Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Cortical Factor: What Is Going On In Our Brains With Gay Marriage and All That?

Picking up from where we left off:

According to Robert Sapolsky of Stanford, the amygdala and the frontal cortex essentially regulate each other. The projections from the frontal cortex are inhibitory, as are the projections from the amygdala. In Sapolsky's words: “The frontal cortex is trying to get the amygdala to restrain itself. The amygdala is trying to get the frontal cortex to stop sermonizing at it.”

The two parts of the brain essentially work in opposition, and when the amygdala succeeds in silencing the frontal cortex, “that’s the world in which you are making astonishingly bad decisions. ... That’s the world of the amygdala getting very inaccurate rapid-fire information.” Out comes behavior that is seriously unregulated.

Eventually, in certain situations, the amygdala will habituate and learn not to be afraid, but only if the frontal cortex is healthy enough to convey the lesson.

Enter the anterior cingulate (ACC), part of the cingular cortex snaking beneath the outer cortices. This is a region of the brain implicated in empathy. Typically, in hypothetical exercises involving agonizing moral choices (such as do you strangle a crying baby to save the lives of a group of people hiding out from the Nazis?), those who make the cold-blooded utilitarian decision are shown to have the least activation in the ACC.

But life is more complicated than simple thought vs emotion, especially when the brain goes metaphorical on us. We are called upon to make judgments concerning abstract moral concepts. The problem is our brains did not evolve for doing symbols and metaphors. We are stuck with the old circuitry.

Thus, a test subject handed a warm drink in an elevator by a stranger will rate that individual as warm. Cold for a cold cup. This really happens. The brain mixes metaphor with reality.

Wait, it gets even more weird. Registering moral disgust? The insular cortex activates. This is the part of the brain that processes foul stimuli such as rotting fish. Contemplate the etymology of the word, disgust. Further contemplate that every language on earth employs similar terms for the same phenomenon. Says Dr Sapolsky: “When humans came up with something as fancy as moral transgression, where are you going to stick the sense of outrage you feel? I know - let’s hijack the part of the brain that tells you you’re eating rotten food.”

Dr Sapolsky cites a number of studies, one of which includes people wanting to wash their hands a la Pontius Pilate after recounting some moral failing in their lives.

As you will recall from the previous piece, Dr Sapolsky mentioned that by age 5 there is already a correlation between socio-economic status and the thickness of the frontal cortex and its resting metabolic rate. No question about it - this stinks. Dr Sapolsky agrees. As he observed: “That is one of those factoids that should have people rioting at the barricades.”

But Presidential candidate Mitt Romney would disagree. As he recently declared: “I'm not concerned about the very poor.” (And no, this is not out of context.)

This is a guy who obviously has no problem digesting unpleasant factoids and who is not losing any sleep over it, but that’s mixing yet another metaphor. Could it be that Mitt is one of those low-activating anterior cingulate types?

Dr Sapolsky does not mention Republicans, but that shouldn’t stop us from making our own connections. Says Sapolsky, citing Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel: “The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.”

Dr Sapolsky points out that love and hate are physiologically very similar. From a strictly biological perspective (such as brain activation, heart rate, and so on) it is very difficult to tell the two apart. Indifference is the real evil, which is another good reason to register our disgust.

But hold on. We may be disgusted at people who are indifferent to injustice (who obviously lack the capacity to register a mental gustatory response), but then we have a whole class of liberal-haters who define themselves as being disgusted with the disgusted. Recall this from yet another Presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, in reference to Occupy Wall Street: “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.”

Ah, another stinking Republican (using a bath metaphor at that) who makes liberals want to throw up. Confused? So, apparently, is everyone. Dr Sapolsky cites the work of John Haidt of the University of Virginia in support of the proposition that affective response drives moral decision-making rather than the other way around.

Say, for instance, a brother and a post-reproductive sister want to have a sexual relationship? Is it okay for them to have one in private? How about burning a flag and stomping on it? Or cutting up your dead pet and eating it?

I don’t know about you, but I definitely registered a high-level gut reaction to that last proposition. Fine, but can I come up with a rational answer in response to the question: “What’s wrong with that?”

This is essentially the same question Dr Haidt asked his test subjects. They, too, had trouble framing rational responses. Basically, on an emotional level, something doesn’t “feel right.” The frontal cortex is spinning its wheels, the gut makes the call. Eventually, the thinking parts of the brain lock in, but too often in a rationalizing display of post hoc rubber-stamping.

As Sapolsky explains: “We are dealing with a very ancient brain, one that is not very good yet at separating the limbic world from the cortical one.”

Maybe that’s why we need a judiciary to protect ourselves from our own inept decision-making. Yesterday, a federal appeals court struck down California’s infamous Proposition 8, a voter referendum passed in 2008 that would have banned gay marriages in the state.

Is there anything wrong with disgust? Of course not. Of all things, disgust is morally neutral. Whether we’re dealing with moral issues or food, this is basically a rotten fish reaction we are talking about. We need our rotten fish reactions. They drove the civil rights movement, which is why we need to be suspicious of low-activation anterior cingulate guys who lack the kind of empathy that makes us capable of moral outrage in the first place.

The problem is we often fail to couple thinking to our disgust. “What is wrong with that?” It’s a question we need to be asking - over and over and over.


This concludes my three-part series on The Cortical Factor, based on Lecture 18 from Robert Sapolsky’s 25-part video series. See Part I, Part II. Stay tuned for more of Sapolsky, probably in another week or two ...

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