Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Brain’

Sin suits me - Roy Booth, 1935

Sin suits me - Roy Booth, 1935

Writing the title of this post, I feel like I indulge in a delicious sin. Indeed, if there is one taboo in today’s respectable history of science, it is certainly the search for precursors, originators, “first scientist to come up with a theory”, etc. That might sound strange to you, but there are good reasons for that taboo. One of them is that the search for precursors tends to reify ideas, a bit as if ideas were objects that were invented and patented once and for all (whereas one realizes soon that they keep changing in meaning, hence there is no historical origin to a “single idea”). Another reason is that by playing the game of “who got this idea first” seriously, you would almost invariably end up with Aristotle or Adam Smith if you are an economist, and that is boring.

Anyway, I find it fun to transgress those very serious codes, and ask: who got first the idea for neuroeconomics?

Passions with Reason (Frank, 1988)

Passions with Reason (Frank, 1988)

I just finished reading Robert Frank’s Passions within Reason, a book he published in 1988. This book could be said to be the first in neuroeconomics (Roman trumpet victory sounds in the background). Robert Frank is an economist who, as far as I can tell, is now also writing a lot in the press (NYT column, etc.), and has become an intellectual figure, like a minor Paul Krugman maybe.

So, why is Passions within Reason our winner? This book makes a perfect transition between two periods of the relationship between economics and biology. The period when Darwinian evolution was the hot topic (up to the eighties), and the period we live in now where the brain is the explanation for everything biological in economics. Yes, the two topics are clearly distinct. Before the nineties, you hardly find a discussion in economics about the neurocognitive dimension of economic behavior. Conversely, in today’s neuroeconomics the discussion of the evolutionary dimension of economic behavior is tucked away in a few pages of books in neuroeconomics (just check Gazzaniga’s textbook on Cognitive Neuroscience, or the textbook in neuroeconomics by Glimcher and al., both from 2008).

And between those two periods, you have Frank’s book, which meshes the two: evolutionary explanations à la Jack Hirshleifer / Robert Trivers / Edward Wilson, and a speculative discussion of the decision-making system where “pure rationality” and “emotions” are both inputs in the brain systems which ultimately account for the behavior of the individual.

Robert H. Frank

Robert H. Frank

A real precursor then, “prescient” that the brain was the next big thing, and “unjustly ignored” until now, as it befits to a genuine pioneer. Frank just lacked an essential piece of technology to become the Adam Smith of neuroeconomics: the fMRI brain scans (note: precursors always lack something, if they had everything they would be “new Adam Smithes”). The fMRI  began to be used in social science precisely in the late 80s, and neuroeconomics as we know it today appeared with it.

Soon, I will examine another candidate for the title of best precursor to neuroeconomics: George Ainslie and his picoeconomics.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

memoryI have always thought of memory and the ability to retain information as something akin to a filing system. You learn something new, and duly the mind makes a copy on a piece of paper and stores it in the relevant drawer, ready for being picked out when it is needed. Some people may have more space than others, file faster or simply copy things quicker, but the filing cabinet was always the analogy of choice. That could be why teachers are so keen on covering the same thing again and again, as this will create highlights in our filing system, and why course outlines and bulletpoints are so popular, as we imagine that students add to some existing mental archive.

Imagine my surprise when I came across research that argues that memory is not like a filing system, but rather it works like Velcro (cf. Rubins (Ch. 2), Mayer [1980], Fiske & Taylor [Ch. 4-5]) … This “velcro theory of memory ” argues that when we get a new piece of information we instantly try to relate it to other things that we know (using a ‘Schema’) in our head. For example if you are going to learn about a new fruit – The Pomelo – and you don’t know what a Pomelo is (or if you do, pretend that you don’t), I can give you the facts:

“The Pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The Rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart”

Look away, and explain to me what a Pomelo is… … If you didn’t know a Pomelo, odds are that you will remember maybe the colour, or the tangy option, or something else. This is all correct knowledge but it is not connected to any pre-existing ‘schema’ in the mind, so your knowledge of the Pomelo is probably not very good, and one would struggle to relate to others what a Pomelo is, without reading the above statement again and again. Now if we use a ‘schema’, one can describe the Pomelo as: “basically a big grapefruit with a thick and soft rind.” (Pomelo example from Heath & Heath (2008: 53))

Money says that the latter description is both easier to remember, and that you would be able to relate both what a Pomelo is quickly, and know quite a bit about it. It connects with things we know (pre-existing schemas) about grapefuits and builds on top of them. So metaphors are very helpful not just because they may illustrate a point, but they tug at existing memories (and schema’s) and thus help retain information more easily. (cf Lakoff & Johnson on metaphors)

How one can apply this in teaching and business is then the next step, although I suspect that marketing departments around the world are already in the know… But maybe not? This was news to me, but what do the scientists make of this claim?

Read Full Post »