Gregory Berns, Neuroeconomics


Gregory Berns Most of us have heard the adage: if you want to change your life, change how you think about it. Gregory Berns, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, is turning that advice on its head. If you want to change how you think, he says, change your life.

In his 2005 book Satisfaction: the science of finding true fulfillment, Berns argued that the experience of novelty – doing something new – leads to more fulfillment than sensations of pleasure or happiness. If your life is in a rut, chances are your brain is, too. Berns proposed that true fulfillment entails a striving or active component, rather than a passive feeling of happiness. We are most content when we are achieving something new.

In his forthcoming book Iconoclast: a neuroscientist reveals how to think differently, Berns takes this insight to the next level, exploring the neurological bases of human creativity. His research suggests that perception, fear, and social intelligence shape and to a large extent determine an individual's creative potential – his or her capacity for innovation. Reduce your fear and change your perception, he advises, and you will have a better chance of living and working more creatively.

To illustrate his point, Bern interviewed glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose sculptures of seaforms, cylinders, and other objects have placed him at the forefront of contemporary installation and environmental art. When Chihuly lost an eye, his perception of the world literally shifted, galvanizing his art. It's a larger-than-life example of what happens to our brains when we adopt a new vantage point. Says Berns: "This is how we learn to break the bounds of our own expectations."

He should know – Berns is a bit of an iconoclast himself. Recently appointed a Distinguished Chair of Neuroeconomics, next year he will be heading up a new Center for Neuropolicy at Emory, the first of its kind in the country. A joint venture between the School of Medicine, Emory College, and the Goizueta Business School, the Center will bridge the world of neuroeconomics and the world of public policy, helping politicians and leaders understand and then apply the insights of neuroeconomics to individual and collective decision making.

"The way people make decisions is embedded in their brains," Berns explains. "Neuroeconomists study how these processes work on the individual level. But we don't yet understand how these systems operate when people have to make decisions in a collective setting." The Center will study how individuals make decisions with and for the benefit of others; and it will lend those findings to state, federal, and international policymakers.

Driving this research is a question that has vexed social scientists and philosophers for centuries. How do we balance the instinct for self-preservation with the requirements of the common good? Berns believes that the question itself is the problem. Our brains, he says, have evolved in a way that leads us to posit individual self-interest in opposition to the collective interest. The real challenge is understanding how our brains evolved to make these trade-offs and to tap into these hard-wired circuits.

Berns proposes to help this evolutionary process along. Researchers at the Center for Neuropolicy will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore how our brains have developed mechanisms for constraining and guiding decision making, and then they will work to "reverse engineer" the process. "Our brains are wired in a certain way that makes it difficult for us to solve certain problems," Berns says. "We want to learn to modify these rules, to encourage people to make better decisions both individually and collectively."

Over the course of his career, Berns has moved from an interest in satisfaction and reward to the science of decision making, and from the neural bases of individual choices to the evolutionary and biological requirements of collective action. He sees his future scholarship continuing to press in these directions. "My work has been shifting toward the social side of neuroscience," he says. In three to five years, he hopes, the Center for Neuropolicy will be advising Washington leaders about the best ways to encourage smart decision-making in economic, foreign, and military policy. The goal is nothing less than a revolution in self-interest. Now that's a novel concept.

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