Washington, April 11: No doubt about it, there's a lot of good that can come from studying the brain.
It was good, for example, when scientists found the brain cells involved in Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's. It was even neat when studies purported to find the neurological seats of anger, religiosity and homosexuality. But this time, they've gone too far.
In the first experiment of its kind, scientists in California and Texas seem to have discovered the part of the human brain at the heart of feelings of trust. What the researchers did was have people play a gambling game in which trust is crucial. They watched in astonishment as a sophisticated scan showed a little part of the brain called the caudate nucleus lighting up like a Las Vegas slot machine whenever players made moves showing they trusted the other player.
Trust, of course, is crucial to the maintenance of the social fabric. In the unemotional words of researchers in the April 1 issue of the journal Science: 'The expression and repayment of trust is an important social signaling mechanism that influences competitive and cooperative behaviour.'
Well, duh. You don't have to be Richard Nixon, however, to ponder how this work could be misused. With something akin to a light bulb glowing brighter with every watt of trust being generated in a person's brain, how long will it be before used-car salesmen and real estate agents adapt their pitches to tickle that cuddly caudate'
How long will it be before our friends in Redmond ('Trust me, I'm from Microsoft...'), develop a hand-held device to tell us when our story is flying' How long before the technology gets good enough for kids to use' ('The dog really did eat my homework. Honest!')
All this assumes, of course, that the caudate nucleus really is the seat of trust. I called P. Read Montague, the Baylor College of Medicine scientist who led the new work.
'Why should I believe this article in Science' I asked him, realising that all this talk about trust was making me paranoid. 'You can trust me,' he said, unconvincingly.
But I'm not so sure. Once trust is on the table, everyone will have equal odds of being believed. Lobbyists. Weather forecasters. Budget analysts.
What next' Journalists' That would be bad.
You do believe me. Don't you'