Friday, January 26, 2007

How to hack a human: start with the insula

Say you want to hack a human. You want to alter what they love, what they hate, what they want. You probably start with the insula:

In Clue to Addiction, Brain Injury Halts Smoking - New York Times

... The patients’ desire to eat, by contrast, was intact. This suggests, the authors wrote, that the insula is critical for behaviors whose bodily effects become pleasurable because they are learned, like cigarette smoking.

The insula, for years a wallflower of brain anatomy, has emerged as a region of interest based in part on recent work by Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute. The insula has widely distributed connections, both in the thinking cortex above, and down below in subcortical areas, like the brain stem, that maintain heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, the body’s primal survival systems.

Based on his studies and others’, Dr. Damasio argues that the insula, in effect, maps these signals from the body’s physical plant, and integrates them so the conscious brain can interpret them as a coherent emotion.

The system works from the bottom up. First, the body senses cues in the outside world, and responds. The heart rate might elevate at the sight of a stranger’s angry face, for example; other muscles might relax in response to a pleasant whiff of smoke.

All of this happens instantaneously and unconsciously, Dr. Damasio said — until the insula integrates the information and makes it readable to the conscious regions of the brain.

“In a sense it’s not surprising that the insula is an important part of this circuit maintaining addiction, because we realized some years ago that it was going to be a critical platform for emotions,” Dr. Damasio said in a telephone interview. “It is on this platform that we first anticipate pain and pleasure, not just smoking but eating chocolate, drinking a glass of wine, all of it.”

This explains why cravings are so physical, and so hard to shake, he said: they have taken hold in the visceral reaches of the body well before they are even conscious. ...

Between the cortex and the subcortex, a processor that translates sensations into emotions, wants, feelings. Humans will do bad and good things with this.

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