Hands-On Research

Caltech Neuroscientists Show How Brain Responds to Sensual Caress

PASADENA, Calif.—A nuzzle of the neck, a stroke of the wrist, a brush of the knee—these caresses often signal a loving touch, but can also feel highly aversive, depending on who is delivering the touch, and to whom. Interested in how the brain makes connections between touch and emotion, neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have discovered that the association begins in the brain's primary somatosensory cortex, a region that, until now, was thought only to respond to basic touch, not to its emotional quality.

The new finding is described in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The team measured brain activation while self-identified heterosexual male subjects lay in a functional MRI scanner and were each caressed on the leg under two different conditions. In the first condition, they saw a video of an attractive female bending down to caress them; in the second, they saw a video of a masculine man doing the same thing. The men reported the experience as pleasurable when they thought the touch came from the woman, and aversive when they thought it came from the man. And their brains backed them up: this difference in experience was reflected in the activity measured in each man's primary somatosensory cortex.

"We demonstrated for the first time that the primary somatosensory cortex—the brain region encoding basic touch properties such as how rough or smooth an object is—also is sensitive to the social meaning of a touch," explains Michael Spezio, a visiting associate at Caltech who is also an assistant professor of psychology at Scripps College in Claremont, California. "It was generally thought that there are separate brain pathways for how we process the physical aspects of touch on the skin and for how we interpret that touch emotionally—that is, whether we feel it as pleasant, unpleasant, desired, or repulsive. Our study shows that, to the contrary, emotion is involved at the primary stages of social touch."

Unbeknownst to the subjects, the actual touches on their leg were always exactly the same—and always from a woman. Yet, it felt different to them when they believed a man versus a woman was doing the touching.

"The primary somatosensory cortex responded more to the 'female' touch than to the 'male' touch condition, even while subjects were only viewing a video showing a person approach their leg," says Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Caltech and director of the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, where the research was done. "We see responses in a part of the brain thought to process only basic touch that were elicited entirely by the emotional significance of social touch prior to the touch itself, simply in anticipation of the caress that our participants would receive."

The study was carried out in collaboration with the husband-and-wife team of Valeria Gazzola and Christian Keysers, who were visiting Caltech from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. 

"Intuitively, we all believe that when we are touched by someone, we first objectively perceive the physical properties of the touch—its speed, its gentleness, the roughness of the skin," says Gazzola. "Only thereafter, in a separable second step based on who touched us, do we believe we value this touch more or less."

The experiment showed that this two-step vision is incorrect, at least in terms of separation between brain regions, she says, and who we believe is touching us distorts even the supposedly objective representation of what the touch was like on the skin.

"Nothing in our brain is truly objective," adds Keysers. "Our perception is deeply and pervasively shaped by how we feel about the things we perceive." 

One possible practical implication of the work is to help reshape social responses to touch in people with autism.

"Now that we have clear evidence that primary somatosensory cortex encodes emotional significance of touch, it may be possible to work with early sensory pathways to help children with autism respond more positively to the gentle touch of their parents and siblings," says Spezio.

The work also suggests that it may be possible to use film clips or virtual reality to reestablish positive responses to gentle touch in victims of sexual and physical abuse, and torture.

Next, the researchers hope to test whether the effect is as robust in women as in men, and in both sexes across sexual orientation. They also plan to explore how these sensory pathways might develop in infants or children.

Two other collaborators who contributed to the PNAS paper, "Primary somatosensory cortex discriminates affective significance in social touch," are Fulvia Castelli from University College London and Joset Etzel from the University of Groningen. Funding for the study included grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Dutch Science Foundation, a Scripps College Faculty Research grant, and a Marie Curie Excellence Grant.

Katie Neith
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Caltech Research Shows Medicare Auction Will Face Severe Difficulties

Medicare's new method for buying medical supplies and equipment—everything from wheelchairs and hospital beds to insulin shots and oxygen tanks—is doomed to face severe difficulties, according to a new study by Caltech researchers.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) implemented the purchasing process—a novel type of auction—in nine metropolitan areas across the country last year and plans to expand it to 91 in 2013.

The competitive bidding process was designed to improve the efficiency of Medicare's procurement system, potentially saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. But many experts have criticized the auction, pointing out fundamental flaws in its design. Now, a series of experiments testing the auction structure show that it does, in fact, fall short of expectations. The results of the study, which was conducted by Caltech seniors Brian Merlob and Yuanjun Zhang, and Charles Plott, the Harkness Professor of Political Science and Economics, were published in the May issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

In principle, auctions are a cheap and efficient way to procure goods and reward companies that can inexpensively produce their goods. In the case of the Medicare auction, various companies make bids to the government that represent their best prices for medical supplies and equipment; the government, in turn, wants the best deal and so chooses the lowest bids. For example, if 1,000 hospital beds are needed and it would take five companies to supply them all, the five lowest bids are chosen.

Unlike standard auctions, however, the CMS auction was designed with two unorthodox rules. First, the eventual selling price is set at the median of all of the winning bids. Second, bids are nonbinding, so companies can change their mind once the prices are set.

Critics say that these rules cultivate a harmful bidding strategy. To ensure a winning bid, each company will make a very low offer; this carries no risk, because the companies can cancel their bid if the median price turns out to be too low. The result is that participants in the auction will tend to make low-ball bids, assuring that the median price will also be very low—so low, in fact, that few of the companies can actually afford it, leading them to cancel their offers. At the extreme, nothing is bought or sold and, Plott says, "the auction crashes. It's just not an effective auction."

And what will happen then, critics warn, is that the government will end up negotiating prices with individual companies—negating the whole point of a competitive-bidding scheme in the first place. "You can see immediately from theoretical arguments that the potential for disaster is built right in the strategic structures," Plott says.

To determine if such theoretical predictions translate into real-world behavior, it is essential to examine experimentally how people behave in an actual auction, says Plott—who, for the last 30 years at Caltech, has been developing experimental techniques to test economic theories. He posed the problem to his experimental economics (EC 160) class. Two of his students, Merlob and Zhang, took up the challenge and spent a year researching, designing, and conducting experiments to test that behavior.

The team used computers at Caltech and the University of Maryland to run a simplified version of the CMS auction and several other auction types; one, for example, followed more standard rules, with binding bids and prices set at the lowest bid that did not win, instead of the median of all winning offers. Each auction involved 12 or 16 bidders (student volunteers from Caltech and the University of Maryland), who first had to pass a quiz showing that they understood how the auctions worked. The volunteers were given just one item to sell—a generic "thing" (since the bidders' behavior should be the same in a given auction type, regardless of the item being sold)—each at a different cost to them.

The Caltech team also examined the effect of other auction features, such as whether the costs of each item for each bidder are public knowledge and the effect of charging bidders to participate.

The results, the researchers say, convincingly support critics of the CMS auction design. "It's pretty disastrous what the bidders ended up doing," Zhang says. In the simulated CMS-type auction, some people bid $0, and the "government" was not able to buy all the items it needed. The experiments also showed that a standard auction is much more efficient and successful: the government was able to buy all the items it needed, and the bidders who had the lowest costs were the winners.

Using this experimental approach, the researchers were able to pinpoint the fundamental problem of the CMS auction design: the two rules. "If you just get rid of one of those two rules, it doesn't help—you still have problems," Plott explains. "So you have to get rid of both of them."

Last summer, 244 economists and auction experts, including Plott and Caltech professors John Ledyard, Thomas Palfrey, and Matthew Shum, signed a letter to urge President Obama to change the CMS auction system; the letter cited the Caltech experiments.

In April, however, a study released by the Department of Health and Human Services reported that the auction saved taxpayers $202.1 million in 2011, with no negative effects on health care. The report also estimates that the auction will save taxpayers and beneficiaries $42.8 billion over 10 years.

A preliminary analysis of the pilot program by Peter Cramton of the University of Maryland, an outspoken critic of the CMS auction and an economist who was not part of the Caltech study, found that the auction did in fact suffer from the problems predicted by theory and experiment. Because of the auction design, prices plunged to unsustainable levels, and suppliers dropped out, forcing Medicare to find new suppliers. Cramton also found that the number of submitted claims for equipment declined, which, he says, led to increased rates of visits to the emergency room and hospitalization. As a result, not only were overall costs higher, but so were health risks.

While Plott says he cannot comment on the report without knowing exactly how the study measured and collected its data, he remains confident in the experimental results and the theoretical arguments against the auction. "The theory gives a rather clear picture about the implications of the auction architecture," he says. "But only the data can tell us how these ideas actually play out in such a complex application with variables too numerous to be considered in the theory."

Regardless of whether the CMS will continue to expand the auction or will heed the critics' warnings, this type of research, Plott says, is a good example for how basic, scientific experiments can have direct impact on society. He considers that an especially important lesson for his students. Over the years, he says, several of his undergraduates have stuck with a project long enough to publish, occasionally leading to several awards and seminal papers. "Taking Professor Plott's class was fantastic," Merlob says. "He's a master experimentalist and an amazing mentor."

Zhang, who is doing an independent study in decision-making and neuroscience, will start graduate school in economics at UCLA in the fall; Merlob, a political science major, is still exploring his options. "This entire experience was pretty awesome," he says. "It's probably one of the best of my Caltech career."

Marcus Woo

Why Do People Choke When the Stakes Are High?

Caltech researchers find that loss aversion may be the culprit

PASADENA, Calif.—In sports, on a game show, or just on the job, what causes people to choke when the stakes are high? A new study by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) suggests that when there are high financial incentives to succeed, people can become so afraid of losing their potentially lucrative reward that their performance suffers.

It is a somewhat unexpected conclusion. After all, you would think that the more people are paid, the harder they will work, and the better they will do their jobs—until they reach the limits of their skills. That notion tends to hold true when the stakes are low, says Vikram Chib, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and lead author on a paper published in the May 10 issue of the journal Neuron. Previous research, however, has shown that if you pay people too much, their performance actually declines.

Some experts have attributed this decline to too much motivation: they think that, faced with the prospect of earning an extra chunk of cash, you might get so excited that you will fail to do the task properly. But now, after looking at brain-scan data of volunteers performing a specific motor task, the Caltech team says that what actually happens is that you become worried about losing your potential prize. The researchers also found that the more someone is afraid of loss, the worse they perform.

In the study, each participant was asked to control a virtual object on a screen by moving an index finger that had a tracking device attached to it. The virtual object consisted of two weighted balls connected by a spring. The task was to place the object, which stretched and contracted as a weighted spring would in real life, into a square target within two seconds.

The researchers controlled for individual skill levels by customizing the size of the target so that everyone would have the same success rate. That way, people who happened to be really good or bad at this task would not skew the data.

After a training period, the subjects were asked to perform the task while inside an fMRI machine, which measures blood flow in the brain—a proxy for brain activity, since wherever a brain is active, it needs extra oxygen, and thus a larger volume of blood. By monitoring blood flow, the researchers can pinpoint areas of the brain that turn on when a particular task is performed.

The task began with the researchers offering the participants a randomized range of rewards—from $0 to $100—if they could successfully place the object into the square within the time limit. At the end of hundreds of trials—each with varying reward amounts—the participant was given their reward, based on the result of just one of the trials, picked at random.

As expected, the team found that performance improved as the incentives increased—but only when the cash reward amounts were at the low end of the spectrum. Once the rewards passed a certain threshold, which depended on the individual, performance began to fall off.

Incentives are known to activate a part of your brain called the ventral striatum, Chib says; the researchers thus expected to see the ventral striatum become increasingly active as they bumped up the prizes. And if the conventional thought were correct—that the reason for the observed performance decline was over-motivation—they would expect the striatum to continue showing a lot of activation when the incentives became high enough for performance to suffer.

What they found, instead, was that when the participants were shown their potential rewards, activity in the striatum did indeed increase with rising incentives. But once the volunteers started doing the task, striatal activity decreased with rising incentives. They also noticed that the less activity they saw in a participant's striatum, the worse that person performed on the task.

Other studies have shown that decreasing striatal activity is related to fear or aversion to loss, Chib says. "When people see the incentive that they're being offered, they initially encode it as a gain," he explains. "But when they're actually doing the task, the thing that causes them to perform poorly is that they worry about losing a potential incentive they haven't even received yet." He adds, "We're showing loss aversion even though there are no explicit losses anywhere in the task—that's very strange and something you really wouldn't expect."

To further test their hypothesis, Chib and his colleagues decided to measure how loss-averse each participant was. They had the participants play a coin-flip game in which there was an equal chance they could win or lose varying amounts of money.

Each participant was offered varying potential win-loss amounts ($20-$20, $20-$10, $20-$5, for example), and then given the opportunity to either accept each possible gamble or decline it. The win-loss ratio at which the subjects chose to take the gamble provided a measure of how loss-averse each person was; someone willing to gamble even when they might win or lose $20 is less loss-averse than someone who is only willing to gamble if they can win $20 but only lose $5.

Once the numbers had been crunched and compared to the original experiment, it turned out that the more averse a participant was, the worse they did on the task when the stakes were high. And for a particularly loss-aversive person, the threshold at which their performance started to decline did not have to be very high. "If you're more loss-averse, it really hurts you," Chib says. "You're going to reach peak performance at a lower incentive level, and your performance is also going to be worse for higher incentives."

"Previously, it's been shown that the ventral striatum is involved in mediating performance increases in response to rising incentives," says John O'Doherty, professor of psychology and coauthor of the paper. "But our study shows that changes in activity in this same region can, under certain situations, also lead to worsening performance."

While this study only involved a specific motor task and financial incentives, these results may well be universal, says Shinsuke Shimojo, the Gertrude Baltimore Professor of Experimental Psychology and another coauthor of the study. "The implications and applications can include any sort of decision making that contains high stakes and uncertainties, such as business and politics."

These findings, the researchers say, might be used to develop new ways to motivate people to perform better or to train them to be less loss-averse. "This loss aversion can be an important way of deciding how to set up incentive mechanisms and how to figure out who's going to perform well and who isn't," Chib says. "If you can train somebody to be less loss-averse, maybe you can help them avoid performing poorly in stressful situations."

The other author on the Neuron paper, "Neural mechanisms underlying paradoxical performance for monetary incentives are driven by loss aversion," is former Caltech postdoc Benedetto De Martino, who is now at the University College of London. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Japanese Science and Technology Agency's Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology program, and the Caltech/Tamagawa University Global Center of Excellence program.

Written by Marcus Woo

Marcus Woo
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Notes from the Back Row: "What Parents Want—Evidence from Child Adoption"

What do parents want—aside from kids who come home on time and never talk with their mouths full—and why is an economist trying to answer that question? Because, at its heart, economics is all about the process of making choices. And while places like the New York Stock Exchange centralize the process of matching offers to sell with bids to buy, decentralized matching processes—finding the right job, a dream house, and even true love—play much bigger roles in our lives. Studying these processes is no mean feat, however. Data on people's collective behavior—median home prices by state, city, or even zip code, for example—is often pretty easy to come by, but the specific bits of data that led up to any individual decision—the purchase of that blue ranch house on this corner for this particular price—generally are not.

Caltech professor of economics Leeat Yariv and her colleagues found a decentralized matching process in which all the information available to each participant was recorded every step of the way, along with every decision that each participant made. The data, generated from a web-based adoption facilitator that acts as a go-between for prospective parents and birth mothers, included not only the genders, ethnicities, and marital status of all the adults involved, but the gender, ethnicity, and time to birth of the infants. In her Watson Lecture on February 15, 2012, Yariv shares her conclusions about what parents really want—as deduced from their individual choices—and discusses how policies that bar same-sex couples or single parents from adopting affect the matching process.

"What Parents Want—Evidence from Child Adoption" is available for download in HD from Caltech on iTunes U. (Episode 8)

Doug Smith
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Inside the Brains of Jurors

Caltech Neuroscientist Helps Reveal Brain Activity Associated with Mitigating Criminal Sentences

When jurors sentencing convicted criminals are instructed to weigh not only facts but also tricky emotional factors, they rely on parts of the brain associated with sympathy and making moral judgments, according to a new paper by a team of neuroscientists. Using brain-imaging techniques, the researchers, including Caltech's Colin Camerer, found that the most lenient jurors show heightened levels of activity in the insula, a brain region associated with discomfort and pain and with imagining the pain that others feel.

The findings provide insight into the role that emotion plays in jurors' decision-making processes, indicating a close relationship between sympathy and mitigation.

In the study, the researchers, led by Makiko Yamada of National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan, considered cases where juries were given the option to lessen the sentences for convicted murderers. In such cases with "mitigating circumstances," jurors are instructed to consider factors, sometimes including emotional elements, that might cause them to have sympathy for the criminal and, therefore, shorten the sentence. An example would be a case in which a man killed his wife to spare her from a more painful death, say, from a terminal illness. 

"Finding out if jurors are weighing sympathy reasonably is difficult to do, objectively," says Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Finance and Economics at Caltech. "Instead of asking the jurors, we asked their brains."

The researchers scanned the brains of citizens (potential jurors) while the participants read scenarios adapted from actual murder cases with mitigating circumstances. In some cases, the circumstances were sympathy-inducing; in others, where, for example, a man became enraged when an ex-girlfriend refused him, they were not. The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a type of brain scanning that tracks increases in oxygenated blood flow, indicating heightened brain activity. The participants also had their brains scanned when they determined whether to lessen the sentences, and by how much.  

The team found that sympathy activated the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, precuneus, and temporo-parietal junction—brain regions associated with moral conflict and thinking about the feelings of others. Similarly, the jurors had increased activity in these regions during sentencing when the mitigating circumstances earned their sympathy. In those cases, they also delivered shorter hypothetical sentences.

In addition to Camerer and Yamada, coauthors on the new paper, "Neural circuits in the brain that are activated when mitigating criminal sentences," are Saori Fujie, Harumasa Takano, Hiroshi Ito, Tetsuya Suhara, and Hidehiko Takahashi of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences; Motoichiro Kato of the Keio University of Medicine; and Tetsuya Matsuda of Tamagawa University Brain Science Institute. Yamada is also affiliated with Tamagawa University Brain Science Institute and Kyoto University School of Medicine; she and Takahashi are additionally affiliated with the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

Kimm Fesenmaier
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Modeling Markets

After the financial crisis of 2008, many of the world's financial markets shut down—a response that surprised experts. "This was something that most theoretical models would not have predicted," says Chris Shannon, the Richard Merkin Professor of Economics and Mathematics.

Shannon, who arrived on campus in mid-January, is one of Caltech's newest faculty members. Her research involves developing mathematical models to understand financial markets and other mechanisms that allocate goods, such as auctions. "I work at the intersection of economics and math," she says, and while her work is highly abstract and theoretical—her papers are often filled with theorems and proofs—her ideas have plenty of real-world implications.

For example, some of the models she works with try to predict how markets would react to uncertainties or new information. Although most models did not predict a widespread shutdown in trade, which was what happened in 2008, one of Shannon's models actually did. "Some of my work suggested that that's exactly what would happen in response to the financial crisis," she says. But, she cautions, that's not to say that she foresaw the crisis—just that such a shutdown was possible, based on a generalized, theoretical model.

Shannon loves her work because it requires mathematical rigor and has implications for society, she says. "I started out interested in math; I was a math major," she says. "Then I became a little more interested in problems that had to do with applications to social problems." That led her to study income inequality while an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, and eventually to a second major in economics.

She then went to Stanford University, receiving a master's degree in mathematics in 1991 and then a PhD in economics in 1992. She then joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, remaining there until coming to Caltech this year.

"One of the very attractive aspects of Caltech is the intense focus on science, and the opportunity for a lot of very exciting interdisciplinary work," she explains. Although she's not collaborating just yet, she says she's excited to work with Caltech's economists, mathematicians, and even computer scientists. And she's not just looking forward to working with other faculty. "The students are incredibly gifted, so that's also a big attraction." Another advantage of Caltech, she says, is its "unparalleled support for faculty research."

Although Shannon is a native of Kansas, she's come to love California, enjoying many of the outdoor activities the state has to offer. She enjoys trail running, mountain biking, hiking, and kayaking. Although she spent time at Caltech as a Moore Scholar in the fall of 2010, she says, there's still much of Southern California left to explore. 

Marcus Woo

Katz Named Caltech's Inaugural Kay Sugahara Professor

Jonathan N. Katz, chair of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences, has been named the Kay Sugahara Professor of Social Sciences and Statistics. The Sugahara family endowed the new professorial chair with a $2 million gift in honor of the late Kay Sugahara, a civic leader and entrepreneur who built the worldwide shipping and oil services business, Fairfield-Maxwell Ltd. The gift is supplemented by an additional $1 million provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Matching Program.

"We felt that establishing this endowed chair was a fitting tribute to my late father," says Kaytaro Sugahara, the eldest of Kay and Yone Sugahara's three sons, and a Caltech alumnus (BS '61). "He valued education, built his own business empire, and was active in international relations. He would have been proud to have his name associated with the work being done in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Caltech." 

Kay Sugahara, born to Japanese immigrants in Seattle in 1909, was largely a self-made man. Orphaned at an early age, he went on to graduate from UCLA in 1932 and used his business skills and knowledge of international trade to become a millionaire by the age of 30. He lost most of that when he, his wife, and children were interned in a camp in Granada, Colorado, during World War II. Yet, he remained loyal to his country—volunteering to work with the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, in their wartime efforts.

Following the war, he built his shipping business, becoming chairman of the board of the conglomerate Fairfield-Maxwell, which owns and manages oil and chemical tankers, as well as refrigerated and bulk cargo vessels. The company, through its Fairfield Nodal subsidiary, also designs, manufactures, and operates equipment to gather seismic data in both the marine and land environments. Sugahara was also active in international relations, and served as chairman of the US-Asia Institute in Washington, D.C.

As arranged by the Sugahara family, the Kay Sugahara Professorship is designated for an eminent scholar within the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences who is engaged in education and research in the areas of economics, entrepreneurship, political science, or Asian studies. Katz, the inaugural chair holder, works at the intersection of political science, economics, and statistics. His current research focuses on developing statistical methods and applying those methods to questions about elections and public policy.

"I'm very honored to be recognized with this new title," Katz says. "Many professors never get the chance to meet the donors who support their chairs. But I know and think very highly of the Sugahara family, so this is particularly meaningful for me."

Kay Sugahara once wrote: "There is a tendency today to play things safe, to let caution be our guiding star. That way lies disaster. To succeed, we must blaze new trails, explore new areas, forge new concepts." The Sugaharas believe he would be particularly pleased by the appointment of Dr. Katz as the first to hold this chair.

Kimm Fesenmaier
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Neuroscientists Find That Status within Groups Can Affect IQ

PASADENA, Calif.—Our cognitive abilities and decision-making skills can be dramatically hindered in social settings where we feel that we are being ranked or assigned a status level, such as classrooms and work environments, according to new findings from a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and four other institutions. The finding flies in the face of long-held ideas about intelligence and cognition that regard IQ as a stable, predictive measure of mental horsepower. 

"This study tells us the idea that IQ is something we can reliably measure in isolation without considering how it interacts with social context is essentially flawed," says Steven Quartz, professor of philosophy at Caltech and one of the authors of the new study, which appears in the current issue of Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B. "Furthermore, this suggests that the idea of a division between social and cognitive processing in the brain is really pretty artificial. The two deeply interact with each other."

"You may joke about how committee meetings make you feel brain-dead, but our findings suggest that they may make you act brain-dead as well," says Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and corresponding author on the paper.

To investigate the impact of social context on IQ, the researchers divided a pool of 70 subjects into groups of five and gave each individual a computer-based IQ test. After each question, an on-screen ranking showed the subjects how well they were performing relative to others in their group and how well one other person in the group was faring. All of the subjects had previously taken a paper-and-pencil IQ test, and were matched with the rest of the group so that they would each be expected to perform similarly on an IQ test.

At the outset, all of the subjects did worse than expected on this "ranked group IQ task." But some of the subjects, dubbed High Performers, were able to improve over the course of the test while others, called Low Performers, continued to perform below their expected level. By the end of the computer-based test, the scores of the Low Performers dropped an average of 17.4 points compared to their performance on the paper-and-pencil test.

"What we found was that sensitivity to the social feedback of the rankings profoundly altered some people's ability to express their cognitive capacity," Quartz says. "So we get this really quite dramatic downward spiraling of one group purely because of their sensitivity to this social feedback." Since so much of our learning—from the classroom to the work team—is socially situated, this study suggests that individual differences in social sensitivity may play an important role in shaping human intelligence over time.

During the computer-based test, about a third of the subjects underwent brain scans, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). This type of imaging allows scientists to track increases in oxygenated blood flow, indicating heightened activity, in the brain. At the start of the test, researchers observed increased activity in all the participants in a brain region called the amygdala, which is associated with fear and emotional arousal. Among High Performers, that activation decreased over time, while it remained steady in Low Performers.

"What is causing the Low Performers to be hindered by the social context is something for follow-up studies, but certainly the suspicion is that it's a dimension of personality that is driving the difference," Quartz says. That dimension could be neuroticism, the tendency to worry or to ruminate about social information. "The pattern of activity that we see originally in both groups, but especially in the low-performing group, is quite similar to the pattern of activity you see in studies looking at the neuroscience of neuroticism."

The researchers also tracked activity in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain involved in the processing of rewards. They observed elevated activity in the nucleus accumbens when a subject's rank within the group increased. "That shows that the task was motivationally important to people," Quartz says. "When they saw their rank go up, that was a reward."

The idea for the new study came, in part, from a study published in 1999 in which researchers from Emory University examined social rank—a strong and extremely motivating signal among primates. It has long been known that even monkeys that have never met before can quickly sort themselves based on social standing within the group. The Emory researchers isolated low-ranking rhesus monkeys and taught them a learning task. They found that in the presence of high-ranking group members, the monkeys who had learned the task acted as though they were not familiar with it.

"Social rank isn't as well understood in humans," Quartz says. "So we wanted to see what would happen when social rank becomes salient in a group of humans, as it does in most real-world learning environments. We wanted to see if this has an effect on the expression of IQ."

Throughout the 20th century, IQ was used in different arenas as a way of sorting or classifying people into niches. Because people believed it to be a more abstract notion of cognitive ability, it was thought to have strong predictive validity of mental capabilities even from age six. But IQ was always measured in social isolation. "That reflects a long tradition of intellectual history, of considering rationality and cognition to be this isolated process," Quartz says. "But one of the things that we're learning more and more in social neuroscience is the role of our social contexts and the social adaptation of the brain." Understanding the role social context plays and its differential impact on the brain may ultimately help educators and others to design more effective learning environments.

The present study found some unexpected trends, including the tendency for female subjects to be more affected than males by the implicit signaling of social status during the test. Although all of the subjects scored similarly on the paper-and-pencil IQ test, 11 of the 14 Low Performers on the ranked group IQ task were female, while 10 of the 13 High Performers were male. Due to sample size limitations, additional studies are needed to validate the finding and to investigate possible causes.

In addition to Quartz and Montague, additional authors on the paper, "Implicit signals in small group settings and their impact on the expression of cognitive capacity and associated brain responses," are Kenneth Kishida of Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Dongni Yang of the Baylor College of Medicine, and Karen Hunter Quartz of the University of California, Los Angeles. Montague is also affiliated with the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging in London. The work was funded by the Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellowship, the Kane Family Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

Kimm Fesenmaier
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Caltech Neuroscientists Pinpoint Specific Social Difficulties in People with Autism

New finding provides insight into the psychology of autism-spectrum disorders

PASADENA, Calif.—People with autism process information in unusual ways and often have difficulties in their social interactions in everyday life. While this can be especially striking in those who are otherwise high functioning, characterizing this difficulty in detail has been challenging. Now, researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have isolated a very specific difference in how high-functioning people with autism think about other people, finding that—in actuality—they don’t tend to think about what others think of them at all.

This finding, described online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sheds light on what researchers call "theory of mind" abilities—our intuitive skill for figuring out what other people think, intend, and believe. One key aspect of such abilities in terms of social interactions is to be able to figure out what others think of us—in other words, to know what our social reputation is. It is well known that social reputation usually has a very powerful influence on our behavior, motivating us to be nice to others.

The Caltech team capitalized on this strong effect by asking people to make real money donations to UNICEF under two conditions: alone in a room or while being watched by a researcher. 

"What we found in control participants—people without autism—basically replicated prior work. People donated more when they were being watched by another person, presumably to improve their social reputation," explains Keise Izuma, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and first author on the study. "By contrast, participants with autism gave the same amount of money regardless of whether they were being watched or not. The effect was extremely clear."

To be certain that the subjects with autism really were not thinking about their social reputation in the presence of the other person—as opposed to simply ignoring that onlooker—the researchers showed that everyone, both controls and people with autism, do better on simple math tasks when being watched than when alone.

"This check was important," says Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and professor of biology at Caltech and the principal investigator on the paper, "because it showed us that in people with autism, the presence of another person is indeed registered, and can have general arousal effects. It tells us that what is missing is the specific step of thinking about what another person thinks about us. This is something most of us do all the time—sometimes obsessively so—but seems to be completely lacking in individuals with autism."

The findings provide a much more precise picture of how people with autism process social information, says Adolphs, and is important not only for use in diagnostic and interventional therapies, but also for educating the general public about the psychology of autism.

Next up for the team: MRI studies to investigate what occurs in the brain during such social interactions, as well as other investigations into the biology and psychology of autism.

Other authors on the PNAS paper, "Insensitivity to social reputation in autism," are Colin Camerer, Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech and Kenji Matsumoto, a neuroscientist at Tamagawa University in Japan. The work was supported by a Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, the National Institute of Mental Health, a fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Fellows, and a Global Centers of Excellence collaborative grant from the Japanese government to Caltech and Tamagawa University.

Lori Oliwenstein

Caltech Named World's Top University in New Times Higher Education Global Ranking

PASADENA, Calif.—The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has been rated the world's number one university in the 2011–2012 Times Higher Education global ranking of the top 200 universities, displacing Harvard University from the top spot for the first time in the survey's eight-year history.

Caltech was number two in the 2010–2011 ranking; Harvard and Stanford University share the second spot in the 2011–2012 survey, while the University of Oxford and Princeton University round out the top five.

"It's gratifying to be recognized for the work we do here and the impact it has—both on our students and on the global community," says Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau. "Today's announcement reinforces Caltech's legacy of innovation, and our unwavering dedication to giving our extraordinary people the environment and resources with which to pursue their best ideas. It's also truly gratifying to see three California schools—including my alma mater, Stanford—in the top ten."

Thirteen performance indicators representing research (worth 30% of a school's overall ranking score), teaching (30%), citations (30%), international outlook (which includes the total numbers of international students and faculty and the ratio of scholarly papers with international collaborators; 7.5%), and industry income (a measure of innovation; 2.5%) are included in the data. Among the measures included are a reputation survey of 17,500 academics; institutional, industry, and faculty research income; and an analysis of 50 million scholarly papers to determine the average number of citations per scholarly paper, a measure of research impact.

"We know that innovation is the driver of the global economy, and is especially important during times of economic volatility," says Kent Kresa, chairman of the Caltech Board of Trustees. "I am pleased that Caltech is being recognized for its leadership and impact; this just confirms what many of us have known for a long time about this extraordinary place."

"Caltech has been one of California's best-kept secrets for a long time," says Caltech trustee Narendra Gupta. "But I think the secret is out!"

Times Higher Education, which compiled the listing using data supplied by Thomson Reuters, reports that this year's methodology was refined to ensure that universities with particular strength in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are placed on a more equal footing with those with a specialty in science subjects. Caltech—described in a Times Higher Education press release as "much younger, smaller, and specialised" than Harvard—was nevertheless ranked the highest based on their metrics.

According to Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, "the differences at the top of the university rankings are miniscule, but Caltech just pips Harvard with marginally better scores for 'research—volume, income, and reputation,' research influence, and the income it attracts from industry. With differentials so slight, a simple factor plays a decisive role in determining rank order: money."

"Harvard reported funding increases similar in proportion to other institutions, whereas Caltech reported a steep rise (16%) in research funding and an increase in total institutional income," Baty says.

Data for the Times Higher Education's World University Rankings was provided by Thomson Reuters from its Global Institutional Profiles Project (http://science.thomsonreuters.com/globalprofilesproject/), an ongoing, multistage process to collect and validate factual data about academic institutional performance across a variety of aspects and multiple disciplines.

For a full list of the world's top 200 schools and all of the performance indicators, go to http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/.

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The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a small, private university in Pasadena that conducts instruction and research in science and engineering, with a student body of about 900 undergraduates and 1,200 graduate students. Recognized for its outstanding faculty, including several Nobel laureates, and such renowned off-campus facilities as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the W. M. Keck Observatory, and the Palomar Observatory, Caltech is one of the world's preeminent research centers.

Kathy Svitil
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