Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Making Assumptions

I've been thinking a lot this week about assumptions.  Especially when it comes to trying to study bold, complicated and human constructs like love, empathy and creativity in the brain.


It started a few weeks ago.  I was talking with a neuroscientist about various brain states linked to the creative process.  He told me simply, "This is a place where we would benefit from asking more concrete questions."

Later, when our conversation moved on to my background, DIRTY MINDS and the research I highlighted into the neuroscience of love and sex, I quipped, "This is another place where scientists might benefit from asking more concrete questions." 

Let me explain.  I don't say this to discount any of the fantastic research done so far.  We all have to start somewhere--and many of the studies into these complex topics are both elegant and thought-provoking.  But even if we ignore the whole notion of what a brain scan can really tell us and whether fMRI set-ups provide any ecological validity, there remains an assumption--a rather big assumption--that these paradigms are actually measuring the things we think they are measuring.  We have to take a leap of faith that looking at a photo of your partner constitutes "love," that asking someone to riff a bit on a piece of music amounts to "creativity."

Take a study that was flying around the Internet this week on altruism.  Headlines proclaimed things like, "Brain Scientists Locate Home of Altruism." Even the press release for the actual study said that they were first to discover a link between brain anatomy and altruistic behavior.

In the study itself, researchers Ernst Fehr and Yosuke Morishima asked participants to divide money between themselves and an anonymous other person.  They suggest that if the person was willing to sacrifice some of that money for the other person, they were acting altruistically. While it is interesting to note that some people always share money (and others never do), and that is linked to more gray matter, is divvying up a few Euros really the practice of "unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others?" And then, in the context of that assumption, can we really say that the brain differences observed show us the neural substrates of something as complicated as altruism?

Like creativity and love, altruism has been something that has been studied extensively using softer, social science measures in the past.  Many of the conclusions drawn from those studies have stuck with us, become a sort of "truth," and now color how scientists design today's neurobiological and neuroimaging studies.  So the more I read about the seats of love, lust, altruism, empathy and the like, I think of my initial conversation with that neuroscientist and wonder what we might find if we were a little less ambitious and focused on more concrete questions.

What do you think? 

Credit:  jangstudio/Shutterstock.com

Live tomorrow! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

Keep reading Show less

Improving Olympic performance with asthma drugs?

A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.

Image source: sumroeng chinnapan/Shutterstock
Culture & Religion
  • One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
  • A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
  • The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.

Keep reading Show less

Weird science shows unseemly way beetles escape after being eaten

Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.

R. attenuata escaping from a black-spotted pond frog.

Surprising Science
  • A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
  • The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
  • Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

Why are we fascinated by true crime stories?

Several experts have weighed in on our sometimes morbid curiosity and fascination with true crime.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast