“The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile,” asserted 18thÂ century French physiologist Pierre Cabanis. Last week, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies convened a conference of neuroscientists and philosophers to ponder how our brains secrete thoughts about ethics and morality. The first presenter was neuroeconomist Gregory Berns from Emory University whose work peers into brains to see in which creases of gray matter those values we hold sacred lodge. The study, “The Price of Your Soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values,” was just published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
Philosophers often frame arguments over the bases of ethics in terms of deontology (right v. wrong irrespective of outcomes) and utilitarianism (costs v. benefits of potential outcomes). Both utilitarians and deontologists would argue that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings. A utilitarian might tote up the costs of being caught in murder or the harms to a victim’s family, whereas a deontologist would assert it is moral duty to avoid killing the innocent. For most people, a utilitarian reckoning in this case seems cold and psychologically broken (e.g., the kind of calculation that a psychopath would make). The researchers define personal sacred values as those for which individuals resist trade-offs with other values, particularly economic or materialistic incentives.
It is this distinction that Berns probes using functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) to see in which parts of subjects’ brains their moral decision-making is localized. Such scans identify areas of the brain that are activated by measuring blood flow.
Without going into all the details, in the study subjects were asked to choose between various values; some hypothesized to be more deontological and others more utilitarian, e.g., you do/do not believe in God, and you do/do not prefer Coke to Pepsi. Once the baseline was established for each subject, they were given an opportunity to auction off their personal values for real money up to $100 per value sold. Once the auction was over, each subject was asked to sign a document contradicting his or her personal values. Those values that subjects refused to auction off were deemed “sacred.”
Berns and his colleagues found that values identified as sacred were processed in areas of the brain that are associated with semantic rule retrieval. Basically subjects were reading off moral rules; what another conference participant would later refer to as “moral platitudes.” In addition, when sacred values were contradicted by their opposites (e.g., to a believer asserting “You do not believe that God exists”), the researchers found arousal in the amygdala, which is associated with negative emotions.
Not surprisingly, with regard to the personal values that subjects auctioned off, the areas of the brain known to be associated with evaluating costs and benefits were activated. The researchers also suggest that when policymakers try to employ positive or negative incentives to encourage trade-offs in foreign or economic arenas they may instead arouse sacred values provoking a reactionary response in the people at whom the policies are targetted.
When Alan Turing was born 100 years ago, on June 23, 1912, a computer was not a thing–it was a person. Computers, most of whom were women, were hired to perform repetitive calculations for hours on end. The practice dated back to the 1750s, when Alexis-Claude ÂClairaut recruited two fellow astronomers to help him plot the orbit of Halley’s comet. ÂClairaut’s approach was to slice time into segments and, using Newton’s laws, calculate the changes to the comet’s position as it passed Jupiter and Saturn. The team worked for five months, repeating the process again and again as they slowly plotted the course of the celestial bodies.
Today we call this process dynamic simulation; Clairaut’s contemporaries called it an abomination. They desired a science of fundamental laws and beautiful equations, not tables and tables of numbers. Still, his team made a close prediction of the perihelion of Halley’s comet. Over the following century and a half, computational methods came to dominate astronomy and engineering.
By the time Turing entered King’s College in 1931, human computers had been employed for a wide variety of purposes–and often they were assisted by calculating machines. Punch cards were used to control looms and tabulate the results of the American census. Telephone calls were switched using numbers dialed on a ring and interpreted by series of 10-step relays. Cash registers were ubiquitous.
A “millionaire” was not just a very rich person–it was also a mechanical calculator that could multiply and divide with astonishing speed.
The life of today’s blogger sitting in the comfort of home with a coffee and an iPod full of music compares dramatically with the scribes of medieval history laboring from dawn in draughty cold cells on hard seats and with little comfort or sympathy. Here are some of their complaints:
Modern English is the first global decision language because it is the most widely spoken language across the world. The boardrooms of the world think in English. English is the premium language of decision-making in communications, science, information technology, business, seafaring, aviation, radio and diplomacy. English thinkers are the brains behind the global entertainment industry, gaming and the social networking phenomenon. The world wide web is dominated by English thinking.
By dissecting a cockroach … yes, live on stage … TED Fellow and neuroscientist Greg Gage shows how brains receive and deliver electric impulses — and how legs can respond. Before becoming a neuroscientist, Gage worked as an electrical engineer making touchscreens. As he told the Huffington Post: “Scientific equipment in general is pretty expensive, but it’s silly because before [getting my PhD in neuroscience] I was an electrical engineer, and you could see that you could make it yourself. So we started as a way to have fun, to show off to our colleagues, but we were also going into classrooms around that time and we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if you could bring these gadgets with us so the stuff we were doing in advanced Ph.D. programs in neuroscience, you could also do in fifth grade?”