Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Seed - A New State of Mind

A fascinating article from Seed Magazine on the dopamine system in the body and its relationship to complex social phenomena. This is geek stuff, but it's awesome.

This is an incredibly interesting article, and here is a quote from later in the paper:
From the perspective of the brain, an abstraction can be just as rewarding as the tone that predicts the reward. Evolution essentially bootstrapped our penchant for intellectual concepts to the same reward circuits that govern our animal appetites. “The guy who’s on hunger strike for some political cause is still relying on his midbrain dopamine neurons, just like a monkey getting a treat,” Montague says. “His brain simply values the cause more than it values dinner.” According to Montague, the reason abstract thoughts can be so rewarding, is that the brain relies on a common neural currency for evaluating alternatives. “It’s clear that you need some way to compare your options, even if your options come from very different categories,” he says. By representing everything in terms of neuron firing rates, the human brain is able to choose the abstract thought over the visceral reward, as long as the abstraction excites our cells more than apple juice. That’s what makes ideas so powerful: No matter how esoteric or ethereal they get, they are ultimately fed back into the same system that makes us want sex and sugar.
This could be the abstract for the article in that it offers a brief summary of what the scientists being profiled are working on.

Here is the beginning of the article.

New research is linking dopamine to complex social phenomena and changing neuroscience in the process.

Read Montague is getting frustrated. He’s trying to show me his newest brain scanner, a gleaming white fMRI machine that looks like a gargantuan tanning bed. The door, however, can be unlocked only by a fingerprint scan, which isn’t recognizing Montague’s fingers. Again and again, he inserts his palm under the infrared light, only to get the same beep of rejection. Montague is clearly growing frustrated — “ I can’t get into my own scanning room!” he yells, at no one in particular — but he also appreciates the irony. A pioneer of brain imaging, he oversees one of the premier fMRI setups in the world, and yet he can’t even scan his own hand. “I can image the mind,” he says. “But apparently my thumb is beyond the limits of science.”

Montague is director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at Baylor College of Medicine in downtown Houston. His lab recently moved into a sprawling, purpose-built space, complete with plush carpets, fancy ergonomic chairs, matte earth-toned paint and rows of oversize computer monitors. (There are still some technical kinks being worked out, hence the issue with the hand scanner.) If it weren’t for the framed sagittal brain images, the place could pass for a well-funded Silicon Valley startup.

The centerpiece of the lab, however, isn’t visible. Montague has access to five state-of-the-art fMRI machines, which occupy the perimeter of the room. Each of the scanners is hidden behind a thick concrete wall, but when the scanners are in use — and they almost always are — the entire lab seems to quiver with a high-pitched buzz. Montague, though, doesn’t seem to mind. “It’s not the prettiest sound,” he admits. “But it’s the sound of data.”

Montague, who is uncommonly handsome, with a strong jaw and a Hollywood grin, first got interested in the brain while working in the neuroscience lab of Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman as a post-doc. “I was never your standard neuroscientist,” he says. “I spent a lot of time thinking about how the brain should work, if I had designed it.” For Montague the cortex was a perfect system to model, since its incomprehensible complexity meant that it depended on some deep, underlying order. “You can’t have all these cells interacting with each other unless there’s some logic to the interaction,” he says. “It just looked like noise, though — no one could crack the code.” That’s what Montague wanted to do.

The human brain, however, is an incredibly well-encrypted machine. For starters it’s hard to even know what the code is: Our cells express themselves in so many different ways. There’s the language of chemistry, with brain activity measured in squirts of neurotransmitter and kinase enzymes. And then there’s the electrical conversation of the cortex, so that each neuron acts like a biological transistor, emitting a binary code of action potentials. Even a silent cell is conveying some sort of information — the absence of activity is itself a form of activity.

Montague realized that if he was going to solve the ciphers of the mind, he would need a cryptographic key, a “cheat sheet” that showed him a small part of the overall solution. Only then would he be able to connect the chemistry to the electricity, or understand how the signals of neurons represented the world, or how some spasm of cells caused human nature. “There are so many different ways to describe what the brain does,” Montague says. “You can talk about what a particular cell is doing, or look at brain regions with fMRI, or observe behavior. But how do these things connect? Because you know they are connected; you just don’t know how.”

That’s when Montague discovered the powers of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. His research on the singular chemical has drawn tantalizing connections between the peculiar habits of our neurons and the peculiar habits of real people, so that the various levels of psychological description — the macro and the micro, the behavioral and the cellular — no longer seem so distinct. What began as an investigation into a single neurotransmitter has morphed into an exploration of the social brain: Montague has pioneered research that allows him to link the obscure details of the cortex to all sorts of important phenomena, from stock market bubbles to cigarette addiction to the development of trust. “We are profoundly social animals,” he says. “You can’t really understand the brain until you understand how these social behaviors happen, or what happens when they go haywire.”

And yet even as Montague attempts to answer these incredibly complex questions, his work remains rooted in the molecular details of dopamine. No matter what he’s talking about — and he likes to opine on everything from romantic love to the neural correlates of the Coca-Cola logo — his sentences are sprinkled with the jargon of a neural cryptographer. The brain remains a black box, an encrypted mystery, but the transactions of dopamine are proving to be the Rosetta Stone, the missing link that just might allow the code to be broken.

Read the whole article.

The cool thing in this research, or one thing among many, is this: "the various levels of psychological description — the macro and the micro, the behavioral and the cellular — no longer seem so distinct."

The more research we do on the brain, the more we will discover that the interior and exterior, the individual and the collective, are so inextricably linked that we will soon be forced to talk about holons, rather than individuals or groups. As it should be.

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