Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: the Science of Neuroeconomics.

Author:Redmond, William H.
Position::Book Review
 
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by Paul W. Glimcher. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 2003. Cloth, ISBN: 0262072440, $37.95. 375 pages.

Combining neurology and economics is an intriguing prospect, which might be undertaken in either of two ways. Knowledge of the brain could be employed to infer something about economic behavior, or economic theory could be employed to infer something about the brain. This book adopts the latter approach. In particular, elements of neoclassical micro-theory are used as a framework for predicting a range of neurological responses, from simple reflexes to complex behavioral patterns.

The problem with traditional approaches, as Paul Glimcher sees it, is that neurobiologists have too long been concerned with simple reflexes at the expense of understanding more complex behaviors. The source of the problem is none other than Rene Descartes, whose seventeenth-century thesis of mentality seems to have exercised a powerful influence over neural physiologists ever since. Descartes believed that there were two kinds of mental activity: simple determinant reactions controlled by the nervous system and complex indeterminate thoughts produced by the soul, a conceptualization which includes what we call the mind. This separation of mental activities into two distinctive types is the essential physiological facet of Cartesian mind-body dualism. Because indeterminant response is less tractable experimentally, neurobiologists traditionally have concentrated on reflexes. To understand reflexes, one looks for pathways connecting sensory nerves, specific brain sites, and specific muscles. This is conventional reflex-arc theory and is part of what you were looking for when disassembling frogs in high school bio lab.

Glimcher is one of a smallish group of researchers who argue for the study of more complex responses, and this book is a manifesto for a new paradigm in neurobiology. To understand complex behaviors one must understand the goal of the behavior, not just the nervous pathways. So much the better if these goals can be described quantitatively, and this is where economic theory comes in: "We and others believe that a mathematically rigorous and conceptually complete description of the neural processes which connect sensation and action is possible, and that such a description will ultimately have its roots in economic theory" (p. xviii). Neuroeconomics is heterodox neurobiology.

As a serious attempt to establish a new framework for research, the author devotes...

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