Archive for the ‘history of neuroscience’ Category

NB: I also posted this blog entry earlier today on http://historyofeconomics.wordpress.com/, with marginal modifications.

I am currently reading a fascinating book, “The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology” by Bernard J. Baars (1986).

With a long introduction, it provides informative material for an outsider like me on how the cognitive turn played out in psychology, and presents a clear historical background getting back to Wundt and the early experimentalists, and the origins of the behaviorist revolution. Then it is followed by a series of interviews of participants in the cognitive revolution: from the opponents (Skinner and others) to the enthusiasts, and the followers.

On the substance, I was stroke by how much behaviorism, which is the methodological orthodoxy that was overthrown by cognitive psychology, shares features with today’s textbook economics. Both share the status of a well-guarded orthodoxy: in their interviews, psychologists remember that behaviorism in psychology was exclusive, displaying a “nothing but” attitude: variables should be related to nothing but observable behavior, which disqualified the discussion of concepts like “memory” or “representations” ! Those words were taboo in psychology at least until the mid-1950s.  Looking back, psychologists consider that the methodological rigorousness of behaviorism, which insisted that each concept be operationally defined and testable, had the effect to strip psychology from its substance: the study of cognition, consciousness,  emotions and rational behavior were discouraged, virtually banned indeed, because these concepts did not readily translate into tightly defined behavioral variables that could be observed in an experimental setting.

I could not help but be reminded of a similar taboo in today’s economics, where the formation of preferences, or how the process of choice unfolds, is declared “out of bound” right from the introductory chapters in microeconomic textbooks: only an individual’s observable behavior, as it is instantiated in the outcome of the choice it performs, is to be taken into account.

Reading this book, neuroeconomists will also be strongly reminded of Princeton economists Gul and Pesendofer’ essay published in 2008, in which they defend a “nothing but” approach to the revealed preference approach – dismissing any kind of evidence from “inside the head”, and advocating bluntly a “mindless economics”. Behaviorists (or operationalists…) of the purest ink!

The cognitive revolution in psychology crystallized around the mid-1950s, early 1960s. Forty years later, nothing of that sort happened in economics, it seems to me. With behavioral economics and neuroeconomics, maybe that economics will jump directly to the next train: the neurocognitive turn. Or will it miss that one also?

Post-script: on an approaching topic, Wade Hands has a paper forthcoming in the CJE, which is a nice read.

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Like any other science, neuroscience has its founding myths, historical anecdotes, legendary figures… Phineas Gage is one of the most famous.

He was a railroad worker who, on September 13, 1848, was victim of a dynamite explosion which sent a long metal pole through his left chick, eye orbit, brain, and got out the top of his head. Much of the medial region of his prefrontal cortex was just suddenly wiped out… and Phineas Gage survived.

This made him a living experiment in the role of the brain in higher cognitive functions. The myths has it that his basic cognitive skills were undamaged, but that his social behavior shifted dramatically – Phineas became much more irritable and aggressive.

Since then, Phineas Gage is an obliged fixture for undergrad textbooks in cognitive neuroscience (like in Gazzaniga et al. textbook, on p. 600).  Until a few days ago, you were most likely to be presented to Phineas in the following guise:

Phineas Gage's crane

Phineas Gage's crane

The amazing event is that a daguerreotype of him has just been identified, and that is the buzz of summer ’09 in the community of neuroscientists! The daguerreotype was in a collection for years, but the owners thought it was the portrait of a whale hunter. So please join me in greeting Phineas Gage. Note the metal pole in his hand: yes, it is the one which pierced his crane.

Phineas Phage

Phineas Phage

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