Neuroscientist Pledge

Neuroscientist Curtis Bell is calling on his fellow brain scientists to sign a pledge in which they promise not to participate in applying neuroscience to violate basic human rights and international law:

The pledge gives neuroscience the opportunity to join with other professions in moving away from militarism and violence toward a culture of peace and respect for human life. Professionals and their organizations have a special responsibility in this regard, because they are members of a respected elite with knowledge and influence.
Our goal as neuroscientists and human beings should be to create a culture that encourages applications that enhance human life while discouraging those that damage it. If you are a neuroscientist and you agree, sign the pledge.

Whether neuroscientists choose to take this specific pledge or not, the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia hopes the document will start a conversation about the neuroethics of war.


Sam Harris v. Raymond Tallis on Neurotheology

neurotheoIn his latest piece in the New Humanist, Raymond Tallis criticizes the way neuroscience is being used to reduce religious thought to brain function, calling out a recent study on the neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief by Sam Harris:

The subjects were scanned as they evaluated the truth and falsity of religious propositions such as “The Biblical God really exists” and nonreligious propositions such as “Santa Claus is a myth.” In both believers and nonbelievers, and in both categories of stimuli, belief was associated with a greater signal in the ventromedial cortex. … However, religious thinking was more strongly associated with brain regions that govern … emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict. Thinking about ordinary facts, by contrast, is more reliant on memory retrieval networks.
According to Harris , this study “furthers our understanding of how the brain accepts statements of all kinds to be valid descriptions of the world”. … It confirms what the anthropologist Pascal Boyer has asserted, namely that religious thoughts and behavior survive because they are byproducts of ordinary brain function. It is not because they have relaxed their standards of rationality that people accept implausible religious doctrines but simply because this doctrine fits their “inference machinery.” Religion is a spin-off of a more general trait to draw inferences beyond what experience tells us and to seek a coherent explanation of what is around us.

Harris has responded, telling Tallis he has got the conclusion wrong:

For instance, we do not think our results confirm that the brain has a “God spot,” or that religion has been selected for by evolution. On the contrary, our data lends some support to the idea that belief is belief is belief. After all, we found that the difference between belief and disbelief, in both religious and nonreligious subjects, was essentially the same, regardless of what was thought about. Bizarrely, Tallis considers this finding of belief’s content-independence to be a terrible defect: “since they are unable to show a profound difference between religious beliefs and nonreligious beliefs, they tell us nothing about the former.” Unless, of course, no “profound difference” exists.


Your Frontal Lobes Don’t Think You’re So Great

frontallobescan2People who think they have better personalities than their peers use their brain’s orbitofrontal cortex less than other people, according to new research from Jennifer Beer, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, that shows how brain activity is linked to self-perception. The orbitofrontal cortex is a part of the frontal lobe that is associated with reasoning, decision making, and problem solving.
According to the findings, some people who viewed themselves in an extremely positive light showed four times less activity in their frontal lobes than did others who had an accurate view of themselves. Beer also found that people tend to think their abilities are above average when they’re asked to evaluate themselves quickly, suggesting that having more time in which we can engage our frontal lobes lets us more deliberately process information and come to more accurate judgments.


Predicting Thoughts With Fairly Good Accuracy

readmindThis week, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a new paper by a couple of Harvard University psychologists, Joshua Greene and Joe Paxton, who looked at what happens in our brains when we decide to be dishonest. Among other cool things, they discovered that they could use the brain scans to predict how often certain people in their experiment would lie, with about 80 percent accuracy.
There’s another interesting brain-scanning experiment from a team of researchers at Rutgers University and UCLA. They scanned the brains of volunteers doing eight simple mental tasks, such as reading aloud or counting sounds. Then they looked at the scans and tried to figure out the different brain patterns associated with each task. If people’s brains work similarly, the researchers should be able to look for these patterns in another person’s brain scan and tell which task that person was doing.
The finding? As Russ Poldrack, a psychologist at UCLA who worked on the study, explains:

It turns out that we can predict quite well which of these eight tasks they are doing. If we were just guessing, we would get it right about 13 percent of the time. We get it right about 80 percent of the time with our statistical tool. It’s not perfect, but it is quite good—but not nearly good enough to be admissible in court, for example.
Our study suggests that the kinds of things that some people have talked about in terms of mind reading are probably still pretty far off. If we are only 80 percent accurate with eight very different thoughts and we want to figure out what you’re thinking out of millions of possible thoughts, we’re still very far away from achieving that.

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