Monthly Archives: August 2004

“Altruistic Punishment”

Science has a paper by de Quervain et al. on “altruistic punishment”, the irrational behavior of seeking to punish those who transgress societal “rules” where there is no benefit for the punisher.

The researchers found that when a subject both felt an urge to “punish” and could do so effectively, both the caudate nucleus and the thalamus had higher levels of activation. They also found that the degree of activation of the caudate nucleus was directly related to the “cost” that the punisher was willing to bear in order to punish. The caudate nucleus is already known as a key component in “reward processing” in humans. In other words, punishing the guilty is self-rewarding for humans. The authors come to this conclusion:

Our study is part of recent attempts in “neuroeconomics” and the “cognitive neuroscience of social behavior” to understand the social brain and the associated moral emotions (37–44). However, this study sought to identify the neural basis of the altruistic punishment of defectors. The ability to develop social norms that apply to large groups of genetically unrelated individuals and to enforce these norms through altruistic sanctions is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the human species. Altruistic punishment is probably a key element in explaining the unprecedented level of cooperation in human societies (1–3). We hypothesize that altruistic punishment provides relief or satisfaction to the punisher and activates, therefore, reward-related brain regions.

This brings up another possible avenue of research: does vicarious experience of “altruistic punishment” also light up the caudate nucleus? I’m going to speculate wildly here and give my opinion that if this line of research is carried out, it will find that experiences like watching a film based upon the portrayal of “altruistic punishment” results in activation of the caudate nucleus. This would, of course, provide a biological basis for why our popular media is awash in violence, and a reason for the otherwise unreasonable success of movies such as “Death Wish”. If the graded response of the caudate nucleus in the present study indicates something in this regard, perhaps it is that in order to increase the activation of the caudate nucleus (or induce it at all) through vicarious experience, one has to present more intense “punishments” for ever-plainer violations of social rules. This also would explain a lot if true. Now, we just need to convince people to put up with PET scans and the like while watching the latest revenge flick from Hollywood…

de Quervain, D.J.-F., Fischbacher, U., Treyer, V., Schellhammer, M., Schnyder, U, Buck, A., and Fehr, E. 2004. “The Neural Basis of Altruistic
Punishment.” Science 305:1254-1258.

(Trackback added for Carl Zimmer’s post on ‘spite’ in bacteria. I don’t think that the bacteria will be into vicarious experience…)

Open Source Vector Drawing Applications

There are a few applications that tie me to having a MicroSoft Windows workstation. One of those is Corel Draw, the vector drawing application. I may be tied down for a while yet, but open source vector drawing applications are starting to appear. Two that I’ve seen are “Sodipodi” and “Inkscape”. Of the two, Inkscape seems the better developed at the moment.

I’ve been a user of Corel Draw since version 0.98. I illustrated a book, Daniel S. Levine’s Introduction to Neural and Cognitive Modeling using CD v0.98 and v1.0 on IBM PC class machines. Inkscape in its current version offers everything I would have needed for that job.

There are things that Corel Draw does now that I probably don’t want to do without. The ability to use node edits to crop imported bitmaps is one. But Corel should take notice that the Windows platform is not the only choice of OS out there, and move toward a multi-platform code base as soon as possible. Corel Draw and Adobe Illustrator are no longer the only games in town for vector drawing.

Those Little Details…

I’m working on a draft of a paper that will report more findings from the dataset that was collected with Ted Cranford in 1999. We took acoustic data on biosonar trials while also collecting pressure data from the bony nares (and sometimes video data via endoscopes). We’ve already got drafts of papers that report on our methods (and differences in “pressurization events” between those that include whistles and those that don’t), click properties and the effect of intranarial pressure (that mostly there isn’t an effect), and bioenergetics of “pressurization events”. There are frustrations with both the drafts that have been done and those that I’m working on.

Because the work was done with the US Navy Marine Mammal Program, drafts have to be cleared through there before being submitted to journals. This adds significantly to the time needed to get the work out. Not that I’ve exactly been a speed demon here, but it’s just another source of delay. One paper that has gotten to a journal has gotten editorial comments to the effect that there is a good paper of about a tenth the size struggling to get out. I don’t know how I’m going to cover the information that I think should be presented together in the twelve pages that I’m being urged to squeeze into.

The new paper I’m currently working on concerns properties of click trains, which are a series of individual clicks. Relevant properties of click trains that have been reported on before include the count of clicks, the click interval (average period between clicks), the difference between the maximum amplitude of a click and the average amplitude in the click train, and “waterfall” plots of spectra of clicks. We also have data on click classifications for which I should work out some manner of presentation. This is proceeding, but slowly. I’m pretty much transferring the results from the statistical package into the manuscript by hand, which takes a while.

I’m sure that many other people publishing work in science have similar frustrations about the time and effort it takes. It’s a bit daunting, actually, when I skim a journal looking for the things that I find interesting, and mostly ignore the rest. Most of those overlooked articles took just as much sweat and effort to put together and pushed through the peer-review process. So for those of you whose articles I do pass over, and who are likely to pass over mine one fine day when they finally hit print, please take this as a note of appreciation for doing your part, even if it is sight unseen to me.