing these hypothetical worlds are common sense: people should prefer more to less, firms should only do things that make a profit and, if the price is right, you should be prepared to give up anything you own.

Another tool used to help us understand our motivations and actions is game theory, which examines how you make choices when their outcomes are affected by the choices of others. To determine which of a number of options to go for, you need a theory about what the other person will do (and your theory needs to encompass the other person’s theory about what you will do, and so on). Rational actor theory says other players in the game all want the best outcome for themselves, and that they will assume the same about you.

The most famous game in game theory is the “prisoner’s dilemma”, in which you are one of a pair of criminals arrested and held in separate cells. The police make you this offer: you can inform on your partner, in which case you either get off scot free (if your partner keeps quiet), or you both get a few years in prison (if he informs on you too). Alternatively you can keep quiet, in which case you either get a few years (if your partner also keeps quiet), or you get a long sentence (if he informs on you, leading to him getting off scot free). Your partner, of course, faces exactly the same choice.

If you’re a rational actor, it’s an easy decision. You should inform on your partner in crime because if he keeps quiet, you go free, and if he informs on you, both of you go to prison, but the sentence will be either the same length or shorter than if you keep quiet.

Weirdly, and thankfully, this isn’t what happens if you ask real people to play the prisoner’s dilemma. Around the world, in most societies, most people maintain the criminals’ pact of silence. The exceptions who opt to act solely in their own interests are known in economics as “free riders” – individuals who take benefits without paying costs.

Self(ish)-selecting group

The prisoner’s dilemma is a theoretical tool, but there are plenty of parallel choices – and free riders – in the real world. People who are always late for appointments with others don’t have to hurry or wait for others. Some use roads and hospitals without paying their taxes. There are lots of interesting reasons why most of us turn up on time and don’t avoid paying taxes, even though these might be the selfish “rational” choices according to most economic models.

Crucially, rational actor theory appears more useful for predicting the actions of certain groups of people. One group who have been found to free ride more than others in repeated studies is people who have studied economics. In a study published in 1993, Robert Frank and colleagues from Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York State, tested this idea with a version of the prisoner’s dilemma game. Economics students “informed on” other players 60% of the time, while those studying other subjects did so 39% of the time. Men have previously been found to be more self-interested in such tests, and more men study economics than women. However even after controlling for this sex difference, Frank found economics students were 17% more likely to take the selfish route when playing the prisoner’s dilemma.

In good news for educators everywhere, the team found that the longer students had been at university, the higher their rates of cooperation. In other words, higher education (or simple growing up), seemed to make people more likely to put their faith in human co-operation. The economists again proved to be the exception. For them extra years of study did nothing to undermine their selfish rationality.

Frank’s group then went on to carry out surveys on whether students would return money they had found or report being undercharged, both at the start and end of their courses. Economics students were more likely to see themselves and others as more self-interested following their studies than a control group studying astronomy. This was especially true among those studying under a tutor who taught game theory and focused on notions of survival imperatives militating against co-operation.

Subsequent work has questioned these findings, suggesting that selfish people are just more likely to study economics, and that Frank’s surveys and games tell us little about real-world moral behaviour. It is true that what individuals do in the highly artificial situation of being presented with the prisoner’s dilemma doesn’t necessarily tell us how they will behave in more complex real-world situations.

In related work, Eric Schwitzgebel has shown that students and teachers of ethical philosophy don’t seem to behave more ethically when their behaviour is assessed using a range of real-world variables. Perhaps, says Schwitzgebel, we shouldn’t be surprised that economics students who have been taught about the prisoner’s dilemma, act in line with what they’ve been taught when tested in a classroom. Again, this is a long way from showing any influence on real world behaviour, some argue.

The lessons of what people do in tests and games are limited because of the additional complexities involved in real-world moral choices with real and important consequences. Yet I hesitate to dismiss the results of these experiments. We shouldn’t leap to conclusions based on the few simple experiments that have been done, but if we tell students that it makes sense to see the world through the eyes of the selfish rational actor, my suspicion is that they are more likely to do so.

Multiple factors influence our behaviour, of which formal education is just one. Economics and economic opinions are also prominent throughout the news media, for instance. But what the experiments above demonstrate, in one small way at least, is that what we are taught about human behaviour can alter it.

This is my column from BBC Future last week. You can see the original here. Thanks to Eric for some references and comments on this topic.

A universal difference

The author of Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters, has written an excellent article on whether there’s such a thing as ‘human nature’ for the latest edition of Adbusters.

The piece tackles how scientific assumptions about the ‘universals’ of the human mind are having to be revised and discusses research which has shown how people from across the world behave markedly differently in supposedly culturally neutral tasks.

The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism.

Economists and psychologists skirted the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects…

Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game emerged from a small but growing counter trend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition.

The article is an engaging look at this new wave of research.
 

Link to Is There Such a Thing as “Human Nature”?

Lou Reed has left the building

Chronicler of the wild side, Lou Reed, has died. Reed was particularly notable for students of human nature for his descriptions of drugs, madness and his own experience of psychiatry.

We’ve touched on his outrageous performance to the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry before and his songs about or featuring drug use are legendary.

But there was one song that was particularly notable – not least for describing from his own experience of being ‘treated’ for homosexuality with electroshock therapy when he was a teenager.

Kill Your Sons, released in 1974 (audio), is just a straight-out attack on the psychiatrists that treated him:

All your two-bit psychiatrists
are giving you electroshock
They said, they’d let you live at home with mom and dad
instead of mental hospitals
But every time you tried to read a book
you couldn’t get to page 17
‘Cause you forgot where you were
so you couldn’t even read

Here Reed describes the effects on memory that are common just after electroconvulsive therapy. In this case, forgetting what you’ve just read.

The last verse also describes some of his other contacts with psychiatry, mentioning specific psychiatric clinics and medications:

Creedmore treated me very good
but Paine Whitney was even better
And when I flipped out on PHC
I was so sad, I didn’t even get a letter
All of the drugs, that we took
it really was lots of fun
But when they shoot you up with Thorazine on crystal smoke
you choke like a son of a gun

The last line seems to refer to the effect of being given a dopamine-inhibiting antipsychotic when you’re on a dopamine boosting amphetamine – presumably after being taken to a psychiatric clinic while still high. Not a pleasant comedown I would imagine.

I have no idea what ‘PHC’ refers to, though. I’m guessing it’s a psychiatric treatment from the 60s.

It’s interesting that the song was released the year after homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, although it’s never been clear whether this was intentional on Reed’s part or not.
 

Link to YouTube audio of Kill Your Sons.

The grass is always greener

Photo by Flickr user massimo ankor. Click for source.If you’re a neuroscience fan, Marketing magazine has a somewhat depressing report of a Susan Greenfield speech to the travel industry at the ABTA conference in Croatia.

It’s sad for two reasons. Firstly The Baroness is still pursuing the same bizarre and evidence-free line that the internet causes all sorts of brain curdling problems and even doubles down on her odd claim that there’s a link with autism:

“People who are not good at interpersonal skills anyway are on the autistic spectrum disorder, they spend a lot of time in the cyber world. Sadly there are a lot of links between this disorder and compulsive video game use.”

She also says some very strange things about the effects of video games and what gamers are like:

They will have a higher IQ because we know that video game rehearsal repeats all the mental agility that is required of IQ tests. However, being good at mental processing without being able to make connections or understand context doesn’t mean to say that you understand about Syria or the economic problems of the world.

Playing video games means you don’t understand the complex situation in the Middle East? An outrageous claim. Has she never played Call of Duty 4?

However, it’s also a little sad because she’s now doing presumably paid talks to travel conferences to say that while technology damages the brain, travel is good for it.

Greenfield was genuinely one of my scientific heroes and motivated me to get into neuroscience through her talks. And now, it’s all gone a bit Donkey Kong.
 

Link to The Baroness on the cyberapocalypse / holiday cure.

2013-10-25 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Excellent Nature article on the real impressive science behind the ‘fMRI mind reading’ studies that hit the headlines in unhelpful ways.

The I Have a Therapist campaign aims to destigmatise seeing a therapist.

IEEE Spectrum magazine has a piece on the next world’s strongest fMRI scanner – 11.8 Teslas.

The New York Times has a piece on how the US Military’s DARPA research agency are funding deep brain stimulation research to the tune of $70 million dollars.

A DIY low-cost, open-source kit from BITalino for measuring physiological signals – ECG, EMG, GSR and so on.

Interesting neuromarketing twist in Advertising Age: the same ‘brain truth is the real truth’ illusion but turned round to market the product as having a specific effect on the consumer.

Nautilus has an interesting article on how the mathematics behind codebreaking is being applied to neuroscience.

One family’s search to explain a fatal neurological disorder. American Scientist on the fight against hereditary ataxia.

Discover Magazine’s Crux blog has a piece on five sex research pioneers you’ve probable never heard of.

Scans pinpoint the moment anaesthetic puts the brain under. Report by New Scientist.

The excellent and long-running SciCurious neuroscience blog has moved to a new location.

A man called Dad

An eye-opening 2005 paper estimated the number of children who are not the biological offspring of their presumed father.

Looking at studies from around the world, it concluded that the median number of kids who are not the children of the person they call ‘dad’ is 3.7% with studies typically finding a rate of between two and ten percent.

This is presumably due to children being conceived during clandestine affairs. Whether you think that 3.7% is a low or high figure depends on your view of how human relationships work in real life.

If you want more details there’s an excellent post on Gene Expression which discusses the evidence based and the ethical implications for these findings.

For example, if a child needs genetic testing for medical reasons what should the presenting parents get told about incidental discoveries of ‘paternity discrepancy’?
 

Link to 2005 study on ‘paternity discrepancy’.
Link to excellent Gene Expression post on the same.