Friday, September 26, 2014

Anthropomorphic Neuroscience Driven by Researchers with Large TPJs

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.

Further Reading

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

Contact UCL Media Relations for a high resolution photo of Prof Rees

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At September 26, 2014 6:02 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Your post was so very cute, but what did it prove other than your TPJ is relatively reduced.

Could it be that the enlargement of the TPJ area is correlated to increase perception of and interpretation of information including interspecies emotional resonance? Those have read the research of Jaak Panksepp may have evolved increased areas of perception?

It was my experience that universities practice systematic desensitization to other species emotions. "Anthropomorphism" is ridiculed (it would be called a theory in any other branch).

Obviously, you have been a victim of this human-centric world view, and I postulate that your TPJ has suffered the conseuences.

At September 27, 2014 1:16 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...


Was it not lighthearted enough?

At September 27, 2014 7:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I might have missed something or misunderstood. But to me it read like an attempt to ridicule the authors and their research without providing specific criticism (which seems unusual for your blog)

At September 27, 2014 10:55 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous - Then my effort for the post to appear like a faux press release {hence, "For immediate release"} failed. At least, that's the only reason I can imagine for the "bully" comment. I only mentioned one person by name and included Prof Rees' photo *only* because Media Relations Offices often do that. Oh, and I wrote a disclaimer and apologized to the authors for my attempt at humor. I'm sorry you didn't see it that way, because it was certainly not my intent to be a "bully" (like one of those "shameless little bullies" perhaps?).

As for specific criticisms, I avoided using the word phrenology to describe this research. Do you find it plausible that 24 voxels in your left temporal-parietal junction are "the neural correlates of anthropomorphism"? Why not the right TPJ, because some have emphasized the right for theory of mind. The authors raised this point in the Discussion and issued a caveat:

"ToM tasks are more frequently associated with right (Saxe and Wexler, 2005) rather left TPJ (Frith and Frith, 2003) activation, raising the question why we did not find any evidence for a relationship between individual differences in anthropomorphization and the structure of the right TPJ. One simple possibility is that there is no necessary relationship between individual differences in brain structure and evoked activity associated with a particular mental process (Kanai and Rees, 2011)."

I could have quoted this point and gone on to discuss what it means when a brain region is larger, but unrelated to functional activity in an active task.

I also might have asked why there was no region in the brain related to anthropomorphism of non-animal entities (I sort of did, with the robot remark).

Finally, I could have quoted two paragraphs in the Discussion that begin: "There are a number of possible caveats to our work." But all of this would have defeated the purpose of the post.

As for Anthropomophic Neuroscience, a discussion of how words typically used to describe human mental states (e.g. "regret") get applied to experimentally-induced behavior in rats was beyond the scope of the post. I linked to a very lengthy post of mine on that topic, as well as one by one of the rat regret authors.

In the end, I was only trying to be funny (as some readers thought -- maybe it was the mask), not mean, and I hope that the time I took to make this comment convinced you of that.

At September 27, 2014 11:08 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

The right TPJ link in the previous comment is broken, it's corrected here.

At September 27, 2014 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying - I indeed didn't get the faux press release idea

At September 27, 2014 2:45 PM, Anonymous Geraint Rees said...

I'm always delighted when our papers attract comment, and very happy to engage with constructive criticism and robust scientific debate. But sadly I can't see a single substantive scientific comment to respond to here. Just a lot of innuendo, attempted ridicule and sneering. A real shame and not something that we should encourage in science.

At September 27, 2014 3:43 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

"Prof Rees" - I apologize, clearly my attempt at humor fell flat. It was really not at all an attempt at ridicule and sneering, as I explained in the comment above. It was more aimed at university press offices in fact, who make exaggerated and fanciful claims in order to bolster interest in the work.

Since you (or someone writing in your stead) are quite offended by the post, I will remove your image, if you prefer. Again, my apologies. Clearly my advance apology and disclaimer and lengthy comment was insufficient.

Perhaps you will prefer this post from 2011 that both engages constructively and points out impressive aspects of the Firth co-authored paper, to which I linked in this post.

At September 27, 2014 10:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that you were bullying someone. On the contrary, you are to apologetic recently. This is way too much fuss about a clearly humorous post. Neuroscientists often seek the attention of the public so they should be able to endure (and should have) some wit.

At September 28, 2014 7:26 AM, Anonymous David J. Littleboy said...

Hmm. I think that neuroscience has need of more bullies; there's a certain desperation in many current attempts at finding a neural correlate (at the voxel resolution scale) to some human behavior or psychology. And to make matters worse, the data from fMRI machines is so flaky even dead salmon have emotions. (There's a line from Thurber's The 13 clocks to the effect "you have the emotions of a dead fish", so there's literary precedent for that result.)

So, please. Bully away.

Anthropomorphism is certainly a useful heuristic some of the time: if you've every tried to carve maple, you'd think that it was intentionally thwarting your intended depth and direction of cuts you'd like to make, and it's useful to plan on how to outsmart it. But do violin makers have larger TPJ areas than painters? I kinda doubt it.

At September 28, 2014 8:43 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

As the original neurocritic critic, I also tried and failed to meet the levity of "Anthropomorphic Neuroscience Driven by Researchers with Large TPJs" while furthering a topical discussion.

However, the targeted discussion was suppressed by negative responses. NC has apologized for offending and has done all he could short of posting a video of Self-flagellation (please don't).

Now that we've beat the poor guy into a pulp, why don't we examine why we reacted so subjectively to this prank?

I hope "Prof Rees" steps back and looks at the big picture that triggered our subjective responses as an interesting outcome. Its a sad day for science when tenure is no longer be a time one can sink one's teeth into the interesting questions that are have been politically suppressed.

At September 28, 2014 12:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

*facepalms* Please... not the dead salmon again! This is why you should never get into online debates about science.

At September 28, 2014 2:18 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

We are still dancing around the debate.

NC's post brought up concerns such as:

1. the plethora of research that associates every known personality trait, political attitude, and individual difference with the size of a unique brain structure. And they ALL hold the cure for autism!

2. The tendency of "real science" to differentiate the human animal from all other animals [as if humans were DEVINELY CONCEIVED separate entities from the theory of evolution from which the other lowly species suffer] with formidable walls. The walls are systematically created in undergrad curriculum. Human's created the dismissive term, "anthropomorphism" to ridicule anyone who wonders if emotion could be more than a divinely appointed, single species trait.

3. The reliance on brain scans to prove anything we want to prove. If I truly want NC and the other commentators to accept my "beliefs" (the apparent state of research is to prove my belief over yours by any research necessary), I would post a brain scan here --> X

4. Does your position as a superior animal mean that you also dismiss all research on our belief we have free will (another divinely appointed single species attribute)?

5. I am just a lowly lay person in this discussion, but foolish me thought that scientific method called on replication as the primary tool for testing research. Not ridicule based on one's belief system.

What does all this [ridicule and suppression of including humans with all other "animals - eww"] mean for the future of neuroscience research?

At September 28, 2014 2:44 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks to all for your supportive comments, I appreciate it.

Unknown - I do want to address the issue of anthropomorphism, especially now that I've seen the Waytz et al. (2010) paper that developed the IDAQ. Those authors discuss the larger implications of anthropomorphism, including for moral care and concern, human-computer interactions, law, marketing, finance, etc. Much of the discussion deals with ascribing human-like qualities to non-animal entities such as technology. The authors of the MRI paper did not find a relationship to non-animal anthropomorphism.

The topic is more interesting than I expected, and I'll return to the IDAQ in a future comment.

At September 28, 2014 5:52 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

You should check out Jaak, too since he has been working in affective neuroscience longer than anyone else.

Jaak Panksepp


Jaak Panksepp is an Estonian-born American psychologist, a psychobiologist, a neuroscientist, the Baily Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science for the Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, ... Wikipedia

Born: June 5, 1943 (age 71), Tartu, Estonia

Education: University of Massachusetts Amherst

Books: The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology), More

At September 28, 2014 6:10 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I have been over responding, but I also wish to offer Professor Geraint Rees my heart felt apology. For some reason, I thought he was the NC's advisor or something. Then when I rechecked the blog to grab a detail, I noticed he was the one you ridiculed.

Please forgive me, Professor Rees for not recognizing your name and dismissing your post.

Your work has sparked a good debate that will hopefully influence everyone who saw this blog.

At September 28, 2014 7:11 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

I really wasn't trying to ridicule the work. I had this idea to combine two new findings from behavioral and systems neuroscience with the fMRI study on anthropomorphism. The rat regret study starts out:

"Regret is a universal human experience1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The experience of regret modifies future actions1, 4, 6. However, regret in other mammals has never been identified; it is not known whether nonhuman mammals are capable of experiencing regret."

Then I tried to make it read like a typical exaggerated press release, but with funny twist. I was sort of reminded of the old SNL Emily Litella character with the 'mentalizing mask':

"What is all this fuss I hear about 'mentalizing masks'?"

...showing a gross misunderstanding of terminology (but not due to a hearing problem in this case).

At any rate, I wanted to try something different. If "Geraint Rees" (whether the real one or otherwise) wants me to make a "single substantive scientific comment" I would ask why there were no neural correlates of non-animal anthropomorphism. That was not discussed in the paper.

Cullen et al. related their left TPJ animal anthropomorphization finding to studies of non-animal entities like geometric shapes, gadgets, and robot avatars -- none of which are animals.

Although there was indeed a two factor solution to the IDAQ, Waytz et al. also identified a single superordinate factor of "general anthropomorphism" and focused a substantial portion of their discussion on non-animal agents. That was not mentioned by Cullen et al., and it would have been interesting to see whether they found any significant regions when examining the total IDAQ score.

At September 28, 2014 7:42 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

It's a structural MRI study of course, typing fMRI is a habit...

At September 28, 2014 7:50 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I haven't seen the article. I feel very compelled to call out bad science, and it seems that this is what you also were attempting.

It is my understanding that Dr. Rees (the "real" one) did include numerous limitations, which implies to me that he published a theory for which he plans further research. Hopefully, this is still a good way to gather constructive criticism. However, I have become a research skeptic.

I do think you have sincerely apologized and hope that is enough all the way around.

Perhaps the lessoned learned is that future attempts such as this are done with greater anonymity to s/he being ridiculed/satire.


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