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Dopamine and the Weather, Part 1

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  • (1:15) - FDA Shares Strategic Vision on Gene Therapies 
  • (5:25) - Human Nature: New Science vs. Old Assumptions
  • (12:30) - Steven Pinker: Using Biology to Inform Beliefs
  • (17:40) - How Technology Changes Everything But Human Nature
  • (25:00) - Candace Pert: Your Body Is Your Subconscious Mind
  • (34:15) - Multi-Mind Theory: Do We Naturally Self-Sabotage? 
  • (43:00) - “This Weather Is Crazy!”
  • (48:45) - Episode Roundup:

Welcome back to Mind Over Money. I’m Kevin Cook, your field guide and story teller for the fascinating arena of behavioral economics.

Last week we explored a series of ideas about scientific knowledge and certainty. That episode, Knowledge, Certainty, and Destiny: How to Keep Up with Science & Technology, borrowed part of its title from a book from the 1950s by evolutionary biologist and thought-leader Julian Huxley. His book was Knowledge, Morality, and Destiny.

In my conversation about the uses and misuses of science and technology, I tried to emphasize how important it is for us keep open minds about all that’s coming at us -- literally at the speed of light -- from artificial intelligence to gene editing.

Speaking of gene editing, last week I talked a little about CRISPR science and companies, like CRISPR Therapeutics (CRSP - Free Report) , and gave you some links to my recent videos on the technology and the stocks.

This week I wrote a special update for my Healthcare Innovators newsletter about the FDA’s stated vision this month to approve 40 gene therapies by 2022.

FDA chief Scott Gottlieb was interviewed at the 2018 BIO International Convention in Boston on June 7 and told attendees that we might see cures for diseases like sickle cell anemia within 10 years.

That "40" number isn't just pie-in-the-sky either. It comes from a recent MIT study that suggested about that same number of possible successes in the next 5 years.

If you want to read more of my Healthcare Innovators commentary and see the portfolio, just email for a special trial offer.

How Technology Changes Everything… But Human Nature

My subtitle for today’s episode is this: How technology changes human behavior and social rules, but not human nature and genetics—yet.

And what I am implying by “human nature” needs to be explained a little bit because it is such a confusing and loaded phrase these days. I am of course referring to a wide open array of forces, causes, and drivers from biological neurochemistry to genetic, heritable traits and dispositions. For help in explaining this, I turn to Steven Pinker, author of the new book Enlightenment Now that you may have heard about from Bill Gates as his favorite book of the year.

Pinker earned his PhD. in experimental psychology at Harvard in 1979. Afterward, he did research at MIT for a year and then became an assistant professor at Harvard and Stanford.

From 1982 until 2003, Pinker taught at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, was the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Science from 1985-1994 and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (1994-1999).

I emphasize Pinker’s academic and research background because he's not just a "theoretical” psychologist-philosopher. He had to do deep research to get the gigs in cognitive neuroscience.

An Empiricist Since His School Days

Also of interest about him as a person is this story, taken from Wikipedia….

As a teenager, he says he considered himself an anarchist until he witnessed civil unrest following a police strike in 1969:

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike... This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).

Pinker has written five books focused on language and cognition, including the 1997 How the Mind Works.

Enlightenment Now is his eighth book and it continues the optimistic thesis of his 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature by using social science data from various sources to argue for a general improvement of the human condition over recent history.

In Angels, Pinker made the case that violence in human societies has, in general, steadily declined with time, and identifies six major causes of this decline.

You don't write an 8th book on such pivotal and controversial topics concerning human nature and the current state of civilization without attracting a good deal of academic attention and criticism. And yet Pinker has few detractors from the sciences, relative to his heavy subjects and weighty theories.

The Edge of Science

In the podcast, I reference an important article he wrote titled “A Biological Understanding of Human Nature” from a collection of great essays by over 20 thinkers including Jared Diamond and Ray Kurzweil. This collection is found in a book by John Brockman called The New Humanists: Science at the Edge. Brockman, author and founder of the intellectual forum, created many of the pieces in the book as narratives based on his conversations with these intellectuals and scientific minds.

The mission of Edge, taken from the top of the homepage…

To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

In his contribution, Pinker addresses the biases and blind spots people have when it comes to discussing the roots of our behavior. We have much to learn from Steven Pinker and if you’ve never read him nor heard him speak, I highly recommend doing so.

But Not Yet

Let me read my subtitle again for this episode so we can talk about what the last word means: How technology changes human behavior and social rules, but not human nature and genetics—yet.

By “yet” I am talking about Yuval Noah Harari’s 2017 book Homo Deus which I introduced here in a May 2017 episode titled What To Do Before the Machines Take Over. Recall that Harari is warning us about a future where the super-rich will be able to afford all manner of biological and neurological enhancements and they will rule over the masses with unparalleled power.

I usually just say “technology changes everything” but I opted to be more specific today. But then again, human behavior and social rules are, in essence, just about everythingfor us incredibly social creatures.

So how does technology change everything?

In last week’s episode, I touched on the impacts of our ongoing experiments with smartphones, ala Apple (AAPL - Free Report) , and social media, ala Facebook (FB - Free Report) . These experiments not only create new behaviors, they reveal ancient human nature in new ways -- just like any good science fiction novel or film puts humans in totally unrealistic circumstances such as time travel and then reveals unforeseen conflicts and dilemmas.

For instance, did you see the film The Age of Adaline with Blake Lively? Or how about Live, Die, Repeat with Tom Cruise and the incredible Emily Blunt?

Those films show how technology can change – in this case, wildly-fantastic time travel type technology – but good ole human nature would just be in a new setting where it could potentially reveal new behaviors.

My favorite research this year to give people an idea of the science fiction that is coming, in addition to gene editing, is to dig into the latest in artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

I love to try and keep up with the latest applications of GPU chips from NVIDIA (NVDA - Free Report) in everything from scientific data mining to autonomous vehicles. And NVIDIA has been partners with IBM for several years in their efforts to create the “cognitive revolution” which Big Blue sees a forming a $2 trillion market to 2025.

And check out this research from Bank of America…

Augmented Reality (AR) will infiltrate every industry from manufacturing, energy and retail to education, healthcare and finance. AR companies realized only $5 billion in sales in 2016 for this revolutionary technology, but the engagement and R&D is expected to grow at over 125% per year to hit $160 billion in 2020.

Who will drive this growth and innovation? Hundreds of startups you've never heard of, fueled by "advance guard" R&D from Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Apple. My August 2017 podcast Why the Apple Ecosphere Could Own Augmented Reality goes into more detail.

Owning AAPL and NVDA here based on these revolutions is a no brainer. Why? AAPL is working on what comes after the iPhone and NVDA is the brains behind anything require “massively parallel architecture.” I tell investors to buy AAPL every time it dips below $175 and NVDA below $240.

Dopamine and Norepinephrine

What I didn’t go into very deeply last week about Apple’s conflict with teenage smartphone addiction or Facebook’s issues with anti-social media and “fake news,” is the chemicals swirling through our brains and bodies that make us such suckers for such stuff.

To fully appreciate our behavior, socially, technologically, and economically, it helps a lot to have some understanding of the brain and the physiological basis of emotions, perception, judgement, motivation, and the repetitive patterns of thought, speech, and action that we lump under the name habits.

Since volumes have been written about the 100+ hormones and neurotransmitters that prompted neuroscientist Candace Pert to call your brain a “bag of hormones,” I will only try to introduce two of them today. Indeed, in episode #32 titled 3 Rules of Wealth for Bull Markets I gave a brief book review of the newest work from neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. Titled How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, the book is 400 pages. So there’s a lot to talk about on this subject that we’ll never get to.

Today, we will rely on Pert get a better understanding of the importance of hormones and neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, and what their functions and implications are in a world with no shortage of technology stimulation and distractions.

Your Body Is Your Subconscious Mind

Candace Pert was the neuroscientist responsible for the discovery of the opiate receptor, the cellular binding site for endorphins in the brain. While she is cited as having published over 250 academic papers, Pert also had some very simple and visceral ideas and ways of talking about the brain.

Two that have always stood out to me are “your brain is a bag of hormones” and “your body is your subconscious mind.” The first idea instantly communicates something we should never forget: there’s a lot going on up there driven by millions of years of neuro-chemical evolution.

When I was trying to explain the behavior of winning and losing traders almost 20 years ago, I dove into books by brain scientists as well as those of the behavioral camp like Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler. What I came up with to simplify my understanding, and be able to explain it to others, was this term: multi-mind.

For me, it captured both the multiplicity of brain structures and their sometimes competing functions. And it captured the evolutionary design and purpose of those hundred-plus hormones and neurotransmitters swirling through our bloodstream, at different times, for different reasons, that the body understood and scientists were still discovering.

And this leads right into Pert’s other important way of teaching when she says Your Body Is Your Subconscious Mind, which was actually the title of her second book.

My “multi-mind” theory was built on these kinds of ideas – actually on the scientific proof from brain scientists and the evidence from behavioral ones – that humans were prone to having many conflicting motives and drives.

It helped me explain why no matter what rules you gave traders and investors, most would tend to break them and do things that looked like self-sabotage in the long-run.

It even explains the corrupt and cheating behavior of rogue traders and Bernie Madoff.

Don't Get Me Started on the Weather

In the rest of the podcast, I share some basic info on the functions of dopamine and norepinephrine and how they interact with new technology like smartphones and social media. Then I share my view of how people misunderstand the weather by expecting it to be more constant, consistent – and, of course, pleasant -- without dramatic swings.

Ideas of “normal” weather are but the boring central tendency of the bell curve, while its tails of extreme hot and cold, wet and dry are where the action happens and made life and the evolution of plants, animals, sex and dance even possible on the planet. Indeed, we wouldn’t even be here to talk about weather if it didn’t have such grand variations and beautiful range.

And all this is preparing us to tackle the bigger subject of climate science in next week’s episode. Our goal is to first talk about the science without political or economic agendas. Once we have a firm grasp on the scientific debate, we can argue the politics and economics.

But speaking of investors with economic and political agendas, my colleague Tracey Ryniec did a great podcast this week titled Should You Buy Stocks with Visionary CEOs?

While Wall Street has a love-hate relationship with his company Tesla (TSLA - Free Report) , and Goldman Sachs has a Sell rating on the stock, Elon Musk is a definite visionary CEO like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Jensen Huang of NVIDIA. Be sure to listen to see who else Tracey profiles. (Hint: Branson didn’t make the cut in her top 5.)

Next week, we’ll dive into the climate science debates!

Disclosure: I own shares of NVDA, AAPL, FB, and CRSP in my Zacks portfolios.

Kevin Cook is a Senior Stock Strategist for Zacks Investment Research where he runs the Healthcare Innovators and TAZR Trader services. Click Follow Author above to receive his latest stock research and macro analysis.