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 Thinking about thinking


Emotional or logical decision? Both if it's personal, study finds
Tuesday, November 27, 2001


Mr. Spock notwithstanding, there apparently is no such thing as the
completely logical mind.

New research indicates that the mind engages its emotional centers even when
making apparently simple rational decisions, such as whether to wear a seat
belt, or choose cake over cod-liver oil. Scientists used to believe that
emotional and logical decisions were made in different compartments of the
brain, but brain-scan imaging now shows that the two are wired together.

"Neuropsychologists have begun to believe that emotional and rational parts
of the brain may be more closely intertwined than previously thought," said
Dr. Dean Shibata, assistant professor of radiology at the University of
Washington. "Our imaging research supports the idea that every time you have
to make choices in your personal life, you need to 'feel' the projected
emotional outcome of each choice -- subconsciously, or intuitively."

You then make a choice based on your reading of that projected feeling, said
Shibata, who presented his findings at a scientific meeting yesterday in

The findings could eventually help improve drug treatments for mental
illness and aid surgeons as they navigate around the brain.

They could also help explain why people who have suffered strokes or brain
tumors in the prefrontal lobes of their brains, where emotions are
processed, can have such a difficult time making even routine personal
decisions, such as scheduling doctors' appointments, Shibata said.

Researchers have long been puzzled why people with such brain damage can
make decisions affecting other people, such as what type of car someone else
should buy, but are stymied when it comes to making such decisions for

"They can objectively decide for you, but can't for themselves," Shibata
said. They get into "infinite loops" where they are unable to sort through
various options to make the decision.

Brain-imaging research is only a piece of the puzzle in understanding how
the diseased brain works.

"Basically, the ultimate answers to designing new treatments lie in
understanding the mechanism of disease, and genes are the most proximate,
close keys to understanding those mechanisms," said Dr. Peter Roy-Byrne,
chief of psychiatry at Harborview Medical Center and vice chairman of the
psychiatry department of the UW Medical School, who was not involved in the
research. But looking at patterns of activity in the brain could help
researchers identify genes involved in diseases, he said.

And part of understanding disease is understanding what's "normal," a
daunting task given the wide range of what's considered acceptable human
behavior. Brain imaging is one way to begin to visualize the normal
processes in the brain.

In Shibata's study, participants had their brains scanned while thinking
about specific questions. First they were asked questions such as: "Which
would you rather have -- a car or a bike?"

Next they were asked an impersonal question, such as: "Which costs more, a
car or a bike?"

The brain scans showed more activity in the "ventromedial frontal lobe" when
people were making decisions about preference, versus decisions about cost,
even though on the surface, the preference decisions didn't seem
particularly emotional.

Scientists used to believe all emotions were processed in the limbic system,
the "dark ba{*filter*}t" of the brain. Logical choices involving the "right thing
to do" were thought to be processed higher up in the brain in the frontal

But personal decisions involve both regions and may be mediated through the
ventromedial frontal lobe, Shibata said. The ventromedial frontal lobe is
known to be involved in emotions.

"If you eliminate the emotional guiding factors, it's impossible to make
decisions in daily life," the UW professor said. "Even while making a
decision, such as 'Should I put on my seat belt?' you intuitively realize
that, without the seat belt, you might get hurt in a crash. That's an
emotional image. If you can't envision that, you can't make the decision to
wear the seat belt."

The research has implications for brain surgeons.

"This (the ventromedial frontal lobe) is the part of the brain they used to
disconnect during frontal-lobotomy surgery," Shibata explained. The findings
mean surgeons should be careful not to damage that area during brain

The research could also help psychiatrists design better drug therapies for
patients with mental illness. Patients with schizophrenia or depression, for
example, sometimes have abnormalities in the ventromedial frontal lobe.

"Many psychiatric disorders involve impaired emotional judgment," he said.
"Understanding how the circuits work is the first step in designing better
{*filter*} and treatments."

Brain-scan imaging could help doctors determine whether a drug is working by
showing whether a patient's brain circuits become "more normal" on the

? 1998-2001 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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Sun, 16 May 2004 22:06:17 GMT  
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