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Empathy in a bottle, April 25 – May 2

May 4, 2010

Hello! This weekend I went to Clark, Idaho–population about 900. It was refreshing to be out of wireless range for a few days; I feel like I gained a new appreciation for small towns. In many ways, small towns are almost like a human super organism: there is definitely a cohesiveness and a shared emotional body that–at least metaphorically–resemble an emergent life form.

I’m glad to be wired again, though. There were some really interesting finds this past week in neuro! Here are my top picks from the week:

  • ‘Cuddle hormone’ makes men more empathetic

    The gist of this finding is pretty simple: men who took nasal squirts of oxytocin were able to more accurately identify the emotional states corresponding to images of human faces. The underpinnings of this finding are fascinating. If men have the hard wiring in place to be able to discern emotional states in others, why isn’t it always used? Why is the other-awareness deferred? It seems reasonable to assume that the current male brain is the product of generation after generation of evolutionary tweaking to optimize a balance between self-directed, goal-oriented executive behavior versus other-awareness regarding feelings and emotions. I wonder, though, if our current social landscape has morphed from our environment of evolutionary adaptation enough to warrant deliberate tinkering and rational (versus raw evolutionary) retuning. Unlike the hunter-gatherer phase of human development, survival does NOT require a man to go out and chase the passing herd with a stoic indifference to his female mate’s emotional preference for his companionship. Has our physical abundance sufficiently reworked our survival-topography enough for us to biologically intervene and update our hardware? Is survival of society and flourishing of civilization better served now by a male brain that is more responsive to emotional states of others?
  • Mapping neural correlates of abstract thought

    This was super-cool to me. The bottom line is that neuroscientists have mapped the prefrontal cortex’s activity patterns enough to determine that a hierarchy of abstract representation is reflected in the physical organizational pattern of the brain. It’s almost as if there is a gradient of abstractness that corresponds to a physical gradient in the prefrontal cortex: the further toward the front of the brain, the more abstract the concepts being processed. It’s years away before we will be able to physically augment the biological foundations of human intelligence. But it seems to me like it is an inevitability. Incidentally this feeds into posthuman and transhuman philosophy, of which I am very fond. Likewise, I think that this speaks to the questions I posed in the previous article summary, i.e., does the changing ‘survival topography’ of the human organism necessitate deliberate tweaking of the neural system? To me, it seems to go hand-in-hand that we would want any intervention to augment human intelligence to correspond with an augmentation of human emotional intelligence. The question still stands, though: how do we augment human moral intelligence? If we throw ourselves headlong toward a transhuman or posthuman future where we are experts in augmenting abstract intelligence and emotional intelligence, what’s to say we are not going to create a future state of beings who are master manipulators? Respect for others and moral integrity are not inherently derivative from increases in abstract processing and emotional awareness…are they?
  • Modifying genes to prevent depression and addiction

    As if this week’s summaries weren’t already laden with the theme of modification, this one blatantly begs questions about the morality of intervening genetically to increase the likelihood of a predetermined emotional and behavioral outcome. In this case it is referent to an intervention in the genetic basis of the reward system to decrease the likelihood of depression, and likewise to reduce the onset of addictive states. From a scientific perspective, I think our understandings of both addiction and depression are too nascent to think seriously that we’re on the brink of being able to actually produce these desired outcomes using a genetic toolkit. I’ll be interested to see how this pans out in animal models. Philosophically I have no problem with reducing the likelihood of depression and addiction by genetically adjusting the set-point of the reward system. Scientifically I’m just not convinced that it’s as simple as it might be implied.
  • Neural stem cell therapy for ALS

    There is great promise for the treatment of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s). The company Neuralstem is in phase 1 clinical trials using spinal cord stem cells to treat the disease. This is also a ray of hope for a wide range of other neurodegenerative disorders which might one day be treated by neural stem cell therapies. Neuralstem, Inc., is concurrently pursuing stem cell therapeutic applications for Huntington’s disease and traumatic spinal cord injury. Certainly this will be exciting to watch this new treatment modality continue to develop–it’s a great reason to be optimistic about the future capacity for therapeutic interventions in the human nervous system.

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  1. No question — it is a very interesting time to be alive, and even more interesting if you’re a neuroscientist.

  2. I should talk with you about pheromones sometime. Very interesting topic.

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