Emory Report
July 21, 2008
Volume 60, Number 35



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July 21, 2008
Center to marry politics, biology

By Kathi Baker

A new Center for Neuropolicy at Emory will focus on how the biology of the brain influences decision-making in politics, policy and business.

As a partnership among researchers in the Emory School of Medicine, Emory College and the Goizueta Business School, the Center will create an ideal environment to accelerate discovery in this emerging field.
“Emory’s vision is to work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world,” says President Jim Wagner.

“This new center brings together some of the brightest minds at our university and has the potential to effect policy change on problems of global importance through an exciting and emerging field of discovery.”

The Center is the vision of Gregory S. Berns, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory School of Medicine.

Berns specializes in the use of brain imaging technologies to understand human motivation and decision-making, with a special interest in neuroeconomics and social neuroscience. He will lead the Center as the Emory Distinguished Chair of Neuroeconomics.

“For decades, neuroscientists, psychologists and economists have studied human decision-making from different perspectives,” says Berns. “Although each has approached the problem with different theories and techniques, the basic question cuts across many fields: how do humans balance individual self-interest against societal good?

“We all live in groups,” notes Berns. “Sometimes groups make good decisions, but oftentimes groups behave worse than any of its members would. This new center will approach the problem of collective decision-making from an entirely new perspective, by studying how the human brain functions in groups.”

The Center includes support from three schools. It will be developed over a span of five years and will be divided into areas of teaching, research and policy. Thomas Lawley, dean of Emory School of Medicine; Bobby Paul, dean of Emory College; Larry Benveniste, dean of the Goizueta Business School; and Dennis Choi, executive director of Emory’s Comprehensive Neurosciences Initiative are actively supporting this endeavor.

“The Center for Neuropolicy is another example of how Emory is working across schools and disciplines to pioneer initiatives with significant implications for our community, the nation and the world,” says Fred Sanfilippo, executive vice president for health affairs. “Dr. Berns’ expertise and leadership, in collaboration with the diverse group of Emory leaders who will also be involved, will make this center a model for other institutions to emulate.”

Members of the Center will have the ability to advise decision-makers of all kinds by conducting experiments focused on the biologically based pressures that influence collective decision-making. Their advice will be based on scientific discoveries that will open up a whole new understanding about how culture, intelligence and environment influence the way decisions are made, and how basic human tendencies drive judgment in certain situations.

Berns points out that we also need to understand how religious and political ideologies become transformed in the brain and can subvert basic self-survival value judgments, which occurs in war and terrorism.

“Collective decision-making is political, but politics are biological. The human brain evolved to function in social groups. By discovering how our brains are wired to behave in group settings, we can begin figuring out solutions to problems of global impact,” says Berns, author of the forthcoming “Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How To Think Differently.”