Friday, July 25, 2008

Brain Science Podcast #42: "On Being Certain"

In reference to Alberta woman with chiropractic stroke sues bigtime:

Ginger Campbell's latest podcast is about the book, "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not ", by neurologist Robert A. Burton, MD.

About half way through it, she says;
"Earlier on I asked the question, "What would be the possible benefits of "a feeling of knowing" that is actually false?" This brings us to a consideration of our brain's reward systems, and how they interact and influence our thoughts.

We know that there are extensive connections between the pleasure rewards systems, emotions, and the opioid peptides in the brain. We have talked about in the past the mesolimbic-dopamine system, which is a key component of the brain reward circuitry that originates in the upper brainstem. It, not surprisingly, seems to use dopamine as its key neurotransmitter. This mesolimbic dopamine system connects to the parts of the brain that are involved in emotion and cognition, including parts of the frontal lobes, and the nucleus accumbens which is thought to be involved in addiction. It's been shown that brain mediated rewards cause behaviours to persist, including addictions.

So you have to wonder, how is this related to the feeling of knowing? Dr. Burton gives an example in the book, of a person faced with a charging lion, who climbs up in a tree and survives. After the person escapes he has the feeling that he has learned something. And if you make these sorts of decisions repeatedly, you will probably have a positive feeling of "correctness" that becomes linked to that behaviour.

Dr. Burton argues that the feeling of knowing and feelings of familiarity are integral to learning."

Fine, so why am I bringing this forward? Because my human primate social grooming brain thinks humans are learning machines who:
1. can learn all sorts of crazy things
2. learn all sorts of physical actions
3. make up all sorts of bizarre and sometimes dangerous rituals

.... that often fall into the category of "stupid human tricks."

Among these, I would definitely put neck manipulation of the high velocity sort.

I can't prove it, but have always suspected that both doing it and having it done to one's own person likely belong in the category of "addictive behaviours" as well as "stupid human tricks", but this is the first time I've heard a (potentially associated) brain pathway actually spelled out.

No one in the greater HPSG sub-troop acts more "certain" of themselves, on the whole, than those practitioners who favor this approach. Except possibly the patients who've been on the receiving end of it, convinced that it "helps" them, even when they still "need" it monthly for 10 years, etc. (See Keith's observations/comments in "Alberta woman" link.) I'd put that in the category of "false knowledge"; the feeling of being certain outweighs the obviousness that it doesn't really help much of anything at all, except a reward pathway (temporarily) and furthermore only reinforces a behaviour peculiar to humans, reinforces a pathway that goes nowhere and does nothing permanent, does not give the brain a chance to learn a new behaviour toward self-sufficiency.

Further reading:

1. Harriet Hall's review of the same book.
2. Is certainty a dopameme?

August 8/08

I'm back into this post to drop a link to Ginger Campbell's Podcast #43, an interview with the author. It really rips along - give it a listen! Thumbs-up.

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