For immediate release — SEPTEMBER 26, 2014
Research from the UCL lab of Professor Geraint Rees has proven that the recent craze for suggesting that rats have “regrets” or show “disappointment” is solely due to the size of the left temporal-parietal junction (TPJ) in the human authors of those papers (Cullen et al., 2014). This startling breakthrough was part of a larger effort to associate every known personality trait, political attitude, and individual difference with the size of a unique brain structure.
Cullen and colleagues recruited 83 healthy behavioral neuroscientists and acquired structural brain images using a 1.5-T Siemens Sonata MRI scanner. The participants completed the Individual Differences in Anthropomorphism Questionnaire (IDAQ), along with 698 other self-report measures. Factor analysis of the IDAQ yielded a two factor solution: anthropomorphism of 1) non-human animals, and 2) non-animals (technology and nature).
Voxel-based morphometry (VBM) was used to quantify gray matter volume from the structural MRIs. To do this, the authors constructed a “mentalizing mask” to divine which regions of interest (ROIs) would yield the best results.
Based on the intuitions of Psychic Love Doctor Anabella (and results from previous studies on theory of mind and social cognition), six 12 mm spheres were drawn in the left and right medial prefrontal cortices (x y z MNI coordinates = ±10, 51, 34), the temporal poles (±43, 8, −34), and the posterior superior temporal sulcus/TPJ (±52, −56, 23).
Separate analyses were done using another “mentalizing mask” with different coordinates as well as an anatomically-based mask. But the authors went with the Psychic Love Doctor mask after all. They also did a whole brain analysis, by the way.
“You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next.”
A tiny little cluster of 24 voxels in the left TPJ correlated with scores on the animal IDAQ scale. This means that the neuroscientists responsible for studies on regret (Steiner & Redish, 2014) and disappointment (Shabel et al., 2014) in rats had the largest L TPJs, by far. Besides publishing in Nature Neuroscience and Science, respectively, these participants were most inclined to attribute human mental states to non-human animals.
Fig. 1 (Cullen et al., 2014). The region where grey matter volume showed a correlation with anthropomorphism of non-human animals is shown overlaid on a T1-weighted MRI anatomical image. The cross hair identifies the cluster at the left temporoparietal junction (−45,−54, 27) showing a statistically significant (P < 0.05 FWE-corrected for volume examined) positive correlation with anthropomorphism of non-human animals as measured by the animal IDAQ.
However, readers of io9 and theNewerYork will be sorely disappointed that no areas of the brain were correlated with anthropomorphization of robots.
What does this mean for the future of neuroscience research? Given the prestigious outlets that publish papers in the hot new field of Anthropomorphic Neuroscience, here's what I envision: transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) labs will be overrun with modest scientists who study spatial memory, hoping a stimulating, L TPJ-induced portrayal of rats as taxi drivers will land them in the pages of Nature.
Disclaimer: Although this post is based on a real study, some of the details are fictionalized. I leave it to the discerning reader to separate fact from fiction. My sincerest apologies to all the authors.
Of Mice and Women: Animal Models of Desire, Dread, and Despair – are they really adequate stand-ins for the human condition?
Post-modern Anthropomorphism – rat “regret” author A. David Redish, Ph.D. on the use of human cognitive terms for non-human animal behavior.
Rats Regret Making the Wrong Decision – accessible summary.
Scientists Discover “Dimmer Switch” For Mood Disorders – strains credulity to go from rat “disappointment” to a depression dimmer switch in humans.
Not tonight dear, I had zymosan A injected into my hind paw – Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, in rats. You decide.
Liberals Are Conflicted and Conservatives Are Afraid – discusses the Colin Firth study on political orientation and brain structure (Kanai, Feilden, Firth & Rees, 2011).
Cullen, H., Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., & Rees, G. (2014). Individual differences in anthropomorphic attributions and human brain structure Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9 (9), 1276-1280 DOI: 10.1093/scan/nst109
Shabel, S., Proulx, C., Piriz, J., & Malinow, R. (2014). GABA/glutamate co-release controls habenula output and is modified by antidepressant treatment Science, 345 (6203), 1494-1498 DOI: 10.1126/science.1250469
Steiner, A., & Redish, A. (2014). Behavioral and neurophysiological correlates of regret in rat decision-making on a neuroeconomic task Nature Neuroscience, 17 (7), 995-1002 DOI: 10.1038/nn.3740
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