Why psychological science is relevant to policy debates—and what policies might look like if they were better aligned with human nature

Jealous Jejunums and Descartes’ Legacy

Envy is in our brains, not our covetous colons.

A recent New York Times headline proclaimed that: "In Pain and Joy Of Envy, the Brain May Play a Role."

May play a role?! Where else does The New York Times think envy resides? In our hateful hearts? Our covetous colons? Our jealous jejunums?

That The New York Times could doubt the centrality of the brain in human emotions shows just how far we behavioral scientists need to come to get people to understand what we do. How can we expect funders like the NIH and the NSF to invest in behavioral science when even The New York Times is unclear about whether feelings like envy reside in the brain?

This is all Descartes' fault, of course. He persuaded modern thinkers that the mind is separate from the brain. (Although he did think that the pineal gland could potentially be the seat of the soul, if I remember my college philosophy correctly.)

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Fortunately, new technologies like fMRI are slowly overcoming Descartes' outsized influence. Ask someone to think envious thoughts, and the scanner shows which part of the brain is working. (The feeling of envy, it turns out, resides within prominent pain centers.)

To behavioral scientists, the importance of fMRI research is to show where in the brain specific emotions, thoughts and behavioral pathways reside.

To lay people, the importance is to show that such things reside...anywhere in the brain.

A colleague of mine, a behavioral scientist at the University of Michigan, recently presented the results of our Center's research to a bunch of NIH muckety-mucks, in hopes of persuading them to continue funding our kind of research. He concluded his talk with an fMRI study, and blew away the molecular biologists who made up the majority of the audience. One of these scientists eagerly sought him out after the talk to tell him that this was the first time he believed behavioral science research had any value.

To those of you who question the value of brain imaging research, I remind you-Descartes' legacy has not been fully vanquished. For our research to influence policy and practice, we must build our "street cred" by reminding people that our thoughts and feelings really do reside in the brain.


To read more of my blogs, and to learn more about my new book, Free Market Madness, check out my personal website:


Peter Ubel, M.D., author of Critical Decisions and Free Market Madness, is a physician, behavioral scientist, and Professor of Business and Public Policy at Duke University.


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