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Showing entries tagged utilitarian.  Show all entries

December 4, 2011

Reasons You Should (not) Text and Read


Tap tap tap tap tap Bam Bam Bam *moaning* TAP TAP TAP TAP BAM BAM BA-BAM BAM BAM!

Take a page out of the Dr. Chun and Johnson book: if your roommate is having wild and kinky sex just next door, find someplace else to write your Civil War research paper. Keep in mind, this advice does extend beyond sex as a distraction and a research paper as a task. In the November 17, 2011 issue of Neuron the review Memory: Enduring Traces of Perceptual and Reflective Attention made several assertions about the aggrandizing body of literature concerned with the networks involved in and interactions between attention and memory. Research concerned with the dynamic interplay of memory and attention, currently, is sparse; until very recently, neuroscience research has focused either on attention or memory. Lately, however, researchers have found that their results about attention or memory phenomena cannot be explained without more information about how they are conjoined. The purpose of this review was to assess advances that have been made, possible applications of the results, and hypotheses to be tested in future studies.

Looking back at the poor sap listening to his roommate get it on not five feet away, while he is attempting to concentrate on how Union soldiers mistreated Confederate women and children, made me wonder if he can pay any attention to the task he is supposed to at the moment (his paper). Thankfully, I do not have to conduct a research experiment myself to see if he will succeed: this question was already answered in A general mechanism for perceptual decision-making in the human brain. The answer is simple: if the task you are concentrating on is easily accomplished then the amount of attention you need to devote to it is low (low load), and, unfortunately, distractions will impact your efforts much more than if the task is not easily accomplished. If the task is difficult, the cognitive load will be high and distractions are not as likely to detract from your concentration. I think the paper he is writing has a high cognitive load, but I also am inclined to think that the amount of sensory input he is getting, from task-irrelevant sources, is not low on the cognitive load scale and, therefore, his reflective attention on the paper will suffer.

Beyond informing us how to respond to demanding situations, this review reflects on various findings that have been made, and steps to be taken, in the exploration of the pathways implicated in memory and attention. A major discovery that was made recently, (July 2011) by a conglomeration of researchers from the Netherlands, is that, not only do attention and memory interact, memories of images, (reflective representations specifically) when retrieved, activate the same pathways as though the image was seen twice. The implications are clear: that picture in your head of your long lost lover perfectly replicates what he or she looks like in real life, right? Not quite, all that Oliver et al. discovered is that the same pathways are activated in the perception and recall of a dot or shape, which cannot be extrapolated any further.

However, that is not to say that none of the studies in this review came to similar conclusions; a few even arrived at conclusions, and observed results, that are salient to the human condition. A few of the more scintillating results include, but are not limited to, the fact that when we are not distracted the amount of and detail in which we remember information is extraordinary (implications for people with ADD/ADHD); the harder a task actually is, the more likely we are to focus on it than on distracting stimuli (studying habits); and, the ability of older adults to enhance memory (learn new things), while simultaneously being unable to distinguish false memories from true memories, and remember salient information from the past (memory loss due to aging).

The study of memory and attention interactions is new and, because of the information already gleaned from studies focused solely on attention or memory, certain questions can already be answered about their interactions. I, like the Civil War historian listening to his obnoxious roommate slam his way to a TBI, am not satisfied to simply sit around and listen (in my case about studies that have been performed, in his case sex). I am interested to learn more about attention-memory interactions and, someday, contribute to this fascinating field of study.

Now, who is ready for a pop quiz on the interactions of memory and attention?

Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627311009615
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December 3, 2011

Drinking on the Job: How Flies get Drunk


Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night... I know what you're thinking. No class till Monday, no work, what a great night to get ahead on studying and up to date with all the problems in the world. However, I must point out this plan is not the first thing that pops into everyone else's mind (at least those outside the world of the poor soul who is reading this neuroscience blog). Much of western society is based around the beverage/drug/poison we've come to know as alcohol. It has come to the attention of neuroscientist that our race is not the only one that takes pleasure in consuming firewater. It turns out some researchers were playing with the old 160 proof lab ethanol when they came upon an astounding discovery.

It all started when one turned to the other and croaked, "I'm drunkk frog haha." The other slurred back, "weelll thenn, gooood thing I'm not a fly huh?" That's when it hit them. "Eureka!" piped the first. "Oh my god!" yelled the second. "Let's" get the flies wasted!" the second hollered back. They quickly spun off their lab stools and bustled for the fly room stumbling and tripping the whole way. When they got to the room they immediately grabbed the first beaker of flies, ripped out the cork and filled it full of the powerful booze, instantly killing all the flies inside. Once they realized the horrendous massacre they had just committed in front of all the hundreds of thousands of other flies in the room their drunken smiles slipped off. The beaker was placed on the counter as the two somber scientists held each other with silent tears streaming down their cheeks. Then one started laughing; irritated, the other muttered, "How can you laugh at a time like this? We just killed them, in front of their families... drowned them, squashed them like flies... "Look, that one's drunk," the other researcher pointed at a fly that was clearly not adhering to the standard sober drosophila flight pattern. They watched the fly for nearly two hours, they sat on the fly room floor entranced by the fly's drunken escapades. Then as its flight pattern began to return to normal it headed back to the beaker full of booze, and began gulping down, without a thought to the dead brothers, sisters, cousins and children floating on top. Gleeful laughter burst from the researchers as they cheersed and began taking large quaffs of their own. Quickly forgetting their bloody hands they then began pulling the corks of the other beakers, filling up petri dishes with ethanol, and pipetting small volumes of ethanol in for the larvae--so no one was left out. They spent the whole night at the lab with their new found drinking buddies and had a gay old time. A few days later after their handover was gone they decided to write a paper.

It was determined drosophila liked the inebriation caused by excessive consumption of ethanol. Like us, the flies were experiencing their pleasure through the activation of the dopamine pathway. Activating this pathway induced LTP in the flies. Looking further into the flies' neural circuitry the researchers determined the rewarding memories the flies experienced (or the lack of memory if they got too plastered from not getting enough sugar before) were localized, accessed and retrieved with a distinct set of neurons in the mushroom body. With the vast number of flies they got drunk the researchers' found some flies didn't come back to drink. The experimenters were obviously offended and quickly squashed them. However, they didn't stop there; they proceeded to analyze the DNA so they could breed out the bad gene and make sure no other flies would be lame. They found mutations in scabrous were responsible. They commonly call it the party pooper gene around the lab. "This gene encodes a fibrinogen-related peptide that regulates Notch signaling, disrupted the formation of memories for ethanol reward" (Kaun, 2011). The experimenters have been thought to have had a little bit too much fun drinking with the flies, but they have felt the public pressure. Now they're looking into how this research will help their own species and we will undoubtedly be hearing more from them soon.

Hope you enjoyed the read, sincerely Charlie Stewart

"A Drosophila model for alcohol reward"
Karla R Kaun, Reza Azanchi, Zaw Maung, Jay Hirsh & Ulrike Heberlein
Nature Neuroscience April 17th 2011
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July 28, 2011

A Neurobiological View of Universal Moral Dilemmas


Imagine a small boat stranded in the middle of the ocean. There is no one around for miles and no one can even signal for help. There is a limited amount of food and water, but there is a more pressing matter. The boat is sinking. Slowly, but surely, the boat will fill completely with water unless one person jumps out. The boat is only made for 5 passengers, and there are six people on board: a priest, a young woman, her baby, a famous celebrity, an old man, and a person convicted of numerous crimes. Who should be sacrificed to save the rest?

According to Joshua Greene, Ph.D., an analytic philosopher, there are two different ways of viewing moral situations like the one of above. Some questions require people to logically assess the situation and come up with a reasonable solution. This might require sacrificing a few people to save many. This view supports a type of utilitarian morality, which would allow a few to die as long as some greater good is achieved. Other questions require a more emotional response. They, what we would call deontologists, would argue that killing, of course, is wrong, no matter what circumstances arise. They would protect every life, even the smallest, such as the baby, or the most undeserving, perhaps the criminal.

In an article entitled, "An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment," in the journal Science, Greene performed a study posing two very similar situations, each evoking a different response out of his subjects. He then took scans of their brains as the two questions were asked. He notes:
"A runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks toward five people who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. The only way to save them is to hit a switch that will turn the trolley onto an alternate set of tracks where it will kill one person instead of five. Ought you to turn the trolley in order to save five people at the expense of one? Most people say yes. Now consider a similar problem, the footbridge dilemma. As before, a trolley threatens to kill five people. You are standing next to a large stranger on a footbridge that spans the tracks in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. In this scenario, the only way to save the five people is to push this stranger off the bridge, onto the tracks below. He will die if you do this, but his body will stop the trolley from reaching the others. Ought you to save the five others by pushing this stranger to his death? Most people say no."(Greene, 2105-8)

Using the fMRI, Greene found that in the footbridge scenario, the regions of the brain associated with emotional processing were activated and therefore lit up. With the trolley scenario, those same areas were not activated. Some moral questions require a more logical approach. These become impersonal to us, so we can perhaps justify killing a few to save many. Therefore, we would choose to allow the one person to die to save the five on the tracks from the train. Others can be answered with a more emotional and personal touch. If we apply universal morality to the situation, such as respect for fellow human beings, then how could we ever allow one person to be killed?

Greene observed high activity in brain regions associated with emotion when they were asked about killing babies, even if such an action would save a small town from invading soldiers, for example. Where utilitarian thinking dominates, he observed high activity in regions associated with cognitive function. In one such area, the right anterior dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, activity increases for those who would consider more rational or utilitarian choices, in this case, chose to smother the baby. Greene stated that there are two opposing views in our brains. One, the ancient emotional brain, embodies the view of universal morality of the deontologists, who disapprove of killing. Two, the new brain, equipped with higher-power cognitive function, indicates the utilitarian's "for the greater good." He argues not for the dichotomy of reason and emotion, but an evolved view of "areas associated with cognitive control and working memory," vs. "areas associated with emotion," with obvious bias towards the prior.

There are some obvious flaws to using fMRI to study the neurology of thoughts and emotion. The fMRI signal correlates to a function in the brain. If a particular region lights up, it doesn't mean that the signal originated at that region. According to "Does Neuroscience refute ethics?" published by mises.org, "In fact, the fMRI signal does not even provide a direct measure of the spiking of neurons, so we do not know whether it reflects the inputs or outputs of the activated area." Even with hard data, like the fMRI scans, it is hard to decipher a moral meaning. We cannot find meaning where there isn't from data. For example, we cannot prove that candy is evil because dentists have proved that the sugar can cause cavities. On the flip side, human emotions, like love and hate, cannot be disregarded as less useful than hard facts, especially in matters such as relationships and family. Just because we have fancy scans to prove brain activity, we cannot prove that the outcome of cognitive functions in the brain leading to a more utilitarian decision is morally superior to emotionality, because reason always trumps emotion and feelings. Greene's thinking that a moral relativism is far more applicable than universal morality. We can each follow our own moral compass, so long as it leads to some sort of benefit in the end. We cannot be held accountable for things if every person's beliefs about murder and stealing vary. If you don't support this, then your brain must be more prone to emotional thought, or your "emotional brain is overdeveloped." The article sarcastically comments that though Greene uses fMRI scans to support his findings about opposing brain function with regards to thought and morality, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. He concludes that " 1) there are no moral facts, it's all a matter of opinion; and 2) we should all become utilitarians and donate to charity."
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