NTI Seminar: Neuroscientist Moran Cerf on How the Brain Processes Risk

The potential consequences of nuclear weapons use or climate change, to name two of the world’s leading threats, are undeniably terrifying – so why are these concerns not on the forefront of everyone’s minds? Dr. Moran Cerf, professor of neuroscience and business at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, headlined the December installment of NTI’s Seminar Series to discuss how the brain processes risk, how risk is studied, and what influences risk perception – all of which have interesting implications for the field of catastrophic risk reduction.

Conscious vs. Unconscious Thought

There is no single part of the brain that identifies risk. A person’s perception of fear is controlled in the amygdala and love in the hypothalamus, but there is no “risk center” in the brain, making it difficult to study how people process and respond to risk. As a result, neuroscientists approach the study of risk through dual lenses: conscious thought and unconscious thought.

Dr. Cerf opened his discussion at NTI by describing the difference between conscious thought and unconscious thought as a man riding an elephant. The man might be explaining to the elephant where he’d like to go and why, which represents conscious thought. More than likely, however, the elephant is carrying the man wherever it wants, representing unconscious thought, and the man is merely explaining the elephant's actions as though they were his choice. By studying a person’s conscious thoughts along with their unconscious behaviors, neuroscientists can learn more about a person’s true perception of risk when handling certain situations, choices, or perceived dangers.

How is risk studied?

To study conscious thought when perceiving risk, neuroscientists do something surprisingly simple: they ask a lot of questions. They ask people about scenarios where they’d have to make difficult choices, often about their finances or personal needs, and they use the answers to identify a person’s risk tolerance. However, because these answers are prone to cognitive error, they don’t give a full, accurate picture of a person’s true perception of risk.

Unconscious thought is then studied by detecting unperceivable reactions in the body that display how a person is reacting to certain stimulus before a person cognitively knows of their reaction. Cerf gave several examples:

  • Eyes: The brain and the eyes work together to process information, but the eyes track slightly faster than the time it takes for the brain to process visual input. Researchers study eye tracking to learn what a person finds important in a field of vision instinctively, before a person has processed the visual enough to explain.
  • Facial Muscles: You cannot control all the muscles in your face, which is why it easy to discern a fake laugh from a real laugh, as the muscles around the eyes will spontaneously engage with real laughter in a way that cannot consciously be mimicked. Researchers will use sensors to detect engagement of smaller facial muscles to detect responses to risky stimulus.
  • Skin: The conductivity of a person’s skin spikes in response to certain risks in a way that humans can’t perceive. By using sensors attached to the skin, researchers can identify when a person feels something is risky by detecting a change in their skin’s conductivity.
  • Brain: When hearing or responding to specific situations, corresponding neurons fire in the brain. Researchers can therefore identify which neurons fire for certain decision-making situations, and can predict a person’s choice before the person is cognitively aware of the decision they’re about to make.

What can be learned from this information?

In a way, having this information is a bit like reading someone’s mind. Researchers can use it to predict behavior – from whether a person will choose to turn left or right while driving a car, to whether he or she would rather bungee jump than gamble their life savings. They can even use the information to alter a person’s behavior. Some studies have shown that stimulating certain neurons while a person sleeps can cause addicted smokers to feel a strong aversion to smoking for a short period of time. Most importantly, they can use the information to build a profile for a person’s “risk tolerance” or the situations and decisions that a person perceives to be on the spectrum of risk.

What determines a person’s “risk tolerance?” What does this mean for perception of catastrophic risk?

Humans have evolved to innately fear certain scenarios because those scenarios have proven deadly or dangerous in the experiences of their ancestors.  For example, many people are innately afraid of spiders, likely because certain types of spiders have harmed their ancestors’ peers, teaching our ancestors that avoiding spiders is beneficial. While those risks are developed through centuries of evolution, newer risks to the human race are not as strongly perceived. Dr. Cerf described that a person will never be as afraid of something in theory as they will be after experiencing it first-hand.

This makes the perception of catastrophic risk quite tricky. Very few people have first-hand experience of living through a nuclear attack or the effects of global pandemic, and therefore can only theorize about the devastating consequences. The good news is that while innate risks (i.e. spiders) cannot be perceived as any riskier, as they are already at the extreme of a person’s risk tolerance, people can increase their perception of risks that are not evolutionary inherent.

How can people’s perception of catastrophic risks be influenced so they recognize them as more serious?

  • Virtual Reality: Dr. Cerf explained that the use of virtual reality has been very effective in helping people overcome their aversion to certain risky situations, such as heights or small spaces, and he theorized that the technology might be able to be used to induce the opposite reaction. If virtual reality were to create an experience that very closely mimicked the consequences of a catastrophic risk, a person’s perception of said risk could be heightened. This would be the closest a person could come to actually experiencing real fear in a catastrophic risk situation without experiencing true harm, and would theoretically effectively maximize a person’s risk perception.
  • Identify a Victim: A slightly less traumatizing, but still effective, tactic would be asking people to visualize a victim in response to a theoretical catastrophic event. By identifying a subject who would experience the devastation of such an event, a person can empathize with them or imagine the fear themselves. Identifying a victim in the third person or the first person both showed increased neuron firing when perceiving risk, though a first-person victim narrative was more effective.

Beyond perception of such issues, the study of risk has created some unique implications for the field of catastrophic risk reduction. In a Q+A session with the audience, Dr. Cerf shared some unexpected outcomes of the intersection of catastrophic risks and neuroscience:

  • The world’s nuclear codes are some of the most secure pieces of information in existence, for good reason. However, even if a password is composed of incredibly long character sequences and changed every day, someone would always know the password. To err is human, so having the password in someone’s conscious thought is a security vulnerability. The question posed to neuroscientists was this: is there a way for a password to be unknown to the conscious mind, but known to the unconscious mind? The answer? The video game Guitar Hero. By using a long pattern of falling key commands and a keyboard, subjects who practiced the sequence were able to complete the entire sequence without mistakes while those who were given the task without preparation could not accurately complete the exercise. The person’s subconscious mind was able to recall the movements, but the conscious mind was not able to recall the key strokes.  
  • Experiencing risk increases a person’s chances of falling in love. A study in New Zealand reported that people asked to cross a perilous bridge, and then stopped by a person of the opposite sex to chat in the midst of doing so, experienced a feeling of “falling in love” with the person who had stopped them. Experiencing risk and falling in love have very similar physical reactions such as increased heart rate and quickened breathing, and the brain interprets the fear of risk as the heightened emotion of love.
So, the next time you’re on a first date, maybe bring up NTI’s work in catastrophic risk reduction. It might just win them over.

December 21, 2018
Caitlyn Collett
Caitlyn Collett

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