Thursday, April 21, 2011

At Tech, Separating the Rational from the Emotional

A study by Ulrich Kirk, research assistant professor with the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at Virginia Tech and Jonathan Downar of the University of Toronto, offers a new take on decision-making that shows the role of emotion from those decisions.

Research conducted over the last three decades shows that Buddhist meditators use different areas of the brain than other people when confronted with unfair choices, enabling them to make decisions rationally rather than emotionally. The meditators had trained their brains to function differently and make better choices in certain situations.

The study is published in the April 2011 issue of Frontiers in Decision Neuroscience.

The research "highlights the clinically and socially important possibility that sustained training in mindfulness meditation may impact distinct domains of human decision making," the researchers write.

The research came about when Montague wondered whether some people are capable of ignoring the social consideration of fairness and can appreciate a reward based on its intrinsic qualities alone. "That is," he says, "can they uncouple emotional reaction from their actual behavior?"

Using computational and neuroimaging techniques, Montague studies the neurobiology of human social cognition and decision-making.  He and his students recruited 26 Buddhist meditators and 40 control subjects for comparison and looked at their brain processes using functional MRI (fMRI) while the subjects played the "ultimatum game," in which the first player propose how to divide a sum of money and the second can accept or reject the proposal.

The researchers hypothesized that "successful regulation of negative emotional reactions would lead to increased acceptance rates of unfair offers" by the meditators. The behavioral results confirmed the hypothesis. There is no word whether the researchers will test political science majors.


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