Greed is Counter Productive, but Feels Good

The brain acts as a complex choreography of cooperating physiological structures and process systems. Many distinct brain systems work together to solve complex problems. Our goal-oriented behavior involves at least two systems. Another network manages cognitive reserve. There is the distinction between left and right brain processing as well as the interactions between emotional and cognitive systems and structures. Surprise and attraction/aversion involve cooperating networks. And it all works together seamlessly for the most part.

Sometimes working seamlessly doesn’t mean working for our best interests. We can distinguish between our reflective (thinking) and reflexive (emotion and reward-seeking) brains. The reflective brain “thinks.” The reflexive brain “reacts.” One continuing aspect of coaching involves managing the reactions of our reflexive brain so that it networks well with its reflective side in ways that support our best interests. This is “coaching Ted” – not always an easy task.

One reason is that some actions and the thinking behind them just plain feel good – even when they prove detrimental to us and our reflective selves know it. A recent example is found in David Zweig’s book on investing, Your Money & your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics can make you Rich. Zweig finds that “Making money feels good, all right; it just doesn’t feel as good as expecting to make money. In a cruel irony that has enormous implications for financial behavior, your investing brain comes equipped with a biological mechanism that is more aroused when you anticipate a profit than when you actually get one.” Which sets up a physiological basis for greed – the behavior feels better than the result which loops to feed more of the behavior.Overcoming such behavior (and coaching to do so) involves saying “no” in a manner that proves stronger than the good feeling. There are many productive strategies for doing so, ranging from the personal accountability of partners and self-help groups to alternative rewards. At their heart they involve bringing reflexive behaviors under the control of our cognitive selves. And that’s easier said than done.

The Brain and Surprise

Hate surprises or love them?  Our brains handle surprises and attraction and aversion (valence in techno speak) in different ways.  The amygdala processes emotional responses and a new study indicates that two distinctly differing sets of neurons within it respond to either reward or aversion.  And not only that, but that the expectation of reward or aversion also triggers these networks of neurons.  The speculation is that the intensity of reward and aversion effect is intensified by surprise and that neural circuitry is required to process both surprise and the degree of attraction or aversion that an individual feels towards specific events.

Link:  ScienceDaily

Consciousness and the Brain Stem

Suppose consciousness exists at a more fundamental level than the brain’s cortex. Swedish neuroscientist Bjorn Merker suggests that “primary consciousness,” which he regards as an ability to integrate sensations from the environment with one’s immediate goals and feelings in order to guide behavior, springs from the brain stem. “To be conscious is not necessarily to be self-conscious,” Merker says. “The tacit consensus concerning the cerebral cortex as the ‘organ of consciousness’ … may in fact be seriously in error.”

Merker bases his proposals on observations of cortically-deprived children with a condition known as hydranencephaly, the absence of most of the brain’s cortex. The children that he observed “recognized familiar adults, liked familiar settings, and preferred specific toys, tunes, or video programs. Although saddled with limited mobility, some kids took behavioral initiatives, such as learning to activate a toy by throwing a switch.”

He also built his theory on earlier work conducted by Canadian neurosurgeons Wilder Penfield and Herbert Jasper. Their work in removing large portions of cortex in the treatment of severe epilepsy helped isolate physiological bases for “absence epilepsy,” a sudden loss of consciousness, that indicated brain stem involvement in primary consciousness. Merket adds that animal research activity since that time confirms the brain stem’s involvement in primary consciousness.

He proposes that such a consciousness yields a two-dimensional view of the world with moving shapes. It also is able to respond emotionally in ways that are recognizably human, suggesting that the brain stem is more than a mere reptilian vestige. “The human brain stem is specifically human,” Merker says. “These children smile and laugh in the specifically human manner, which is different from that of our closest relatives among the apes.”

Link: Consciousness in the Raw

For more information: NINDS Hydranencephaly Information Page

One support group’s experiences and observations: Rays of Sunshine

The Liberal and Conservative Brain

The brain neurons of liberals and conservatives fire differently when confronted with tough choices, suggesting that some political differences may, at least in part, be hard-wired.

David Amodio, Assistant Professor of Psychology, New York University, is a self-described social neuroscientist. Using methodologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging in combination with behavioral measures he examines the interactions of the brain with its social environment.

Intrigued by previous studies showing strong links between political persuasion and certain personality traits as well as the fact that such affinities between political views and “cognitive style” can be heritable, Dr. Amodio brought together 43 test subjects.

Using electroencephalographs, which measure neuronal impulses, the researchers examined activity in a part of the brain — the anterior cingulate cortex — that is strongly linked with the self-regulatory process of conflict monitoring.

The match-up was unmistakable: respondents who had described themselves as liberals showed “significantly greater conflict-related neural activity” when the hypothetical situation called for an unscheduled break in routine.

Conservatives, however, were less flexible, refusing to deviate from old habits “despite signals that this … should be changed.”

As to implications, Dr. Amodio stated, “The neural mechanisms for conflict monitoring are formed early in childhood,” and are probably rooted in part in our genetic heritage. But even if genes may provide a blueprint for more liberal or conservative orientations, they are shaped substantially by one’s environment over the course of development.”

Which leaves the question of “nature or nurture” still unanswered – at least for the moment.

But it does provide interesting thought for coaching. As we consider our political views and actions we do well to remember that our first and most powerful responses tend to be emotion-based. And so we learn to factor in emotional bias. This study suggests that we factor in as well the idea that political leaning and cognitive style may have some degree of hard-wiring involved.

So what?

Since perceived threat, one of the fundamentals behind conflict-monitoring, drives certain predictable behavioral responses, we know in advance that to have any sort of constructive dialog across such divides we need to alleviate the threat. Issues aside, the threats for conservatives and liberals are processed differently according to this study.  Recognition of that fact can let us make allowances for differences in thinking styles rather than attributing differences to intent.  And that at least adds another tool for building an agreed-upon arena for dialog if nothing else.

Link: Homo politicus: brain function of liberals, conservatives differs

2 Brain Networks Control our Goal-Oriented Behaviors

Recent work by Bradley L. Schlaggar and Steven Peterson of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggests that two independent control centers manage our voluntary, goal-oriented behavior. One is flexible and rapidly adapts to changing feedback. The other can focus in on something and tune out distractions until the task is finished.


Scientists exploring the upper reaches of the brain’s command hierarchy were astonished to find not one but two brain networks in charge, represented by the differently-colored spheres on the brain image above. Starting with a group of several brain regions implicated in top-down control (the spheres on the brain), they used a new brain-scanning technique to identify which of those regions work with each other. When they graphed their results (bottom half), using shapes to represent different brain regions and connecting brain regions that work with each other with lines, they found the regions grouped together into two networks. The regions in each network talked to each other often but never talked to brain regions in the other network.

This is seen as an example of a class of systems known as complex adaptive systems, common both in nature and even other bodily systems such as temperature control.

Subsequent research now indicates that these two systems begin as one system in children and only differentiate into two independent systems as we mature. This suggests, among other things, why children are unable to resist impulse behaviors that hurt their long-term goals. The longer term network is “clamped” inside the network that rapidly adapts and is only able to fully express itself once it effectively separates out.


Brain’s voluntary chain-of-command ruled by not one but two captains

Brain’s control network splits in two as children approach adulthood

The Eyes have it

A bad pun indeed, but how do I know where I am? I wake up every morning and look around. I look down and see my arm – I see “me.” I have yet to wake up and find myself somewhere else in the room looking at my body lying on the bed. This fundamental question about the relationship between human consciousness and the physical body has long been the topic of discussion in philosophy, theology, psychology and the popular press, but has been rarely seen within controlled clinical settings with healthy subjects.

Dr. Henrik Ehrsson, University College London Institute of Neurology, devised a recent experimental method that allowed him to induce an out-of-body experience in healthy people under controlled conditions. By setting up separate video displays that feed live images of participants’ backs into each eye he provided the subjects a viewpoint in which they perceived that they were sitting behind their own bodies. Using two plastic rods to simultaneously touch points on both their real bodies and where the perceived bodies were located he was able to induce the test subjects to feel that they were indeed sitting behind their bodies and watching the action.

“This experiment suggests that the first-person visual perspective is critically important for the in-body experience. In other words, we feel that our self is located where the eyes are,” Ehrsson said.

The eyes’ perception “trumped” the actual feel of the plastic rod on the participant’s skin.

To try a simpler version of this yourself:

For a quicker, less powerful jaunt outside your bodily confines, try the double-mirror trick: Position two mirrors facing each other and then lean toward one so that two thirds of your face is reflected in it. Scratch your cheek and stare deep into the hall of mirrors you have created, past your original reflection, past the image of your back, and settle on the third reflection—your own face but slightly obscured. Within seconds, you won’t recognize that reflection as you, says neuroscientist Eric Altschuler of the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, who reported the phenomenon in the April issue of Perception.

Links: Scientific American