Monday, March 13, 2006

More on Humor and Hot Flashes

Someone might [did] ask, "Why is it problematic to find that some of the neural correlates of X are the same as the neural correlates of a seemingly unrelated ability/state Y?"

Fair question.

It could be that the neural correlates of humor, hot flashes, and empathy are all the same. This would not be a problem for some cartographers of cognition (and emotion) who don't really care about phenomenology (i.e., laughing at a joke seems to be a different experience than "feeling someone else's pain" or having a hot flash, but some circuit in the brain can't distinguish between these experiences). In my opinion, this sort of result would mean that the methodology is entirely unsatisfactory in explaining mental states, if it turned out to be the case that statistically indistinguishable brain states were associated with watching Dave Chappelle vs. watching Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Of course, one might hope that this would be due to the crude level of analysis permitted by fMRI.

OR it could be that the similarly-located BOLD activations observed in fMRI studies of humor, hot flashes, and empathy for pain are driven by some underlying commonality (let's say an increase in autonomic functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating). There is some evidence that the brain areas mentioned below are, in fact, sensitive to increases in arousal and autonomic activation (see the post "More Lies... Damn Lies..."). If the degree of activation in the anterior cingulate cortex and frontoinsular cortex are correlated with autonomic activation, one would of course expect hot flashes to be the worst [NOTE: the scanner environment would preclude humor that induces guffawing and belly-laughing]. Anyway, one would need to test peri-menopausal women on humor and empathy for that comparison...

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