There are numerous ways of impacting people’s decisions, you can convince, intimidate, hypnotise, or use particular tools on certain parts of the brain. Why do scientists do this and what do these experiments show? Vasily Klucharev, Head of HSE’s School of Psychology answers questions posed by Olga Orlova, who hosts the Hamburg Score programme on Russia’s Public Television Channel.
— Vasily, you seem like a scary kind of person, you carry out experiments on people – make them change their minds. What exactly do you do at the Cognitive Technologies Center?
— I am not that scary. And we don't make people do what we want. We rather try to influence their decisions. And we do this out of scientific curiosity, to understand the decision-making processes, why people make this or that decision – with a view long term to helping people who have problems in this area. Perhaps this could be people who are drug-dependent, who cant quit smoking or lose weight. We use a range of technological innovations to stimulate the brain, temporarily impacting specific areas, switching them on briefly, and then look at the resulting change in decision-making process. For example, our center is also home to the outstanding Professor Matteo Feurra, who works in neuro-enhancement. That involves driving certain brain functions by stimulating the brain at particular frequencies. By doing that he has been able to improve and speed up certain logical functions, and the subjects completed logic tasks more quickly.
— What equipment did he use to get that result?
— It all involves stimulating magnetic fields or applying electric currents. Strange as it may seem, this is a completely pain-free procedure. We call this technology non-invasive, it does not damage the brain and its impact is temporary – its over in a matter of minutes. You can temporarily switch parts of the brain on and off and watch what happens. For example, our colleagues (closer to my field) are studying the financial-decision-making process. We understand that economists don’t fully understand how we make financial decisions. Every crisis surprises us, and we can’t predict them.
— But is deciding financial issues really a different process from deciding political issues?
— They’re likely linked, but in our field they are operationalized as concrete tasks involving financial decision-making. In experiments we simplify things and reduce decision-making to one task. For example, behavioral economists think up an economic task involving investment, or risk, or investor trust. And we try to influence the brain through this game and see what changes. We also have a major project now aimed at studying inclination to risk. Can influencing the brain influence our inclination to risk? Our colleagues in other countries have shown that it is possible. We are testing these hypotheses. Indeed, it is possible to increase or reduce the inclination to financial risk-taking by stimulating certain areas of the brain. For example, our project is aimed at studying temporary discounting, which is an unusual area that helps us understand our inclination to delayed reward. We like to spend money fast, it’s harder for us to save for a pension. That’s why we face problems, it’s why people don’t save enough for their pension, why they’re likely to spend money fast. We also study this problem through brain stimulation and try to understand what areas of the brain are involved and whether we can help people delay making financial decisions, and not spend money quickly.
We don't make people do what we want. We rather try to influence their decisions. And we do this out of scientific curiosity, to understand the decision-making processes, why people make this or that decision – with a view long term to helping people who have problems in this area
— Do you know what areas of the brain are responsible for which decisions? Have you identified them?
— We’re getting a picture of it.
— But these areas may lie at different depths of the brain, there are deep zones that are hard to get to, and you – as I understand it – act on those parts of the brain that are quite close to the surface, i.e. at depths of 1.0-1.5cm, is that right?
— Yes that’s absolutely right. When we’re interested in deep zones we use other approaches: we put the subject in a scanner and look at what happens in those zones. It’s not possible to reach them through stimulation, that’s why we basically study the role of the cortex. Some of the experiments can be quite straightforward. For example, our colleague professor Yury Shtyrov is studying speech. You want to say a word, make the decision to say a word, I can block it and you won’t be able to utter it. By stimulating one area of the brain, I can block you saying words. It is called ‘speech arrest’. It’s a real thing and there’s nothing you can do about it.
We are moving from simple research to more complex studies. For example, you can use speech to illustrate why this is. It may seem like a game, but in fact it has a very serious goal. Every day during operations surgeons make decisions which areas of the brain they can remove, when removing a tumor, and which they cannot. But if when a specific are of the brain is removed the patient loses their ability to speak then that is a serious consequence. The surgeon needs to know this in order to be able to make responsible decisions. That is why methods are being developed that will make it possible to categorize speech centers, letting the surgeon know that it’s best not to touch those areas. When we temporarily stimulate a part of the brain – the subject stops speaking. That’s a great help. That’s why these methods are used in medicine.
But it’s financial decision-making that I find particularly interesting. The whole spectrum of research here is vast – studying inclination to risk and the possible influence on people of punishment. Can you make people impervious to possible punishment in the form of financial fines by stimulating certain parts of the brain. This helps us understand how people make decisions. We can do this using electrical stimulation. Some of our colleagues do this using surgical tools and medicines. They can also be used in modeling decision-making.
— There are people who find spending money very easy, and there are those who – even when rich – watch every penny. And these habits tend to stem from their home, their family, their culture, their character. Are you saying that you can take Joe Bloggs, who never lends anyone anything, and your experiments will turn him into a generous person?
— No we can’t make people do things. We can increase the likelihood that they will act in a certain way.
— You can make him part with his money?
— Not 100%. But in certain situations, there is a great likelihood that we can influence whether or not he will part with his cash.