Decisions, Uncertainty and the Brain Develops New Model for the Brain and Behavior.
The process by which the brain governs our full range of behaviors can be described at a theoretical and philosophical level with concepts that, strangely enough, have their roots in economics, according to the recently published Decisions, Uncertainty and the Brain by NYU neuroscientist Paul Glimcher. In the first book ever published on the subject of neuroeconomics, Glimcher bucks the Cartesian model of brain study that has dominated neuroscience for four hundred years and develops a brand new framework for how the brain might operate.
"It's becoming increasingly apparent that the prevailing dualistic theory of how the brain processes behavior limits scientists' efforts to take neuroscience to the next level," said Glimcher. "My research seeks to bring together traditional neuroscience with a century's worth of highly developed economic theory in order to build an original cognitive theory that can be applied to every type of decision making."
Over 400 years ago, Rene Descartes developed a theory of how the brain functioned by dividing behaviors into two separate types, the simple and the complex. Simple behaviors were those in which a sensory event provoked an automatic motor response. Complex behaviors were those in which the relationships between stimulus and response were less predictable, involving in the process what Descartes described as the "soul" - later referred to by scientists as cognition or volition.
Through ongoing experiments at his lab at NYU, Glimcher's work explores whether there might be one mathematically rich cognitive theory that could solve the most difficult problems that any environment could present. By recreating economic experiments with monkeys, such as the classic game of "work or shirk", Glimcher has observed that the decision-making processes of monkeys correspond closely to the economic theory developed to predict the behavior of humans. More significantly, Glimcher can do something no economist ever could -- monitor the path of decision-making in the brain as the decision is taking place.
"Economic theory can provide neuroscientists with an enormous amount of predictive power because it allows us to define both the optimal course of action that an animal could select and it allows us to define a mathematical route by which that optimal solution can be derived," said Glimcher. "It places a clear boundary on what is possible and lets us ask what nervous systems do in that light."
Glimcher's research is a significant contribution to the new and rapidly growing field of neuroeconomics, which began about 5 years ago. Within the neuroeconomic community, social, behavioral and physiological scientists are working to pick up where economics left off in order to gain a better understanding how decisions are made in the brain. Recent advances in brain-study technology, including functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), have made it easier than ever to collect real-time information on the brain's processing of decisions and brain studies like these form the nucleus around which economic models of the brain are being structured.
To Glimcher, the rise of neuroeconomics is more than an exciting new cross-disciplinary field. It could form the basis for a new, and perhaps dominant, paradigm for the biological study of the brain. But the heart of Glimcher's theory, which argues that there is no such thing as a "reflex", also raises profound philosophical questions about determinism, free will and the stochastic nature of complex behavior - all of which Glimcher addresses in his book.
"The bottom line is that the notion of reflexes is simply outdated and non-scientific. Models of the mind rooted in economic theory allow us to explain the most complex behavior at a mechanistic level. Ultimately, this approach should allow us not only to understand how good decisions are made, but how it is that our brains make bad decisions that hurt us as individuals or as a society," said Glimcher.
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