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Gray Areas in Gray Matter

Akil Davis '17 sports an EEG cap.

September 2, 2016

One of two new major offerings at DePauw this year, neuroscience is intensely interdisciplinary. It borrows from fields such as psychology, biochemistry and philosophy, and touches on nearly every aspect of human life, from love to business.

It’s the latter of those two where Robert West, Elizabeth P. Allen Distinguished University Professor and professor of psychology and neuroscience, has focused his current research. Information security is paramount in a world where sensitive data, whether trade secrets or health records, can be -- and often is -- compromised by outside parties. These kinds of breaches often trace back to an act of individual carelessness rather than outright malicious intent, rendering high-tech security systems useless. But what if there was a way to determine whether an individual posed a high risk for divulging confidential information? Neuroscience experts such as West believe there may well be.

In West’s current research, test subjects are fitted with electroencephalogram (EEG) caps which sense electrical activity at different points in the brain. They then answer a series of questions about ethical behavior, with some cases more clear cut than others. Using this method, West has been able to see how the ethical centers of the brain struggle with these kinds of dilemmas, at a scale measured in mere milliseconds. Assuming that some people are better at making ethical decisions under stress, his research confirms the potential for weeding out individuals who may not be suited to keeping other people’s secrets.

West and his summer research assistant, Emily Budde '18, provided a quick look at how this plays out in the lab:

If all that sounds like something from a dystopian sci-fi novel, don’t worry. The tests West performs aren’t currently accurate enough to be of any use at the individual level; only by combining large volumes of results does a clear signal emerge from the noise of a single brain at work. So, no brain scans at work -- yet.

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