Going beyond Freud

Visual cues used in preference test. Credit: John T. Arsenault et al./Current Biology

Freud was probably the first who tried to peek inside the human brain to detect emotion and try to explain them. He also went a step further. By using induced stimulation (posing questions, having person looking at graphic clues,...) he was able, sometimes, to re-condition the way a brain reacted at an emotional level to certain stimuli. His work has been furthered by psychologists in the last century, often giving rise to criticisms and doubts on the scientific bases of the approach.

Now technology and understanding of the physical brain and its relation with the "mind" (assuming you still want to divide the two) has progressed to a point that we can really look inside a brain and see what is going on. Moving further to programming the brain to respond in very specific ways is no longer science fiction but science.

This is what researchers at KU Leuven and Massachusetts General Hospital have recently demonstrated by conditioning the brain of our fellow primates to like an object they previously disliked.

They have performed an experiment in which a monkey was shown a certain number of objects and observed in its reaction. Once it was clear what the macaque liked best the researchers stimulated electrically the ventral tegmental area of the brain whenever they chose the less preferred object. After a few cycle the macaque changed its preference choosing what before was not its best choice. It was also possible to reverse its liking.

What happens is that the stimulation of the ventral tegmental area activates the reward system in the brain hence changing its liking.  

This can be interesting as a starting point for curing some abnormal behaviour in humans, although such a stimulation requires an invasive procedure (such as the ones used to treat untreatable cases of depression or to relieve some symptoms of Parkinson disease. In the future researchers are confident that less invasive procedures will become available (some studies on using light and optical fibres have already shown the potential of interacting with neurones) and this conditioning of the brain will become another medical procedure. 

Hope my wife will not hear about this... I can easily see some trouble ahead...

Author - Roberto Saracco

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