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Brain-scanning gets closer to reading minds

by Rowan Hooper

Is the world inherently good or bad? You might believe that people are essentially good. Then again, you might believe that most people just pretend to be good — and some don’t even bother to conceal that they’re not. You might complain that it’s a stupid question in the first place.

Because how can you answer such a question? Disregarding humans for a moment, the meaning of life is to make more life, to get your genes into the next generation. Things that help achieve this aim could be regarded as good; things that thwart it, bad. This is the selfish-gene view of life, in its starkest sense.

But the selfish-gene view was never meant to validate a way of life; it was a metaphor to describe life from a gene’s point of view. Nevertheless, it is common to hear people equate selfishness in behavior to the perceived selfishness of their genes. What if you could peer into someone’s head and see if they were joking or not? That might get you some way toward answering the question set out at the beginning.

Now you can. It’s the latest revelation from the always good-value research field of brain-scanning. Two recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have discovered that the scans can predict whether people tend to be selfish or altruistic; and even to predict which of two actions someone is going to perform.

The first of these, published last month in the journal Nature Neuroscience, were findings from the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, where researchers scanned the brains of 45 people while they either played a computer game or watched the computer play the game on its own.

Social relationships

The fMRI scans showed that a particular region of the brain (the posterior superior temporal sulcus) was more active when people watched the game than when they played it themselves. The region is concerned with working out social relationships.

After completing a questionnaire to measure the “altruism score” of the volunteers (using questionnaires weakens the study, but it’s a difficult quality to measure), the researchers compared the brain scans with the estimated level of altruism. The fMRI scans showed that increased activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus strongly predicted a person’s likelihood for altruistic behavior.

So the brain scans can predict someone’s altruism level, which the researchers say may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it.

Develop this a bit more and, if so inclined, you could start to answer whether people are naturally good or whether they pretend.

But this month, an fMRI study was reported that increased the focus on the mind still more. Researchers from Germany, Britain and Japan used the scanner to effectively “read” people’s minds.

The subjects were allowed to freely and covertly choose between two possible tasks — to decide whether to either add or subtract two numbers. They were then asked to hold in mind their intention until numbers were presented on a screen, along with a choice of outcomes. One outcome was correct for the addition choice, one correct for the subtraction choice. Subjects then selected the correct answer according to their planned task, so revealing their intended action.

Now here’s the cool bit. During the delay between the subjects’ choice of task and their execution of the task, it was possible to decode from activities in two regions of the prefrontal cortex which of the two actions (addition or subtraction) individuals had chosen. This research is published in the journal Current Biology.

The work, by John-Dylan Haynes from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues, is the first to predict future intention from patterns of brain activity.

“Intentions are not encoded in single neurons but in a whole spatial pattern of brain activity,” said Haynes. He sees no reason in principle why in the future, when more is known about the brain, more sophisticated computers and scanners won’t be able to read brains more deeply. Even to read abstract thoughts.

Right now in Tokyo, there is an uneasy truce between Japan’s two largest underworld syndicates: the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi and the Tokyo-based Sumiyoshi-kai. If you were so inclined, you might view this as evidence that the world is inherently bad. Last week there were fears of a full-scale turf war breaking out.

Altruistic yakuza

Then again, some believe — at least, many of the gangsters do — that the yakuza are an altruistic force. After the huge Kobe earthquake in 1995, for example, it is said that the yakuza mobilized aid faster than the Japanese government. How complicated it is to decide about the human brain.

All this has been the realm of ethicists and philosophers for years — forever, really. But brain-scanning has made the question more tractable to science.