Entries in neuroimaging (2)


Individual differences shape empathetic drive

Dr. Spock had an exceptional, in fact other-worldly ability to read the thoughts of people he encountered.

A new report in the journal Motivation and Emotion suggests this may not be just for Vulcans.

Mind-Reading Motivation (MRM) is a new construct detailed by lead author Jordan Carpenter (University of Pennsylvania) and corresponding author Dr. Melanie Green (Associate Professor, University of Buffalo).

MRM involves using cues from other people’s behavior – facial expressions, hand movements, body posture and ‘language’ and hundreds of other non-verbal cues to try to figure out what they are thinking.  People high in MRM have a tendency to speculate on others’ thoughts and enjoy doing so whereas people low in MRM dislike or have no interest in doing so.

Two features of MRM stood out to me: One, that the motivation to understand the thoughts of others was not related to direct benefit. Although the outcome of striving for mental synergy can definitely lead to improved teamwork and greater social harmony, these outcomes, at best, would be delayed;  Two, that MRM seems to go beyond coarse perception and develops what Dr. Green described as “…richer psychological portraits of those around them. It’s the difference between saying ‘this person strives for success, but is afraid of achieving it’ as opposed to ‘this person is a great cook’.”

Dr. Green’s work in the Department of Communication and her co-author colleagues at the Hass School of Business at UC Berkeley interpret their findings of individuals who have high or low MRM with respect to they types of information and social cues that could influence MRM groups differently.  This has significant implications for relationships as well as in generic vs. targeted advertising.

Beyond improving ads for a commercial product, it is fascinating to me to consider how MRM could be described in the context of prodromal psychiatric disease. Is the motivation to understand the thoughts of others an early signal of later more extreme changes in social engagement or withdrawal?

From a neuroimaging perspective, which areas of the brain are engaged when interpreting the thoughts of others? What does MRM as a mental practice derive in neurotransmitter release in the short and long term? Do high MRM individuals necessarily change their behavior based on their interpretations?

Integrating static and social information quickly (possibly in part by MRM) may be a hallmark of success – where one example in science might be successful grant writing.  Besides technical precision in a proposal, successful applications seem to contain a fickle element that makes them inherently attractive – a mixture of confidence and mutual understanding with the reviewer, despite the single-blinded mechanism (at least via NIH). Perhaps a subconstruct could be described as Remote Mind-Reading Motivation, RMRM, or even POMRM to at least tap into the mind of your grants Program Officer.


Article: Jordan M. Carpenter, Melanie C. Green, Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk. Beyond perspective-taking: Mind-reading motivation. Motivation and Emotion, 2016; 40 (3): 358 DOI: 10.1007/s11031-016-9544-z


I scream, you scream, we all scream for……….….a research study on scream!

screamHave you ever heard a truly terrifying scream that halted all activity and focus? Well, a group of researchers got to the bottom of this fight or flight response to determine the science of this survival signal. The Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Germany and NYU Dept. of Psychology conducted a research study on examining the neuroscience behind human screams.1 They proposed to answer what makes screams a unique signal and determine how screams are processed. Using a combination of techniques (e.g. acoustic analyses, psychophysical experiments, and neuroimaging), they demonstrated that “screams occupy a privileged acoustic niche, being separated from other communication signals”. The work correlated levels of screams with degrees of “roughness” in the sound, which led to the conclusion that sound roughness is vital for an alerting and attention grabbing scream. Researchers followed up this acoustic study with subjective ratings from 11 participants who listened to sounds and screams and rated the level of perceived fear. The verdict……..rougher screams illicit a faster response and more fearful emotional reaction. To identify brain areas activated by auditory processing of danger, they conducted an fMRI study with 16 participants who listened to either neutral or unpleasant sounds. Unpleasant sounds induce larger hemodynamic responses in bilateral amygdala (an area associated with aversion, fear and danger) and primary auditory cortices. Interestingly, when the roughness of a sound was changed so did the hemodynamic responses in the amygdala, but not in the primary auditory cortices. This demonstrated “that rough sounds specifically target neural circuits involved in fear/danger processing”. So, if you are ever in true danger and need help, make sure to evoke a truly sound blasting “rough” scream, to activate the amygdala of a nearby superhero, sending one flying in for a rescue.

For access to the full article in Current Biology please follow this link: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(15)00737-X.pdf


1) Arnal et al., Human Screams Occupy a Privileged Niche in the Communication Soundscape, Current Biology (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.06.043