How grateful would you feel after watching a Holocaust documentary? (Before you comment, READ the post first)

form Fox et al. (2015)
form Fox et al. (2015)

How would you feel if one of your favourite scientists published a paper that is, to put it in mild terms, not to their very best? Disappointed? Or perhaps secretly gleeful that even “the big ones” are not always producing pearl after pearl?

This is what happened to me after reading the latest paper of the Damasio group. Fox et al. (2015) decided to look for the neural correlates of gratitude. That is, stick people in fMRI, make them feel grateful, and see what lights up. All well and good, except they decided to go with a second-hand approach, meaning that instead of making people feel grateful (I don’t know how, maybe giving them something?), they made the participants watch stories in which gratitude may have been felt by other people (still not too too bad, maybe watching somebody helping the elderly). But, the researchers made an in-house documentary about the Holocaust and then had several actual Holocaust survivors tell their story (taken from the SC Shoah Foundation Institutes Visual History Archive), focusing on the part where their lives were saved or they were helped by others by giving them survival necessities. Then, the subjects were asked to immerse themselves in the story and tell how grateful they felt if they were the gift recipients.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that after watching a documentary about the Holocaust (done with powerfully evocative images and professional actor voice-overs, mind you!) and seeing people tell the horrors they’ve been through and then receiving from a Good Samaritan some food or shelter, gratitude would not have been my first feeling. Anger perhaps? That such abominable thing as the Holocaust was perpetrated by my fellow humans? Sorrow? Sadness? Sick to my stomach? Compassion for the survivors? Maybe I am blatantly off-Gauss here, but I don’t think Damasio et co. measured what they thought they were measuring.

Anyway, for what is worth, the task produced significant activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (which is involved in so many behaviors that is not even worth listing them), along with the usual suspects in a task as ambiguous as this, like various portions of the anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortices.

Reference: Fox GR, Kaplan J, Damasio H, & Damasio A (30 September 2015). Neural correlates of gratitude. Frontiers in Psycholology, 6:1491. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 27 October 2015

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It’s what I like or what you like? I don’t know anymore…

The plasticity in medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) underlies the changes in self preferences to match another's through learning. Modified from Fig. 2B from Garvert et al. (2015)
The plasticity in medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) underlies the changes in self preferences to match another’s, through learning. Modified from Fig. 2B from Garvert et al. (2015), which is an open access article under the CC BY license.

One obvious consequence of being a social mammal is that each individual wants to be accepted. Nobody likes rejection, be it from a family member, a friend or colleague, a job application, or even a stranger. So we try to mould our beliefs and behaviors to fit the social norms, a process called social conformity. But how does that happen?

Garvert et al. (2015) shed some light on the mechanism(s) underlying the malleability of personal preferences in response to information about other people preferences. Twenty-seven people had 48 chances to make a choice on whether gain a small amount of money now or more money later, with “later” meaning from 1 day to 3 months later. Then the subjects were taught another partner choices, no strings attached, just so they know. Then they were made to chose again. Then they got into the fMRI and there things got complicated, as the subjects had to choose as they themselves would choose, as their partner would choose, or as an unknown person would choose. I skipped a few steps, the procedure is complicated and the paper is full of cumbersome verbiage (e.g. “We designed a contrast that measured the change in repetition suppression between self and novel other from block 1 to block 3, controlled for by the change in repetition suppression between self and familiar other over the same blocks” p. 422).

Anyway, long story short, the behavioral results showed that the subjects tended to alter their preferences to match their partner’s (although not told to do so, it had no impact on their own money gain, there were not time constraints, and sometimes were told that the “partner” was a computer).

These behavioral changes were matched by the changes in the activation pattern of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), in the sense that learning of the preferences of another, which you can imagine as a specific neural pattern in your brain, changes the way your own preferences are encoded in the same neural pattern.

Reference: Garvert MM, Moutoussis M, Kurth-Nelson Z, Behrens TE, & Dolan RJ (21 January 2015). Learning-induced plasticity in medial prefrontal cortex predicts preference malleability. Neuron, 85(2):418-28. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.12.033. Article + FREE PDF

By Neuronicus, 11 October 2015