On 17th October the HSE School of Psychology is holding Welcome Lab Day as a continuation of the Nauka O+ festival. Head of School Vasily Klucharev talks to us about what will be on display, which areas of psychology are most popular today and whether it is possible to use brain stimulation to make people conform.
There’s a worldwide fascination at the moment with scientific progress in psychology, biomedicine, natural sciences, and especially in research into the brain. Many people think that unravelling the biology of the psyche is the real challenge for the coming decades. Countries are creating national brain research programmes, ‘hot’ interdisciplinary projects are taking off.
For example, at HSE we were the first in Russia to study neuroeconomics - a combination of psychology, neurobiology and economics. We caused a stir because it’s unusual in neurobiology to use economic models to explain certain psychophysiological processes and to bring neurobiology and psychology into economics, to predict economic decisions by brain activity. Leading economics journals are publishing issues with a picture of a brain on the cover so this interdisciplinary subject is evidently interesting to a much wider audience. I think this is happening partly because in research connected to the brain we are using a lot of exact science and we are getting the feeling that finally we are beginning to understand the true reasons for decision making. You can actually feel the process of how we form decisions by registering brain activity as opposed to using traditional economic approaches. It’s no secret that we still understand very little about the nature of economic decisions and every economic crisis seems to arise unexpectedly and surprises us.
Neurobiology is one of the key sciences of the technological revolution which is going on around us
Connecting the brain to a computer has been a scientific breakthrough for neurobiology and psychology in recent decades. Now we can see a paralysed person feeding themselves with an artificial arm. We understand more about how the brain works and we are beginning to actively influence the process. Neurobiology is one of the key sciences of the technological revolution which is going on around us. Professor Mikhail Lebedev at Duke University conducted an experiment with his colleagues where he attached the brains of three monkeys to a computer to create a ‘super brain’ to solve one task. When I was a student I thought it was impossible but now three monkeys have been able to drive a car with their thoughts using a computer-brain interface.
Students at HSE, when they hear Mikhail Lebedev’s lecture think that something that so recently was impossible is just part of everyday science.
Our research in the School of Psychology is becoming more technological and resonates more and more with natural sciences.
A lot of people still think that HSE and brain research is a strange combination, but with our work which brings together economics, psychophysiology and cognitive psychology we have created one of the most cutting-edge research centres in Russia. We use the most advanced technology, transcranial magnetic stimulation, eye tracking, functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) tomography and others.
We used to register information coming from the brain, but now we are closing the circuit to try to transmit information back into the brain using new methods to stimulate it
Our professors are creating new methods (for brain stimulation, computer brain interface and others) which push the technology in new directions. For example, before we used to register information coming from the brain, but now we are closing the circuit to try to transmit information back into the brain using new methods to stimulate it. These are new horizons for the relationship between the brain, humans and machines.
Neuroeconomics is a new field where we try to understand the neurobiological basis of decision making, particularly in economics. Although Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in 2002 ‘for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty’, his ideas were not directly connected to how the brain works. Later he became interested in neurobiology and proposed taking into account the workings of the brain particularly to explain economic decision making. Well, we are actually creating a model based on how the brain really works.
I’m often asked whether by influencing the brain you can change people. Our experiments show that you can make a person less conformist but only temporarily, it’s a temporary effect and it doesn’t always work
At HSE we are world experts in research on the social aspects of decision making and brain activity. We are looking at how risk-taking tendencies emerge, what happens during stimulation of a hemisphere of the brain at particular frequencies (20 hertz) when you make a risky decision. This is a popular field for research but we are particularly interested in how people take decisions in a group and how others influence us. We call it the neurobiology of conformity. A tendency to conform explains why we get bubbles on the market, when everyone, giving in to the general mood, rushes to take their savings out of the bank. There may be an element of reason in this behaviour but more often it’s a series bad decisions which lead to disasters coming out of the blue.
I’m often asked whether by influencing the brain you can change people. Our experiments show that you can make a person less conformist but only temporarily, it’s a temporary effect and it doesn’t always work. Research shows that with chemical substances which affect the neuromodulators dopamine you can influence people and make them more conformist but it doesn’t work on everyone. You can provoke a certain tendency in lab conditions but under mass manipulation conditions it’s impossible. At least, at the moment there’s no danger of that.
The danger could arise when we understand the reasons for behaviour better, when advertising executives and spin doctors understand how to manipulate people, which at the moment, with all due respect, they don’t
The danger could arise when we understand the reasons for behaviour better, when advertising executives and spin doctors understand how to manipulate people, which at the moment, with all due respect, they don’t. There’s that joke about advertising, ‘We know that half of our ads work, but we don’t know which half’. That’s why they are so interested in our research. They think we’ll provide the answers about how to influence consumer choices.
At the end of August, the American researcher Emily Falk came to Moscow and told us about her project studying how effective the US National Institute of Cancer’s anti-tobacco campaign was. In the trials people watched videos, aimed to make them find smoking disgusting and by observing their brain activity the researchers could predict how effective the film would be. There is similar research in music, for example, Gregory Burns at Emory in the US found by studying brain activity he could predict which songs would be popular. Not a single behaviour scale could predict the popularity of music but studying brain activity can. A recent article in Psychological Sciencedescribed how brain activity can predict the effectiveness of requests for microfinancing.
One of the experiments at the Centre for Cognition and Decision Making
At the Centre for Cognition and Decision Making you can see the Brain Stimulation Lab. This is where researchers study memory, attention, decision making and speech using different kinds of brain stimulation. These safe and painless methods allow us to temporarily activate or de-activate areas of the brain and observe how behaviour, decision making, memory, attention and speech all change in the process, and which areas of the brain are connected to which functions.
Welcome Lab Day visitors can all see how the brain-computer interface works. It reads commands from the surface of your head and makes it possible to play computer games without using your hands.
You can test your abilities and potential at the Laboratory of Ability Psychology. Researchers will explain the existing methods that can radically develop an individual’s capabilities
The Laboratory for Cognitive Research will present models for perception of visual information. We will show how optical or visual illusions come about and how attention can be manipulated, by magicians for example.
The Research and Study Group of Cognitive Psychophysiology will explain how to recognise brain activity from an encephalogram. Visitors can undergo a lie detector test.
The International Laboratory for Socio-Cultural Research will conduct a training session with colleagues at the University of Tilburg on cross-cultural communication.
You can test your abilities and potential at the Laboratory of Ability Psychology. Researchers will explain the existing methods that can radically develop an individual’s capabilities.
The School of Psychology is located at 46B Volgogradsky prospekt (Tekstilschiki metro station).
If you decide to attend the event, please register (the form is in Russian - ask your buddy for help).
By Liudmila Mezentseva