Neuroscientist presents research on behavior, brain to Ethics classes

Jensen Pak

A neuroeconomics postdoctoral scholar from Caltech talked to Ethics students in the Kutler Center for Interdisciplinary Studies Oct. 12 about how brain chemistry affects people’s behavior and introduced what the students said was a different way of looking at morals, Ethics teacher Malina Mamigonian said.

Mamigonian said she invited neuroscientist Cendri Hutcherson to speak in her Ethics class last year because the neuroeconomics program at Caltech was “very established” in its field. Hutcherson came for the second time this October, visiting the Ethics class in a new center for interdisciplinary studies.

Hutcherson presented studies on the amount of control people really have over their behavior in terms of neuroscience. One of the examples she used to demonstrate the role of brain chemistry in decision-making was the difference between conservative political thinkers and more liberal political thinkers.These were shown in studies that connected conservatism to a more developed amygdala, which controls automatic senses of fear or threat, and liberalism to a more developed anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in error detection.

The class also discussed the potential for brain damage to affect emotions and actions, as well as the role of emotions in decision-making.

In previous days, the classes had conducted an experiment using nutrition bars from the cafeteria. They discussed the reasons why they did or did not share these nutrition bars with others during the exercise. The class learned from Hutcherson that their observed behavior had to do with the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that controls one’s mood, in their brains.

“It was really interesting because there were things that I just never would have thought of before,” Liza Wohlberg ’13 said. “Those things have a correlation to actual chemicals in your brain. Your physical state of being affects your moral values, which is crazy. It was just a new realm of thinking for me.”

Students said they wished Hutcherson’s visit was longer because there were many issues still left to discuss.

“As science and technology increasingly permeate our physical boundaries, I think it is important to consider how such knowledge can illuminate our decision-making processes and the nature of our motivations, but also help us confront the ethical implications of such knowledge,” Mamigonian said.

“Harvard-Westlake students generally want to know what they don’t know, and the program in neuroeconomics at Caltech shows fine scholars and scientists pursuing new and provocative matters that cross disciplines,” she said.