Thursday, September 27, 2012

Neuroscience and economics

An interesting mash-up has been taking place between neuroscience and behavioral economics through the somewhat banal observation that individual definitions of 'maximize' and 'happiness' vary. By mapping those parts of the brain that are doing the actual defining of maximizing and the happiness, we could better account for those fundamental economic actions.

One comment is worth pulling in full from the Chronicle of Higher Education webpage...

I have not understood how economic theory could have spent even one day on the premise that humans act in their own self-interest.  How could a science disregard so fully the comic-tragic heritage of human beings? I wasn't in the least surprised that, aside from a few astute economists, the universities of the modern west had not produced theories and practices that would recognize, let alone inhibit such collapses as 2008 from happening--economists are themselves part of the comic-tragic heritage in that they thought a modern subject was a rational agent.  

So that while I'm very interested in what cognitive sciences can tell any of us, unless neuroeconomic theory is integrated with the most ancient insights and folk wisdom regarding the folly of human being, and the value of meaning as that value is cultivated and lost in our rapidly changing communities, it will be very late to arrive at conclusions long explored.  Buddhism has 5,000 years of studying the conditions under which a thought arises and provides ethical practices for living ethically with desires that lead to suffering.  Indigenous traditions emphasize the meaning and sustainability of exchange between the earth and its people, rather than the immediate profit realized from the sale of a commodified object.  If the neuroeconomists do not crawl backwards while studying the fMRI, they will remain in a modernist bubble, mistaking the brain of an individual as the site of meaning. 

At this moment of collapsing ecosystems and economic networks, we have the opportunity to reconsider what Charles H. Long calls "the meaning of matter and the value of meaning" which would produce a profound economic science adequate for the challenges of our times. Any economic theory that begins with the human subject will hang itself on its modernist valuation of the subject.  When economic theory begins with a human's position and dependence on the Earth (air, water, soil, climate, flora, and fauna), then cognition takes on an entirely different light because the question becomes, in what ways is homo economicus perceptive of Earth, upon which all economic relations and transactions depend. 

Once homo-economicus has lost the ability to see, smell, hear, and value Earth, (and these losses of ability are pandemic in modern, urban social mindscapes), you're left with real ignorance such that, even in Pinedale, Wyoming the air quality is so bad from ozone that you cannot ski on a cold winter's morning. My suspicion is that, in these days of "Drill here, drill now!," the neuroeconomist might be drilling the depths of individual brains without realizing that s/he will learn nothing outside of the desires of a tragic, modernist, human whose consumption habits and ignorance will make for a very short shelf life.  

The original article provides a nice academic map. While economics - when truly insightful - has always relied on a mixture of disciplines, the interdisciplinary lessons of Indigenous academia may yet prove vital as we lead the world's Indigenous turn...

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Simon Lambert

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