Monday, February 09, 2015

Not your father’s fight or flight instinct

I was reading an historical article from MIT Technology Review on the development of neuroscience over the millennia, specifically the recent advances in optogenetics.  I am not so sure that this immediately rivets your attention.  But there is one finding they review that I think you will really enjoy hearing about.

Caltech did some research in 2010 on the origins of aggressive behavior.  Aggressive behavior is largely governed in the hypothalamus, a small deep module in the brain.  They were able to induce serious fights between rats by zapping the hypothalamus.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this is also where the instinct to copulate is.  Not love (which I would hope is not in the same place as aggression), but pure sex. 

The funny part is that there is a small clump of about 5,000 neurons that overlap.  It represents about 20 % of the total.  These cells get electrically activated when the rats were being aggressive and when copulating.  So the scientists wanted to know which behavior would win out if they zapped this area.  Would the rats copulate or fight? 

It turns out sex wins.  They could induce two rats to fight by activating one part of the hypothalamus, and then by adding some electricity to the joint area switch them to copulating.

My Take

So here is my idea.  The research was done in rats, but there is probably some version of this that can be induced in humans.  So as a condition of parole, felons who are released after being convicted of aggressive crimes have to have an implant in this area.  If ever they engage in an act of aggression, it automatically triggers, causing them to attempt to copulate with whoever they were about to fight with. 

If they never get aggressive, nothing would ever happen.  So they would maintain full control and freedom of action.  I have a feeling this would be a pretty powerful disincentive for aggressive behavior, don’t you?