Brain Books for Your Summer Reading List

“The brain has as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way.” –Nancy C. Andreasen M.D., Ph.D., Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member

Cerebrum coverThis summer, as you go on vacation, relax, and ponder the mystery of the cosmos, take a good book with you that will have you contemplating the vastness of your own brain. The following summer reading list suggestions are all by Dana Alliance members or prominent neuroscientists and range from intellectual discovery to children’s poetry. Pick one up, and enjoy!

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The Science and Ethics of Moral Enhancement

Can we create a morality pill? And if we can, should we? Scientists at yesterday’s International Neuroethics Society panel on moral enhancement addressed these questions and others about the potential use of hormones such as oxytocin and serotonin to shape social behavior.

Some companies and media outlets have jumped the gun, declaring oxytocin the “moral molecule” or the “love chemical.” If you want to enhance your trustworthiness, an internet search will turn up what is supposedly “oxytocin spray.” But the panelists cautioned about reading too much into these claims, noting that this field is complicated and still in its infancy.

All three panelists, Dana Alliance member Patricia Churchland, Molly Crockett, and Julian Savulescu, seemed to agree that two of the biggest obstacles to the research are: (1) lack of universal definitions for terms such as “morality” and “moral enhancement,” and (2) neurochemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin do not act in isolation, and they shape behavior beyond pro-social aspects.

Crockett suggested a multi-disciplinary collaboration to determine common definitions for morality and related terms. Churchland added that one must keep in mind that moral judgment is not neatly separated from factors such as emotions, reasoning, motives, habits, stress, temperament, age, etc. “Morality is not a module,” she said.

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Oxytocin: Separating Hype from Hope

These days it seems like claims about the hormone oxytocin are everywhere. A quick Google news search of the word “oxytocin” results in recent articles titled everything from “Why do Men Love Breasts? Titillating Theory Explains Release of Neurochemical Oxytocin,” to “Why God Doesn’t Go Away,” to “Can Oxytocin Treat Autism?” Theories linking oxytocin to a range of pro-social and altruistic behaviors has earned it nicknames such as the “love chemical,” “morale molecule,” and “trust hormone.” But are these names rooted in scientific fact?

The Dana Foundation’s latest briefing paper, “One Molecule for Love, Trust, and Morality?” separates hype from hope by delving into the latest oxytocin research and checking in with experts such as neuroethicist Martha Farah, Ph.D., and neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland, Ph.D., both Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives members.

While Farah and Churchland warn of misperceptions brought on by oversimplified reporting, Farah and others also express cautious enthusiasm about the hormone’s potential applications.

“There is a lot of hype out there,” Farah confers. But she is quick to add: “Oxytocin research does deserve the attention it’s been getting, because it represents a beautiful example of how neuroscience can illuminate important aspects of psychology and even what one might call the ‘human experience.’”

Farah is not alone in her cautious enthusiasm about oxytocin. As research on oxytocin has exploded–more than 40 clinical trials are underway investigating oxytocin as a potential treatment for a range of behavioral and psychiatric disorders–some scientists are ringing a warning bell about how little is really known about the brain chemical everyone suddenly seems to love.

Read the briefing paper here.

–Ann L. Whitman

What neuroscience can tell us about morality

Last night, Dana Alliance member Patricia Churchland, UC San Diego, spoke to a standing room only audience about morality and the brain as part of the James Arthur lecture series, hosted by the American Museum of Natural History.

A pioneer of neurophilosphy, Churchland’s research combines neurobiology and philosophy to address questions such as where values, social behavior, and morality come from. In her talk, she guided her captivated audience through the evolutionary and biological factors that she believes has led to the formation of societal values.

Churchland attributed values in the deepest sense to the brainstem and limbic system, which are the emotional and motivation systems for homeostasis, survival, and well-being. But the majority of her lecture focused on oxytocin and vasopressin, neuropeptides linked to social behaviors, which are believed to play a critical role in the bonding between mammals.

According to Churchland, high levels of oxytocin in the brain decrease fear, increase trust, decrease arousal, and decrease stress. These feelings lead to attachment and trust, which set the stage for cooperation.

To illustrate her point, she referenced work done by Sue Carter on the montane and prairie voles. While similar in most respects, the montane vole is a promiscuous rodent, while the prairie vole mates for life and practices joint parenting. Compared with their cousins, prairie voles' brains have a high density of oxytocin and vasopressin in areas related to the reward system, noted Churchland.

As a population grows, benefits come from expanding trust relationships, said Churchland. In the human population, institutions that enforce trust-connections have emerged, such as laws and religion. “Society is largely about values,” she said, although people must be cognizant that different cultures can hold different value systems.

While most of her lecture stemmed from a biological base, Churchland warned the audience not to rush to attribute actions to innate nature. She explained that behavior can be changed a lot, depending on what else is going on. To emphasize her point, she ended her lecture with a painfully cute slide of an orangutan and a dog who became unlikely friends in a sanctuary. Although solitary by nature, this orangutan bonded with the dog and the two are now inseparable.

Dr. Churchland will be speaking on the same topic tonight at Columbia University.

–Ann Whitman

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