In thinking through my options for a post today, I was intrigued by a continuing spate of articles relative to neuro-science. My last post cited research showing that the brain’s pleasure center can influence it’s taste center, explaining why we sometimes judge something to be better because we expect it to be better — a more expensive bottle of wine, for example.
I’ve also run across an article claiming that a German researcher using functional MRI scans can “read minds,” predicting with 78 percent accuracy whether a test subject is thinking of a hammer or a pair of pliers — assuming that he has captured brain scans when the same subject was previously thinking about those particular tools. He thinks the ability to predict what someone is thinking will only get better.
And, I was particularly intrigued by a Time magazine article on the brain and belief. Sam Harris, a neuro-scientist better known for his antipathy toward religion, joined other researchers who also used functional MRI scans to observe brain activity while persons were faced with a series of propositions that they believed to be either true or false. While activity in the “higher” levels of the brain was ambiguous, the scientists discovered that when subjects believed something to be true, a primitive area of the brain associated with things like reward, emotion, and taste “lit up” on the scan.
When subjects disbelieved something, however, whether it was a false math statement like “2+2=5” or an abhorrent ethical proposition like “torture is good,” brain scans showed higher activity in another primitive part of the brain, one that is also associated with taste, but more closely related to pain perception and disgust — the same area that lights up when we’re confronted with a foul odor that stinks so bad it makes us want to heave.
At our house, on January 18 our brains are largely occupied with remembering. It is an anniversary day for us; not of our wedding day or any other happy day, but of the day our daughter Bethany’s brain stopped working after her skull was crushed by a drunk driver.
That, of course, has a lot to do with my own brain lights up with distaste relative to the subject of alcohol, no doubt fueling my personal aversion to its use as a recreational drug. For those who take offense at my occasional rants against booze, you can blame it on my brain.
On a higher level of thinking, I can understand the concept of drinking alcohol in moderation and for reasons other than getting wasted. And, though the very thought induces my gag reflex, I can appreciate the idea that some people truly think that wine, beer, and even hard liquor tastes good. The primitive part of my brain, however, doesn’t think in such categories. It remembers only the pain and loss and disgust associated with knowing our daughter died because an otherwise promising young man had become a slave to beer: and that stinks.