Although I did not make a substantial number of posts in 2012, the traffic to my site doubled. Throughout 2012 my blog had 35,819 hits from 31,960 unique visitors, accounting for over 46,720 page views. I had visitors from every state in the US and visits from people from 165 nations around the world. Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, India, and Australia also brought in large contingents.
This year the top ranked article was my 2011 post on Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail, which accounted for 50% more hits than this year’s number two ranked article (Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures – the number one post from last year). The piece on conspicuous consumption, is in my opinion, one of my all time most important pieces. It addresses our inherent drive to advance one’s social standing while actually going nowhere on the hedonic treadmill. It delves into the environmental costs of buying into the illusion of consumer materialism and its biological origins (the signaling instinct much like that of the Peacock). The Brainwave piece, also from 2011, compares and contrasts the different measures used to peer into the workings of the brain.
Of my posts published in 2012, only two made it to this year’s top ten list: five were from 2010 and three were published in 2011. Of those eight from previous years, five were also on the top ten list last year.
My 2012 review and discussion of the Broadway Musical Wicked topped the list of posts actually written in 2012, but it came in third overall this year relative to all other posts. This article explores the theme that “things are not as they seem.” I relate the story told in the show to the political and historical manipulation American citizens are subjected to, and it stirs up unpleasant and inconvenient realities that many would prefer remain unknown.
Great interest persists in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is. This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article received a number four ranking, down from a number two ranking over the last two years. I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct. This article moved down two notches this year, ultimately ranking number five. My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number six this year, versus a number four ranking last year. My 2011 post Where Does Prejudice Come From? ranked number seven this year, down two spots from its ranking in 2011. One of my all time favorite posts from 2010, Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is? returned to the top ten list this year coming in eighth. In 2010 it ranked number ten, but it fell off the list last year. My Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number nine this year, compared to a number ten ranking last year. Finally, in the number ten slot this year, is my 2012 article Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really? This post was perhaps the most important post of the year.
Again this year, the top ten articles represent the foundational issues that have driven me in my quest to understand how people think. This cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog. There are several other 2012 posts that ranked outside the top ten; regardless, I believe they are important. These other posts include:
This latter article, The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth, pertains to the microbiome, the collection of an estimated 100 trillion individual organisms thriving in and on your body that account for about three pounds of your total body weight (about the same weight as your brain). These little creatures play a huge role in your physical and mental well being and we are just beginning to understand the extent of their reach. Modern medicine in the future, will likely embrace the microbiome as a means of preventing and treating many illnesses (including treating some mental illnesses).
Although, not among the most popular articles this year, my pieces on the pernicious affects of poverty on child development from 2011 warrant ongoing attention. If we truly wish to halt the cycle of poverty, then we need to devote early and evidenced based intervention services for children and families living in poverty. As it turns out, poverty is a neurotoxin. Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.
The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways. First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought. Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe. These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival. Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force. Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.
Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples. Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology. And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized. As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:
“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience. Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in. The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.
Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort to step away from what we believe to be true in order to discover the truth.
The more I learn about the workings of the human brain – the more I am stirred by feelings that Freud may have been right. Although his theories have long since been discredited, he characterized the brain as a battle ground where three forces jockeyed for control over your decision making. There was the Id whose hedonistic impulse drove us toward self pleasuring. And then there was the conscientious Superego whose role was to compel us to make moral decisions. Finally, he believed there was the Ego whose job was to mediate between the drives of Id and Superego so as to facilitate adaptive navigation of the real world.
Freud’s theories have always been compelling because they feel right. I often feel as if there is a tug of war going on inside my head. The struggles occur in the form of decisions to be made – whether its about ordering french fries or a salad, fish or steak, having a cookie or an apple, exercising or relaxing, jumping over that crevasse or avoiding it, buying a new coat or saving the money. These battles are seemingly between good choices and bad ones. But, where you place the good and the bad is highly contingent on one’s priorities in the moment. The fries, steak, cookie, relaxing and that new coat all seem like good ideas in the moment – they’d bring me pleasure. On the other hand, there are the downstream consequences of unnecessary calories from fat and sugar or squandered resources. It’s a classic Id versus Superego battle.
But of course there are no entities in the human brain whose express duties are defined as Freud characterized them.
Or are there?
Well actually, there are brain regions that do wage contentious battles for control over your behaviors. Across time, different modules assert greater amounts of control than others, and thus, the choices we make, do likewise vary in terms of quality. As a result of advances in technology and understanding, we are becoming increasingly aware of the key factors associated with this variation.
Nucleus-Accumbens (NAcc) highlighted in red
One of the centers that play out in our multi-component brain is the dopamine reward pathway. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that serves a number of important functions in the brain. One of its most significant roles plays out as a result of activation of the Nucleus Accumbens (NAcc). When the NAcc is activated it floods the brain with dopamine and we experience pleasure. Desire for an item activates the NAcc. Being in the presence of the desired item activates it further. The greater the arousal of the NAcc the more pleasure we experience. It is your NAcc that is responsible for the happiness you feel when you both anticipate and eat those fries or that steak or buy that new coat. It is also responsible for that rush you feel when your team wins the big game (Lehrer, 2009).
Insula highlighted in teal
Then there is the Insula – a brain region that produces, among other sensations, unpleasantness. This center “lights up” in brain scans when people feel pain, anticipate pain, empathize with others, see disgust on someone’s face, are shunned in a social settings, or decide not to buy an item. In many cases we avoid exciting the Insula as it is the system that produces the unpleasantness of caffeine or nicotine withdrawal and the negative feelings associated with spending money (Blakslee, 2007; Lehrer, 2009). When you are jonesing for that coffee or nicotine fix, it is your Insula that is making you feel badly – necessarily compelling you to feed the habit. And when you satisfy the craving it is your NAcc that gives you that Ahhhhh! – that sense of well being.
Perhaps the NAcc is Freud’s Id and the Insula Freud’s Superego? It is actually much more complicated than this, but the overlap is interesting.
In an article I posted last month I wrote about the concept of an Alief. An Alief is a primal and largely irrational fear (emotion) that arises from the deep unconscious recesses of your brain and plays a significant role in guiding some of the decisions you make. At a very basic level, we know of two major driving forces that guide our decisions. Broadly, the two forces are reason and emotion. So how does this work? How do we process and deal with such diverse forces?
Orbitofrontal-Cortex (OFC) highlighted in pink
Neuroscientists now know that the OrbitoFrontal Cortex (OFC) is the brain center that integrates a multitude of information from various brain regions along with visceral emotions in an attempt to facilitate adaptive decision making. Current neuroimaging evidence suggests that the OFC is involved in monitoring, learning, as well as the memorization of the potency of both reinforcers and punishers. It analyzes the available options, and communicates its decisions by creating emotions that are supposed to help you make decisions. Next time you are faced with a difficult decision, and you experience an associated emotion – this is the result of your OFC’s attempt to tell you what to do. Such feelings actually guide most of our decisions without us even knowing that it is happening.
The OFC operates outside your awareness: opaquely communicating with your rational decision making center using the language of feelings. Our rational center, the Prefrontal Cortex, the more apt Freudian Ego analogy, is not as predominant as he suggested. In fact, it is limited in capacity – both easily fatigued and overly taxed. See my post on Willpower for a deeper discussion of this issue.
So, as crazed as we view Freud’s notions today, there were some aspects of his explanation of human behavior that were rooted in actual brain systems. As I previously noted, these systems are much more complicated than I have described above, but in essence, there are battles waged in your head between forces that manipulate you and your choices through the use of chemical neurotransmitters. A portion of these battles occur outside your awareness, but it is the influence of the emotions that stem from these unconscious battles that ultimately make you feel as though there is a Devil (Id) on one shoulder and an angel (Superego) on the other as your Prefrontal Cortex (Ego) struggles to make the best possible decision.
By understanding these systems you may become empowered to make better decisions, avoid bad choices, and ultimately take more personal responsibility for the process. It’s not the Devil that made you do it, and it’s not poor Ego Strength – necessitating years of psychotherapy. It is the influence of deeply stirred emotions and manipulation occurring inside of you and perhaps some over dependence on a vulnerable and easily over burdened Prefrontal Cortex that leads you down that gluttonous path.
I’ve been exploring the subtleties of human cognition for nearly two years now. The most amazing and persistent lesson I’ve learned is that our ability to understand the world is limited by the way our brains work. All of us are constrained by fundamentally flawed cognitive processes, and the advanced studies of human cognition, perception, and neuro-anatomy all reveal this to be true. Although this lesson feels incredibly fresh to me, it is not new news to mankind. Long ago, serious thinkers understood this to be true without the aid of sensitive measurement devices (e.g., fMRI) or statistical analysis.
It pains me a bit to have been scooped by Sir Francis Bacon, who knew this well in the early 17th Century. After all, It took me two years of intensive, self-driven investigation, 18 years after getting a PhD in psychology, to come to grips with this. I have to ask “Why isn’t this common knowledge?“ and “Why wasn’t this central to my training as a psychologist?”
Bacon, an English lawyer, statesman, and thinker, who devoted his intellect to advancing the human condition, astutely identified the innate fallibility of the human brain in his book entitled New Organon published in 1620. He referred to these cognitive flaws as The Four Idols. The word idol he derived from the Greek word eidolon which when translated to English means a phantom or an apparition, that he argued, blunts or blurs logic and stands in the way of truly understanding external reality. What we know today, adds greater understanding of the mechanisms of these errors, but they stand intact.
The terms Bacon used to describe these flaws probably made more sense in his day, but they are opaque today. My preference is to use a more current vernacular to explain his thoughts and then back-fill with Bacon’s descriptors. My intention is not to provide an abstract of his thesis, but rather to drive home the notion that long ago the brain’s flaws had been identified and acknowledged as perhaps the biggest barrier to the forward progress of mankind. Much has changed since Bacon’s day, but these idols remain as true and steadfast today as they were 400 years ago. It is important to note that Bacon’s thesis was foundational in the development of the scientific process that has ultimately reshaped the human experience.
I have previously written about some of the flaws that Bacon himself detailed long ago. Bacon’s first idol can be summed up as the universal transcendent human tendencies toward Pareidolia, Confirmation Bias, and Spinoza’s Conjecture. In other words, humans instinctively: (a) make patterns out of chaos; (b) accept things as being true because they fit within their preconceived notions of the world; (c) reject things that don’t fit within their current understanding; and (d) tend to avoid the effort to skeptically scrutinize any and all information. These tendencies, Bacon described as the Idols of the Tribe. To him the tribe was us as a species. He noted that these tendencies are in fact, universal.
The second set of attributes seem more tribal to me because although the first set is universal, the second set vary by what we today more commonly refer to as tribes. Cultural biases and ideological tendencies shared within subsets of people make up this second idol – the Idols of the Cave. People with shared experiences tend to have specific perspectives and blind spots. Those within such tribal moral communities share these similarities and differentiate their worldviews from outsiders. People within these subgroups tend to close their minds off to openness and diverse input. As such, most people innately remain loyal to the sentiments and teachings of the in-group and resist questioning tradition. Cohabitants within their respective “caves” are more cohesive as a result – but more likely to be in conflict with out-groups.
The third idol is more a matter of faulty, misguided, or sloppy semantics. Examples of this include the overuse of, or misapplication of, vague terms or jargon. Even the perpetual “spin” we now hear is an example of this. In such situations, language is misused (i.e., quotes used out of context) or talking points told and retold as a means to drive a specific ideological agenda regardless of whether there is any overlap with the facts. It is important to note that this does not necessarily have to be an act of malice, it can be unintentional. Because language can be vague and specific words, depending on context, can have vastly different meanings, we are inherently vulnerable to the vagaries of language itself. These are the Idols of the Market Place where people consort, engage in discourse, and learn the news of the day. Today we would probably refer to this as the Idols of the 24 Hour News Channel or the Idols of the Blogosphere.
The final idol reflects the destructive power of ideology. At the core of ideology are several human inclinations that feed and sustain many of the perpetual conflicts that consume our blood and treasure and in other ways gravely harm our brothers and sisters. Deeper still, at the root of erroneous human inclinations, is this tendency that makes us vulnerable to the draw of ideologies that sustain beliefs without good reason. Such is the Idol of the Theater, where theologians, politicians, and philosophers play out their agendas to their vulnerable and inherently gullible disciples. Beliefs ultimately filter what we accept as true and false. This is how the brain works. This proclivity is so automatic and so intrinsic that in order to overcome it, we have to overtly fight it. What is most troubling is that most people don’t even know that this is occurring within them. It is this intuitive, gut-level thinking that acts as a filter and kicks out, or ignores incongruity. And our beliefs become so core to us, that when they are challenged, it is as if we ourselves have been threatened.
It takes knowledge of these idols and subsequently overt efforts, to overcome them, so that we don’t become ignorant victims of our own neurology: or worse, victims of the cynical and malicious people who do understand these things to be true. We are inherently vulnerable – be aware – be wary – and strive to strike down your brain’s false idols.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that Poverty is the worst form of violence. At the very least it appears to be a neurotoxin. Evidence continues to build a solid case for the notion that poverty itself is self-propagating and that the mechanism of this replication takes place in the neuro-anatomy of the innocent children reared in environmental deprivation.
In my article titled The Effects of Low SES on Brain Development I review an article that provides clear quantitative data that indicates that children raised in low SES environments have diminished brain activity relative to their more affluent peers. The impact of low SES on brain activity was so profound that the brains of these poor kids were comparable to individuals who had had actual physical brain damage. This data gathered through EEG is a non-specific measure that provides no clear understanding of what underlies this diminished functioning. In other words, it evidences diminished brain activity, but it does not specifically identify what has occurred in the brain that is responsible for these differences.
Jamie Hanson and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard University published a paper titled Association Between Income and the Hippocampus in the peer reviewed on-line journal PLoS ONE that points to one possible culprit. Their study shows in a measurable way, how poverty actually hinders growth of the hippocampus, a very important brain region associated with learning and memory.
In non-human animal studies, it has been shown that environmental enrichment is associated with “greater dendritic branching and wider dendritic fields; increased astrocyte number and size, and improved synaptic transmission in portions of the hippocampus” (Hanson et. al. 2011). This essentially means that environmental enrichment enhances the density and functioning capacity of the hippocampus. In humans, parental nurturance, contact, and environmental stimulation has been associated with improved performance on tasks (long-term memory formation) greatly influenced by the hippocampus. On the flip side, it has also been demonstrated that stress, inadequate environmental nurturance and low stimulation have the opposite affect (thinning hippocapmal density).
Hanson et. al., (2011) hypothesized that hippocampus density would be positively related to gradients in parental income. Affluent children would evidence more hippocampal density (associated with better learning, memory, emotional control) while their low income counterparts would evidence diminished levels of density. They used date from MRI imaging studies to measure the actual hippocampal gray matter density in a large cross section of children (ages 4-18 years old) across the United States. They also collected data on the income and education level of each participant’s parents. As a control measure, they also quantified the whole-brain volume and the density of the amygdala, a brain region that does not vary as a function of environmental perturbations or enrichment. These latter variables were important because they assist in ruling out brain size variation associated with other confounding variables. They hypothesized that these latter measures would not vary associated with income.
The top left brain slice shows a sagittal brain slice with the hippocampus highlighted in yellow and the amygdala in turquoise, while the top right brain image shows an axial slice (with the hippocampus again highlighted in yellow and the amygdala in turquoise). The bottom left brain picture shows a coronal slice with the amygdala in turquoise and the hippocampus in yellow.
Their measures confirmed each of their hypotheses. Amygdala and whole brain volume did not vary associated with parental income but hippocampal density did. Those with parents at the lower end of the income spectrum evidenced lower hippocampal density than those children from more affluent families. They wrote that “taken together, these findings suggest that differences in the hippocampus, perhaps due to stress tied to growing up in poverty, might partially explain differences in long-term memory, learning, control of endocrine functions, and modulation of emotional behavior” (Hanson, 2011).
The authors carefully noted that this correlation is not necessarily indicative of causation – and that more specific longitudinal measures along with direct measures of cognitive functioning, environmental stress, and stimulation are necessary to truly understand the association between income and these neurobiological outcomes. But they also warned that the data set was limited to children unaffected by mental health issues or low intelligence. As such, the data set likely underestimates the actual hippocampal volume variation because children at the lower end of the income spectrum have disproportionately high levels of these mental health and low intelligence issues.
These results confirm and fit with a growing and already substantial set of findings that implicate poverty as a neurotoxin that causes a self sustaining feedback loop. Poverty seems to weaken the foundation on which fundamental skills and capabilities are built that ultimately facilitate adaptive functioning and positive societal contributions. A weak foundation hinders such capacities.
“A conservative estimate of the returns to investment in early child development is illustrated by the effects of improving one component, preschool attendance. Achieving enrolment rates of 25% per country in 1 year would result in a benefit of US$10·6 billion and achieving 50% preschool enrolment could have a benefit of more than $33 billion (in terms of the present discounted value of future labour market productivity) with a benefit-to-cost ratio of 17·6. Incorporating improved nutrition and parenting programmes would result in a larger gain.”
The monetary value alone seems sufficient to motivate implementation. For each dollar spent on quality preschool programs, we ultimately gain up to $17.60 in labor market productivity alone. This does not account for the decreased expenditures on special education, incarceration, and other social safety net programs. Quality preschool programing has been shown to increase high school graduation rates and home ownership rates. If we as a society, are truly driven to promote human flourishing, equal opportunity for all, and a level playing field, then we must, I argue, take action with regard to providing universal access to quality preschool programs particularly for poor children. What I propose is not a hand-out, but a fiscally responsible hand-up that benefits each and every one of us.
Do you believe that economic success is just a matter of having a good work ethic and strong personal motivation? Most people do. But in reality this is a perfect example of the Fundamental Attribution Error and the Self Serving Bias.
Attribution Error occurs when we negatively judge the unfortunate circumstances of others as being a reflection of their character traits rather than as a result of environmental circumstances (e.g., growing up in poverty). What is even more interesting is that when we mess up, we tend to blame it on environmental factors rather than accepting personal responsibility. When we are successful however, we take credit for the outcome assigning credit to internal personal attributes and devaluing environmental contributors. This latter error is the Self Serving Bias.
This erroneous thinking is universal, automatic, and it is what drives a wedge between people on different points of the socio-economic spectrum. If you believe that poor people are impoverished simply because they are lazy free-loaders, you are likely a victim of this thinking error. The same is true if you believe that your success is completely of your own doing.
I have written numerous articles on the impact of poverty on early childhood development (i.e., The Effects of Low SES on Brain Development) and the bottom line is that economic deprivation weakens the social and neurobiological foundation of children in ways that have life-long implications. In this post I will summarize a review article by Knudsen, Heckman, Cameron, and Shonkoff entitiled: Economic, Neurobiological, and Behavioral Perspectives on Building America’s Future Workforce. This 2006 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides an excellent review of the research across many fields including developmental psychology, neuroscience, and economics. It highlights the core concepts that converge with regard to the fact that the quality of early childhood environment is a strong predictor of adult productivity. The authors point to the evidence that robustly supports the following notions:
Genes and environment play out in an interdependent manner. Knudsen et al., (2006) noted that “… the activation of neural circuits by experience also can cause dramatic changes in the genes that are expressed (“turned on”) in specific circuits (58-60). The protein products of these genes can have far reaching effects on the chemistry of neurons and, therefore, on their excitability and architecture.“ Adverse experiences can and do fundamentally alter one’s temperament and capacity to learn throughout life.
Essential cognitive skills are built in a hierarchical manner, whereby fundamental skills are laid down in early childhood and these foundational neural pathways serve as a basis upon which important higher level skills are built.
Cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional competencies are interdependent – all nascent in early childhood, when adverse environmental perturbations reek havoc on, and across, each of these fundamental skill sets.
There are crucial and time-sensitive windows of opportunity for building these fundamental competencies. Should one fail to develop these core skills during this crucial early developmental stage, it becomes increasingly unlikely that later remediation will approximate the potential one had, if those skills were developed on schedule. A cogent analogy here is learning a new language – it is far easier to learn a new language early in development when the language acquisition window is open, than it is later in life when this window is nearly closed.
“At the oldest ages tested (Perry, 40 yrs; Abecedarian, 21 yrs), individuals scored higher on achievement tests, reached higher levels of education, required less special education, earned higher wages, were more likely to own a home, and were less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated than individuals from the control groups.”
These findings converge with research on animal analogues investigating the neurodevelopmental impact of early stimulation versus deprivation across species. Knudsen et al., (2006) point out that:
There are indeed cross species negative neurodevelopmental consequences associated with adverse early developmental perturbations.
There clearly are time sensitive windows during which failure to develop crucial skills have life-long consequences. Neural plasticity decreases with age.
However, there are time sensitive windows of opportunity during which quality programs and therapies can reverse the consequences of adverse environmental circumstances (i.e., poverty, stress, violence).
Early learning clearly shapes the architecture of the brain. Appropriate early stimulation fosters neural development, while conversely, impoverished environments diminish adaptive neural stimulation and thus hinders neural development. Timing is everything it seems. Although we learn throughout our lifespan, our capacity to learn is built upon a foundation that can be strengthened or impaired by early environmental experiences. It is very difficult to make up for lost time later in life – much as it is difficult to build a stable building on an inadequate foundation. Stimulating environments during these crucial early neurodevelopment periods are far more efficient than remediation after the fact. These realities provide further justification for universally available evidence based early preschool services for children at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Proactive stimulation fosters stronger and more productive citizens – yet, we continue to respond in a reactive manner with remedial and/or punitive measures that miss the mark. The necessary proactive response is clear.
Several times over the last couple weeks I have been asked about brainwaves and other measures of the brain. For example, what differentiates a CAT Scan from an EEG, MRI, fMRI, and a PET Scan? And what about those beta, alpha, theta, and delta brain waves? What are they all about? What do these technologies really measure and what can we infer from them?
Before I address these questions, it is important to understand that the brain is an incredibly complicated electrochemical organ composed of an estimated 100 billion neurons (brain cells) interconnected by 100 trillion synapses. Brain activity occurs through a complex interplay of electrical activity within each cell and chemical activity across the synapses (minute gaps between neurons). Once a neuron fires it sends an electrical signal the length of the cell where it releases specific chemicals (called neurotransmitters) into the gap between itself and neighboring neurons. Those neurotransmitters may traverse the gap and attach to neighboring cells’ dendrites (nerve firing receptors), and perhaps trigger a continuation of the signal (via electrical responding) within those adjacent neurons. Every thought we have, every sight we see, everything we feel, taste, and smell occurs through this chain of events.
Obviously, the complexity of this series of events are beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to understand this basic and fundamental fact before one can hope to differentiate the various brain measures. It is also important to understand that there are a number of biological systems that service this neuronal network (e.g., glial cells, veins, and arteries). The glial cells in particular are referred to as “housekeeping” cells protecting, supporting, providing nutrition for, and facilitating communication among the neurons. These cells are the most abundant cells in the brain, but they are not considered to be neurons (MedicineNet, 2004).
At a basic level, brain activity can be measured by the apparent electrical conductivity going on among the neurons. This is what an Electroencephalography (EEG) measures. A series of electrodes are placed on the scalp where they detect and measure this electrical activity. EEGs have been used for years for diagnostic purposes primarily for epilepsy. Formerly, this technique had been used for measuring the impact of strokes and tumors. This function has been replaced by more sophisticated technologies that image the brain (CAT and MRI Scans).
EEGs are relatively inexpensive but valid measures of brain activity. This technology was used in the research I discussed in my last post (The Effect of Low SES on Brain Development), but they can also detect brain death. When someone refers to brain waves, they are referencing the brain activity measured via EEG. Various states of arousal are associated with specific patterns of electrical activity that when measured denote specific wave patters. Those wave patterns are widely known as Beta, Alpha, Theta, and Delta as shown in the image on the right along with the associated arousal states.
These universal brain wave states reflect neuronal activity levels associated with cognitive and bodily activity levels. If you are sleeping yet not dreaming, your brain’s activity level is likely to be represented by high amplitude low frequency Delta waves. At the other extreme, an awake and alert state is likely to be indicated by high frequency Beta waves. These states are not mutually exclusive and any may coexist at any time based on arousal levels.
Much pseudoscience focuses on selling strategies to accomplish “preferred” brain wave states, with little actual data to substantiate claims. Proceed with caution in this realm.
CAT Scan of Brain
Whereas the output of an EEG is a series of wavy lines, newer technologies actually allow us to image the brain itself or at least proxies of activity. A computerized axial tomography scan, a CAT or CT scan, is an x-ray procedure that combines multiple x-ray images with the aid of a computer to generate cross-sectional views of the internal organs and structures of the body. The image at right is a CAT Scan from Cedars-Sinai.
“Imagine the body as a loaf of bread and you are looking at one end of the loaf. As you remove each slice of bread, you can see the entire surface of that slice from the crust to the center. The body is seen on CT scan slices in a similar fashion from the skin to the central part of the body being examined. When these levels are further “added” together, a three-dimensional picture of an organ or abnormal body structure can be obtained” (MedicineNet.com, 2011).
MRI Image of Brain
Although CT technology is helpful to look at the structure of the brain and to identify pathologies, it is just a snap shot in time, giving no information about the processes going on within the structure itself. This is also the case for MRI Scans. Non-invasive Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) uses powerful magnets, radio frequency pulses, and a computer to produce very detailed pictures of organs, soft tissues, bone and virtually all other internal body structures without ionizing radiation (x-rays). MRIs provide higher resolution images than x-ray, ultrasound or CAT scans (RadiologyInfo.org).
But, if you want to know what is going on in the recesses of the brain you need a functional MRI (fMRI) or a PET scan. The fMRI uses the same technology as an MRI but rather than creating a structural image of the tissue itself, the fMRI looks at blood flow in the brain in order to identify, in real-time, specific locations of brain activity associated with thoughts, external stimuli, or activity. Changes in blood flow captured on a computer, help scientists understand how the brain works. The image above and to the right are fMRI scans showing brain activity in empathy-generating centers of the limbic system in normal individuals (left) and in psychopathic individuals (right) when they are exposed to violent images (Credit: Department of Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Heidelberg).
Composite fMRI Images
The image on the left shows areas of brain activity associated with being in passionate love (“Graphic Science: Your Brain in Love” in the February 2011 issue of Scientific American. Graphic by James W. Lewis, West Virginia University).
The current state of the art is this fMRI technology because of its superior resolution relative to a PET Scan that formerly comprised the only imaging technology that also indicated brain activity.
PET Scans or Positron Emission Tomography, is a metabolic imaging tool that is based on molecular biology. PET scan images detail biochemical changes in the body’s tissues, as it traces the body’s metabolic activity. Unlike the newer fMRI technology, PET scans necessitate injections of radioactive material into the body. Since brain activity involves an increase in blood flow, more blood and radioactive material is reflected in the subsequent images. The differences between PET and fMRI scans can be seen by comparing the PET scan image below and the fMRI images above. The PET Scan below was published by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. They discovered a key mechanism in the brains of people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) dementia. The study is the first to document decreases in the neurotransmitter dopamine in those with the condition, and may lead to new, more effective therapies (see HIV Dementia Mechanism Discovered).
This article spans the current brain measuring, imaging, and mapping technologies. Each approach has specific applications and unique advantages and disadvantages. The major advantages of MRI technology include the resolution of its images and the fact that use does not involve x-rays or any radioactive dyes or contrasting agents. However, because MRI machines use 12 to 35 ton magnets, individuals with ferrous metal implants are necessarily excluded from MRI scans for obvious reasons. There are other devices out there with variations on the MRI theme, each serving very unique imaging niches. I won’t go into those here.
An MRI costs on average between $1100 and $2700 (depending on geographical location, facility, and body area imaged), while a CAT Scan costs between $700 and $3000. An fMRI costs up to $2000 per imaging hour. PET scans run between $3000 to $7000. These costs do explain in part why wide-spread use of these imaging technologies are not common in large research projects. They also obviously contribute to the high costs of medical care. But, oh what wonders they offer in our efforts to understand the most complicated thing known to humankind.
It has long been known that children from homes at the lower end of the Socioeconomic spectrum do more poorly on intelligence and achievement tests than well off children. These less fortunate children also tend to do more poorly in school, have increased learning and behavioral disorders, and increased drop out rates. A great deal of effort has been directed toward understanding these differences, and mounting evidence points squarely at the effects of environmental deprivation. You might think that this conclusion is a “no brainer,” but, for some time, it has not been so clear. Some researchers have found evidence to implicate genetic factors for these differences. Over the last several years more conclusive evidence is pointing at environmental rather than genetic determinates.
Last week I discussed some ground breaking evidence from behavioral geneticists that asserted that environmental determinates play a crucial role in mental ability scores, but only for Low Socioeconomic Status (LSES) children. I noted that “For [LSES] children, the environment remains the key variable associated with differences in mental ability. Perhaps as much of 70% of the variance in mental ability is attributable to the shared home environment. While for [High SES (HSES)] children, genes become the predominant variable associated with the differences in mental ability scores. Environment still plays a role but much less so. Smart parents have smart kids unhampered by environmental constraints.”
Questions have persisted for quite some time as to what factors influence these differences. Research to date has implicated variables like parental attention, number of words spoken in the home, access to books, and familial stressors; however, the actual physiological or anatomical mechanisms (e.g., neurocognitive processes) that result in these discrepancies have remained elusive. You see, many factors have been found to correlate with the underachievement of LSES children, but not until a study by UC Berkley Neuroscientists, did we have conclusive direct evidence of how these factors may actually produce neurological differences that play out in these cognitive, achievement, and behavioral gaps.
Scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and School of Public Health report in a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that typically developing nine- and ten-year-olds who only differ in terms of SES, have detectable differences in prefrontal cortext responsiveness. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is known to be involved in problem solving and creativity.
In a press release about this study it was noted (Sanders, 2008):
Children of high SES show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (M. Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)
Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph (EEG) – basically, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain – like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors.
“Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult,” said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. “We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.”
Previous studies have shown a possible link between frontal lobe function and behavioral differences in children from low and high socioeconomic levels, but according to cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, first author of the new paper, “those studies were only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors that tend to be associated with low socioeconomic status. Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity.”
Co-author W. Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health who currently is the British Columbia Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is not surprised by the results. “We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating. But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive.”
These scientists suspect that “stressful environments” and “cognitive impoverishment” are responsible because in previous research on animals, these very factors have been shown to affect development of the prefrontal cortex. “UC Berkeley’s Marian Diamond, professor of integrative biology, showed nearly 20 years ago in rats that enrichment thickens the cerebral cortex as it improves test performance. And as Boyce noted, previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.”
These factors lead to important differences in brain functioning. As the lead author noted in an interview: “Those from low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.” (Sanders, 2008)
One question that arose in my mind as I reviewed this paper was whether something other than SES was responsible for this effect. I asked Dr. Robert Knight this question:
“The HSES and LSES kids differed in both prefrontal cortex response level and standard scores on intelligence test subtests [Intelligence data was also collected as part of the study. On multiple incidences LSES children obtained significantly lower subtest scores than HSES children.] Is it not possible that genetic traits (i.e., lower IQ) might be responsible for the lower prefrontal cortex activity level, not SES?“
Dr. Knight referred this question to the led author, Dr. Mark Kishiyama, who responded in personal correspondence:
“This study was designed to reveal the effects of poverty on brain function rather than to identify specific causes. While we cannot rule out the potential effects of genetic factors, on the basis of prior evidence, we proposed that the primary influences were environmental (e.g., stress and a cognitively impoverished environment). There is considerable evidence in both human and animal studies indicating that stress and environmental factors can contribute to disruptions in brain development. In addition, we believe that these effects can be reversed with early childhood interventions (see also Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).“
The implications of these findings are profoundly important and grim. If we accept these results and do nothing, then we all are complicit in perpetuating the cycle of poverty. We know that there are important differences in how LSES and HSES children are raised. Education, training, and intervention programs must focus on narrowing this gap. I contend that parent education programs like Baby College administered by the Harlem Children’s Zone must must be closely examined and if shown to be effective, replicated on a broad scale. I also contend that programs like Early Head Start and Head Start should focus their efforts on proven strategies that close these gaps. This is essential in order to build a just society whereby we all get a more fair shot at rising up and contributing fully to society.
Kishiyama, M. M., Boyce, W. T., Jimenez, A. M., Perry, L. M., and Knight, R. T. (2009). Socioeconomic Disparities Affect Prefrontal Function in Children. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 21:6, 1106-1115.
Tucker-Drob, E. M., Rhemtulla, M., Harden, K. P., Turkheimer, E., & Fask, D. (2011). Emergence of a Gene × Socioeconomic Status Interaction on Infant Mental Ability Between 10 Months and 2 Years. Psychological Science. 22(1) 125–133.
As I think back about my childhood there are a few dark memories that elicit some shame. The specifics of these rare events are vague in my mind, but I do recall my reaction and the subsequent feelings aroused deep within. Part of my shame stemmed from the certainty that I alone was so inclined to find humor in the misfortune of others. Come to find out, later in life, the Germans have a very specific word for my inappropriate reactions. The word, Schadenfreude, has no English equivalent, but imagine my relief to learn that my strong compulsion to laugh when a playmate injured himself was not some deep seated character flaw. I like to consider myself a sensitive and caring guy; generally, pretty empathetic. That was true, I am told, even when I was a child. But, on occasion, I really struggled with a deep and overpowering reflexive drive to heartily laugh when one particular friend of mine managed to hurt himself. When anybody else got hurt I tended to writhe with a sick feeling in my knees. Not so with this guy. He was older than I and although I loved spending time with him, I also experienced a fair amount of envy in his presence. I admired him for his confidence, competence, and he seemed to possess all the wondrous possessions of my dreams. As I’ve come to learn more about schadenfreude, I now realize that this envy probably played out in the expression of this emotion.
So what is this schadenfreude response and where does it come from? First, what is it? The word itself is derived from schaden, which in German means adversity or harm and freude, which means joy. Literally the term means deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune. Although people rarely acknowledge this feeling, it is very common and probably as old as humankind. It drives the infatuation people have with celebrities and politicians particularly when it comes to their foibles and faux pas. It also drives the success of slap stick comedy and the humor derived from the ubiquitous home videos of men being unexpectedly struck in the private parts. Who has not seen and laughed at least one of these videos? This response transcends all of human kind and it certainly keeps the tabloids and paparazzi in business.
Schadenfreude has of late become an area of scientific inquiry. Little by little we are acquiring more and more information about this phenomena. Studies of empathy using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) mapped out, in real time, active centers of the brain as individuals were exposed to another person’s pain. The fMRI detected activity in the frontoinsular and anterior cingulate cortices. These areas of the brain are associated with pain responses and the subsequent emotions. Empathy is likely a brain-based response whereby the witness re-lives the negative emotions of pain without actually enduring the physical stimuli. A surprising result of this research was that when some subjects (men in particular), witnessed unfortunate things happening to bad people, the left nucleus accumbens (NAcc) tended to light up. The NAcc is a collection of neurons within the striatum, which is thought to be a major reward center in the brain. The striatum play important roles in our experiences of pleasure, laughter, reward, and even addiction and aggression.
We have learned even more from the work of neuroscientist Hidehiko Takahashi and his colleagues at Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences. They asked 19 adult volunteers to read scenarios describing the successes and misfortunes of fictional characters and to report their feelings about these people as they were undergoing an fMRI. They discovered that reports of envy were associated with activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (the same pain center noted above). Envy, it seems, like empathy, is an unpleasant experience, processed in the same way as is physical pain. On the other hand, the feelings of pleasure associated with another’s misfortune were associated with increased activity in the striatum (pleasure center). In contrast to empathy and envy, schadenfreude actually feels good. Another person’s misfortune can trigger the same positive feelings as those associated with eating a great meal, hearing a really funny joke, or watching your team win the big game.
So, it seems, we are hard wired to feel schadenfreude. There must have been some evolutionary advantage conferred to those who experienced this emotion. Or perhaps, it may simply be secondary to some other traits that did offer selective advantages. Emily Anthes (2010) in an article in Scientific American: MIND noted “from an evolutionary standpoint, schadenfreude makes a lot of sense. The world is a competitive place, and an individual benefits, for instance, when a sexual competitor breaks a leg or a hunting rival falls ill.” There is a certain degree of social relativism at work here. Another’s misfortune stands you in better relative position for limited resources and thus survival. That’s the evolutionary psychology angle. Although the survival piece is certainly less relevant today, sexual selection and economic competition still are.
As it turns out, one is more likely to experience schadenfreude when one envies or harbors disdain for the victim of misfortune. And lack of personal familiarity with the victim also seems to be at play. Familiarity is most likely to elicit the empathy response. So, I guess there is no need for me to feel shame for this particular dirty little secret.
Speaking of dirty little secrets, I only felt a modicum of shame about the pleasure I experienced upon learning of the downfalls of Senator Larry Craig and Pastor Ted Haggerd. These self-righteous men publicly and vociferously professed the immorality of homosexuality while privately partaking in same gender sexual activity. I’m guessing that hypocrisy like true evil holds a special schadenfreude spot in our NAcc.
For a humorous spin on this concept listen to the song on this subject from the racy Broadway play called Avenue Q.
Why do you sometimes choose that scrumptious chocolate desert even when you are full? Why is it that you are sometimes drawn in by the lure of the couch and TV when you should be exercising or at least reading a good book? And why do you lose your patience when you are hungry or tired? Do these situations have anything to do with a weak will?
What is willpower anyways? Perhaps it is your ability to heed the advice proffered by that virtuous and angelic voice in your head as you silence the hedonistic diabolical voice that goads you toward the pleasures of sloth or sin. Or perhaps, as Sigmund Freud once contended, it is your ego strength that enables you to forgo the emotionally and impulsively driven urges of the id. These images resonate so well with us because it often feels as though there is a tug-of-war going on inside our heads as we consider difficult or sometimes even routine choices. Often, reason prevails, and other times it does not. What is really at play here? Is it truly willpower? Is it really a matter of strength or even of choice?
As it turns out, like all issues of the human mind, it is complicated. Studies within the disciplines of psychology and neuroscience are offering increased clarity regarding this very issue. It is important to understand however, that the human brain is composed of a number of modules, each of which are striving to guide your choices. There really isn’t a top down hierarchy inside your brain with a chief executive who is pulling and pushing the levers that control your behavior. Instead, at various times, different modules assert greater amounts of control than others, and thus, the choices we make, do likewise vary in terms of quality over time. As a result of advances in technology and understanding, we are becoming increasingly aware of the key variables associated with this variation.
At a very basic level we know of two major (angelic v. diabolical) driving forces that guide our decisions. Within and across these forces there are multiple modules emitting neurotransmitters that ultimately influence the choices that we make. Broadly, the two forces are reason and emotion. As I discussed in previous posts, What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule and Retail Mind Manipulation, there is not actually a true competitive dichotomy between these two forces; instead, there appears to be a collaborative interplay among them. Regardless of their collaborative nature, we do experience a dichotomy of sorts when we choose the cheeseburger and fries over the salad, the chocolate cake over the fruit salad, or abstinence over indulgence.
Now that I have clouded the picture a bit, lets look at one study that may help reintroduce some of that clarity that I mentioned.
At Stanford University, Professor Baba Shiv, under the ruse of a study on memory, solicited several dozen undergraduate students. He randomly assigned the students to two groups. For conveniences sake, I will label the groups the 2 Digit Group and the 7 Digit Group. The students in the 2 Digit Group were given a two digit number (e.g., 17) to memorize whereas those in the 7 Digit Group where tasked with a seven digit number (e.g., 2583961). In Room-A, each individual, one subject at a time, was given a number to memorize. Once provide with the number they were given as much time as they needed to commit the number to memory. They were also told that once they had memorized the number that they were to go to Room-B, down the hall, where their ability to recall the number would be tested. As each individual student made the transition from the first room to the testing room, they were intercepted by a researcher offering them a gratuity for their participation. The offer was unannounced and provided prior to entering the testing room (Room-B). The offer included either a large slice of chocolate cake or a bowl or fruit salad.
One would expect, given the random nature of group assignment, that those in the 2 Digit group would select the cake or fruit salad in the same proportions as those in the 7 Digit group. As it turned out, there was a striking difference between the groups. Those in the 2 Digit Group selected the healthy fruit salad 67% of the time. On the other hand, those in the 7 Digit Group selected the scrumptious, but not so healthy, cake 59% of the time. The only difference between the groups was the five digit discrepancy in the memorization task. How could this seemingly small difference between the groups possibly explain why those saddled with the easier task would make a “good” rational choice 67% of the time while those with a more challenging task made the same healthy choice only 41% of the time?
The answer likely lies in the reality that memorizing a seven digit number is actually more taxing than you might think. In 1956, Psychologist George Miller published a classic paper entitled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” whereby he provided evidence that the limit of short term memory for most people is in fact seven items. This is why phone numbers and license plates are typically seven digits in length. Strings of letters or numbers that are not logically grouped in some other way, when approaching seven items in length, tend to max out one’s rational processing ability. With seven digits, one is likely to have to recite the sequence over and over in order to keep it in short term memory. It appears that those in the 7 Digit Group relative to the 2 Digit Group had reached the limits of their rational capacity and were less likely to employ good reason-based decision making with regard to the sweets. Those in the 2 Digit Group were not so preoccupied and were likely employing a more rationally based decision making apparatus. They made the healthy choice simply because they had the mental capacity to weigh the pros and cons of the options.
An overtaxed brain is likely to fall back on emotional, non-rational mechanisms to make choices and the outcomes are not always good. When you are cognitively stressed – actively engaged in problem solving – you are less likely to make sound, reason-based decisions regarding tangential or unrelated issues. That is one of the reasons why we “fall off the wagon” when we are overwhelmed.
And if you compound cognitive preoccupation with fatigue and hunger – then you may have more problems. You know those times at the end of the day when you are tired, hungry, and really irritable? Your muscles are not the only tissues that fatigue when they are not well nourished. Your brain is a major consumer of nutritional resources – and it, particularly the reasoning portion of your brain, many scientists believe, does not tolerate glucose deficits. Your grumpiness may be the result of the diminished capacity of your brain to employ reason in order to work out and cope with the little annoyances that you typically shrug off.
So, it seems, willpower is one’s ability to use the reasoning portion of your brain to make sound healthy decisions. Studies like the one above, suggest that willpower is not a static force. We must accept the limits of our willpower and realize that this source of control is in a near constant state of fluctuation – depending on one’s state of cognitive preoccupation, fatigue and perhaps blood glucose levels. It is very important that you know your limits and understand the dynamic nature of your rational capacity – and if you do, you may proactively avoid temptation and thus stay in better control of your choices. Relying on your willpower alone does not provide you with dependable safety net. Be careful to not set yourself up for failure.
There are many well intentioned folks out there who believe that childhood vaccinations cause Autism. Last week I covered the origins of this belief system as well as its subsequent debunking in Vaccines and Autism. Despite the conclusive data that clearly establishes no causal link between vaccines and Autism, the belief lives on. Why is this? Why do smart people fall prey to such illusions? Chabris and Simons contend in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, that we fall prey to such myths because of the Illusion of Cause. Michael Shermer (2000), in his book, How We Believe, eloquently describes our brains as a Belief Engine. Underlying this apt metaphor is the notion that “Humans evolved to be skilled pattern seeking creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants.” (Shermer, p. 38). Chabris and Simons note that this refined ability “serves us well, enabling us to draw conclusions in seconds (or milliseconds) that would take minutes or hours if we had to rely on laborious logical calculations.” (p. 154). However, it is important to understand that we are all prone to drawing erroneous connections between stimuli in the environment and notable outcomes. Shermer further contends that “The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not.”
From an evolutionary perspective, we have thrived in part, as a result of our tendency to infer cause or agency regardless of the reality of threat. For example, those who assumed that rustling in the bushes was a tiger (when it was just wind) were more likely to take precautions and thus less likely, in general, to succumb to predation. Those who were inclined to ignore such stimuli were more likely to later get eaten when in fact the rustling was a hungry predator. Clearly from a survival perspective, it is best to infer agency and run away rather than become lunch meat. The problem that Shermer refers to regarding this system is that we are subsequently inclined toward mystical and superstitious beliefs: giving agency to unworthy stimuli or drawing causal connections that do not exist. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist, in his blog post entitled Hyperactive Agency Detection notes that humans vary in the degree to which they assign agency. Some of us have Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices (HADD) and as such, are more prone to superstitious thinking, conspiratorial thinking, and more mystical thinking. It is important to understand as Shermer (2000) makes clear:
“The Belief Engine is real. It is normal. It is in all of us. Stuart Vyse [a research psychologist] shows for example, that superstition is not a form of psychopathology or abnormal behavior; it is not limited to traditional cultures; it is not restricted to race, religion, or nationality; nor is it only a product of people of low intelligence or lacking education. …all humans possess it because it is part of our nature, built into our neuronal mainframe.” (p. 47).
We all are inclined to detect patterns where there are none. Shermer refers to this tendency as patternicity. It is also called pareidolia. I’ve previously discussed this innate tendency noting that “Our brains do not tolerate vague or obscure stimuli very well. We have an innate tendency to perceive clear and distinct images within such extemporaneous stimuli.” It is precisely what leads us to see familiar and improbable shapes in puffy cumulus clouds or the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. Although this tendency can be fun, it can also lead to faulty and sometimes dangerous conclusions. And what is even worse is that when we hold a belief, we are even more prone to perceive patterns that are consistent with or confirm that belief. We are all prone to Confirmation Bias – an inclination to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.
Patternicity and confirmation bias alone are not the only factors that contribute to the illusion of cause. There are at least two other equally salient intuitive inclinations that lead us astray. First, we tend to infer causation based on correlation. And second, the appeal of chronology, or the coincidence of timing, also leads us toward drawing such causal connections (Chabris & Simons, 2010).
A fundamental rule in science and statistics is that correlation does not infer causation. Just because two events occur in close temporal proximity, does not mean that one leads to the other. Chabris and Simons note that this rule is in place because our brains automatically – intuitively – draw causal associations, without any rational thought. We know that causation leads to correlation – but it is erroneous to assume that the opposite is true. Just because A and B occur together does not mean A causes B or vice-versa. There may be a third factor, C, that is responsible for both A and B. Chabris and Simons use ice cream consumption and drownings as an example. There is a sizable positive correlation between these two variables (as ice cream consumption goes up so do the incidences of drowning), but it would be silly to assume that ice cream consumption causes drowning, or that increases in the number of drownings causes increases in ice cream consumption. Obviously, a third factor, summer heat, leads to both more ice cream consumption and more swimming. With more swimming behavior there are more incidents of drowning.
Likewise, with vaccines and Autism, although there may be a correlation between the two (increases in the number of children vaccinated and increases in the number of Autism diagnoses), it is incidental, simply a coincidental relationship. But given our proclivity to draw inferences based on correlation, it is easy to see why people would be mislead by this relationship.
Add to this the chronology of the provision of the MMR vaccine (recommended between 12 and 18 months), and the typical time at which the most prevalent symptoms of Autism become evident (18-24 months), people are bound to infer causation. Given the fact that millions of children are vaccinated each year, there are bound to be examples of tight chronology.
So what is at work here are hyperactive agency detection (or overzealous patternicity), an inherent disposition to infer causality from correlation, and a propensity to “interpret events that happened earlier as the causes of events that happened or appeared to happen later” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 184). Additionally, you have a doctor like Andrew Wakefield misrepresenting data in such a way to solidify plausibility and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy using powerful anecdotes to convince others of the perceived link. And anecdotes are powerful indeed. “..[W]e naturally generalize from one example to the population as a whole, and our memories for such inferences are inherently sticky. Individual examples lodge in our minds, but statistics and averages do not. And it makes sense that anecdotes are compelling to us. Our brains evolved under conditions in which the only evidence available to us was what we experienced ourselves and what we heard from trusted others. Our ancestors lacked access to huge data sets, statistics, and experimental methods. By necessity, we learned from specific examples…” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp. 177-178). When an emotional mother (Jenny McCarthy) is given a very popular stage (The Oprah Winfrey Show) and tells a compelling story, people buy it – intuitively – regardless of the veracity of the story. And when we empathize with others, particularly those in pain, we tend to become even less critical of the message conveyed (Chabris & Simons, 2010). These authors add that “Even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and statistics culled from studies of hundreds of thousands of people, that one personalized case carries undue influence” (p.178).
Although the efficacy of science is unquestionable, in terms of answering questions like the veracity of the relationship between vaccines and Autism, it appears that many people are incapable of accepting the reality of scientific inquiry (Chabris & Simons, 2010). Acceptance necessitates the arduous application of reason and the rejection of the influences rendered by the intuitive portion of our brain. This is harder than one might think. Again, it comes down to evolution. Although the ability to infer cause is a relatively recent development, we hominids are actually pretty good at it. And perhaps, in cases such as this one, we are too proficient for our own good (Chabris & Simons, 2010).