The Excitement (and Often the Claims) about the New “Brain Stuff” Is Still Running Ahead of Its Utility

You don’t have to spend much time googling or digging—or doing that old-fashioned thing: reading a book—these days to realize that the brain is often up to its usual tricks when the subject is neuroscientific research.

That is, the brain is simply going about its business. Sometimes, it lights up like a Christmas tree on the fMRI screens when asked to perform some task, or doesn’t light up much at all, or lights up in surprising locales or surprises researchers by not lighting up where they had hoped or thought it would.

At that point, all interpreters can do is to argue their feelings and biases about what it all means. Of course, that’s what humans, including scientific researchers, have always done where the brain is concerned. And we don’t seem to be getting much closer to crossing the Rubicon—or maybe we should say past the Albatross—of how to explain what we see when we map what researchers call “the subject’s neural state.”

Take, for example, Stanford economist Douglas Bernheim’s point in a just published American Economic Journal article that is causing waves in the new field of “neuroeconomics.” Dr. Bernheim wants to be optimistic about neuroeconomics but isn’t yet. This is because of the circular nature of using brain data to measure something subjective. Happiness, for example.

Brain research still needs the tongue

Bernheim’s article and his point about circularity drew the attention of the two Northwestern University economists who write the “Cheap Talk” blog: “Since neural states don’t come ready-made with labels, we need some independent measurement of well-being to correlate with. That is, we have to ask the subject. Let’s assume we make sufficiently many observations coupled with “are you happy now?” questions to identify exactly the happy states. What will we have accomplished then? We will simply have catalogued and translated subjective welfare statements. And using this catalogue adds nothing new.” Which is the central problem of a lot of expensive brain research.

The researchers who were seeking a “God” spot in the brain encountered a similar obstacle. Well, actually, they encountered several. Their goal was to pinpoint what part of the brain “correlates” with a mystical experience. Or at least the most intense Christian-type mystical experience that could be remembered by the Carmelite nuns who participated in the experiment.

Did anything on the fMRI screen light up? Absolutely. There was significant brain activity observed in the nuns’ right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, left brainstem and the extra-striate visual cortex. So, forget “God” spot and think “God” network!

But once again, this wasn’t the primary issue stumping the band. Clever though the experiment was, it didn’t—and couldn’t—tell us anything about God, such as, whether there is One. Just as with the happiness question, the only way we can really learn “something about God” is to ask individuals who think they know something. And you really don’t need fMRI experiments to do that. As one poetic critic put it, those who use fMRI, or brain, imaging to study the God issue still can’t “bridge the gap between the spiritual and the mundane.”

This observer added, “Until they do, there is simply no way to know whether the brain’s response to a religious experience is quantitatively different than its response to any of the deeply meaningful stimuli that surround our daily lives.”

Brain Magic for Investors Still Undiscovered?
Indeed, it is all too easy to get egg on one’s face by rushing in where old salts or your bitterest enemies know better than to tread. Alas, that appears to be what some of my favorite “neurosociety” advocates have done with some of their claims about the value of behavioral finance, neuroeconomics and the new “science of irrationality” in stock picking.

Russell Fuller and Richard Thaler are the brains behind Fuller & Thaler Asset Management, Inc., of San Mateo, CA, and a couple of investment portfolios set up to “exploit insights from behavioral finance.” The funds are called the Undiscovered Managers Behavioral Growth Fund and the Undiscovered Managers Behavioral Value Fund. The core idea is to avoid the consequences of this: “Under certain conditions behavioral biases cause market participants to misprocess information in the financial markets.”

So how are Dr. Fuller’s and Dr. Thaler’s funds doing in their quest to use behavioral finance discoveries to guide their trading decisions. Not well … and their enemies are gloating. One of the most outspoken is Paul B. Farrell, who writes the blog “MarketWatch.” He had named Fuller’s and Thaler’s funds “the Obama Nudgers Funds.” This is because Thaler co-authored the best-selling book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness with Cass Sunstein, who is now high up in the Obama White House.

Farrell’s glee is at observing that the Obama Nudgers Funds have been outperformed in by 1-year returns, 3-year annualized returns and 5-year annualized returns by what Farrell calls “the Lazy Portfolios.” These are eight well-diversified portfolios of no-load index funds that strive to cut operating cost, trading action and taxes to a bare minimum (near zero). For the uninitiated, this means the “behavioral finance” guys are doing worse—sometimes much worse—than funds that do next to nothing investment-management-wise, behavioral or otherwise. It’s a quite normal outcome for investment managers, but an embarrassing one for brain studies iconoclasts who were hoping to do better.

That’s also what the “neurosociety” crowd (and you can include the Thinkologist in the group) are seeking to avoid: making unwitting or unnecessary mistakes by correcting blind behaviors caused by the workings of a brain we’ve misjudged, ignored or known far too little about before. But we’re just getting started at this, something we need to be reminded of often.

A lot going on—with the best yet to come
Even as passionate an advocate as Zack Lynch (no relation to this blogger), author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science is Changing Our World, admits that we are only in the beginning stages of the revolution he thinks is coming. He doesn’t believe it will reach critical mass in the public’s opinion (creating a perceptual shift toward a neurocosmos viewpoint) until the 2030s. Another neuroevangelist thinks we are 50 years away from a time when our new knowledge of things neuro will have thoroughly permeated and penetrated our lives and technologies.

But I’m personally encouraged at growing discoveries and inquiries of the new approaches to neuroscience.

For example, there is growing evidence that, as one CalTech researcher put it,
“We are biologically primed to be moral.” To be altruistic, to enforce fairness norms even when we have to pay a price ourselves.

I’m excited by the new brain studies on willpower and self-control. For example, we’re learning, or so the experts say, that if you overload certain areas of the brain, you weaken people’s abilities to resist temptation, such as eating foods that aren’t good for them. The challenge, obviously, is to avoid the overload. Our new pictures of the brain “pigging out” will help us figure out how best to model, and then to thwart, this self-destructive brain behavior.

Needed: cheaper toys and a comprehensive theory
The question of how to respond to the needs of the world’s have-nots in a neuro revolution is increasingly on our minds, and for all our self-protection, it needs to be. In one breath, one neuroethics expert noted that Olympic training programs are now using fMRI scans to correlate areas of depression and negativity in their athletes’ brains. In the next, she told about learning on a recent trip to Africa that the entire country of Uganda only has one fMRI machine.

I like the neurological nudgers’ idea of building in little pushes to get people’s brains to do the right thing or avoid the wrong thing—like getting hospital workers to wash their hands more often or putting warning bulbs in view in our homes to signal when we are using too much energy. The nudge factor is looking to be more and more important as we learn how quickly our mind quits thinking strategically, if it thinks strategically at all. And how little it really knows about what it really wants.

One thing is clear. The rush is on by “neuro” researchers to find tie-ins to the larger picture of what humans do—often together—with their brains.

That was made clear by this year’s Society for Neuroeconomics conference, which has just ended in Evanston, IL. One observer called this year’s program remarkably different from last year’s. “Much less rat studies and a lot of papers and posters on social interactions in humans,” he noted.

Now if fMRI manufacturers can just get the prices on their machines low enough to where everyone—including Olympics coaches in Uganda—can afford them. And if we can learn enough from reading our new brain pictures to move toward producing a dependable “unified theory” about what it all means where the grey matter meets the road.

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