Encephalon #58 – Decision Making

Reading time: 11 – 18 minutes

Welcome to the 58th edition of Encephalon, where we highlight some of the best neuroscience and psychology blog posts from around the blogosphere. This edition includes 20 articles on a variety of interesting topics, including intelligence, belief, neurodegeneration, multi-tasking, memory, grief and consciousness.

There’s a revolution occurring on the Web: those “authoritative” articles written on traditional, static websites are being replaced with blogs, wikis and online social networks. In the sphere of health, medicine and information technology, this “real-time Web” consists of many who are professionals in the field; their posts are listed below.
In the digital age, these are the characteristics of new media: recent, relevant, reachable and reliable.

This edition of Encephalon coincides with the historic 44th U.S. Presidential election. As with every election, voters had to decide which candidate for whom to cast their ballot. Although a recent brain-imaging study found that voting decisions are more associated with the brain’s response to negative aspects of a politician’s appearance than to positive ones [1], many other sources of information come into play when we make important and complex decisions. Indeed, studies have shown that decision making is largely an unconscious process [2], in which a set of attributes, including needs, preferences, values and emotions, shape our response to sensory input.

Will there be engaging and thought-provoking articles below? Will each of us learn something new as we read through the posts? Will this edition of Encephalon be successful?

Let’s move through each of the attributes and shape our response to these questions.

Needs

Ouroboros

Aging: the accumulation of changes in an organism or object over time.

Understanding how the aging process affects the human brain is a complex task. Many neuroanatomical changes, some of them gender specific, occur as we get older. Thus, to provide a detailed characterization of the brain’s aging process, detailed information at the level of individual genes is needed. A recent gene expression study looked at gender differences in brain aging [3]. Kristen Fortney explores Sex and the Aging Brain.

Neuroanthropology

Dopamine: a hormone that functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain and activates five types of dopamine receptors.

Addiction … is it biology or is it culture? Dr. Daniel Lende discusses craving and the understanding of dopamine function as he describes Studying Sin.

The Patient Report

Ethanol: a colorless, volatile liquid, commonly referred to as “alcohol”, that can be obtained by the fermentation of sugars and is the intoxicating constituent of wine, beer and spirits.

Do you drink alcohol? A new study finds that alcohol causes the brain to shrink [4]. Cheree Briggs Cleghorn cautions, Before You Open That Bottle of Wine, Read This “¦

Sciencebase

Luck: success or failure brought about by chance rather than through one’s own actions.

Although luck is a myth, many people seem to have a deep-seated psychological need to place their “fate” in the hands of some external force. David Bradley examines Five-leaf Clovers.

PodBlack Cat

Sexualization: the harmful application of sexuality or sexual perceptions to an individual or class.

Kylie Sturgess recounts a trip to the toy store to check out a new psychologically-appropriate doll for young Australian women, the “Australian Girl”. Miss Polly Had A Dolly (That Kicks Kangaroo Arse) discusses the sexualization of children and its potential to discourage activities that promote cognitive development and physical health.

Preferences

Dana Press Blog

Neuroblastoma: a malignant neuroendocrine tumor that arises in the sympathetic nervous system, the nerve network responsible for the fight-or-flight response and production of adrenaline or epinephrine, most commonly in the adrenal gland.

Less than two months after the release of a study reported on by the Dana Press Blog (here), scientists from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have found further evidence that the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene plays an essential role in one of the deadliest childhood cancers, the nerve cancer neuroblastoma [5]. Aalok Mehta discusses Another Leap in the Fight Against Childhood Cancer.

SharpBrains

Human multi-tasking: the appearance of an individual to execute more than one task at the same time.

Besides reading this article, what else are you doing right now? Watching TV? Talking on the phone? Instant messaging? If so, you may not remember what you’ve read. Dr. Bill Klemm reviews a number of studies showing that the brain cannot do more than one thing at a time, and asks Memory Problems? Perhaps you are Multi-tasking.

Cognitive Daily

Social exclusion: the alienation or disenfranchisement of a group, individual or sector from the normal activities of society.

Have you ever gotten an icy look or a cold shoulder? Does a person’s perceptions of temperature change after experiencing various social situations, especially those that are isolating? A recent study reveals that social exclusion actually feels cold [6]. Dave Munger describes the research showing that Being Excluded From a Social Group Makes You Feel Cold — Literally.

Dana Press Blog

Music: the art or science of combining vocal and/or instrumental sounds to produce beauty of form, harmony and expression of emotion.

Combining creativity and biology, the Library of Congress lecture series Music and the Brain looks to be an interesting set of discussions on the physical processes behind mental abilities. Aalok Mehta reviews three recent lectures.

SharpBrains

Gerontology: the study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging.

Together with growing demand to learn and handle constant change in complex environments, increased life spans are stimulating new initiatives to the challenges of gerontology. Alvaro Fernandez presents a draft proposal to create a global consortium to drive Neurocognitive Fitness Innovation. Update: Global Consortium for Neurocognitive Fitness Innovation

Values

The Mouse Trap

Intelligence quotient (I.Q.): the score derived from one of several different standardized tests that attempts to measure a person’s reasoning ability as compared to the statistical average for their age, taken as 100.

A recent study reviews evidence that a negative relationship exists between intelligence and religious belief in the U.S. and Europe [7]. Is religious belief exhibited by people with low I.Q. really mediated by their social economic status (SES) and low feelings of control? Sandy G questions the correlation. IQ and Religion: is the Relation Mediated by Wealth and Feelings of Control?

Brain Blogger

Coercion: the practice of persuading an unwilling person to behave in an involuntary way (whether through action or inaction) by use of pressure or force.

Adolf Hitler was a master of coercion, convincing a nation to follow him before and during World War II. Sajid Surve reviews Hitler’s Guide to Propaganda – The Psychology of Coercion.

BPS Research Digest

Confabulation: the formation of false memories, perceptions, and/or beliefs about the self or the environment as a result of neurological or psychological dysfunction.

Brain-damaged patients who have experienced damage to the frontal cortex often provide strange answers to questions about their life or recent activities. Although this phenomena has traditionally been perceived to be a problem with memory retrieval, a new study proposes an alternative explanation [8]. The British Psychological Society Research Digest blog wonders, Are brain damaged people who confabulate even trying to remember?

Neurologica

Neuron: the fundamental unit of the nervous system that transmits nerve impulses, is a specialized cell consisting of a cell body and its projections or processes, the axons and dendrites.

Recent research by neuroscientist R. Quian Quiroga finds that human brains are assigned one neuron to remember a familiar face. Dr. Steven Novella discusses face-recognition and Single Neuron Neuroscience.

Brain Blogger

Intelligence: a property of the mind that encompasses many abilities, including the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge and skills, to reason, to solve problems and to grasp ideas.

Before the localization of cognitive functions to specific neural regions of the brain, intelligence was the subject of philosophers. Jared Tanner briefly reviews the history, asking What is Intelligence?

Emotions

The Neurocritic

Empathy: the capacity to recognize or understand and share the feelings of another.

A recent neuroimaging study compared boys with aggressive conduct disorder who viewed clips of accidentally inflicted pain to matched controls [9]. Did their brains find it more rewarding or were there actually signs of greater empathy when viewing another’s pain? The Neurocritic reviews the Hah-Ha! stimuli.

The Mouse Trap

Stage theory: a hypothesis based on the idea that elements in systems move through a pattern of distinct stages over time and that these stages can be described based on their distinguishing characteristics.

A recent Scientific American article debunked psychological stages, suggesting that stage theories have little evidentiary support [10]. In defense of stage theories, Sandy G takes on the article, countering that it contains more opinion than science. The Stage Theories: Are They All Fiction?

Combining Cognits

Pain: a typical sensory experience that may be described as the unpleasant awareness of a harmful stimulus or bodily harm.

Central to the debate on abortion is the question of whether a fetus can feel pain. Paul Baxter appraises a study from 2000 reviewing the fetal development of pain systems [11]. How early in development is there Fetal Pain?

Mind Hacks

Psychopathy: a mental illness or disorder that describes chronic immoral and antisocial behavior.

A recent article in the New Yorker describes the search by one psychologist for the roots of psychopathy. Vaughan finds it an engaging read and writes Through the Eyes of the Psychopath.

Dr Shock MD PhD

Depression: pathologically chronic or severe levels of sadness, perceived helplessness, inadequacy and disinterest.

Perhaps not surprisingly, women are more sensitive than men. Dr. Shock explores the topic of gender differences in terms of response to antidepressants and highlights the take-home points from a review of Gender Differences in Depression and it’s Treatment [12].

Conclusion

Well, what do you think? Have you made a decision? We’ve moved through each of the different attributes: needs, preferences, values and emotions. Did you find the articles interesting? Did you learn anything new? Was this a successful edition of Encephalon?

I really enjoyed reading through each of the articles and learned quite a lot. My thanks to everyone that contributed articles — it’s been great hosting this edition of Encephalon. Be sure to take a moment and let your fellow bloggers know this issue is available so that everyone’s hard work can be appreciated and enjoyed by all.

You can find both the hosting schedule and past editions at the Encephalon Archives & Calendar. The next edition of Encephalon will be at Ionian Enchantment on November 24th. If you’d like to contribute, send an email with links to up to three blog posts to encephalon.host[at]gmail.com.

References

  1. Soon et al. Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nat Neurosci. 2008 May;11(5):543-5. Epub 2008 Apr 13.
    View abstract
  2. Spezio et al. A neural basis for the effect of candidate appearance on election outcomes. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2008. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsn040
  3. Berchtold et al. Gene expression changes in the course of normal brain aging are sexually dimorphic. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Oct 7;105(40):15605-10. Epub 2008 Oct 1.
    View abstract
  4. Paul et al. Association of alcohol consumption with brain volume in the Framingham study. Arch Neurol. 2008 Oct;65(10):1363-7.
    View abstract
  5. George et al. Activating mutations in ALK provide a therapeutic target in neuroblastoma. Nature. 2008 Oct 16;455(7215):975-8.
    View abstract
  6. Zhong and Leonardelli. Cold and lonely: does social exclusion literally feel cold? Psychol Sci. 2008 Sep;19(9):838-42.
    View abstract
  7. Richard et al. Average Intelligence Predicts Atheism Rates across 137 Nations. Intelligence. 2008. DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2008.03.004
  8. Zannino et al. Do confabulators really try to remember when they confabulate? A case report. Cogn Neuropsychol. 2008 Sep;25(6):831-52. Epub 2008 Sep 1.
    View abstract
  9. Decety et al. Atypical empathic responses in adolescents with aggressive conduct disorder: A functional MRI investigation. Biol Psychol. 2008 Sep 30. [Epub ahead of print]
    View abstract
  10. Maciejewski et al. An empirical examination of the stage theory of grief. JAMA. 2007 Feb 21;297(7):716-23.
    View abstract
  11. Vanhatalo and van Nieuwenhuizen. Fetal pain? Brain Dev. 2000 May;22(3):145-50.
    View abstract
  12. Gorman JM. Gender differences in depression and response to psychotropic medication. Gend Med. 2006 Jun;3(2):93-109.
    View abstract
About the Author

Walter Jessen is Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH. He's also a senior writer at Highlight HEALTH.