fluid brain

The fluid mind, and the effect of sanction and manipulation

We artificially put people, and our decision making, into boxes. Artificial abstracted forms for easy quantification. When we force these forms onto people through sanctions and manipulations we cheat ourselves from attaining full potential. The potential of a fluid holistic mind.

We will be looking at the brain and how it behaves and therefore how we behave and by consequence how our societies (economies) behave, and how we effect our environment and thus the feedback loop of environment – society – mind and back again, your noticing the fluidity of it all now aren’t you! What we must remember when thinking of the brain is that its interconnections are what create certain behaviour not one section or another. We have the beneficial learning habit of popping behaviours and for that matter people into boxes so we can make solid connections between obviously different forms, like a child building a Lego castle, Lego is man-made, our brain is not. For instance the Orbitofrontal cortex acts as a moderator on our more base drives like lust and anger but it can do harm as well as good, it can stop you from striking out at someone that bumps into you while getting on a train, but can also stop you from marrying the girl you love in favour of the pretty girl that has higher social value.

As neurologists try to map the brain they fall down the same rabbit hole geneticists found when mapping the genome, the more information they have the less they seem to know. After mapping the genome geneticists discovered they barely had half the story. They discovered all these proteins sitting on top of the genes switching them on and off, having as much if not more say in what the genes code created, it wasn’t just the genes that decided the colour of your hair or susceptibility to heart disease but these proteins in communication with the genes.

It is generally considered we have three or more brains in one, the cerebellum is the old so called reptilian brain which handles functionality; standing, our heart beat and biological functions, then there’s the amygdale and hypothalamus with its emotional flight and fight mechanisms, which all other mammals have, then there’s the memory of the hippocampus giving us reflection, which other mammals also have but where we differ is the frontal cortex that part that lets us moderate our behaviour as well as come up with new ideas. Other mammals have a frontal cortex ours is just relatively biggest. All these brains are constantly interacting making us very complex and multidimensional.

The brain becomes more complex and less linear the more we study it, one part that seems to be associated with rational thought can make irrational decisions, another that seems to be associated with violence can also be associated with altruism depending upon which other parts of the brain it is communicating with. This is why sanctions and manipulations (external boxing) are so bad they force isolations and dislocations disallowing the most purposeful decisions not only for ourselves but for humanity as a whole, and our wider environment, for it is all interconnected. Sanctions and manipulations are linear they are external stimuli administered to effect a certain response. Our brains are not linear, they do not follow A precedes B and B precedes C and if one encourages A, C will be the result. Although some left/right brain theorists believe the left brain is linear and the right brain holistic, I do not like this boxing of left and right, but do find it a helpful anology. Like most forms, it is a tool to understand complex systems although it is not the truth.

Our minds (I am using mind and brain interchangeably for one is the product of the other, I don’t know which came first, and that is a linear argument anyway so unlikely to enlighten truth) are not lateral or linear they are fluid. They work in 4, and perhaps more dimensions each prompt enabling many varied responses depending upon multiple variables, the only way to achieve good decision making is to allow stability in our thought processes, to allow us to move between our intrinsic feelings, balanced against our rational thoughts in reference to our memories consulting our abilities and allowing the anomalies and mistakes to act as learning tools to our dopamine receptors, this is the only way for us to grow as a person and therefore as a society allowing a living planet to progress to stable prosperity.

The harmful effects of Sanctions and Manipulations on the holistic brain

Let’s start with a stark example of how being restricted can force us to behave clinically linear. Since the early experiments into market bubbles economists have tried to get people to act more rationally, they are trying to stop the creation of bubbles and crashes, Boening, Williams and LaMaster found that if we play a market investment scenario (gambling) over and over with the same people we start to trade closer to the intrinsic value, we learn from experience that this is a controlled market and there are only a few consistent outcomes that return gains. And as in the prisoner dilemma the easy money disappears, those mugs that will buy the shares you paid way over intrinsic value for, they eventually learn this is a stupid move and stop being used.

More recently a cross country collaboration of Economist Stephen Cheung of the University of Sydney, Morten Hedegaard of the University of Copenhaagen and Financial analyst Stefan Palan of Karl-Franzen University Graz in Austria have found that they can get these inexperienced market players to behave rationally without repeated playing instead they hit them with a “sledgehammer” (their word) of restrictions and training in the accepted group theory of rationality. They didn’t allow speculation, once you bought a share you couldn’t resell it, and ensured dividend certainty so there was no chance involved in the payouts received by each share, and put the participants through intensive training in the fixed nature of the market. They had the participants answer a whole stack of control questions such as “Suppose that you sell one share in period 14 and that you do not buy it back. What is the (average) total dividend that you give up on this share?” then they would ask the opposite question, if you bought it what dividend would you gain, the participants had to write all their answers down, essentially teaching them how the controlled market must perform if we are rational. There is no real surprise that this battery of restrictions and manipulations in a very controlled market made the participants act “rationally” and follow the set value of the shares almost spot on (see fig 2). Although due to the tight restrictions placed on the participants like a tightly wound rubber band when randomness breaks free it broke free wildly see the price shoot through the roof in market 071. As you may realise this sort of market does not exist in the real world because shares are linked to real companies or commodities which can be affected by many natural and human factors, also this is a dead market, there is no reason to trade in it because there is no unpredictability, there is no capital gain to be made. But it does prove that we can make rational markets if they are completely unreal and all participants are restricted in their actions and taught all the rules rigorously, but even then human randomness breaks loose from these constraints and does irrational things, but in a far more catastrophic manner than a fluid uncontrolled market.

Fig 1.





Interestingly they found they could significantly flatted bubbles when they just used their control questions without the use of the other restrictions, dividend certainty and no speculation (see fig 3). The power of the accepted group theory in controlled markets is powerful enough to push us toward compliance but still as you can see in the graph below some people still traded above the intrinsic value of the shares. (Cheung, SL, Hedegaard, M, Palan S “Complexity, confusion and bubbles in experimental asset markets”In Print. 26 Feb 2010). Herd mentality, which is when we keep buying because everyone else is or keep selling good stock because the price is dropping, seems to override even strict training, and as we will learn it’s our pre-frontal cortex that supposed rational part of the brain which overrides our intuition of a crash with the argument that rising prices keep rising. Also interesting is the players still started trading way below the intrinsic value, is this fear induced by a lack of financial security or a holistic toe dip in the flowing market waters, loss aversion, or just natural caution?
Fig 2

Market players in fMRI

When market players were put in an fMRI by cognitive psychologist Read Montague of Baylor College of medicine he was able to watch their brain activity in a simulated game. The players were given $100 and got to keep what was left including any profits however the game was based on real data from the Dow Jones of 1929 and the S&P 500 of 1987, the booms and great crashes of the past. As they played he watched their dopamine receptors fire rapidly as they made more profit, they got excited and fed off the happy dopamine, but funnily while the market kept going up the dopamine neurons slowed down their release, their confidence waned they expected the crash. After all good times don’t last forever, what goes up must come down and our dopamine system seems to know this. Our brains get tired of continual stimulation and tend toward stability, small ever changing ups and downs we get a buzz from. Just before the crash these neurons stopped firing altogether. They or we know the crash is coming. This is when the rational prefrontal cortex kicked in and overrode the anxiety and rationalizes that the market isn’t going to crash, we are making lots of money the right thing to do is keep buying. Of course the rational prefrontal cortex was wrong and the dopamine system right the market crashed and the buyers lost everything. ( Jonah Lehrer “financial Bubbles” Nov 2 2010 http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/frontal-cortex/ )
Our prefrontal cortex also likes competition with others which will drive the need to make more profit even though the market feels spongy; the players kept buying even though they intrinsically felt the crash imminent. Remember our naïve traders they started cautious and then when the market went up they kept buying causing a bubble and then eventually a crash. Both groups override their intrinsic knowledge with rational analysis, booming markets make more money and wealth increases my status in a hierarchical society.

Proof of change in brain function with sanctions

One of the earliest examples of an un-holistic brain leading to undesirable behavior is the famous and curious case of Phineas Cage. In the middle of the nineteenth century railroad construction worker Phineas Cage suffered a terrible accident, he was leading a railways construction team blasting rocks to allow the railroad tracks to be lain, an uncontrolled explosion sent a three-foot long, quarter inch wide, iron rod through his cheekbone and all the way through his brain and out the other side landing some thirty yards away. Ouch.

Surprisingly he survived and recovered enough to be able to go back to work, but he was forever changed. The rod had removed a large portion of his forebrain and this changed his personality. Before the accident he was a respectful and polite person, an efficient and effective employee held in high esteem. After the accident he became prone to outbursts, acting spiteful to others and impatient. He could not hold a plan and lacked control of his emotional outbursts. Eventually he lost his job because of these psychological changes not because of physical incapacity. In many respects the documentation by his doctor is the beginnings of neurology because from Phineas Cage we realize the brain is malleable, if damaged we can still survive, but also that different areas have different functions.

There is also recent biological evidence for a shift in behaviour from co-operative and caring to rational self interest behaviour in the externally manipulated brain. Researchers had participants play the trust game one of those games used to test selfish and co-operative behaviours but this time put them in an fMRI scanner while they played. They found that when a sanction (like the need to make profit) was introduced to the game the participant’s brain activity moved from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), lateral orbitofrontal cortex, and amygdala which is normally associated with social reward evaluation to the parietal cortex which is associated with rational decision making. It moved from evaluating the decision in an area which would look at what’s best for society “us” to what is best for “me”. (Jian Li, Erte Xiao, D Houser, P. Read Montague, “Neural responses to sanction threats in two-party economic exchange” PNAS, online Published online before print September 15, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0908855106 PNAS September 29, 2009 vol. 106 no. 39 16835-16840 , http://www.pnas.org/content/106/39/16835.abstract ) This is supported by other studies which show that unfair sanctions could prevent altruistic behaviour. (Fehr E. & Rockenbach B, “Detrimental effects of sanctions on human altruism” Nature 422, 137-140 (13 March 2003) ).

There is further evidence from Dr Nikos Nikiforakis at the University of Melbourne who was looking at charitable spending and the sanction of having to earn money, his findings have a great implication on how people may spend a no obligation Flat Payment, and is yet more evidence that it is sanctions that cause selfishness. He found that having to earn money forced people to be selfish in their spending behaviour whereas he says if “… all money we had was due to windfall gains, you would have fewer high earners being selfish”. His studies showed that people were far more likely to be charitable with money they didn’t have to earn than money they did. ( David Scott, “Giving it away” The Age, The University of Melbourne April Voice, Vol 6, No. 4 April 12 – May 3 2010)

Daria Knoch and Ernst Fehr at the University of Zurich took the idea of sanctions a step further, invasively interrupting the brain so one segment, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) would be put to sleep, the researchers hit the DLPFC with repeated magnetic stimulation in order to see how people behaved without the segment of the brain normally associated with rational self interest. They found in an Ultimatum Game that receivers of unfair offers were less likely to reject them with this rational part of the brain switched off. They still realised the offers were unfair but were less capable of resisting the small gain, or perhaps less able to punish those being unfair, they were classically more rational but actually more emotional, they took the short term gain and didn’t think of the future. (Diminishing Reciprocal Fairness by Disrupting the Right Prefrontal Cortex Daria Knoch,1,2,3* Alvaro Pascual-Leone,4 Kaspar Meyer,1 Valerie Treyer,5 Ernst Fehr1,3*, Science 3 November 2006:
Vol. 314. no. 5800, pp. 829 – 832
DOI:10.1126/science.1129156, http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/314/5800/829/ )

Neurologist Oliver Oulier suggests that this study shows that even when the rational part of the brain is switched off we still make rational decisions, therefore there is far more to the way we make decisions than just rational and emotional. He has coined the phrase emorationality to describe this symbiotic interaction. ( Oliver Oullier “The useful Brain: How neuroscience might change our views on Rationality and a couple of other things”, Chap 10 “The irrational Economist” eds, Erwann Michael-Kerjan and Paul Slovic. http://2010.o.oullier.fr/ ) This makes sense we are not left or right brained, not rational or emotional, our minds are a fluid interplay between many drives, thoughts and desire all which occur in different areas, but the way these areas interplay changes the outcome. Our brains like our actions are neither black nor white but a kaleidoscope of ever changing colours, but as we are seeing outside influences can isolate or imprison our thinking into one section or highway of connections making us act according to the whims of others.

Moral behaviour and sanctions/manipulations

We can also be forced to make moral decisions in a utilitarian way using that part of the brain which is best at deciding which decision I can justify to others within the accepted group theory or meme rather than what is best for direct moral social cohesion. In the following experiments taken from Child Psychoanalyst Sue Gerhardts The Selfish Society and also used in Jonah Lehrers How We Decide the sanction/manipulation is the combined effect of dislocation from humans by using remote means to influence a situation and the accepted group theory of utilitarianism. They both cite a much used moral dilemma called the “Trolley” scenario again the participants are in an fMRI machine so the researchers can see what parts of their brain are activated when making the decisions. The participants are presented with a scenario whereby a train trolley is hurtling down the tracks toward 5 workmen who will be killed because the trolley can’t be stopped and the workmen can’t be warned. You can save the 5 workman by flicking a switch and diverting the train trolley down a side track where one workman is on the track. Most people choose to flick the switch killing the one but saving the 5. To make this decision we use the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which develops later than the more emotional centres of the brain like the amygdala. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DSPFLC) is associated with “cool” thinking as Gerhardt puts it and working memory, it’s a slower more rational centre of the brain. The participants have made a utilitarian decision weighing up the costs and benefits. Think back to the experiment where the DSPFLC was put to sleep the game players made more short term individually beneficial decisions, they forgot about the long term social consequences and whether or not they were fitting in with the accepted group theory. Cool thinking is being aware of what is considered right not what is actually right for you or others.

When the scenario is changed and the participants are placed on a bridge above the tracks and the only way to save the 5 workman from the uncontrollable trolley is to push another workman from the bridge onto the tracks in front of the trolley we use a very different part of our brain. We use the more emotional parts the posterior cingalate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex as well as the amygdala and superior temporal sulcas those areas linked with social benefits and interactions. As Gerhardt puts it; “Killing someone when you can see their eyes, their expression, when you might resonate with their feelings, can’t be done. It feels all wrong”. (Sue Gerhardt “The Selfish Society” pg 139 Simon & Schuster, 2010) You may argue that pushing the workman off the bridge is actually the best course of action it saves 5 for the loss of one, and in an isolated position when you can use rational utilitarian thinking you will make this hard decision, and can feel relatively unaffected by the loss of the one life.

Since the publication of Sue Gerhardts book Joshua Greene the neuroscientists who conducted the fMRI experiment has investigated the cause of this difference in moral perception, he has found that isolation or as he calls it the absence of personal force does incline us to see the taking of life as acceptable particularly when combined with an accident, or lack of intention. When the trolley dilemma is changed so that in order to make the trolley change tracks we inadvertently knock someone off a bridge we don’t see this as immoral, even though we are not isolated from them but we don’t mean to kill them, whereas if the scenario is changed again and the side track leads back to the main track infront of the 5 workman so we need to put something on the side track to stop the train but are switching the lines in isolation we can still intentionally kill one person. If a fat man is walking along the line so it is our intention to kill him to stop the train we still see this as acceptable. Isolation enables that. Or perhaps we just see the large as dispensible due to our accepted group theory of beauty. (Joshua D. Greene a,*, Fiery A. Cushman a, Lisa E. Stewart a, Kelly Lowenberg b,Leigh E. Nystrom c, Jonathan D. Cohen c, “Pushing moral buttons: The interaction between personal force
and intention in moral judgment” cognition 5 Feb 2009, http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/Greene-MoralButtons-Cogn09.pdf )

There is also evidence that the isolated powerful may be less inclined to practice what they preach, the old adage that power corrupts because of the isolation and sense of entitlement it brings causes those in power to expect others to follow the rules but they are allowed not to. This is a form of moral hypocrisy studied by behavioural Economist Joris Lammers (J. Lammers, D, Stapel, A Galisky “Power increases Hypocrisy”, http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/faculty/galinsky/Power%20Hypocrisy%20Psych%20Science%20in%20press.pdf) he also found that when put in a position of power people are more likely to rigidly follow rules, or accepted group theories even when the outcomes were bad, whereas the powerless were more likely to look at the outcomes of their actions. (Lammers, Joris; Stapel, Diederik A, “How power influences moral thinking.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 97(2), Aug 2009, 279-289., http://psycnet.apa.org/?fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/a0015437 )

This is how Generals can send thousands of soldiers to their deaths in foreign lands, or CEO’s can tolerate their workers committing suicide; they are isolated from the people being affected and thus use a more rational utilitarian moralisation, the loss of a few lives to create income, profits or protect the nation is justifiable. They can even feel empowered by being able to make this tough decision although it is quite easy because they are following the accepted group theory and are isolated from true feeling, true empathy with those affected, they are cold, they are sacrificing the few for a greater good in a harsh world. The world is no longer harsh, the world’s evils are created by us, and sacrificing others is the privilege of those who have children wrapped in down filled doonas in large suburban mansions. The isolated ruler is rewarded because they caused the death of a few people for the quantifiably greater good, rather than realising the situation itself is horrible and therefore being forced by their emotions to address the underlying cause of the immorality being – disassociation from those affected. (see: what happens when leaders close their mind)

At the other extreme a person faced with the horror of human death and terror may find themself incapable of acting to prevent further suffering, they become emotionally crippled and breakdown into a catatonic state or what used to be called shell-shock or now called post-traumatic-stress syndrome. They become lesser humans and have difficulty looking after themselves let alone others. Neither situation encourages good thinking, both are caused by external sanctions and manipulations closing down parts of the brain or its connections making us incapable of making holistic, and balanced decisions.
Pulling it together
Now I will start to bring it all together, again with the aid of fMRI scans and some help from Rhodes Scholar and writer Jonah Lehrer and his second book How We decide. In this book he has gathered much of the recent research into brain activity and it has been a great time saver for me. He cites a study by Brian Knutson and George Loewenstien in which they gave a group of uni students some cash and watched their brains as they made buying decisions. They were offered different products ranging from a George Forman Grill to a collection of Harry Potter books then they were shown the price. If they chose the item after seeing the price the cost would be deducted from their cash hand-out. Note there is minimal financial sanction, the cash was given to them, and minimal manipulation during the experiments only the advertising that the “consumers” had previously been exposed to.

At this point I will briefly explain the parts of the brain involved, the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) which is part of the dopamine pathway, essentially we get a nice dopermine kick when it lights up, and we feel good. The insula which produces aversive feelings, it punishes us, it lights up when we suffer things like nicotine withdrawals, and the prefrontal cortex which is involved in the rational weighing up of decisions.

They found that when presented with a product the consumers wanted the NAcc would light up making the consumer feel good, when shown the price the insula would kick in, paying hurts. Then these two would play off against one another being moderated by the prefrontal cortex. The researchers realised they could predict whether the consumer would buy or not before they had made a decision depending upon whether the NAcc had more activity than the insula. Lehrer notes that in many of the decisions the prefrontal cortex, that rational part of the brain was “merely a spectator”. ( Knutson, Brian, Scott Rick, G. Elliott Wimmer, Drazen Prelec and George Loewenstein, “Nueral Predictors of Purchasers”. Neuron 53 (2007) pg 147-56

Lehrer realised that the obvious way to stop this “argument” between the two emotional feelings, one of dopamine joy the other of insula punishment would be to override it with our “top down” rational prefrontal cortex but this is also problematic. What this rationalisation can do is ignore crucial pieces of information, the prefrontal cortex can ignore information that doesn’t fit with pre-existing frames, or accepted group theories leading us to make “bad decisions”. He uses an example of partisan voters and how their prefrontal cortex ignored obvious contradictions between action and statements by George Bush and John Kerry in a pre-election lead up. Those aligned with the republicans simply ignored the fact that Bush promised “to provide the best care for all (war) veterans” and the same day cut benefits for 164,000 veterans. Their accepted group theories or memes caused their prefrontal rational brain to just filter out that information. (Weston, Drew the Political Brain, New York: Public affairs, 2007) ( Jonah Lehrer “How We Decide” Mariner Books 2009) This is supported by other experiments where people paid more at an auction because their social security number had high digits, and people thought high priced wine tasted better. And in one test I saw on Tele recently wine tasters described white wine with red food colouring in it as tasting like red wine, they said it had a hint of berries with a full body all descriptions used to describe red wine not white, and all believed it was red wine. Their rational brain overrode their instincts and it was proved wrong.

So where does all this leaves us? The combination of sanctions, having to earn money, pay interest, limited time, isolation from those affected by your actions combined with emotional manipulations such as social acceptance, framing, and priming force our decision making into one sector of the brain. We cease to brake our emotional reactions often acting in frivolous or anti-social ways or we use only our rational brain fitting into the accepted group theory which prevails at the time and forgetting the human ramifications of our actions. We become either detached rationally cold immoral quantamatons or struggle to fit in with the desires of our perceived group acting and reacting to the whims of others. Sociologist Michele Lamont found this effect in action when studying disadvantaged African Americans, in her view “the African American working class manage to maintain their dignity by holding their emotions at bay. Those who do not make it are unable to do this psychological work. And their emotions explode”. ( Lamont, Michele. 200 “the dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Sourced from Akerloff and Shiller “Animal Spirits” 2009 Princeton University Press pg 161) Subjugation through monetary and social sanctions leads to shutting off emotions for as long as possible and when they do burst to the surface it can be a violent explosion.

Neither being a cold rational automaton nor uncontrollably emotional makes for good moral or economic decision making, if we are allowed independence and solid connections to others based upon depth, understanding and freedom from sanctions and threats we will make better social and therefore economic decisions, for the economy is just an extension of ourselves, and monetary democracy encourages making buying and selling choices based on your values, your moral values. Remember money is just the medium to communicate our values and markets the telephone exchange.
Fluidity comes when we are the most free from manipulation and sanction and allowed peace and time to absorb our world, the true randomness and order within it. Rationality’s purpose is as a tool for understanding but we must start and end with a holistic view of the world for if we don’t we will make a world in which humanity is forced inside a dark lifeless box.
David J Campbell


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    It gets technical and some may argue the science, and conclusions, but it is so self evident. So beautiful and right. One of the best things I have written.

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