Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Believing Brain, Part 2: The Biology of Belief

"He who stops being better stops being good." - Oliver Cromwell

Part 2 of The Believing Brain starts out with a chapter on patternicity-- humans' tendency to find patterns where there may or may not be any. This chapter was really cool because it describes an experiment in which it was discovered that pigeons have superstitions.

The pigeons were placed in boxes containing buttons at a suitable height for pecking. Food was delivered to the boxes at random intervals. However, if a pigeon received food after pecking the button one time but not another, it would remember whatever it was that it had done immediately before pecking the button. The result was pigeons spinning around once to the right, hopping, and all other manner of things before pecking the button.

Next there's the chapter on agenticity-- our tendency to assign intention to phenomena. If forces are intelligent rather than inanimate, it's easier to appease them, and easier to survive. One theory about the origin of agenticity is "theory of mind"- I know you have your own thoughts and feelings, and I know you know I know you have them.

The third and final chapter of the section-- the chapter on neurons-- is the point at which I began to like the book less. The complexities of the brain are mind-blowing to be sure, but the author was also a bit rude towards his "opponents" rather than the simple enthusiasm for the topic I'm used to seeing in scientific books. He draws lines between "creationist," "ignores all science," and "needs to be helped as soon as possible," and subtly implies that Islam itself leads to suicide bombing rather than small groups of extremists with their own interpretations. I know a creationist who wants to be a neuroscientist.

Although it was pretty cool to learn that we have a neuron that only fires when we see a picture of Bill Clinton. No one else.

Bam. How awesome is that?

There's also an interesting section on the effects of dopamine and the difference between liking (pleasure) and wanting (motivation).

Rats given lots of dopamine when a button was pressed would literally keep pressing the button until they died of exhaustion (not a bad way to go...). The new research indicates that dopamine is indeed related to wanting rather than simply pleasure.
"'You can block the dopamine system in rats and they will still enjoy rewards, but they just won't work to get them.'"
The wanting rather than simply liking isn't the most encouraging of research given this quote from an article in Psychology Today I just found specifically to prove this point:
"We use the term "falling in love" even though the first giddy days of a new romance feel buoyant, free from gravity, as if some perfectly placed wind were boosting us skyward. That sense of becoming airborne is so unforgettable that years later we may recall it longingly and wonder why relationships now seem so bound-to-Earth. We may even gaze on our partners with some dissatisfaction, measuring them against that lost intensity.
But the gleam of infatuation--if current theory is right--may be largely the product of unexpectedly potent brain chemistry. And the primary ingredient in that chemical brew is dopamine..."
And this, my friends, is why the apparent extent of the pain of break-ups doesn't make any logical sense. The chemical involved in romance is based on wanting rather than liking, and when we're deprived...

Remember when in my post about left brain vs. right brain I said how as much as I like taking personality tests, I hate seeing the results because I don't want to think about them or apply them to myself? I feel the same way about this. Neuroscience is fascinating to be sure, but I prefer to think of my mind as separate from my body/brain even though they're really the same, and I'd rather feel the joy and pain of love without chalking it up to chemicals in my head.

It's great to understand how and why people work the way we do, and I wouldn't be reading this book if I wasn't in favor of learning about it, but when it comes to actually living, I'd rather not quantify it in quite the same way.

1 comment:

  1. I'd never thought about it that way before, but I suppose all animal training is just applied pattern recognition, huh.

    It is disheartening sometimes to read research about how predictable brains are and realize that it applies to our own grey matter as well.


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