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Authors: Garth Sundem

Brain Trust (22 page)

BOOK: Brain Trust
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“Drugs hijack the circuitry that evolved for things like love,” says Larry Young, neuroscientist at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Most recreational drugs create dopamine release in the brain—thus our drug-induced sense of exhilaration and euphoria. And it’s dopamine that’s produced when you first fall in love. In the brain, the early stages of a relationship are very much like snorting cocaine.

And in many animals with one-and-done mating, that’s where the molecules of love end. It’s pleasurable, it’s exhilarating, then it’s done and the animal is croaking, dancing, or butting heads in search of the next rush.

But not in prairie voles.

“In prairie voles, we see three molecules involved in mating,” says Young. First, of course, is dopamine. But female voles add oxytocin to the mix. “Mothers release it during labor and when nursing,” says Young, “and when a female vole is being mated by a male, she releases oxytocin in the brain.” Male voles release vasopressin, which is only a couple amino acids different from oxytocin, and in other species is involved with territorial behavior.

What does this overlay of oxytocin or vasopressin do? “We can inject female brains with oxytocin or male brains with vasopressin and voles will bond without mating,” says Young.

Does this imply that the human experience of love could be chemical?

Young points to a Swedish study of one thousand couples that charted which men were well endowed in something called the microsatellite polymorphism in the brain’s vasopressin receptors (don’t worry, you won’t be tested on that), and asked the couples
questions about their relationships. Men who were biologically doomed to trap less vasopressin were twice as likely to report a crisis in their marriage in the past year, twice as likely to be unmarried but shacking up with a partner, and much more likely to report dissatisfaction with their relationship. In short, less vasopressin made males bond poorly.

Similarly, Young points to many studies that have confirmed the bonding properties of oxytocin, finding that it “increases eye-to-eye contact, increases ability to read emotions of other people, it increases empathy—also one study showed that if you gave oxytocin to a couple that was having a conflict, after the conflict they would have fewer bad emotions.”

And so love is chemical.

But user beware: This neurochemical cocktail of love is addictive. “Love goes from lots of dopamine to a later phase which is basically togetherness to stop withdrawal symptoms,” says Young. And once the dopamine is gone, there had better be enough vasopressin (men) or oxytocin (women) to make it in both partners’ best interest to refrain from looking for a new source of dopamine outside the relationship.

So as new love gives way to the routine of sex every other Wednesday after
Dancing with the Stars
, dopamine cedes to vasopressin/oxytocin. But what happens when love is removed altogether? What happens when you split with a partner? “If a vole loses its partner, it shows symptoms of depression similar to withdrawal,” Young says. “What does the animal do? It goes to seek a new partner.”

This is the rodent equivalent of a rebound relationship. Rather than pushing through the depression of withdrawal that eventually allows your brain chemistry to return to prerelationship levels, it’s much, much easier to find pleasure in a new drug, even when this new drug is a detrimental source of dopamine.

Instead of rebounding into whatever gives you a quick fix, give
your brain chemistry a break. After an ending, take the time you need to reset your head before another beginning.

The news flash in a study from Mount Sinai
School of Medicine is that both good and bad memories of Mom were strengthened with a dose of good old oxytocin. After a whiff, securely attached men remembered Mom more fondly, and insecurely attached men remembered Mom even less fondly. It may be that oxytocin doesn’t simply increase attachment, but that it adds saliency to emotional memory of any sort.

My earliest memory is of living in Bergen, Norway, when I was two. I vividly remember looking out at fjords from a ferryboat, and there’s a picture of me standing next to a troll statue holding up two fingers and smiling. I’ve heard my parents talk fondly about Bergen. But the thing is, I recently found out my parents lived there before I was born. The picture in question was taken during a visit to the Tyrolean kitsch town of Leavenworth, Washington, and my vivid memory of fjords and ferries must be tangled with a trip to or from Bainbridge Island. It turns out that without meaning to, my parents planted within me a false memory.

Elizabeth Loftus knows how to do it on purpose.

First, she gathers information. “We learn about a subject’s personality, about thoughts, about different foods, all to give what
happens later some credibility,” says Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California–Irvine and pioneer in the study of memory.

Then, (for example, in one series of studies) Loftus tells a subject that the research team fed the subject’s information into a supercomputer that knows, based on this information, what happened to the subject as a child. The computer lists many of the subject’s real experiences and intermixes one false experience—in the case of these studies, suggesting the “memory” of getting sick from dill pickles, hard-boiled eggs, or another food. Loftus then asks the subject to talk about these experiences. Eventually, many subjects will adopt the false memory, filling in details about the childhood food illness.

But how can you tell the subject has actually adopted the memory, rather than simply being agreeable by paying lip service to researchers’ suggestions?

“After I seduce you into believing that you got sick from a food as a child, you’ll avoid the food now,” says Loftus, who watched subjects’ food preferences after the memory insertion. Simply, the false memory of barfing pickles becomes embedded to the point that without further prompting, subjects avoid pickles in the postinterview buffet.

In addition to its implications for investigations, psychologists’ couches, and courtrooms, the ease of false memory insertion should allow you to mind-punk your friends into giving up their share of the peach schnapps (my college friends will get this inside joke, which unfortunately requires no false memory). Start a week earlier with the story, “Dude, do you remember the time when …” and when your target denies it, counter with, “Well, of course you wouldn’t remember it, but it was pretty gnarly.…” Once your target’s accepted the truth of his past transgressions, you can safely pass around the schnapps, confident you’ll get your fair share.

The idea is not a new one: All those people pedaling away in spinning class, going nowhere, burning calories to push against the adjustable friction of their back wheels. Shouldn’t we, like, use that energy for something? Couldn’t we power the lights in the gym, or heat the sauna, or digitize ancient manuscripts?

The good news is we’re already doing the last one, thanks to Luis von Ahn. But the extra power he harnesses isn’t calories from quadriceps, it’s the computational power of millions of brains. It started with another of his projects, the Captcha. That’s right, Luis von Ahn, MacArthur fellow and computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, is the guy (along with Manuel Blum) who developed the little text box gatekeepers that you squint at whenever you sign up for a new online service or post a link to a message board—it’s the way computers can tell you’re you, or at least human. “They’re pretty annoying,” says von Ahn, “and worldwide they waste about five hundred thousand hours a day.” Von Ahn started wondering if, like powering the lights by pedal, he could put these half-million hours a day of cerebral busywork to better use.

And here’s the thing about a Captcha: By design, it asks you to do something a computer can’t, that is, translate a visual image of a distorted word into text. “Your brain is doing something amazing,” says von Ahn.

Enter the Google Books Library Project. Ancient manuscripts are rotting, and before they go the way of
Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Greatest Hits
(which died with the 8-track never to boogie again) Google hopes to digitize them. So there are people in libraries around the world scanning these decaying pages by hand. The
scanned images are then fed into text recognition software, which translates the images into text files.

Trouble is, even the best OCR software isn’t perfect, and in manuscripts more than one hundred years old OCR has an error rate more than 30 percent.

So instead of simply digitizing books as best they can and settling for Shakespeare’s “To be ornut Tope, thatis the truncheon,” the Google Books Library Project feeds each scan into two different text recognition softwares, and when the software disagrees on a word, they call in an impartial, third-party arbiter: you. The software snips the image of the word in question and places it in a Captcha box (now called reCaptcha), and you play the part of translator. Whenever you type the words you see in a reCaptcha box, you’re translating a word from an ancient manuscript or from the
New York Times
archives or from any number of previously undigitizable text sources that would otherwise eventually fade into the great circular file of cultural forgetting.

This is why there are two words in a reCaptcha box—one against which the computer checks you, and one the computer doesn’t know, that you translate. Your opinion is compared to other users’ opinions until a word gets 2.5 consistent “votes” (humans are worth one vote, the OCR software is worth one-half), at which point it’s considered solved. Easy words, on which all humans agree, are recycled to become the control words against which the computer measures your humanity.

“We’re doing 70 million words a day,” says von Ahn, “a couple million books a year; and there are 750 million distinct people who have digitized at least one word.” That’s one out of every nine people on earth who’s helped turn decaying images of ink on paper into everlasting ones and zeros.

“Humanity’s greatest achievements—the
pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the Panama Canal—were all done with, like, 100,000 people,” says von Ahn. In his opinion, this was due to the impossibility of coordinating more than this 100,000. And so there was a cap on potential human achievement. “But now with the Internet, we can coordinate 100 million. If 100,000 people could put a man on the moon, what could we do with 100 million?”
Researchers in the new field of “culturenomics”
are mining the 5,195,769-and-growing volumes of the Google Books Library Project for elements of cultural change. For example, you can see the suppression of the Jewish artist Marc Chagall in Germany as the difference in the frequency of his name in English and German books. In English, Chagall continues to rise through the Nazi period, whereas in Germany, there’s a sharp drop-off in the printing of his name. And, interestingly, Darwin took off during and just after his lifetime, but it wasn’t until the discovery of the structure of DNA that his name exploded into the cultural lexicon.

BOOK: Brain Trust
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