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Benjamin C. Kinney @BenCKinney
, 26 tweets, 7 min read Read on Twitter
#NeuroThursday is crawling back to life this week to discuss this article: just what, if anything, is important about the role of dopamine in beliefs? More importantly: is this (or any) new knowledge meaningless or meaningful?…
Thanks to @oldscout for the topic inspiration! #NeuroThursday has been paused lately while I write a novel on the cold war between AIs who emulate humankind and AIs who reject that bullshit. But this week I take a break from my break.
If you don't want to read the article, here's a summary: dopamine (one of the brain's chemical messengers) is long-known to be involved in e.g. reward and addiction. The article demonstrated that dopamine systems are also involved in updating beliefs in the human brain.
There's a certain logic to this. When we say "beliefs," we mean "beliefs about how the world works." Is this die fair or loaded? Which is in part about identifying whether information is meaningful. Does it matter that you rolled three 6's in a row, or was it luck?
Perhaps you can see how this might be part of the reward system. You want to succeed, you need to know which things are worth pursuing. Which facts should motivate you, and which facts shouldn't.
But when I first skimmed the article, I thought it was in the "not worth pursuing" camp. Because its surface conclusion is the kind of thing that sounds interesting when compressed to a news article, but doesn't really tell us much.
The point that made me grumble: "A dopamine system is involved in this!" Well… so what? The brain has many different chemical messengers (neurotransmitters), and many of its systems use dopamine.
When I said dopamine was involved in "e.g. reward and addition," that "e.g." covers a TON. Executive function, action selection, prolactin (hormonal) release, desire and pleasure. Disorders include ADHD, addiction, schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease, etc.
Knowing that this particular molecule is involved is like determining what size bolts were used in one particular bit of jet fighter design. That's cool, I guess? But it doesn't actually help me understand how the jet works.
"Dopamine is involved here" is a How explanation, not a Why. Unless you're under the hood yourself developing new drugs (or building jet fighters), this doesn't add to your understanding.
So, I am bored by the prospect of learning which particular network is involved in this (or any other) bit of human action. But this article is no time-waster.
This rekindles my hatred for poor science reporting. Because that neurosciencenews-dot-com website buried the lede. The actual scientific article is much clearer about its strengths, straight from the title.
Original title: "Dopaminergic basis for signaling belief updates, but not surprise, and the link to paranoia." Ooh, what's that bit about paranoia?…
Here's the fun part: the researchers found that the same (dopamine) belief-updating/importance-finding system is correlated with "subclinical paranoid ideation."
Subclinical paranoid ideation is normal behavior (subclinical, natch), but we can all be a little paranoid sometimes. My coworkers started gossiping about me after I left the room, didn't they?…
In this study, people's inclination toward everyday paranoid thoughts was correlated with how quickly they identified useful information (i.e. detected that those three 6's did mean a loaded die).
That's the other half of the title: "belief updates, but not surprise." The scientists separated new information that's worth using to update your understanding of the world (beliefs), vs. information that's new but not meaningful (surprise).
The brain's responses to the real stuff, belief-update – that occurs in tandem with usage of one particular dopamine system, and with subclinical paranoid ideas.
And because we do good science, we have something to compare it to: the brain's responses to surprise, which are related neither to that dopamine system nor to paranoid.
That gives us a #NeuroThursday takeaway: everyday paranoid thinking is related to a general over-sensitivity to patterns. As we've seen so many times before, the atypical is just one end of humanity's wide spectrum.
Personally, I wonder how that relates to story-brain, what @m_older would call "narrative disorders." Readers and writers spin stories around the events of their lives. Another way of detecting and over-detecting patterns, no?
Alas, the authors of this research had enough on their plates, and did not test that. Even if they wanted to, neuroscience of narrative is infuriatingly hard to study.
My intuition is that subclinical paranoia and narrative disorder aren't correlated - but that doesn't mean they're exclusive. No one answer, even a Why answer, explains everything. Call that your second #NeuroThursday takeaway, if you will.
If this week's #NeuroThursday updated your beliefs, share it around or check out my other work! Just released or available for preorder: two anthologies with my short stories, and "Putting the Science in Fiction" with a chapter from me about cyborgs.
And/or, sign up for my newsletter. 1 email/month (max) of updates, news, exclusive content, and the all-important cat photos. Never miss a #NeuroThursday or a story again!
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