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08/21/2002 07:00:00

Grant awarded to Caltech to study the neural wiring of moral and economic choices

PASADENA, Calif.—Steven Quartz, an associate professor of philosophy and member of the Computation and Neural Systems program at the California Institute of Technology, will lead a new program to examine the neural basis of economic and moral decision-making. The program is made possible by a $1 million grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

The three-year program will have as its primary goal the creation of a new interdisciplinary field of research, a brain-based approach to the humanities and social sciences. It will be the largest effort yet at Caltech to bring humanists, social scientists, and neuroscientists together to help shape a newly emerging "social cognitive neuroscience." The new discipline will be aimed at understanding the neural and cognitive capacities that distinguish humans from other primates, says Quartz, who will be principal investigator of the project.

"We have devised experiments to probe the brain changes during evolution which allow humans to have the complex social life that we have," Quartz explains. "We're looking at essentially our ability to create a sense of self and to reason about ourselves and others symbolically in ways other animals seem unable to. These capacities appear to be the critical ones that allow us to create a moral and social order."

The coinvestigator will be John Allman, who is the Hixon Professor of Neurobiology at Caltech. Allman, an anthropologist by training, plans to research the neurobiology of decision-making in elderly people. Past studies have shown that the healthy elderly may be more accurate than younger people in calibrating the validity of their knowledge—which can be conventionally described as "wisdom"—though the studies have not addressed the neural differences that occur over time.

The research will focus on economics and moral choices because these are the areas in which a human being is able to make decisions with abstract future goals in mind, such as providing for a healthy retirement income in 25 years, or making early educational decisions that will allow a person to eventually pursue socially valuable work. By contrast, even anthropoids such as chimpanzees and gorillas seem limited to planning for near-term gratification.

"We are particularly interested in looking at the brain structures that allow humans to create symbolic value," Quartz says. "A piece of paper or an idea can be immensely valuable to us because it possesses symbolic value, whether as a piece of currency, or an ideology. For over 2,000 years, moral philosophers have speculated about how this capacity underlies our moral life, but did very little about translating speculation into verifiable experiments."

The experiments Quartz and his colleagues have in mind will take place while test subjects are asked to make moral and economic choices while being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI). Because fMRI is capable of showing levels of local brain activity during these decision-making experiments, the results will essentially show the brain basis of moral and economic decisions.

Quartz and his colleagues will begin by investigating how our brains represent information about ourselves. "One of the greatest scientific mysteries concerns how a brain can create a sense of self," notes Quartz. "This ability is crucial to our capacity to reason about the future, as we need to project ourselves into the future as the recipient of future hypothetical consequences. Patients who have lost this ability through injury are literally blind to tomorrow. Our social life, and the institutions we have created, depends on it."

Another element of this project will involve examining the role of emotions in reasoning about ourselves and others. "There's been a longstanding debate about the role of emotion in moral decision-making," Quartz says. "We will examine brain activity while a person is making a decision on an emotionally charged moral dilemma to see how emotion and our sense of self are intertwined."

The project will also involve faculty from Caltech who are interested in economic decision-making and game theory. "The framework of experimental economics, much of which was developed right here at Caltech, is ideally suited to the new experimental methods of fMRI. It is a tremendously exciting potential merging of social science and neuroscience," Quartz says. "fMRI scans of subjects making economic decisions and playing economic games with others provides a way to probe the brain basis of reasoning about others, cooperation, competition, guilt, envy, and reciprocity."

A long-term goal of this research is to better understand how our behavior can be influenced by social context. "Making group membership salient can have an enormous impact on individual behavior. Our 'groupishness,' for better and worse, is at the core of being human," says Quartz. "Hopefully, understanding how group influences alter the brain might lead to a better understanding of the social problems confronting us."

The funding will be used for purchasing time on the functional MRIs, which will be housed in Caltech's new Brain Imaging Center, and for postdoctoral scholar salaries and graduate student support. The research will be computer-intensive due to the large amount of processing involved in producing the 3-D datasets showing brain activity during the tests.

According to David Baltimore, president of Caltech, the new project "will be an integral part of an extensive effort at Caltech, representing the full range of disciplines at the Institute, to understand not only the brain, but also the idealized notion of the 'mind.'" The research will also provide new interdisciplinary avenues linking the natural sciences with the humanities and social sciences, he added.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation was created in 1964 to support and encourage nonprofit organizations dependent on private funding and volunteer leadership. The foundation awards grants in six main program areas: conservation; population; science; children, families, and communities; the arts; and organizational effectiveness and philanthropy.

Written by Robert Tindol