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New blog! and thanks for reading

Hello, readers and fans of the CNS! Thanks for following Mind the Gap through its eighth-month run. Having just left Penn, I’m blogging at a new spot — check it out. Otherwise, keep following the CNS. And be good to your brains!

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Study drugs: When how you think is how you feel

Sociologist and former CNS fellow Scott Vrecko studies student use of stimulants as “study drugs,” which may work via emotional changes. Image from hellawella.com

The phrase sounds simple enough: cognitive enhancement. “Cognitive” more or less refers to thought and “enhancement” to improvement, so voilà — cognitive enhancement must mean improved thinking. And that’s often how the topic gets framed. But sociologist Scott Vrecko just published a paper suggesting that our current picture of enhancement is incomplete.

In a recent article for AJOB Neuroscience, Vrecko addressed what he saw as a big hole in enhancement literature: in-depth descriptions of how these pills change the way people feel, not just how they think. His study focused on the most immediate issue within enhancement, stimulant use by college students who don’t have learning or attention disorders.

To explore this topic, Vrecko — who was a CNS fellow last year — interviewed 24 former or current university students who take stimulants as enhancers. His results? Students didn’t describe the pills as making them brilliant thinkers. Rather, the drugs seemed to have their biggest impact in making tedious work less, well, miserable.

Based on their responses, Vrecko identified four emotion-related areas where subjects felt improved on meds. Those areas are “feeling up,” “drivenness,” “interestedness” and “enjoyment.” As their labels imply, all four seem to involve motivation. And as anyone who has ever worked or studied knows, different motivation levels can mean very different emotional experiences. Feeling unmotivated can be stressful, depressing and numbing — quite a contrast from the buzz we might feel when we’re ready to get things done.

For some students, that’s where stimulants like Adderall come in: to make boring work seem fun. Or at the very least, it makes them so driven they won’t so much as glance at their phones, email or Facebook accounts — a massive feat in our age group — until they finish everything. Being that focused certainly involves cognition. But even so, when these students explain why they take stimulants, it sounds like what they really rely on is the change in mood.

Long story short, we need to appreciate that emotions are a big part of the way cognitive enhancers work. And looking more at emotion might encourage clinicians to confront ethical issues beyond the ones that typically dominate discussions on enhancement.

When these pills are seen as strictly improving cognition, ethical concerns revolve around fairness. More specifically, we ask how we can ensure equal access to a resource that can make people think better. We also wonder whether academic achievement becomes less meaningful when aided by pills.

But in considering enhancement’s emotional side, other problems take center stage. Bursting with excitement over eight hours of astronomy homework sounds great. On the other hand, these academic “highs” can help facilitate dependence. Moreover, enhancement may represent a band-aid solution to deeper problems with our work culture. Should students use pills that make them complacent toward work they hate doing? Or should they be introspecting about the choices that make them take on unappealing work in the first place?

These are all worthwhile questions for future enhancement research. I’m also curious about the quality of the work students produce on stimulants, which this paper doesn’t cover. But regardless, Vrecko’s sounded an alarm.

And these findings might have broader value by chipping away at perceptions of cognition and emotion as two completely separate things. We have the intuition that the way we feel affects the way we think, and vice versa. It can’t hurt for the literature to better reflect that, and one place to start is rethinking what we mean when we say “cognitive enhancement.”

Apply to Neuroscience Boot Camp by Friday at midnight

It’s shameless plug time, but for good reason: anyone out there want to learn more about neuroscience? If so, be sure to check out the CNS’ Neuroscience Boot Camp — one of the few boot camps out there that involves more lunches and lectures than fatigues. The Boot Camp is an immersive week-long program that teaches neuroscience to grad students and professionals in other fields. This year’s program will be held right here at Penn from July 29 to August 7.

Neuroscience can be applied to all kinds of fields, so this is a great opportunity to get an edge in whatever cool thing you do. You can read more and apply on the site, where you’ll also find information about financial aid. Applications are due this Friday at midnight and don’t require much writing. So if you’re curious about the brain and can spare less than an hour, give it a go!

Next on Mind the Gap: I’ll be looking at a paper on cognitive enhancement by sociologist Scott Vrecko. There will be college students, stress and pills — a pretty fascinating cocktail. Look out for the post over the next week.

“Genopolitics” sounds formidable but may say little

Graphic by Dan Saelinger of Scientific American

As 24/7 news coverage of the U.S. presidential elections winds down, here’s an interesting little postscript from behavioral genetics:

In a post for Scientific American, geneticist Evan Charney and political scientist William English assess attempts to match genes with voting behaviors. Apparently dozens of studies over the past few years have sought a role for genetics in tagging liberal versus conservative ideology, party loyalty and voting practices. According to Charney and English, none of the studies actually say much – but we can take a broader lesson from their mistakes.

In addition to pointing out these studies’ methodological flaws, the post authors take issue with the general notion that human behavior can be meaningfully traced back to a handful of genes. As Charney and English put it: “The chance that any complex human behavior — such as voting — might have one or two major predisposing genes is practically zero.” Their point is well-taken, especially since the lure of genetic explanations touches many fields. Looking at the big picture, it’s worth asking how a discipline like “genopolitics” could be constructive, or whether it’s an attempt to impose genetics on a field that doesn’t really have need for it.

Next on Mind the Gap: For a look at politics that’s got less genetics and a lot more neuroscience, Brown professor Fiery Cushman will speak at Penn this Monday night about the cognitive mechanisms underlying political and moral beliefs. I’ll be covering the lecture on the blog, so make sure to check back here as well!

Not so big, not so bad backyard drones?

The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. Photo by Raymond Wong of dvice.com

In honor of Halloween and Hurricane Sandy (relevance to be explained), today I’m going to indulge in one of my favorite topics: robots.

When I think of robots, I like to picture the cartoon and movie ones, appropriate for a day like October 31 in their weird hybrid of human and inhuman characteristics. Such hybrids force us to think about the social and ethical influences of technology, human hubris and some of the simultaneously most exciting and terrifying aspects of our future (so, you know, some casual Wednesday afternoon-type thinking). And they can be extremely useful tools in psychology and neuroscience, in that we can use robotic technology to refine and apply our understanding of the inner-workings of our own minds (check out Brian Scassellati’s robotics work at Yale with implications for human social interaction).

But robots seem to be catching a bad rep these days, since they are often brought up in the context of drones: unmanned aerial vehicles used by the U.S. military in overseas combat and intelligence gathering. Their use is supported by both President Obama and Mitt Romney, and controversy swirls around the civilian casualties they can cause as well as possible security holes in the technology. These kinds of problems probably say far more about the people deploying these vehicles than the vehicles themselves. Nonetheless, it’s worth considering the ongoing but less publicized effort to create humanitarian roles for robotic technology. Small robots are actually being used to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, and NASA is working on a set of drones for tracking hurricanes (see the original post on this at robots.net). Texas A&M University has even got an entire research program looking to expand robot-assisted search and rescue operations, cleverly entitled “Robotics Without Borders.” Perhaps most startling, though, is that you can purchase one of the drones being used in Vernon, CT to record post-Sandy destruction to the area. Paris-based manufacturer Parrot markets their drone as a “flying video game,” and it’s basically a glorified flying camera with a WiFi system allowing you to control it from your smartphone or tablet. Then again: it’s a flying camera that you can control with your smartphone or tablet. If you think about it, that’s not exactly a trivial gadget.

These devices are a long way from the walking, talking humanoids sci-fi dreams are made of. But the technology is still pretty spectacular, and their presence just seems to be growing – meaning we’re long overdue for open conversations on the ways robot technology can be safely and ethically incorporated into our lives. For tonight, it might be enough to pop in Blade Runner. But it is something to keep in (your flesh-and-blood, non silicon-based) mind.

*An update: For a more extensive look at the dangers posed by robot soldiers, check out this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Jonathan Moreno, CNS faculty member, David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of  Ethics at Penn and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.