S.O.S – Scan Our Soul

Psyched Out

Krista Rothschild
Apr 01, 2011

What makes us human? In the age of artificial intelligence and concern for animal rights, it is a question whose importance is back at the center of public debate. What is it exactly that makes us different from machines or animals? Is it a capacity for self-awareness, feelings or empathy? Our social competencies and social emotions?

These are the questions Dr. Claus Lamm, professor of Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience at the University of Vienna, is hoping to answer. The leading research psychologist, Dr. Lamm has been studying the parts of the brain connected to social emotions in experimental settings.

On a Tuesday morning, I arrived in his office at 9:00 armed with a model of the brain, the kind where you can dismantle the cortex to reveal the layers of the limbic system and brainstem underneath. Claus Lamm is a surprisingly young man given his erudition, tall, lean, with wavy brown hair – more like a surfer than a scholar, which I thought was just fine. He saw the model in my hands and smiled.

"Can I offer you a coffee?" he said.

Thinking that a second espresso (if not a second brain) would be helpful when talking to a neuroscientist, I of course gratefully agreed. After reviewing his journal articles, the first question – presumably of all psychologists – seemed obvious: Was it only physical pain, or also emotional pain, that be mapped to a specific area of the brain?

Dr. Lamm’s experiments involve locating the human experience of pain and empathy for pain. It began with a Google search. Searching for a new research direction, hoping to work in an English speaking country, and reading the then current Mercer Report, Lamm recounted, he simply googled ‘British Columbia’ and ‘brain’, and came up with Jean Decety. "Wow, that’s interesting!" he thought. "Someone is doing research on empathy." So he got in touch with him.

Splitting the hemispheres of the model brain, Lamm revealed the anterior insula cortex (AI) and cingulate cortex (CC), present centrally on both sides. The last ten years of international research have distinguished the AI as responsible for bodily awareness of pain and the neighboring area of the brain, the cingulate cortex, for emotional and motivational aspects of pain.

So is this what makes us different from animals – this difference in how our minds’ works due to a hidden and larger, extra fold of the cortex? It is certainly a new perspective. The ancient Greek philosopher Philolaus regarded the heart as the seat of the soul. René Descartes considered it to be the pineal gland at the center of the brain.

Today with psychologists in neuroscience applying functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to present portraits of our social and emotional life, the modern seat of the soul appears to be this fold of the cortex lying deep inside the brain. These areas are not found in the brains of all primates, thus the assumption is that is a newly evolved area, concluded Dr. A.D. (Bud) Craig, in Nature Reviews: Neuroscience (2009). The delay of this knowledge was due to the inability to electronically stimulate this area without causing brain damage to the outer cortex.  Furthermore in this much deeper layer, there are few "arteries specifically going to this region" and the area seems to be more robust – not a "hot spot" for strokes, continued Lamm. When the AI is affected by a stroke, the damage usually includes a large amount of the outer cortex areas, making the differentiation of resulting impairments unclear, Lamm explained.

The fMRI 3D images show the neural activity based on the amount of blood flow (more accurately, the increased demand of oxygen) to the various brain regions. The advantages of fMRI are in its use of magnetic fields instead of x-rays and its abandonment of radioactive contrast agents, allowing for prolonged exposure during an experiment.

Due to these technological advancements with fMRI in the last 10 years, the anatomical-neurological process of pain perception has been re-defined. Pain, it turns out, is an easily replicable experience.

"You can do it repeatedly, and you always have the same kind of [authentic] response. It does not become habitual," Dr. Lamm explained. "If you use more complex emotions or more social emotions like joy or sadness, these are harder to reliably induce in the [fMRI] scanner and to have the same kind of emotion in repeated trials."

Lamm turned to studying empathy for pain. His experiments and meta-analysis on pain and empathy, in cooperation with Jean Decety and Tania Singer in NeuroImage (2011), have documented the AI and a portion of the CC, the medial cingulate cortex, as the center not only of physical pain but also the emotional state of empathy for another’s pain.

Director of the Atkinson Pain Research Laboratory, Dr. Craig, reported on the vast range of social emotions – compassion, fairness, cooperation, trust, maternal and romantic love, anger, sadness, fear, disgust and sexual arousal – shown to be activators of the AI. The perception of time, the analysis of risk and performance, attention and attention control – in connection with AI – led to Craig’s conclusion that this region plays a central role in the moderation between the executive functions (the most complex thoughts of planning and handling) and self-awareness.

So where is this leading us? In a soon to be published meta-analysis on the trainability of empathy by Dr. Gerlinde Berghofer and Univ. Prof. Dr. Thomas Oberlechner of Webster University, evidence shows that empathy can be trained in most cases. Could this change someone’s brain structure or function? Lamm would not be surprised.

"One of the most exciting features of the brain is that it is very, very plastic," he said. It can adapt to a whole lot of stress." Even after injury, birth defects and damage caused by strokes, the brain can often re-route functions and continue to perform.  "Emotions are very plastic and malleable. That is also shown by my recent research that empathy... can be modulated by many, many factors. How you look at things, whether you take the perspective of others in an emotional state leads to an increase in empathy."

Vienna’s Medical University and the University of Vienna plan to support further research in neuroimaging. Lamm and colleague Rupert Lanzenberger (Medical University Vienna, Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy) were awarded funding in January for a new interdisciplinary research project on the assessment of neurobiological markers for psychiatric disorders.  Here combined methods of electroencephalograph (EEG), Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), fMRI, pharmacological manipulations and behavioral experiments will be explored in connection with psychiatric disorders. Lamm hopes to show a connection between brain structure and function, social emotions and finally actual behaviors and decision making.

Using the technology prophylactically, however – for instance in identifying a risk of anti-social behavior – is another question Lamm sees serious ethical problems in.

"First I don’t think science in general is very good at predicting things," he said. "And even if the methods were precise enough to give me a very good risk estimate of what someone is going to develop in, I would never use this as evidence for locking someone up. It is a moral responsibility we have here."

In addition, he said, the methods are just not reliable enough – and may never be. "Because of the plasticity of the brain, what you might see today in my brain might not actually be the same as what you see tomorrow, even if you give me exactly the same tasks," he said, citing inter- and intrapersonal differences that must be considered. "I don’t think you can ever have complete information about something simply by looking at structural image."

So although science and technology are making remarkable advances in our understanding of human nature and our emotional life, the limitations remind us of the importance of retaining our humanity in the use of it.