Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Brain Week Is A Positive Feedback Loop

It's a pretty safe assumption that behavior starts in the brain. But exactly where and how it happens is a little tougher.

As part of "Brain Awareness Week" on Tuesday, neuroscientist Michael Platt gave an audience in Love Auditorium a quick tour of his work on identifying "the basic building blocks of 'other-regarding preferences' that lead to spite, envy, altruism -- you name it."

The areas of the brain that are involved in our social abilities are tightly coupled with the reward systems, and are consistent across primate species, meaning they're valuable to our survival and have been conserved through evolution, he said.

Right from birth, primate infants of all kinds, including ours, appear to be hardwired to recognize and focus in on faces , which signal all kinds of things. "We seem to come equipped to deal with and acquire social information about others."

We're able to read others' faces to infer information about sex, age and mood, for example. (College men, Platt has shown experimentally, are suckers for a pretty face; women, not so much.)

Primates are also able to understand, and apparently care about, what others in their group are experiencing. "Monkeys pay attention to what happens to other monkeys," Platt said, especially when their companions are receiving a squirt of tasty juice and they aren't.

Platt also reprised his famous "pay for view" experiment in which male rhesus macaques gave up some rewards to view sexually explicit photos of females or a picture of the boss monkey's face, but wouldn't pay to view unimportant monkeys' faces.

There was also a bit about lemurs cruising around with wireless video cameras on their heads, but he didn't show the video.

Platt, who is the Director of Duke's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, has been supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Eye Institute, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, autism foundations, and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

Brain Awareness Week concludes on Saturday with a Noon to 4 open house, lab tours, and kids activities in the Levine Science Research Building.