It's a fascinating area for research, so I posed some questions to Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, who has written extensively on how our mind works. TIME magazine senior writer Christine Gorman has also helped answer some of my questions.
1. What's the most exciting news in researching how the brain works?
Pinker: It's all exciting, but for me, perhaps the most exciting is explaining what happens in the brain when we have a conscious experience – when we see an object, or hear a sound, or experience an emotion. That's what my article in Time is about. Another exciting development is identifying what happens in the brain when a person grapples with a moral dilemma, such as whether it is permissible to kill one person if doing so would save the lives of five people. A third exciting development is understanding how genes help lay out the growth of the brain in utero.
2. More mental disorders are diagnosed these days than ever before. Are people over diagnosing now or were we previously under diagnosed?
Pinker: Both things are happening – on the one hand, there are therapists who slap these labels on people at the drop of a hat. In past decades people might have said that John was "melancholy" or that Jason was "rambunctious"; today they might say that they have depression or ADHD. On the other hand, there really are differences among people that come from differences in the functioning of their brains. Even if people may lie along a continuum, rather than falling into separate boxes, at the extremes the differences can be dramatic, and people can be helped if they are identified and treated.
3. Anti-depressants are also much more common today. How do we know they're working? Are they being over-prescribed?
Pinker: The major anti-depressants have been tested in double-blind placebo studies, and we have good reason to believe that they work—although they work better in conjunction with good psychotherapy. I am not an expert in this area, but I suspect that across the country antidepressants are under prescribed (especially among the poor) rather than over prescribed. Many people suffer needlessly from depression, partly because of the old-fashioned belief that when a person gets depressed, his soul just has to try harder to climb out of it. Treating brain chemistry is seen as "cheating," like a baseball player on steroids. But if the soul *is* the brain—as I believe it is—then we should expect that there will be times that its chemistry may not allow us to be fulfilled, happy, and productive, and in those cases I see no reason why we shouldn't treat the chemistry. That having been said, we have to be very, very careful when it comes to children, whose brains are developing, and who can't make their own informed decisions.
4. What's the newest research on brain activity in people with comas? How has that changed the ethical dilemma facing end of life decisions?
Pinker: In one extremely unusual case that I discuss in the article, a woman in a vegetative state (technically not the same thing as a coma) showed brain activity in response to simple instructions. This suggests that there may be a scintilla of consciousness in her – though it may be as simple as having a fleeting image when the sentence is heard, followed by a slip back into blankness. In general, the ethical dilemma will be that consciousness is not an on-off phenomenon – there are probably thousands of ways in which people can be dimly or partly or barely conscious, and the techniques of brain science are going to be better and better at detecting these in-between states. Some people might interpret this as a reason to do anything to keep a comatose or vegetative patient alive for as long as possible. My own view is that an existence of occasional flickers of dim color or sound or hunger is a fate worse than death – if I'm ever in that state, I hope they pull the plug, and let my loved ones get on with their lives. But as you can imagine, not everyone believes that this is an ethical policy.
5. What's the most exciting research being done in the field of Alzheimer's? How close are we to a cure?
Pinker: Ah, I'm very far from an expert – I'm a cognitive psychologist, and as they say at Microsoft, "that's a hardware problem." But I do know that the progress in understanding the disease has been breathtaking. Whether that will lead to a cure in our lifetimes is less clear, but if I were forced to bet, I'd bet "yes."
6. How can our brains function at their best given the massive amounts of information overload we currently experience?
Pinker: Just as we use various tools and prosthetics to expand the capability of our bodies, we'll depend on them more and more to supplement our minds. I couldn't live without my PDA and laptop computer. But the folks who design these gadgets will have to pay more attention to how the human mind works, so they can take advantage of human intuition and perception. Too many high-tech products are simply too baffling to use effectively, even for a gadget-loving Harvard professor like me.
7. Multi-tasking is another occupational hazard of life in 2007. Can we process information effectively while multi-tasking?
Pinker: Again, that will depend on whether product designers pay more attention to human psychology. Right now, multitasking can be extremely dangerous. Everyone has had the experience of seeing a car zigging and zagging across freeway lanes, and then getting closer and seeing some nincompoop lost in conversation on a cell phone.
8. A recent survey (by Mental Health America) reports most of us are dealing with stress in all the wrong ways. What aren't we doing right?
Gorman: Watching TV means you're not reaching out to friends or exercising, overeating causes its own stresses on the body and skipping exercise means you're not giving your body a chance to use some of its best anti-stress mechanisms to help you cope. Tough as it is to eat right, turn off the tube and go for a walk or a run or find a pick-up game of basketball when your world is falling apart, the more you can keep these good habits going during stressful times, the better off you'll be.
9. What new research is there exploring the relationship between exercise and the brain?
Gorman: New research is showing that physical exercise helps not just the heart but the brain to stay healthy as well. As a group, people who exercise regularly do better on tests of their memory and thinking and are less likely to suffer dementia than more sedentary groups. There, are of course, no guarantees. But regular physical exercise improves the odds that your cognitive abilities will remain intact as you age.
10. Is there any new research that helps us understand how our emotions are controlled by the brain?
Pinker: Too much to summarize in this short space, alas. But we know that all our emotions consist in patterns of activity in the neurons in the brain, organized into circuits that depend on particular neurotransmitter chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin. We know that some of the emotion circuits are closely tied to brain areas for the body – for example, when someone is morally disgusted at someone's behavior, areas of the brain near those representing the gut are active.
We also know that the frontal lobes, where reasoning and decision-making are concentrated, are closely interconnected to the evolutionarily older parts of the brain involved in emotion. Our emotions affect our decision-making, and our thoughts in turn can feed back down to affect our emotions.