What does choosing rice have to do with Aaron Hernandez?
Have you ever found yourself at the grocery store, facing six choices of rice where you wish there were one? Okay, well, obviously I am talking about myself. I can stand in front of four choices of rice or yogurt or ice cream, or whatever the need of the moment is, for minutes, stuck in indecision. Brand A is definitely cheaper but B and D are organic. C looks great but do I have room for all that rice? B has packaging that will last another millennium and D’s packaging may break on my way home. A and B are local companies. Do I want Jasmine or Basmati or Jasmine Basmati? And around and around I go. I have a train to catch so I finally place one of the choices in my cart and move toward the cashier. I don’t have great confidence in having chosen correctly and I continue to worry about my decision even long afterwards. My dislike of making this type of decision extends to ordering food at a restaurant. That is why I love to go to a restaurant with an eating companion who knows the food well and is willing to order for me. Dodging a decision is a welcome relief.
Now, a rocking finding out of Brian Knutson’s laboratory grants me some compassion for my choosing self. In a paper published in The Journal of Neuroscience, Genevsky; Yoon; and Knutson wanted to see how well brain activation predicted population behavior. We already know that one person’s brain activation can predict that same person’s behavior. This is no big shocker. If your motor cortex fires in the region involved in bringing your left hand to your mouth, then sure enough, you bring your left hand to your mouth. Reassuring rather than ground-breaking. But what Knutson and his colleagues wanted to find out is if a group of randomly chosen individuals could predict the behavior of thousands of others. And they wanted to compare the predictive power of brain activation to that of the small group’s behavior.
Thirty subjects were shown 36 different Kickstarter campaign images as they sat in a MRI donut. Subjects then were asked to report what they thought and felt about each campaign, including what the likelihood was that the campaign would succeed. Then they were asked whether they would fund one of the campaigns (randomly chosen) using $5 given to the participants beforehand.
What Knutson and colleagues found is that activation of the nucleus accumbens predicted public funding choices. Great! But what was really stunning is that individual behavior (what the subjects chose to fund) and affect (how the campaign image made them feel) did not!! This is an awesome reconfiguration of Only the Shadow Knows into Only the Brain Knows. What is surprising about this is well put by the authors:
“…if sampled individuals’ behavior does not forecast aggregate behavior, then neither should processes that generate that behavior. In the present findings, however, while individual choice in the laboratory could not forecast aggregate behavior, some neural components of choice could.”
The way that I think about this is that the subjects’ brains are predicting the larger group choices. Since we assume no difference between a random group of subjects and the public, then we learn that individuals’ brains are truer to their preferences than are their actual actions. Specifically, aggregate accumbens activation is truer to what we want than is our final choice or self-reported reaction. What we really choose, or are meant to choose, was whatever the accumbens was shouting about. But for some unknown reason, that shouting was not loud enough or there was too much background noise for the shouting to rise above the din and we acted, untrue to our brain’s intentions.
Knowing that choices can be incorrect reflections of true brain desires rocks my world. It tells me that when I stand in front of the shelves of rice, indecisively ruminating, I am in the same boat as everyone else. I am an imperfect detector of my own mind. On average through time I should do well but not so much on every test. This result means I can have compassion for myself, for my indecision and my poor choices alike. Let me repeat that: we can all have compassion for ourselves and our sometimes-faulty decisions.
I like finding an excuse to have compassion period, for others and for myself. Now I did not come up with the-brain-allows-me-to-have-compassion idea. My friend Aaron Freeman did. He explained to me that what he loves about the brain is that it “gives him a reason based on empirical evidence to forgive others and to not be mad.” And then this large, deep voiced man, looks disarmingly at me, doe-eyed, raises the pitch of his voice and says slowly and quietly, “and I don’t want to be mad.” Now that is a darn good reason, a profound one, to be interested in the nervous system.
Speaking of compassion, we just learned that the American football player, Aaron Hernandez, had a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Mr Hernandez was charged and convicted of murder, incarcerated for his crime and then hung himself in prison. His brain was examined by the Boston University group interested in traumatic brain injury and CTE. I have thought for some time that it was likely that Mr Hernandez was not born to impulsive violence but developed thus after too many hits to the head. As I wrote in July 2014:
[Let’s consider] the case of Aaron Hernandez, an American football player, who has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder. I have been thinking about this case for a while. Do we know if Mr Hernandez suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE?
Would Mr Hernandez still be responsible for his actions if he has CTE? [Note that a CTE diagnosis requires pathological examination of brain tissue and this can only be confirmed by an autopsy.] Was Dave Duerson, a former NFL player with CTE, responsible for shooting himself in the heart? Was that act (which can be construed as brave and generous), the last responsible act of the original, pre-CTE version of Mr Duerson? Would Mr Duerson or the disease (CTE) have been responsible if he had shot someone else? Do we know that Mr Hernandez or Rae Carruth or any number of violent offenders have not experienced sufficient head trauma to render them clinically demented? And what difference does it make as we assess culpability for their actions?
According to many accounts, Mr Hernandez was a remarkable child and not just because of his athletic prowess. Uniformly positive assessments of the child began to change when he was a teenager and were gone by the time he entered the NFL. I would venture to say that Mr Hernandez’s progressive decline was dictated by the ravages of CTE.
I want to end by waxing poetic a bit more about my friend Aaron Freeman. I met Aaron after he took my Coursera class Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life. One June day as I was sitting at my desk, I answered the phone, “hello,” and then heard loud shouting from the other end, “Oh my God, I love you. I love you.” This was Aaron. To put Aaron’s opening remarks in context, Aaron’s voice message starts out with “I love you,” spoken slowly and deliberately, so compellingly directed at the caller that I have started talking to the voice message more than once. It is not that Aaron is indiscriminate with his love but that he has a great deal of love. Aaron is on to something. Neurobiology can be the vehicle for greater compassion, forgiveness, and love between the billions of people on this planet. Let’s do it!
If you are interested in more from Aaron and me, follow Brain Buddies Podcast. We talk implicit bias, baseball fastballs, John McCain, do-it-yourself medicine and much more!