Focusing on Faces

Researchers find neurons in amygdala of autistic individuals have reduced sensitivity to eye region of others' faces

Difficulties in social interaction are considered to be one of the behavioral hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Previous studies have shown these difficulties to be related to differences in how the brains of autistic individuals process sensory information about faces. Now, a group of researchers led by California Institute of Technology (Caltech) neuroscientist Ralph Adolphs has made the first recordings of the firings of single neurons in the brains of autistic individuals, and has found specific neurons in a region called the amygdala that show reduced processing of the eye region of faces. Furthermore, the study found that these same neurons responded more to mouths than did the neurons seen in the control-group individuals.

"We found that single brain cells in the amygdala of people with autism respond differently to faces in a way that explains many prior behavioral observations," says Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and professor of biology at Caltech and coauthor of a study in the November 20 issue of Neuron that outlines the team's findings. "We believe this shows that abnormal functioning in the amygdala is a reason that people with autism process faces abnormally."

The amygdala has long been known to be important for the processing of emotional reactions. To make recordings from this part of the brain, Adolphs and lead author Ueli Rutishauser, assistant professor in the departments of neurosurgery and neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and visiting associate in biology at Caltech, teamed up with Adam Mamelak, professor of neurosurgery and director of functional neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai, and neurosurgeon Ian Ross at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California, to recruit patients with epilepsy who had electrodes implanted in their medial temporal lobes—the area of the brain where the amygdala is located—to help identify the origin of their seizures. Epileptic seizures are caused by a burst of abnormal electric activity in the brain, which the electrodes are designed to detect. It turns out that epilepsy and ASD sometimes go together, and so the researchers were able to identify two of the epilepsy patients who also had a diagnosis of ASD.

By using the implanted electrodes to record the firings of individual neurons, the researchers were able to observe activity as participants looked at images of different facial regions, and then correlate the neuronal responses with the pictures. In the control group of epilepsy patients without autism, the neurons responded most strongly to the eye region of the face, whereas in the two ASD patients, the neurons responded most strongly to the mouth region. Moreover, the effect was present in only a specific subset of the neurons. In contrast, a different set of neurons showed the same response in both groups when whole faces were shown.

"It was surprising to find such clear abnormalities at the level of single cells," explains Rutishauser. "We, like many others, had thought that the neurological abnormalities that contribute to autism were spread throughout the brain, and that it would be difficult to find highly specific correlates. Not only did we find highly specific abnormalities in single-cell responses, but only a certain subset of cells responded that way, while another set showed typical responses to faces. This specificity of these cell populations was surprising and is, in a way, very good news, because it suggests the existence of specific mechanisms for autism that we can potentially trace back to their genetic and environmental causes, and that one could imagine manipulating for targeted treatment."

"We can now ask how these cells change their responses with treatments, how they correspond to similar cell populations in animal models of autism, and what genes this particular population of cells expresses," adds Adolphs.

To validate their results, the researchers hope to identify and test additional subjects, which is a challenge because it is very hard to find people with autism who also have epilepsy and who have been implanted with electrodes in the amygdala for single-cell recordings, says Adolphs.

"At the same time, we should think about how to change the responses of these neurons, and see if those modifications correlate with behavioral changes," he says.

Funding for the research outlined in the Neuron paper, titled "Single-neuron correlates of abnormal face processing in autism," was provided by the Simons Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Autism Speaks, and the National Institute of Mental Health. Additional coauthors were Caltech postdoctoral scholar Oana Tudusciuc and graduate student Shuo Wang.

Katie Neith
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Einstein: On the Beach and at Caltech

The weekend of October 11–13 brought a revival of the 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, and along with it an opportunity for the Einstein Papers Project at Caltech to display some of its treasures: prized portraits of Einstein, plus texts and images from Einstein's life.

The principal mission of the Einstein Papers Project is to collect, edit, annotate, and translate all of Einstein's papers—a rich trove of material that includes not only published scientific works, but also his notebooks, lectures, diaries, and correspondence. Einstein bequeathed his papers to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which holds the largest collection of original Einstein manuscripts.

At Caltech, Professor of History Diana Kormos-Buchwald, director and general editor of the Einstein Papers Project, heads an international team of scholars who carry out research for The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, published by Princeton University Press. The series is anticipated to fill 30 volumes and is nearing its halfway point. "It takes us two to three years for each documentary volume and its companion English-language translation, so it won't be us who finish the project," she says.

The latest volume (Volume 13), released on September 25, 2012, takes Einstein through a turbulent 15 months of his life from January 1922 to March 1923, during which he received the Nobel Prize and undertook a lengthy journey to Japan, Palestine, and Spain. Volume 14, slated for release in October 2014, covers the years from 1923 to 1925, documenting Einstein's reactions to the earliest formulations of quantum mechanics. "One of the very interesting things that we discover in every volume is how many projects Einstein was involved in that never led to concrete publications," Kormos-Buchwald says.

Because the Einstein Papers Project is the premier U.S. source for all things Einstein, when the Los Angeles Opera decided to bring Einstein on the Beach to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it asked Kormos-Buchwald if she could arrange exhibits about the historical Einstein to display in the second- and third-floor lobbies. Caltech trustee Marc Stern, chair of the Los Angeles Opera board of directors, expressed his excitement about the project, and soon Kormos-Buchwald was working with Garrett Collins and the marketing and outreach departments at the Los Angeles Opera to devise an appropriate evocation of Einstein's connections both to California via Caltech and to music.

On opposite sides of the second floor lobby, two exhibits were set up by Kormos-Buchwald and a team of professional installers led by Sam Mellon of Curatorial Assistance in Pasadena. One contained the series of images Albert Einstein at Home, created by photographer Herman Landshoff between 1946 and 1950. The series consists of 12 portraits of Einstein in his later years, a humble man with wild hair wearing suspenders, working in his office or simply sitting or standing. There are six prints of this series in existence; one is owned by Caltech. The other exhibit consisted of nine collages, usually on permanent display at the Einstein Papers Project, that document Einstein's three winters at Caltech (1930–1933); also included were three wall-size color facsimiles, one of Einstein's high school diploma and two of his early hand-written manuscripts on relativity, that were created in collaboration with the Williamson Gallery at the Art Center College of Design from originals held at the Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The third-floor exhibit, designed by Kormos-Buchwald specifically for Einstein on the Beach, and printed by James Staub of Caltech Graphic Resources, featured photographs of Einstein playing violin or piano and meeting with musicians. It included quotes by Einstein about music and his favorite composers, and displayed manuscripts documenting Einstein's support of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra and his relationship with German composer Paul Dessau, who wrote a chamber music piece for violin and harpsichord (or piano) for Einstein's 50th birthday, in March 1929, as well as his own opera about the famed physicist, titled simply Einstein and performed in East Berlin in 1974.

Despite the sea of documentation of Einstein's life compiled by the Einstein Papers Project, Einstein remains an enigmatic figure, simultaneously a scientist and a celebrity. The collages created to illustrate Einstein's time at Caltech give a sense of the sideshow atmosphere surrounding Einstein's presence in Southern California: newspapers at the time reported random sightings of the great man, and Einstein recorded his impressions of the media attention in his diaries.

Einstein's mixed legacy is still on abundant display at Caltech. Einstein the scientist remains relevant in physics classrooms, both undergraduate and graduate, and his work resonates in the work of Caltech's researchers and theoreticians. But Einstein the celebrity is present too: his face is printed on posters and T-shirts at the Caltech Bookstore, the guest room at the Athenaeum where he stayed during his visits to Caltech still bears his name; and the Landshoff portraits exhibited for the performance of Einstein on the Beach grace the entryway of the Board of Trustees meeting room in Millikan Library.

It was this mix of science and celebrity surrounding Einstein that appealed to cutting-edge composer Philip Glass and experimental theater director Robert Wilson when they decided in the mid 1970s to collaborate on an opera based on a historical figure. As Glass reflects in his book, Music by Philip Glass, "As a child, Einstein had been one of my heroes. Growing up just after World War II, as I had, it was impossible not to know who he was. The emphatic, if catastrophic, beginnings of the nuclear age had made atomic energy the most widely discussed issue of the day."

The result of the collaboration was a nearly five-hour opera without intermissions. The opus makes no effort to tell a story, much less recount a man's life, but is nevertheless filled to the brim with Einstein. As Kormos-Buchwald explains, "You have a lot of visual symbolism in Einstein on the Beach. There are the portraits of Einstein projected onto the stage, and for half the opera you have a musician dressed as Einstein in suspenders playing the violin. But there are also elevators, illustrating the principle of equivalence, and space-time diagrams and rockets. You have a child playing with a flashlight and a compass, as Einstein himself did, and there are rigid rods and clocks throughout the opera, critical to Einstein's theory of special relativity. Thus many visual and pedagogical tools that Einstein employed to make relativity understandable are being used in the opera."

As documented in volume 13 of The Collected Papers, Einstein often expressed his desire for "a normal life," feeling at odds with his celebrity. And yet, Kormos-Buchwald suspects, Einstein might not have been astounded by the exhibits and operas, or by a 30-volume opus. "I think he was very well aware he was a public figure. He knew that everything he said would be used and scrutinized in the future."

Cynthia Eller
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Materialities, Texts, and Images: A Collaboration Between Caltech and the Huntington Library

At an institution like Caltech, materiality is inescapable. Science and technology deal with physical things (or, at the least, with terms that stand in for physical things). In the humanities, however, the role of materiality is less clear. As John Brewer, Caltech's Eli and Edye Broad Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, points out, working humanists have "no Mars Rover or sea urchin to manipulate," so their connection to the material is less obvious. Indeed, humanists often concern themselves with ideas, language, memory, and culture—all of which are mental constructs. "For a long time," says Brewer, "everybody in the humanities was interested in what everything symbolized, which was rather abstract and metaphysical and linguistic."

The pendulum has swung, however, and now humanists are reevaluating the role of materiality in their disciplines. The emphasis today is more on the "stuffness" of the humanities—the way in which all cultural artifacts, from books to blueprints to bus tickets, are relations between and manipulations of physical things. Paintings, after all, are made of oils and canvas and pigments; books are made of paper and ink, cardboard and cloth (and perhaps today, computer chips). How are they created? How are they used? How have they been preserved and why? Their tangible existence as objects is a critical part of the insight they can offer us about human beings and culture, about the present and the past. Even things of great interest in the humanities that cannot be classified as objects are inevitably material; spoken language, for example, involves air, tongues, teeth, and larynxes.

The humanities' interest in the material has given rise to a new collaboration between Caltech and the Huntington Library, a premier research institution in the humanities less than a mile from Caltech in San Marino, California. "Materialities, Texts, and Images" (MTI), a two-year pilot program funded jointly by Caltech and the Huntington, explores texts and images through the lens of the material.

Rather than following the usual model for research in the humanities—choose a discipline; choose a part of the world; choose a time period; choose a subject—MTI is a decidedly methodological project. It asks the most general question in its purview: how materiality, the embeddedness of culture within tangible things, can be most effectively studied and theorized. As Steve Hindle, W. M. Keck Director of Research at the Huntington, explains, the scope of MTI "is not restricted to any particular time period, so it's not medieval or early modern or modern; it's not confined to any particular discipline, so it's not designed specifically, much less exclusively for historians or literary scholars or art historians." Instead, MTI breaks down disciplinary boundaries, embracing the humanities in all their diversity, without asking anyone to water down their specific research interests.

Over-specialization can be a pitfall in the humanities, according to Brewer. The interesting work goes deep, searching out meaningful details and engaging in exhaustive research. But the most interesting work goes deep and then comes up broad, articulating the significance of very specific research topics for theories and methods in the humanities generally. MTI is designed to be a platform where humanists from disparate fields can create the kind of synergy that pushes the humanities as a whole forward.

Two visiting postdoctoral fellows who, according to Hindle, were selected because they were "as different as possible," have been brought on board this year to get the MTI program under way.

The first, Stefanie Sobelle, is a professor of English at Gettysburg College who studies the interrelationship of architecture and literature in late 19th- and 20th-century America. Sobelle's work, she says, investigates how both architecture and literature engage in a "conceptual process of imagining a world and then creating it, in the use of architectural language to talk about a text, and in the book as a three-dimensional space that you move through and inhabit, which often very intentionally manipulates your experience of that space."

Sobelle's MTI counterpart, science historian Alexander Wragge-Morley, most recently at the University of Oxford, works with texts produced by British medical doctors in the late 17th and early 18th centuries to examine how British medics dealt with "the interconnections between knowledge production and matters concerning sensation, emotions, and aesthetics," he says. In his work, Wragge-Morley has found that although the early 18th century was when "these key separations between science and the arts are supposed to have been coming into play, the archives show that the sciences and humanities are much more vested in each other than it's sometimes convenient to realize."

Under the provisions of the MTI program, Sobelle has an office at the Huntington this fall while Wragge-Morley has an office at Caltech. Midway through the year, they will swap, so that each has an opportunity to participate fully in the lives of the institutions that are sponsoring their work. In the spring and summer, each will organize a workshop with speakers from diverse fields who share their interest in pushing the boundaries between academic disciplines while focusing on the role of materiality.

Both Sobelle and Wragge-Morley are excited about the potential of developing more extensive intellectual ties between Caltech and the Huntington, involving Caltech faculty in the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), as well as faculty and researchers in other fields at Caltech.

Wragge-Morley, for example, is eager to contact neuroscientists at Caltech who are pioneering "the science of beauty" (a scientific undertaking, he notes, that was announced by British painter William Hogarth in 1753). "I think there are very interesting connections that can be drawn between the types of work being done at Caltech—which we could rename 'Materiality Central,' after all—and contemporary work in the humanities." Meanwhile, Sobelle hopes to talk to Caltech scientists about the models they create, because a model, she says, is "a form of representation and also a thing in and of itself. What kind of models are engineers creating? What about biologists? What about chemists? What does a model mean differently in those different fields? Do they think of the model as an aesthetic object in itself, or not?"

MTI's broad vision promises to bring fresh life to the pursuit of the humanistic disciplines at Caltech, Brewer says. "One of the nice things about this project is that it's one of those capacious things into which you can stick almost anything. It's like Mary Poppins's handbag, actually." Many Caltech faculty in the humanities already pursue scholarship that explores the concept of materiality, and they will be active participants in the MTI program as it gathers momentum. For example, Jennifer Jahner, Assistant Professor of English, studies medieval manuscripts not only for their manifest content, but also for the manner in which they have been copied and bound by hand. Professor of History Nicolas Wey-Gómez specializes in the rise of imperialism and the global south during the Age of Exploration, research that has drawn him into extensive study of the physical maps created and used by explorers in the Atlantic region.

The MTI program also strengthens ties between two world-class institutions that grew up together in the San Gabriel Valley. Astronomer George Ellery Hale, one of the scientific "troika" (including physical chemist Arthur A. Noyes and physicist Robert A. Millikan) that built Caltech into a world-renowned science and engineering institute, also served on the board of trustees of the Huntington Library in the 1920s. Hale's dream was to use the resources of the Huntington to create a humanities division for Caltech, which at that time was restricted to the physical sciences. Instead, Caltech created its own humanities division in 1927, and Hale helped mold the Huntington into an independent institution available to scholars and the general public alike. Today, the Huntington hosts 1,700 scholars annually—170 are funded by the Huntington itself, making it the largest and most competitive fellowship program in the United States.

Caltech's HSS division and the Huntington have other existing collaborations. The Eleanor Searle Visiting Professorship in the History of Science and Technology brings leading scholars in the field to Caltech to teach for HSS and pursue their own research through the Huntington collections, while a joint postdoctoral instructor program draws junior scholars for research and teaching. For HSS division chair Jonathan Katz, the real excitement of MTI is that it will expand Caltech's relationship with the Huntington, "which has always enriched our humanities program and provided access to unparalleled archival sources for our scholars." The MTI program, Katz says, will "bring Caltech and the Huntington together as an intellectual hub for this kind of inquiry."

Cynthia Eller
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Materialities, Texts, and Images
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Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Noyes 153 (J. Holmes Sturdivant Lecture Hall) – Arthur Amos Noyes Laboratory of Chemical Physics

Advice for Future New Faculty: Caltech Postdoc Association Event

Friday, January 10, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

Undergraduate Teaching Assistant Orientation

Caltech Names Thomas F. Rosenbaum as New President

To: The Caltech Community

From: Fiona Harrison, Benjamin M. Rosen Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and Chair, Faculty Search Committee; and David Lee, Chair, Board of Trustees, and Chair, Trustee Selection Committee

Today it is our great privilege to announce the appointment of Thomas F. Rosenbaum as the ninth president of the California Institute of Technology.

Dr. Rosenbaum, 58, is currently the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago, where he has served as the university's provost for the past seven years. As a distinguished physicist and expert on condensed matter physics, Dr. Rosenbaum has explored the quantum mechanical nature of materials, making major contributions to the understanding of matter near absolute zero, where such quantum mechanical effects dominate. His experiments in quantum phase transitions in matter are recognized as having played a key role in placing these transitions on a theoretical level equivalent to that which has been developed for classical systems.

But Dr. Rosenbaum's scientific achievements were not solely what captured and held the attention of those involved in the presidential search. We on the search committee were impressed by Dr. Rosenbaum's deep dedication, as Chicago's provost, to both undergraduate and graduate education—both critical parts of Caltech's mission. He has had responsibility for an unusually broad range of institutions and intellectual endeavors. Among his achievements as provost was the establishment of the Institute for Molecular Engineering in 2011, the University of Chicago's very first engineering program, in collaboration with Argonne National Lab.

We also believe that Dr. Rosenbaum's focus on strengthening the intellectual ties between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Lab will serve him well in furthering the Caltech-JPL relationship.

As provost, Dr. Rosenbaum was also instrumental in establishing collaborative educational programs serving communities around Chicago's Hyde Park campus, including the university's founding of a four-campus charter school that was originally designed to further fundamental research in education but which has also achieved extraordinary college placement results for disadvantaged Chicago youths.

This successful conclusion to our eight-month presidential search was result of the hard work of the nine-member Faculty Search Committee, chaired by Fiona Harrison, and the 10-member Trustee Selection Committee, chaired by David Lee. We are grateful both to the trustees and faculty on our two committees who made our job so very easy as well as to those faculty, students, staff, and alumni who provided us with input and wisdom as we scoured the country for just the right person for our Caltech.

"Tom embodies all the qualities the faculty committee hoped to find in our next president," Harrison says. "He is a first-rate scholar and someone who understands at a deep level the commitment to fundamental inquiry that characterizes Caltech. He is also the kind of ambitious leader who will develop the faculty's ideas into the sorts of innovative ventures that will maintain Caltech's position of prominence in the next generation of science and technology."

"The combination of deep management experience and visionary leadership Tom brings will serve Caltech extremely well in the coming years," Lee adds. "The Board is excited about collaborating closely with Tom to propel the Institute to new levels of scientific leadership."

"The Caltech community's palpable and deep commitment to the Institute came through in all my conversations, and it forms the basis for Caltech's and JPL's lasting impact," Dr. Rosenbaum says. "It will be a privilege to work closely with faculty, students, staff, and trustees to explore new opportunities, building on Caltech's storied accomplishments."

Dr. Rosenbaum received his bachelor's degree in physics with honors from Harvard University in 1977, and both an MA and PhD in physics from Princeton University in 1979 and 1982, respectively. He did research at Bell Laboratories and at IBM Watson Research Center before joining the University of Chicago's faculty in 1983. Dr. Rosenbaum directed the university's Materials Research Laboratory from 1991 to 1994 and its interdisciplinary James Franck Institute from 1995 to 2001 before serving as vice president for research and for Argonne National Laboratory from 2002 to 2006. He was named the university's provost in 2007. His honors include an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, a Presidential Young Investigator Award, and the William McMillan Award for "outstanding contributions to condensed matter physics." Dr. Rosenbaum is an elected fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Joining the Caltech faculty will be Dr. Rosenbaum's spouse, Katherine T. Faber, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University. Dr. Faber's research focuses on understanding stress fractures in ceramics, as well as on the fabrication of ceramic materials with controlled porosity, which are important as thermal and environmental barrier coatings for engine components. Dr. Faber is also the codirector of the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), which employs advanced materials science techniques for art history and restoration. Dr. Rosenbaum and Dr. Faber have two sons, Daniel, who graduated from the University of Chicago in 2012, and Michael, who is currently a junior there.

Dr. Rosenbaum will succeed Jean-Lou Chameau, who served the Institute from 2006 to 2013, and will take over the helm from interim president and provost Ed Stolper on July 1, 2014. The board, the search committee, and, indeed, the entire Institute owes Dr. Stolper a debt of gratitude for his unwavering commitment to Caltech, and for seamlessly continuing the Institute's forward momentum through his interim presidency.

As you meet Dr. Rosenbaum today and over the coming months, and learn more about his vision for Caltech's future, we believe that you will quickly come to see why he is so well suited to guide Caltech as we continue to pursue bold investigations in science and engineering, to ready the next generation of scientific and thought leaders, and to benefit humankind through research that is integrated with education.

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

For the third year in a row, the California Institute of Technology has been rated the world's number one university in the Times Higher Education global ranking of the top 200 universities.

Harvard University, Oxford University, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology round out the top five schools in the 2013–2014 rankings.

Times Higher Education compiled the listing using the same methodology as in the 2011–2012 and 2012–2013 surveys. Thirteen performance indicators representing research (worth 30 percent of a school's overall ranking score), teaching (30 percent), citations (30 percent), international outlook (which includes the total numbers of international students and faculty and the ratio of scholarly papers with international collaborators, 7.5 percent), and industry income (a measure of innovation, 2.5 percent) make up the data. The data were collected, analyzed, and verified by Thomson Reuters.

The Times Higher Education site has the full list of the world's top 400 schools and all of the performance indicators.

Kathy Svitil
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Cause and Effect: An Interview with Frederick Eberhardt

Determining cause and effect is complex and fraught with difficulty, from our intuitive—but often mistaken—sense of the causes of events in our daily lives to the perils of structuring and interpreting scientific experimentation. One problem with teasing apart these relationships is that there are many cause-and-effect sequences that we can only observe; we cannot meaningfully intervene, which may make it more problematic to test causal relations. For example, we did not come to know that the gravitation of the moon causes Earth's tides by removing the moon to observe how Earth's tides would be affected by its absence. Other means of establishing causality were required.

More bedeviling for anyone seeking to find an accurate causal sequence is how often we observe things that look like causal relations but are only correlations—that is, variables that change (or seem to change) in relationship to one another but are not causally related. If you catch four colds this winter, you may recall that you went outside with wet hair before coming down with each one. This is a correlation. What you don't know—and what might require further reflection and experimentation—is whether the wet hair actually caused the cold.

Untangling causal relations and correlations is what Professor of Philosophy Frederick Eberhardt has come to Caltech to do. We recently spoke with him about how causal relations can be identified—and why they matter.

Why does causation matter?

Causal issues are everywhere. They're in policy, they're in medicine, they're in our basic sciences.

Can you give an example of a correlation that might not involve causation?

Let's take the example of eating ice cream and drowning. These two variables are correlated: when rates of ice cream consumption rise, so do cases of drowning. So we might wonder whether this is a causal relationship: Does eating ice cream cause drowning?

There's a big debate in philosophy over exactly what constitutes a causal relation.

To say one is the cause of the other, we presumably don't require that every time someone eats ice cream they go and drown. So it's only a weaker, probabilistic relation. But it may be more than just a probabilistic relation since, in this example, we think that there could be a common cause: such as good weather, which increases the probability of both ice cream consumption and drowning. If this is the case, it is the common cause that gives rise to the observed correlation. However, if we intervened to increase the consumption of ice cream while holding everything else fixed, and rates of drowning increased as well, then there would be good reason to think that we had identified a causal relation. So, a rather useful way to think about causal relations is that they support certain kinds of interventions.

Given how tricky it can be to establish causality in complex real-world systems, are there correlations for which you think a causal relationship is well established?

That smoking causes lung cancer is reasonably well established. This was not always obvious. Not every smoker died of lung cancer, right? Whether or not drinking red wine in reasonable amounts is related to less cardiovascular disease is not so clear yet. Climate change, of course, is another example. You see the debates about the causal relations involved in climate change and the extent to which we can establish them on the basis of the finite data that we have. Maybe we don't need to know the causes of climate change in order to predict what will happen, but it's crucial to know the causal relations in order to know whether your intervention is going to be efficacious.

Do you ever find it difficult to avoid confusing "causal" and "casual"?

It does happen, because, of course, spell checkers don't catch this. But I guess your fingers have a motor memory of what sequence the letters come in. Because of what I do, it's more likely that I will make a typo in an invitation to a party saying, "Please, it's causal clothing.

Are you planning to be the conscience of Caltech? Hovering over researchers' shoulders saying, "Not so fast!"

I think that's the risk of someone working in methodology, that they become the preacher. I don't want to be the preacher but rather get my hands dirty in the data as well. I try to develop algorithms that infer from one or many different data sets, the causal relations among the variables. These algorithms could prove useful to scientists attempting to ferret out the causal relations in their statistical data.

What attracted you to the position at Caltech?

If you ask other philosophers whether my work is philosophy, they might cringe a little bit and think that I fall more into a technical environment. I actually think these methodological questions about understanding the difference between causality and correlations are fundamentally philosophical problems. I think here at Caltech, this categorization of research topics just won't be an issue. I think people will hopefully see that what I do is relevant and that it matters to a lot of fields, and then who cares whether you call it "philosophy" or not? A lot of people write "interdisciplinarity" on their flag, but very few people do it. I am looking forward to working with some very bright students at Caltech who hopefully will share my disregard for disciplinary boundaries.

Will you be collaborating with other faculty at Caltech?

I hope to find other faculty and researchers here who in their own work have become interested in questions about causality and are keen to pursue those questions in collaborations, but projects like these will need time to develop.

Eberhardt was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, because his parents—both biologists—were living on the Galápagos Islands. He grew up in Germany and received his B.Sc. in philosophy and mathematics from the London School of Economics before doing graduate work at Carnegie Mellon University, postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley and at Carnegie Mellon University, and taking on an assistant professorship at Washington University in St. Louis. He is joined in California by his wife, Minoli Ratnatunga, an economist at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, and their young son, Gustav.

Cynthia Eller
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Colin Camerer Named MacArthur Fellow

Colin Camerer, a behavioral economist at the California Institute of Technology whose work integrates psychology with economics experiments to understand how people behave when making decisions, has been named a MacArthur Fellow and awarded a five-year, $625,000 "no strings attached" grant. Each year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards the unrestricted fellowships—popularly known as "genius grants"—to individuals who have shown "exceptional creativity in their work" and "manifest promise for important future advances," according to the foundation.

The MacArthur Foundation describes Camerer as a "pioneering economist whose research challenges assumptions about human behavior in the traditional models used by economists."

"I am thrilled to be honored by the foundation," says Camerer. "Their choice recognizes the importance and promise of using psychology, and now neuroscience, to do better economics."

"Colin's MacArthur Fellowship is well deserved," says Jonathan Katz, Kay Sugahara Professor of Social Sciences and Statistics and chair of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences. "He helped found the now-established field of behavioral economics, showing how fundamental understanding of human psychology can help improve our models of economic behavior, and he continues this exciting work by looking at the intersection of economics and neuroscience to open up the black box of economic decision making."

Behavioral economics, Camerer explains, combines the best ideas and methods from economics, psychology, and, most recently, neuroscience, to better understand choices people make. "The brain is computing an economic number—how much you like a new restaurant, whether a football team will win, whether a person is friend or foe," he explains. "We create theories that detail this neural computation, express it in math, and then predict what people do. When we eventually understand a lot more about the neural computations, we can help treat people with disorders—they're like broken software—make neural nudges to improve decisions, help companies organize work, and much more."

A key aspect of Camerer's work is his novel application of technologies such as electroencephalography and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to economics experiments, positioning him as a leader in the emerging field of neuroeconomics. In recent work, he has used these and other instruments to probe the psychological underpinnings of financial bubble markets and Monday-morning quarterbacking (a phenomenon known as 20/20 hindsight bias) and to identify the brain regions that govern fear of the economic unknown.

Camerer already has some idea of what he'll do with the unrestricted funds. "I'll share with family, especially my sister who feeds poor people in Detroit," he says. "Then I'll push back against the science sequester by funding some really adventurous research, like replicating earlier studies—that's unglamorous and hard to fund, but it's crucial for really finding out where the science is rock solid—and then use the money as backup funding when necessary and prudent. For example, we have a grant that was highly rated by the National Science Foundation to do ongoing work on the neural basis of price bubbles, but it is in limbo due to the sequester cutbacks. So I will just start funding some of it to keep going."

Camerer received his bachelor's degree in 1976 from Johns Hopkins University; he earned his MBA in 1979 and a PhD in 1981, both from the University of Chicago. Following positions at Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago, he joined the Caltech faculty as a visiting associate in 1993 and became the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics in 1994. He has been the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics since 2008.

Camerer, who is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Econometric Society, becomes Caltech's 17th faculty member to be given a MacArthur Fellowship, joining recent awardees Sarkis Mazmanian (2012), John Dabiri (2010), and Alexei Kitaev (2008).

For more information on the 2013 MacArthur Fellows, visit the foundation website at

Kathy Svitil
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What Causes Some to Participate in Bubble Markets?

Caltech research shows neural underpinnings of financially risky behavior

During financial bubbles, such as the one that centered around the U.S. housing market and triggered the Great Recession, some investors react differently than others. Some rush in, trying to "time" the market's rise and fall, while others play it safe and bow out. Ever wonder what accounts for such differences? New neuroeconomic research at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has found that the investors most likely to take a risk and fuel bubble markets are those with good "theory of mind" skills—those who are good at "putting themselves in others' shoes." They think the most about the motives behind prices and what other people in the market are likely to do next, but during bubble markets, that actually becomes risky behavior.

The finding is contrary to what some economists have suggested—that financial bubbles are driven by confusion or denial on the part of investors and traders.

"What we find is that the people who are most susceptible to bubbles are not just reckless traders getting caught up in a frenzy," says Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech. "Instead, when there are unusual patterns in trading activity, these people are actually thinking a lot about what it means, and they're deciding to jump in."

Camerer is one of the principal investigators on a new paper describing the study and its results in the September 16 issue of the journal Neuron. The study was led by Benedetto De Martino, senior research fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, while he was a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech.

An important message from the study, De Martino says, is that it shows "when we interact with complex modern institutions, like financial markets, the same neural computational mechanisms that have been extremely advantageous in our evolutionary history can turn against us, biasing our choices with potentially catastrophic effects." Indeed, theory of mind is typically considered a beneficial skill that can help an individual navigate everything from everyday social situations to emergency scenarios.

The findings center around two regions of the brain. One, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), can be thought of as "the brain's accountant" because it encodes value. The other, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), is strongly associated with theory of mind.

In the study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor blood flow in the brains of student participants as they interacted with replayed financial market experiments. Such blood flow is considered a proxy for brain activity. Each participant was given $60 and then served as an outside observer of a series of six trading sessions involving other traders; each trading session lasted 15 periods, and after each period the dividend for the traded asset decreased by $0.24. At various points during the trial, the students were asked to imagine that they were traders and to decide whether they would want to stick with their current holdings or buy or sell shares at the going price.

In half of the sessions, trading resulted in a bubble market in which the prices ended up significantly higher than the actual, or fundamental, value of the asset being traded. In the three other sessions, prices tracked fairly well with the fundamental value, and never exceeded it.

The researchers found that the formation of bubbles was linked to increased activity in the vmPFC, that "accounting" part of the brain that processes value judgments.

Next, they investigated the question whether the people who were more susceptible to participating in, or "riding," bubbles showed heightened activity in the same brain region. The answer? Yes—those who were willing to participate in the bubble market again displayed more activity in the vmPFC.

To further investigate the theory of mind connection, the researchers asked participants to take the well-known "mind in the eyes" test. The test challenges test takers to choose the word that best describes what various people are thinking or feeling, based solely on pictures of their eyes. The researchers found that study participants who scored highest on the test, and thus discerned the correct feelings most accurately, also showed stronger links between their portfolio values and activity in the dmPFC, one of the brain regions linked to theory of mind activity.

"The way we interpret this is that these people were thinking more about what was going on in the market and wondering why people were behaving the way they were," Camerer explains. "Normally, in everyday social encounters and in specialized professions, this kind of mind reading is useful to the individual. But in these markets, when prices are going crazy, these people think, 'Wow, I think I can figure these markets out. Let me buy and sell.' And that is usually going to contribute to the bubble's momentum and also cost them money."

One of the most innovative parts of the study involved using a new mathematical formula for detecting unusual activity in the trading market. Unlike normal markets in which the mathematical distribution of the arrival of "orders" (offers to buy or sell shares) follows a somewhat steady pattern, bubble markets display restlessness—with flurries of activity followed by lulls. The researchers looked to see if any brain regions showed signs of tracking this unusual distribution of orders during bubble markets. And they found a strong association with the dmPFC and vmPFC. Heightened activity in these prefrontal regions, the team suspects, is a sign that participants are more likely to ride the bubble market, perhaps because they subconsciously believe that there are insiders with extra information operating within the market.

Another of the paper's senior authors, Peter Bossaerts, completed the work at Caltech and is now at the University of Utah. He explains: "It's group illusion. When participants see the inconsistency in order flow, they think that there are people who know better in the marketplace and they make a game out of it. In reality, however, there is nothing to be gained because nobody knows better."

The research could eventually help in the design of better social and financial interventions to avoid the formation of bubbles in financial markets, as well as methods for individual traders and brokers to manage their trading better.

The Neuron paper is titled "In the Mind of the Market: Theory of Mind Biases Value Computation During Financial Bubbles." Along with Camerer, De Martino, and Bossaerts, additional Caltech coauthors are John O'Doherty, professor of psychology, and Debajyoti Ray, a graduate student in Computation and Neural Systems. The work was supported by a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Betty and Gordon Moore Foundation, and the Lipper Family Foundation.

Kimm Fesenmaier
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