Thursday, November 11, 2010

neuroeconomics and trained disgust

I went to a really fascinating seminar on Tuesday by Antonio Rangel of Caltech. At Berkeley, despite our huge, renowned, and varied behavioral economics group, I don't hear too much about the neurobiological bases of decision making. But, much as macroeconomics begs for microeconomic foundations, behavioral economics begs for neurological foundations. Despite spending four years at the university that is at the forefront of that investigation, I apparently had to move somewhere else and be revisited by my past to appreciate that fact.*

This, of course, requires extensive collaboration between biologists and economists, and Rangel, a trained economics, is actually in the "Computation & Neural Systems" department. His talk, filled with intimidating vocabulary like "ventromedial prefrontal cortex", had never before been presented to an audience of economists, and the first 15 minutes or so had to be spent reconciling two paradigms of research. I think these kinds of discussions are incredibly valuable as they spur us to disregard our ingrained thought modes for a minute and take a chance on a different approach. Interdisciplinary research prevents groupthink.

Anyway, the exact subject of the talk was the neurobiology of self-control. I don't want to rehash everything (mostly because I'd embarrass myself with my neurology ignorance), but ultimately the most interesting result was that people who are good at exercising self-control when faced with an option they hedonistically desire but rationally want to avoid have a stronger link between two parts of the brain. The vmPFC is the part that immediately reacts to choices and tells us whether they are good or bad. It sees chocolate and says "WANT!" The other part, the (dorsolateral maybe?)PFC, is a slower rational trigger that considers long term desires and modulates the vmPFC signal. If the dlPFC has a strong link to the vmPFC, it is easier to avoid temptation, because chocolate just doesn't seem as tempting.

I thought that was incredibly cool because it exactly verifies my own intuition for what works in developing good habits. I try to eat healthily and not to overconsume, but it used to be much harder to do that than it is now. Somewhere along the line, my instinctive reaction towards chocolate or fettuccine alfredo switched from "delicious" to "sick to the stomach". (Don't get me wrong, I still LOVE chocolate, and cheese, and cookie dough, and doritos, and and and you get the idea, but only a little at a time...) Same applies to spending money, procrastination, keeping my room livable, etc. Ok, I am still a huge unsanitary slob (germs that don't kill you make you stronger!) but it almost hurts to spend money and if anywhere close to pushing a deadline I get overwhelmed by anxiety.

The problem is that this 'method' (other than being hard to develop) only seems to apply to avoiding temptation, rather than seeking out good investments. The only way I ever get any exercise is when I one-sidedly bet a friend that I will, as a commitment device. I don't seek out enough research grants or collaboration partners (or even just classmates to bounce ideas off of.) I don't get out and see creatures other than my roommate, boyfriend, and cats unless thoroughly prodded (I promise I'm not crazy, I was like that long before I had three cats...) And good luck making me get up before 11am on a regular basis.

So, I'm doing an experiment. Exercise is the most important of those things to me right now (I rarely mind being a recluse, don't have large research expenses yet, and I work really well at night when the rest of the world is sleeping.) So, I set up DDR in a constantly-easily-accessible place in my bedroom, bought a cheap craigslist treadmill, and bet my boyfriend that any week I don't run at least x miles (I'm setting the initial bar so low that I don't want to reveal it...) I have to take him out to dinner at his favorite Ethiopian restaurant. And I'm announcing all this in a really public place.

More importantly, I'm trying really hard to focus on how good it feels to be mildly sore the day after running hard, how awake and energetic you feel the rest of the day after playing DDR for an hour, and how good it feels to take a shower after dripping with sweat and go back to work all fresh and in clean clothes. And how as long as I'm on the treadmill I can watch stupid TV shows completely guilt free...

Hopefully, brains are directly manipulable even when aware of being manipulated.

*I was an undergrad at Caltech, and am therefore very biased on the subject. However, I am terrible at biology and never tried to get involved in neuroeconomics research, aside from as a lab subject, so I promise I'm not just advocating for my former professors. In fact, sadly, Antonio Rangel arrived just as I left so I never had the opportunity to be swept into his big enthusiastic bubble of influence.

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