By Vincent J. Schodolski
Tribune national correspondent
Published February 13, 2005
PASADENA, Calif. --
Which life do you value more: That of a beetle or that of a panda? How about a rabbit's versus a tiger's?
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology are asking such
things while monitoring blood flow in the brains of the people being
questioned. Their aim is to determine which parts of the brain are most
active when people make such judgments.
The researchers' goals
are numerous, but at the core of their work is a question about human
nature: What part of us--the logical part, the creative part, fear or a
combination of factors--enters into decision-making, including moral
Because blood flow increases to parts of the brain
being used, researchers are trying to sort out these questions with the
help of volunteers and a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or
The fMRI differs from
other MRIs the way a video camera differs from a still camera in that
the fMRI allows scientists to watch the flow of blood. A regular MRI
would provide only a snapshot of a given moment.
the surges of blood, researchers can determine whether people are using
logical parts of the brain, or the emotional and artistic parts, or
parts where gathered information is processed.
research centers on the human brain, the professor in charge of the
work is a University of Chicago-trained economist and his graduate
student assistant is an economist as well.
"How do we attach a price to things?" asked lead researcher Colin Camerer, the Cal Tech professor.
The research has such potential applications as finding out what
products might appeal to a consumer. But it is wider than that, Camerer
said: "How do we attach a price to things that are not a product, like
Such questions arose after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska.
"People would be asked how much they would be willing to pay to clean
up," Camerer said. "They came up with different prices, but if you
asked what they would pay to never let it happen, they would say
A reporter who recently went through the testing
was placed on a table, his head put in a harness and his eyes covered
with goggles. His ears were covered with earphones equipped with a
microphone. He was given two control boxes, one placed in each hand.
After an initial test of the equipment and then a six-minute body scan,
the fMRI was focused on his head. A series of images appeared in the
goggles, and questions were asked to determine value in various
One image was of a fierce-looking crocodile with
its jaws open. The questioner asked how much the subject would be
willing to pay to have the animal killed painlessly. One of the hand
controls enabled the subject to set a dollar value, and the other
device allowed him to select that value as his choice.
images and questions followed. Typically the questions asked to fix a
value to painlessly kill a giraffe or a butterfly or a lion or a puppy.
After the test, Camerer said that the reporter's results were in many ways similar to those of people previously examined.
"People tend to value the lives of large animals more than small ones,"
Camerer said. He said that when the choice was between a human and an
animal, humans were always valued higher.
That was one of the
similarities. But the reporter placed larger values on the lives of
some smaller animals--a kitten and a puppy--than the people tested
Camerer said that the difference could possibly be
explained by the fact that all of the previous results came from tests
on men in their 20s who were summer students at Cal Tech, a pretty
Camerer said he guessed that the reporter's decisions were probably more typical of the population in general.
Other areas explored
Researchers at other universities are using fMRIs to study people's reactions to political figures, including President Bush.
Other experiments are being carried out as well. Among them are tests
to measure people's fear of the unknown and how trust is built between
The research so far has backed up known neurological science.
"Most complicated activities take many parts of the brain collaborating," Camerer said.
One area of the brain active in coordinating input from other parts is
known as the insula, located in the front of the brain in the cerebral
The Cal Tech research is supporting earlier work done
at UCLA that suggested the insula processed "social pain," such as
shame and remorse.
Graduate student Ming Hsu, who is working
with Camerer, said it was believed that people inclined to take
risks--such as entrepreneurs--may have brains in which signals from the
insula are weak or not received, perhaps making fear and hesitation at
risk-taking far less than in other people.
Using the fMRI,
Camerer and Hsu hope to study such entrepreneurial brains to see how
busy the insula is when subjects are asked about risk-taking.
So far 12 people have participated in the Cal Tech research, but
Camerer hopes to expand that number and vary the type of people tested.
He also hopes to explore work done earlier at Yale University that
touches on people's brain activity when confronted with the faces of
people of different races.
That Yale research found that when
white people were shown the face of an unfamiliar black person, their
brains signaled fear. If they were shown the face of a familiar black
person, that reaction was not seen.
"Show them Colin Powell and there is no problem," Camerer said, referring to the former secretary of state.
He said that area of research could have applications in labor
economics, helping businesses measure and better understand the brain's
reaction to people of different races and ethnicity, sex, even size and
"How would a young human resources officer's brain react when interviewing a 55-year-old prospective employee?" Camerer asked.
"There is a chance that racism is happening in a way people don't even know," he said.
Another application for the research is studying how people function
when forced to cooperate with another person to resolve a problem. Such
work requires trusting the other individual, Camerer said.
"People who are self-important don't do well at these two-person
games," he said. "If you think less about yourself and can put yourself
in another person's shoes, you do better."