Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Emotional Brain: Rational Brain as Right Brain: _____ Brain (answer: "Left")

The serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters in my brain have got me thinking that I'm going to start attending more to the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. One of my favorite types of psychology research is that which investigates the effectiveness of psychology research. Recent research has started to investigate what happens when an author throws in arbitrary brain information when explaining behaviors. In this study, for example, subjects were given poorly reasoned faux scientific articles to evaluate, with or without random pictures of a brain scan. In effect, both groups read the same nonsense, but one group had a picture of a brain included in the nonsense. Those who saw the picture of the brain thought the nonsense more convincing than those who didn’t. In this study, rather than using brain pictures, the authors included arbitrary brain words (“Hey, look, dopamine!”) and found a similar result, concluding:
Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people's abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation...(N)euroscience information...irrelevant to the logic of (an) explanation...had a particularly striking effect on nonexperts' judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.
What the studies indicate is that completely irrelevant brain information - words or pictures - sways people to think that an argument about behavior is better than it actually is. Which brings me to this article: Now think again: making the right decision calls for the heart as well as the head:
I once bought a pair of shoes that didn’t fit. I blame my brain. I was a victim of a dopamine rush. That pesky neurotransmitter had been primed by previous shopping highs to flood my brain with the desire to take another hit...That’s what dopamine does. It rewards successful strategies and, as soon as it finds one, it looks for more. So here’s the problem: dopamine is rational — it finds things that work and tries to do them again. But that makes you take irrational decisions.
I like the article. The article is a review of the book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It does a good job highlighting research that indicates how we often make irrational decisions. But, even ignoring the basic "My stupid decisions aren't my fault" premise, I have to ask: What's with the arbitrary dopamine info? In the article, the author discusses several scientific studies, none of which involve dopamine. First, the author relates the story of Eliot, reported as a case study in Eliot Demasio’s excellent book Descartes’ Error. Eliot’s issue is not about dopamine activity, though, but is instead about structural damage to the brain. All of the other studies mentioned deal with the effects of a manipulation of the social environment on decision making – none deal with dopamine. So if none of the research in the article deals with dopamine, but the author name-drops the neurotransmitter like Eminem with Carson Daly (Carson Daly? Yeah, that’ll sustain your music career), I can only assume the author is utilizing the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. The interview below, with the author of the book discussed in the "dopamine" article, is an excellent example. Seriously, did he just say, "I can feel my rational brain, my prefrontal cortex, go into overdrive..."? I'm all for metacognition. But if "thinking about thinking" leads you to the conclusion that dopamine caused you to buy shoes, you might not be thinking that well about thinking. Posted at Reverse Sickology

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