The Science of Morality

I was lucky last night to be able to attend a fantastic lecture panel on the Science of Morality at the 92stY as part of the World Science Festival. Philosophers Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland, and neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Marc Hauser discussed the philosophy, psychology, and biology of a fundamental aspect of human nature. Below are some of the more interesting ideas discussed.

Reduced D2 receptor densities lead to difficulty in learning from error and negative reinforcement:
Genetically Determined Differences in Learning from Errors (Science)
“Go” and “NoGo”: Learning and the Basal Ganglia (DANA)
This is of particular interest to me due to its implications for ADHD.

Breakdown of Theory of Mind in social, emotional, and moral decision-making:
Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind (Google Scholar, book)

PFC damage inhibits normal social/moral behavior:
On the neurology of morals (Nature Neuroscience)

Fundamental neurochemical differences effect social behavior:
The effects of oxytocin and vasopressin on partner preferences in male and female prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) (PubMed)

Most of these articles are behind pay-walls, so let me know if you need access to one of them and I’ll use my school account.

This is my brain in Love

A few months ago, Radio Lab– one of my very favorite public radio shows– aired an episode about the neuroscience of Love. The show, in two acts, served as an informative and entertaining primer to a mind-bogglingly complex subject, and did so with all the flair, panache, and quirky musical bumpers that make shows like Radio Lab the easily stereotyped gems they are.

While I found the piece interesting enough, I wasn’t moved to do much more than contemplate the subject a bit and put it on my ever-growing list of things to research. Mostly unmoved, that is, until this weekend, when I met a girl who really turned my head upside-down.

After the waves of intrusive thinking and tummy-knotting anxiety which exemplify Limerence wore off, I came to a now unsurprising realization: Love isn’t mere emotion, it’s a fundamental change in the way we think; a change we have almost no control over. A temporary all-controlling animalistic psychosis that effects us all at one time or anther, driven by three simple, seemingly innocent enough, neurotransmitters. To take a page from the Radio Lab show, lets take a quick look at them:

Dopamine – Real true deeply passionate Love. That amazing ecstatic feeling that comes from seeing and interacting with that special someone. You get the same rush of Dopamine from crack cocaine that you do from Love.

Norepinephrine – Intense infatuation. Norepinephrine focuses the good feelings of dopamine on that one object of your desire.

Oxytocin – Peace and happy contentment that comes with long-term commitment.

The problem here is that Dopamine and Norepinephrine create such powerful emotion that if we were to keep getting squirts of them over a long period of time, we’d literally go insane. It has long been accepted that excessive levels of Dopamine play a large role in Schizophrenia, and anyone who’s ever had a crush can understand why.

As I’m stuck here with too much Norepinephrine floating around the folds of meat inside my skull, I’ll end our quick overview of the subject here, but if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend you check out the bit of audio magic that inspired this post, which I linked to in the first paragraph. In addition to a recorded podcast of the show, Radio Lab has provided a number of interesting articles and links on the subject for your further nerdy perusal.

Columbia Study Shows Population Density Affects BMI

Whenever my parents bug me about getting more exercise and loosing weight, I tell them that as soon as I move away to a big city, the pounds will just drop off. Now I have hard data to back me up.

A study recently announced by researchers at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health shows a clear link between population density and body mass.

The researchers looked at data from 13,102 adults from New York City’s five boroughs. Matching information on education, income, height, weight and home address with census data and geographic records, they determined respondents’ access to public transit, proximity to commercial goods and services and BMI, a measure of weight in relation to height.

The authors discovered that three characteristics of the city environment - living in areas with mixed residential and commercial uses, living near bus and subway stops and living in population-dense areas - were inversely associated with BMI levels.

Living Near Shops, Subways Linked to Lower Body Mass Index in New York City, According to Mailman School Study

[Via Science Blog]

LA Hospitals Dumping Patients, Spreading Epidemic

CNN and NPR, as well as multiple blogs are reporting on recently released evidence that multiple Los Angeles area hospitals have on multiple occasions discharged patients and left them on LA’s notorious Skid Row; home to a large number of the city’s homeless population. From CNN:

In one case, a man dropped off at Skid Row was in fact not homeless, said Smith, the LAPD captain. A police officer took him home and the man’s family was “outraged,” he said.

“Not only did they not know that he was discharged, but the fact that he had been brought to Skid Row instead of being brought home was what further outraged that family,” Smith said at a news conference Tuesday.

The sergeant called an LAPD videographer, who over the next few hours recorded four more ambulances arriving at the facility and leaving recently discharged patients.

Police also said the patients stated in their interviews that they didn’t want to be left there.

These allegations are disgusting enough in and of themselves, but the story gets even worse. LA is currently suffering from an epidemic of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or Staph infection), which has come to be known as Skid Row Staph. Despite the fact that city public health officials have known about the problem for over a year, almost nothing has been done to combat the spread of the infection. In the case of a Staph infection, which usually enters through surface wounds, extremely simple steps such as providing mobile shower stations and clean clothes for the homeless population would go a very long way toward slowing the spread of the outbreak. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort has been done, and the bacteria has began infecting people outside of the street dwellers. First responders such as Ambulance and Fire, Police, and other street-level workers, as well as hospital staff, have become a second pool from which the disease now feeds. The inaction of city health officials is not only hurting the people with the least means with which to help themselves, but will eventually take a grave toll on the greater population of the city if nothing is done. The way this issue has been handled is not only despicable, but criminal, and those responsible should be punished without mercy.