June 2003

Neuroeconomics come of age [NY Times]

by Limbic on June 19, 2003

“…[R]esearchers are busy scanning the brains of people as they make economic decisions, barter, compete, cooperate, defect, punish, engage in auctions, gamble and calculate their next economic moves. Based on their understanding of how fluctuations in neurons and brain chemicals drive those behaviors, the neuroscientists are expressing their findings in differential equations and other mathematical language beloved by economists.

“This new approach, which I consider a revolution, should provide a theory of how people decide in economic and strategic situations,” said Dr. Aldo Rustichini, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota. “So far, the decision process has been for economists a black box.”

Dr. Jonathan D. Cohen, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Princeton, agreed. “Most economists don’t base their theories on people’s actual behavior,” he said. “They study idealized versions of human behavior, which they assume is optimal in achieving gains.”

To explore economic decision making, researchers are scanning the brains of people as they engage in a variety of games designed by experimental economists. The exercises are intended to make people anticipate what others will do or what others will infer from the person’s own actions.

The games also reveal some fundamental facts about the brain that economists are just beginning to learn and appreciate:

∂ In making short-term predictions, neural systems tap into gut feelings and emotions, comparing what we know from the past with what is happening right now.

∂ The brain needs a way to compare and evaluate objects, people, events, memories, internal states and the perceived needs of others so that it can make choices. It does so by assigning relative value to everything that happens. But instead of dollars and cents, the brain relies on the firing rates of a number of neurotransmitters ó the chemicals, like dopamine, that transmit nerve impulses. Novelty, money, cocaine, a delicious meal and a beautiful face all activate dopamine circuits to varying degrees; exactly how much dopamine an individual generates in response to a particular reward is calibrated by past experience and by one’s own biological makeup.

∂ Specific brain circuits monitor how people weigh different sources of rewards or punishments and how they allocate their attention. A region called the anterior cingulate reacts when people make mistakes or perform poorly; some neuroscientists say it also registers gains and losses, financial and otherwise. A small structure called the insula detects sensations in the body. It is also involved in assessing whether to trust someone offering to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge. These structures and neurotransmitter systems are activated before a person is conscious of having made a decision, Dr. Cohen said. ” MORE

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..local bases empty.

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I hope these idiots get some sort of punishment for this. [Story is here]

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“”Plumber’s butt.” You know, that blindingly pale patch of derriere that peeks out from between a shirt that rides up and pants that slide down. Most commonly seen when a beefy plumber or other worker reaches or squats while on the job. Most common until recently, that is. The effect is no longer just a boy’s club, as women are baring their posteriors ó sometimes intentionally, sometimes not ó in the name of fashion. Low-rise jeans have booty poppin’ out all over the place. Everyone is getting cheeky. Call it the new cleavage.” MORE

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“53 percent of women said they had been unfaithful to their partner, compared with 59 percent of men”

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“Calling it a condition too unpleasant to discuss, a U.N. agency on Wednesday urged African nations to end the silence and confront one of the world’s worst pregnancy-related disabilities.

Girls and women suffering from obstetric fistula, a condition resulting from obstructed labor, endure an uncontrollable leakage of urine or feces that often means being shunned by their family and isolated in a hut.

…”The results (of the disease) are life-shattering. The woman is unable to stay dry and the smell of urine or feces is constant and humiliating,” the report said. “Most women are either unaware that treatment is available or cannot access or afford it,” it said.

…The World Health Organization in 1998 estimated 2 million girls and women are afflicted and another 50,000 to 100,000 were stricken each year. The new study suggests the figures are much higher. In Nigeria alone, the report said, as many as 1 million women may be living with the condition.

The obstruction usually occurs because the woman’s pelvis is too small, the baby’s head is too big, or the baby is badly positioned. The baby usually dies, and if the mother survives she is left with extensive damage to her birth canal.

The condition has been wiped out in wealthy countries due mainly to Caesarian sections. And most fistulas can be corrected surgically even after several years, with costs ranging from $100 to $400, often a prohibitive amount for impoverished women.

African women with fistulas are usually younger than 20 — some as young as 13 — illiterate and poor. Many live in nations devastated by AIDS, malaria, famine, endemic poverty and years of political instability, leaving public hospitals in crumbling condition with chronic shortages of staff, equipment and surgical supplies.

The best strategies to avoid fistula, the report said, are to postpone marriage and pregnancy for young girls as well as provide family planning services and emergency obstetric care.

…The few women treated at the Niamey National Hospital in Nigeria were strikingly similar. Some 22 percent had experienced some form of female circumcision or genital mutilation, 88 percent were married at 16, and “most were accompanied by their mothers, never their husbands,” the report said.

In Mozambique just three physicians treat fistula. Counseling is nonexistent, and the perception of women who go to family planning clinics is that they “have more than one man” or they would not need such services. ” MORE

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The economics of human behavior [Reuters]

by Limbic on June 19, 2003

“Say you’re going to come into a sum of money. Would you rather get $3,000 next week, or $3,800 in a couple of months?

Well, that depends on whether you just ate a bag of candy, according to a recent study.

Researchers gave a bag of sweets to two groups of people and asked them that question. Those who were allowed to eat the candy first and then answer the question were quite happy to wait for the extra cash. The ones who had to answer the question before eating the candy opted to take the smaller sum of money rather than wait.

Studies such as these, which focus on how human behavior and emotions affect people’s economic choices, are part of a rapidly growing field known as behavioral economics.” MORE

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“People who smoke, take street drugs or become heavy drinkers may be genetically predisposed to their habits, suggest the results of a large new study.

By combining 46 previous studies, scientists have definitively linked two genes to personality traits thought to make people more likely to take up risky lifestyles.

The analysis of the data from over 20,000 people linked a particular version of a gene for the transport of the neurotransmitter serotonin – 5HTT-LPR – to having a more anxious, neurotic personality.

And a version of the gene for a receptor of the neurotransmitter dopamine – the D4 receptor – was associated with having a more outgoing personality. It is well-established that both these personality traits are more likely to lead to substance misuse.

“Our study suggest that there’s a genetic basis to certain kinds of personality trait, which may be important in influencing whether people take up habits like smoking or whether they can subsequently give them up,” says Marcus Munafı, team leader of Cancer Research UK’s GP research group in Oxford. In the future, pharmaceutical or behavioural treatments could be tailored to the type of person you are.” MORE

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The Born Identity [Philly mag]

by Limbic on June 19, 2003

“Pennís Glenn McGee, one of the best-known bioethicists in the world, tries to make sense of the most controversial issues of our day. But when he discovered the truth about his own genes, he faced the hardest question of all”

On an early evening in 1998, Glenn McGee answered the phone to hear the voice of a woman he’d wondered about his whole life, but never met: his mother. More than 31 years after giving him up for adoption in Texas, she’d found him in Philadelphia through a detective. Now, she told him on the phone, she wanted to know who he was.

McGee always knew he was adopted, the way he always knew that his dark hair and slightly olive skin were different from his parents–and, for that matter, from his blond, blue-eyed younger sister, who was also adopted. He grew up thinking he’d won the parent lottery: a botanist mother and a bioethicist father–one of the first in the country–who raised him on the Waco, Texas, campus of Baylor University, the perfect place for an intensely curious little boy. “Even when he was young, Glenn spent a lot of time thinking about his place in the world and in his family,” says his father, Dan McGee. “He never took it for granted, like other kids might.”

Yet suddenly–unexpectedly–McGee was on the phone with his real mother. Stunned, he forgot all the things he’d always intended to tell her–that he was okay, had a good life, not to worry. Instead, for the first time in his life, he was desperate for answers. “Tell me about my father,” he begged her. So she did: They’d gone to high school together. They’d been friends. And then he’d raped her.

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