A team at Harvard medical school has just reported in Nature advance online that there are little bits of the brain dedicated to economic choice. So for all work-life balance questions, a preference for Preston rather than Chantelle, or that tough choice between two glasses of ordinaire to one of so-so claret, go immediately to a little bundle of neurons in your orbitofrontal cortex.
Camillo Padoa-Schioppa, who must be one of the pioneers in a new branch of science known as neuroeconomics, tested monkeys with tricky choices that involved difficult value judgements. The monkeys could deal themselves either a single drop of grape juice or two or more drops of apple juice. In making the choice between yummy but minimal and not-so-yummy but more of it, the macaque orbitofrontal cortex neurons lit up.
"We have long known that different neurons in different parts of the brain respond to separate attributes such as quantity, colour and taste. But when we make a choice, for example, between different foods we combine all those attributes," says Dr Padoa-Schioppa. "The activity of these neurons reflects the value subjects assign to the available goods when they make choices."
The research might have a practical pay-off: damage to the orbitofrontal cortex can lead to what neuroscientists call "choice-deficits": eating disorders, compulsive gambling and abnormal social behaviour. Other great but neglected recent discoveries about the brain include:
1. The Halle Berry neuron: Last year Nature published an eye-popping paper from UCLA /Caltech that showed that it didn't matter how you identified the actress: the same unique neuron lit up every time. A volunteer was shown a picture of the emotional Oscar winner, a caricature, a still of her dressed as Catwoman, and just a string of letters that spelled out her name. A nerve cell in the left anterior hippocampus sparked away each time. In another volunteer, a single neuron in the left posterior hippocampus fizzed at the sight of pictures of Jennifer Aniston but not or hardly at all at pictures of other things, such as the Sydney opera house, or the Eiffel Tower or even - get this - pictures of Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt. Neuroscientists used to fantasise that there might be a "grandmother neuron" dedicated to your granny. Does this mean that a single surgical operation could erase both Gandalf the Grey and Sir Ian McKellen from one's brain forever? Really? "Our findings fly in the face of conventional thinking about how brain cells function," said Christ of Koch of Caltech, at the time.
2. The Silvio Berlusconi factor In Cortex, recently two scientists from the University of Padua and the University of Trieste reported something entirely different. They had found a tragic case of semantic dementia in a 66-year-old Italian housewife who, after years of mental deterioration could barely recognise her husband or two children and had forgotten everybody else. She could not identify the face of Hitler or Mussolini or Queen Elizabeth II. She could just about remember the Pope. She could recognise and identify Jesus Christ and Silvio Berlusconi, the then Italian prime minister. "Repeated exposure to propaganda may have turned Berlusconi's face into a non-living but very well recognisable icon," the authors reported. Italian voters may have a hard time forgetting Berlusconi, too.