New OAC Online Seminar: Sacha Bourgeois-Gironde How old brain functions constrain modern economies, 30th January to 11th February

The seminar opens on Monday 30th January and will be closed after Saturday 11th February. The topic and style may involve something of a stretch for the majority of our members, but the questions raised are of universal interest and this is a great opportunity to learn something by interrogating the paper-giver. If there is sufficient interest, we may go beyond just talk to launch some online experiments here at the OAC and, beyond that, there is the prospect of research collaboration in the field. In the meantime, you can read the OAC Press Working Paper and the published results of the experiment to which this more general overview refers, entitled "Fast and Automatic Activation of an Abstract Representation of Money in the Human Ventral Visual Pathway".


Sacha Bourgeois-Girondeis a philosopher and an experimental economist. He is interested in understanding the emergence of modern economic environments and artifacts. His main question is about the biological, and especially neurobiological, resources that have been put to use by humans to shape and adapt to their economic environments. He is running several experiments to try to understand these adaptive processes and the constraints on lay economic cognition and behaviour. He has published empirical, philosophical and formal work to make sense of some typical cognitive biases and behavioral anomalies within that perspective.

Approaches by neuroscience to the production and handling of material artifacts has recently found support for a ‘cultural cortical recycling’ hypothesis (Stout et al. 2008). This hypothesis had already been robustly established for symbolic artifacts such as letters and numbers (Dehaene and Cohen 2007). In both cases, specific cortical maps dedicated to basic perceptual and/or motor functions appear to have been re-used at a relatively recent point in human history (on temporal scales too brief for any anatomical evolution of the brain to take place), allowing new cultural capacities to develop. Such functional recycling both facilitates and constrains the processing of these artifacts. It also presumably plays a role in their emergence and morphogenesis. I present theoretical arguments and preliminary behavioral and neurobiological findings in support of the speculation that the historical emergence and typical neural processing of coins – as both material and symbolic artifacts – might be explained by a similar hypothesis.

Sacha's goal here, however, is to provide the empirical and theoretical background to testing this hypothesis from the perspective of behavioral economic anthropology. This might lead to collaboration with anthropologists in designing and making operational future experiments that could be performed easily online or in the field.

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We are very grateful to Sacha Bourgeois-Gironde for agreeing to participate in this OAC online seminar. His topic extends our repertoire in new directions by bringing together money and neuro-science. This may be a leap too far for many of our members; but I do hope that we can generate an interesting conversation based on what he has presented here. This has two parts: the published summary of an experiment he and his collaborators performed on responses to coins of various types and a paper written especially for this seminar which places this experiment within a much broader introduction to the questions Sacha is interested in exploring with us.

We hope to attract to our discussion specialists in one or other of the fields that Sacha seeks to connect -- neuroeconomics, cognitive anthropology, economic anthropology and archaeology for starters. But it is even more important that OAC members encountering these issues for the first time or on a casual basis should feel free to take advantage of Sacha's presence to raise questions about his ideas, methods and conclusions. We know that brain science is a fast-breaking field that promises to challenge many conventional understandings of anthropology.

The nature/nurture debate is an old one and Sacha's contribution allows us to get beyond some of the more sterile oppositions associated with it. He claims that social artifacts like money may be subject to ‘cultural cortical recycling’, whereby old evolutionary pathways in the brain are put to new uses in ways that both constrain and enable our human potential. He also hopes to throw light on some of the deepest questions concerning economy, including the meaning and uses of money.

Do not be bashful! There are very few experts here. We want to learn more through opening up to a conversation. Who knows, it might even be fun! I should also point out that this seminar does not stand alone. Sacha is willing to conduct some simple online tests with us later, if there is any interest in that idea; and beyond this, we might set up comparative field experiments in different places around the world. In this respect, the seminar promises to take the OAC to a level of cooperation that we have not attempted so far.

Let me kick off the discussion by focusing on where the paper draws on its experimental predecessor. Sacha summarizes what he takes to be the surprising results of the experiment as follows:

"Money, that is defined by social agreement, is categorized in the ventral visual pathway as fast as natural, non symbolic objects defined by their visual properties. This surprising neural fluency at dealing with coins probably participated to money’s worldwide success" (published paper). "Whichever primitive mechanism money processing is rooted in, the fact that an object conventionally defined as social is treated so automatically, fluidly and within circuits and mechanisms evolutionarily dedicated to ecological items such as faces or food, must have contributed to its cultural emergence and success" (seminar paper).

In order to follow you there, Sacha, I need several things clarified. You say that "Money is not only a commodity, it is also a powerful incentive and often used as a reward, in everyday life as well as in decision-making paradigms." You claim to have demonstrated "the existence of a neural representation of a generic, use-independent category 'money’' in the ventral visual pathway, that is automatically activated." I agree that, if you can make that link, the consequences for economic theory and for anthropology could be profound. Your experiment asked participants to identify coins which differed in terms of their "validity" and "familiarity" and you draw an explicit comparison with word recognition which turns out to be slower.

Money is for me a category like language, a means of communication, so how do you get from recognizing coins to "money"? Is the coins test about money or visual images? How sure are you that the coins represented a genuine incentive for the players, given that they couldn't spend them? I can see that the coins were identified as fast as faces or food, but how do we make the leap from that observation to propositions concerning the meaning of money?

I would like to follow up many more aspects of your fascinating paper later, but, with apologies for my crude formulation, perhaps we could start there.

 

Clarification please. When you write,

Maps are invariant brain structures which encode cultural items and supervene on basic neuronal layouts. Seen working at various scales, these cortical maps reflect the representational structure of a targeted cultural item in an isomorphic way. 

Are the maps visible? Or is their presence inferred?

Hi Keith, and thank you for your introduction and comments. Hi the OAC, I am here at last and ready and happy to engage in discussion!

A brief rejoinder before we might get into the deeper complexities of your question. In the experimental paper we only propose a perceptual task that incidentally reveals how the brain categorizes coins along the dimension of "current currency validity" in a fast and automatic way within the ventral system. As such this does not say much about most functions or meanings of money. It is simply surprising that categorization along such an abstract and conventional dimension takes place in such a way. Now of course we can speculate (and I intended to do so in the seminar paper) about the connection between this neurobiological fact and the nature of money. Also, we did not test the reward aspect of money, as in fact, coins were not used as incentives.

Keith Hart said:

We are very grateful to Sacha Bourgeois-Gironde for agreeing to participate in this OAC online seminar. His topic extends our repertoire in new directions by bringing together money and neuro-science. This may be a leap too far for many of our members; but I do hope that we can generate an interesting conversation based on what he has presented here. This has two parts: the published summary of an experiment he and his collaborators performed on responses to coins of various types and a paper written especially for this seminar which places this experiment within a much broader introduction to the questions Sacha is interested in exploring with us.

We hope to attract to our discussion specialists in one or other of the fields that Sacha seeks to connect -- neuroeconomics, cognitive anthropology, economic anthropology and archaeology for starters. But it is even more important that OAC members encountering these issues for the first time or on a casual basis should feel free to take advantage of Sacha's presence to raise questions about his ideas, methods and conclusions. We know that brain science is a fast-breaking field that promises to challenge many conventional understandings of anthropology.

The nature/nurture debate is an old one and Sacha's contribution allows us to get beyond some of the more sterile oppositions associated with it. He claims that social artifacts like money may be subject to ‘cultural cortical recycling’, whereby old evolutionary pathways in the brain are put to new uses in ways that both constrain and enable our human potential. He also hopes to throw light on some of the deepest questions concerning economy, including the meaning and uses of money.

Do not be bashful! There are very few experts here. We want to learn more through opening up to a conversation. Who knows, it might even be fun! I should also point out that this seminar does not stand alone. Sacha is willing to conduct some simple online tests with us later, if there is any interest in that idea; and beyond this, we might set up comparative field experiments in different places around the world. In this respect, the seminar promises to take the OAC to a level of cooperation that we have not attempted so far.

Let me kick off the discussion by focusing on where the paper draws on its experimental predecessor. Sacha summarizes what he takes to be the surprising results of the experiment as follows:

"Money, that is defined by social agreement, is categorized in the ventral visual pathway as fast as natural, non symbolic objects defined by their visual properties. This surprising neural fluency at dealing with coins probably participated to money’s worldwide success" (published paper). "Whichever primitive mechanism money processing is rooted in, the fact that an object conventionally defined as social is treated so automatically, fluidly and within circuits and mechanisms evolutionarily dedicated to ecological items such as faces or food, must have contributed to its cultural emergence and success" (seminar paper).

In order to follow you there, Sacha, I need several things clarified. You say that "Money is not only a commodity, it is also a powerful incentive and often used as a reward, in everyday life as well as in decision-making paradigms." You claim to have demonstrated "the existence of a neural representation of a generic, use-independent category 'money’' in the ventral visual pathway, that is automatically activated." I agree that, if you can make that link, the consequences for economic theory and for anthropology could be profound. Your experiment asked participants to identify coins which differed in terms of their "validity" and "familiarity" and you draw an explicit comparison with word recognition which turns out to be slower.

Money is for me a category like language, a means of communication, so how do you get from recognizing coins to "money"? Is the coins test about money or visual images? How sure are you that the coins represented a genuine incentive for the players, given that they couldn't spend them? I can see that the coins were identified as fast as faces or food, but how do we make the leap from that observation to propositions concerning the meaning of money?

I would like to follow up many more aspects of your fascinating paper later, but, with apologies for my crude formulation, perhaps we could start there.

 

Hi John, thanks for your question. Yes the maps are "visible" in the sense that they constitute regular neuronal activity patterns recorded through a magnetoencephalography device. These patterns are electrical activities in brain areas. We record where and especially when it takes place in the context of the tasks we asked the subject to perform. The regularity of the patterns across subjects (in terms of timing and actual localization) led us to our main results.

John McCreery said:

Clarification please. When you write,

Maps are invariant brain structures which encode cultural items and supervene on basic neuronal layouts. Seen working at various scales, these cortical maps reflect the representational structure of a targeted cultural item in an isomorphic way. 

Are the maps visible? Or is their presence inferred?

Is it fair, then, to say that the maps are maps of neuronal activity instead of maps of the input? What puzzles me here is the relation between the stimuli, which might be considered maps of the coins, taking map to mean an iconic representation in another external medium, and mapping, an operation that converts the visual input into a predictable pattern of neuronal activity. In either case, the question arises, how much of the information in the original is preserved in the map or mapping in question.

Consider, for example, the relationship of actual aircraft to displays on the radar screens used by air traffic controllers, with the aircraft reduced to points of light with associated information. Consider, too, that the critical thing is instant recognition that one or more points are not following expected paths, thus posing a danger to other aircraft around them.

I think of the basket full of miscellaneous change sitting on my wife's desk. It's mostly yen; but since we travel frequently the yen are mixed with US, Taiwan, and European coins. When I need some change for use in Japan, the important thing is to exclude non-yen. All my brain needs is enough information to decide that a coin is not yen. Then, if I happen to be curious, I may look more closely to see what other kind of coin it is. That takes a little longer.

Hi John,

Thanks for your remarks on maps and baskets. Let's take them stepwisely.

Our stimuli are pictures of coins. Photoshopped. In the same touch of grey and luminosity. We also used scrambled coins (made up of fractions of original coins) as visual controls. It is important for us through this process to control as far as possible perceptual features that could make our results indeterminate because we would have not controlled them.

Another thing. The task is not a catagorization task. We do not want to ask directly the subjects to recognize coins according to their value, origin, currency, etc. It is a recognition one-back task. Click on the mouse once you see twice in a row the same stimulus on the screen. Again, methodologically this is the second important point, incidence of parameters of interest on the task itself.

So far we have: control of low perceptual features and incidentality.

We also have parameters of interest we put in the stimulus. It is a 2x2 design, the simplest and elegant ones in this sort of experiments. Familiarity x Validity.

That's it as far as the stimuli and the task are concerned.

Now there is what we observe at different temporal windows. Beware here not to take the word "map" too literally. We do not know whether it is a mapping between stimulus and neural patterns, and how such a mapping would work. Of course there is a correlation between perception of the stimuli and observed neural activities. We observed precisely that they depend on one of the parameters at a certain temporal window: validity rather than familiarity. So it is an influence of an abstract/symbolic/conventional characteristic of the coins, not a perceptual/material one that we got. We used MEG, meaning that we were interested in temporal sequences rather than localization in the brain. Hence the fact that in our experiment, mapping in the usual sense was not our primary concern. Then we are able to reconstruct a functional map. But to observe a proper cortical map (in the sense only of invariant neural patterns, not especially in the sense of an iconic representation of the original stimulus) it would require further functional explorations using fMRI and localizationist strategies.

Hi, Sacha,

I am not sure how what I am about to say is relevant to your experiment. It may be not at all. But, anyway, after I wrote my last comment I found myself thinking about the Recognition Primed Decision (RPD) models described in Gary Klein's Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Klein's research suggests an alternative to the classical model of rational choice in which choices A, B, C, etc., are examined simultaneously and ranked in order of values assigned to them. Klein's work with firefighters, tank commanders, bond traders and other folk who have to make quick decisions in time-pressured situations is that they develop a stack of possibly relevant models. Entering a situation they choose the one closest to the top of the stack and act on it until further evidence indicates that it isn't a good fit with what is going on. They then choose the one closest to the top of the stack that offers a better fit. They cycle through this process until the decision is made. One nice thing about this model is that experience counts for a lot, equipping individuals with a lot more models to choose from.

Given that we humans get about 70% of our information about the world through our eyes, it strikes me as a plausible extension of this kind of thinking that the visual pathway is an excellent place for a cache of high-probability models, where the higher probability results in a quicker response....

What do you think?

Many thanks, Sacha, for engaging with us here. Few anthropologists are familiar with the constantly evolving technology and terminology involved in  your investigation. I wanted to start with by pushing further a statement your team makes in the abstract:

"From a neural point of view, our findings may indicate that the ventral visual pathway, a system previously thought to analyze visual features such as shape or color and to be influenced by daily experience, could also able to use conceptual attributes such as monetary validity to categorize familiar as well as unfamiliar visual objects."

As I understand it you are saying that the reaction to usable/unusable coins is so quick that the 'visual pathway' must be doing more than simply channeling different kinds of input - actually it is actively applying a whole spectrum of values to what it sees and doing this at high speed. Since, demonstrably, colour and shape also imply evaluations which are learnt just as monetary value is learnt (they are as much conceptual as experiential), why would we separate out 'daily experience' from 'conceptual attributes'? We may need a little more on the assumptions that researchers have had up to now. Is there a problem with the metaphor of a 'pathway' that perhaps has inhibited a recognition of how concepts and experience are linked?

Excellent!  This is the kind of anthropology that will save the current interpretive anthropology bereft of scientific logic and experimentation from the derision of other scientific disciplines.

I need to reread your paper.  It's really interesting.  Anthropologically speaking, I think the theories you propounded have many uses in  anthropological studies concerning human mind and behavior.  One example that quickly came in mind is the emergence of anorexia and other food-related health anomalies in Polynesian societies due to the change of their diets from traditional (taro and fish) to artificial (canned goods and junk foods).  It is obvious to me here that there are artifacts that have changed the perceptive activities of the brain or neural maps.  I wonder if the canning of fish and other traditional  staples and the making of the junk foods healthy (example, dried taro chips) can be considered a cognitive recycling in response to culture change in Polynesia.

One  concept in your paper that I find  most interesting is  isomorphism, even though you did not explain it exhaustively.  I wonder if it similar to the isomorphism in abstract algebra that basically means two elements sharing the same properties and processes.  If indeed it is, I can appreciate its logic in relation to culture as I believe that a culture is a result of change and recycling-- meaning, old culture and new culture are isomorphic in many ways, and as the new becomes old, a new one that is also isomorphic (maybe  a recycled one) emerges.

Thank  you, again.      

Hi, John,

Thanks again for your remarks! It seems that our "fast and automatic process" suggests many readings and daily applications to you. I am quite happy with that of course. I am not familiar with the RPD models but I see one or two important differences with what we did. We do not impose to our subjects any decision under pressure (time, stress or whatsoever). The fact that brain processings of monetary validity are fast and automatic (and as such constitute a "quick neural response") does not mean that there is any need (in the experimental situation) that this response be fast and automatic.  It is just a fact that the brain processes these stimuli along a certain dimension thereof in an unexpected fast way. Now, to relate to your comment, it may help that we have such a fast and automatic encoding of monetary value in our brain to sustain under time-pressure decisions relative to money when needed. But again, here we are talking about categorization in the visual pathway not about motor decisions, let alone financial decisions. It would take more studies to know how the automaticity of a visual task carries over the ability to perform efficient decisions (typically motor tasks as in the model you refer to) under pressure.

Sacha

John McCreery said:

Hi, Sacha,

I am not sure how what I am about to say is relevant to your experiment. It may be not at all. But, anyway, after I wrote my last comment I found myself thinking about the Recognition Primed Decision (RPD) models described in Gary Klein's Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Klein's research suggests an alternative to the classical model of rational choice in which choices A, B, C, etc., are examined simultaneously and ranked in order of values assigned to them. Klein's work with firefighters, tank commanders, bond traders and other folk who have to make quick decisions in time-pressured situations is that they develop a stack of possibly relevant models. Entering a situation they choose the one closest to the top of the stack and act on it until further evidence indicates that it isn't a good fit with what is going on. They then choose the one closest to the top of the stack that offers a better fit. They cycle through this process until the decision is made. One nice thing about this model is that experience counts for a lot, equipping individuals with a lot more models to choose from.

Given that we humans get about 70% of our information about the world through our eyes, it strikes me as a plausible extension of this kind of thinking that the visual pathway is an excellent place for a cache of high-probability models, where the higher probability results in a quicker response....

What do you think?

Hi Huon,

thanks for your comment. It is a pleasure to engage with anthropology and anthropologists such a discussion.

2 questions you raise.

One on conceptual/experiential. I am not denying that color is conceptual, in a sense that we may have concept of colours, and that having such concepts may be crucial to experience colors. Actually I take no position on this. It is just that seeing colors, differentiating between colors, or seing faces, differentiating between faces, recognizing plants vs stones, etc are conceptual abilities that have received / or depend of neural underpinnings after million of years evolutions. It cannot be the case for reading words, or recognizing monetary validities. No way these stimuli in our modern (a few thousand years) have modelled the functional map of the brain. Strictly impossible from an anatomical point of view.  So it is always a surprise when you are in a position to observe, as we were with my colleagues Catherine Tallon-Baudry and Florent Meyniel, that categorizing coins along their validity characteristic takes place in ways similar to ancient stimuli such as faces or colors, etc.

"Visual pathway" is just a metaphor indeed to speak about transfer of input from the eye to the central nervous system.

all the best

Sacha

Huon Wardle said:

Many thanks, Sacha, for engaging with us here. Few anthropologists are familiar with the constantly evolving technology and terminology involved in  your investigation. I wanted to start with by pushing further a statement your team makes in the abstract:

"From a neural point of view, our findings may indicate that the ventral visual pathway, a system previously thought to analyze visual features such as shape or color and to be influenced by daily experience, could also able to use conceptual attributes such as monetary validity to categorize familiar as well as unfamiliar visual objects."

As I understand it you are saying that the reaction to usable/unusable coins is so quick that the 'visual pathway' must be doing more than simply channeling different kinds of input - actually it is actively applying a whole spectrum of values to what it sees and doing this at high speed. Since, demonstrably, colour and shape also imply evaluations which are learnt just as monetary value is learnt (they are as much conceptual as experiential), why would we separate out 'daily experience' from 'conceptual attributes'? We may need a little more on the assumptions that researchers have had up to now. Is there a problem with the metaphor of a 'pathway' that perhaps has inhibited a recognition of how concepts and experience are linked?

Dear Izabel (or how shall I call you?),

Thanks for your appraisal! 

The issue of isomorphism is a tricky one. It makes sense in the case of retinotopy. I am precisely cautious about extending such an algebraic idea to more complex projections of features of visual stimuli onto neural patterns, especially because in my case the characteristics of our stimuli (coins) we were interested in were not visual but abstract, but were nevertheless processed in the visual pathway. Curious. And in need of replication and further exploration.

Now, as you say, there is, if not an impact, at least an extension to anthropology, I anticipate. And this is precisely along the lines you suggest. I am talking about neural re-use, in the sense that anciently wired specific neural circuits adept to deal with bounded classes of stimuli are put to novel cultural uses. Faces or foods to money, may be a point in case, still to be unravelled though. Now what you point to are cases of inadaptations, inadequations, and this is something I have in mind (which I did not mention this in the seminar paper). The brain does not systematically generate recycling processes to any cultural modification in the environment. Some are definitely not "ecological", and we also need to understand the gap between cultural cortical recycling potentialities and actual modifications of cultural environments. This is precisely the sort of things I would like to pursue on at the behavioral experimental level on the field.

All the best

Sacha


M Izabel said:

Excellent!  This is the kind of anthropology that will save the current interpretive anthropology bereft of scientific logic and experimentation from the derision of other scientific disciplines.

I need to reread your paper.  It's really interesting.  Anthropologically speaking, I think the theories you propounded have many uses in  anthropological studies concerning human mind and behavior.  One example that quickly came in mind is the emergence of anorexia and other food-related health anomalies in Polynesian societies due to the change of their diets from traditional (taro and fish) to artificial (canned goods and junk foods).  It is obvious to me here that there are artifacts that have changed the perceptive activities of the brain or neural maps.  I wonder if the canning of fish and other traditional  staples and the making of the junk foods healthy (example, dried taro chips) can be considered a cognitive recycling in response to culture change in Polynesia.

One  concept in your paper that I find  most interesting is  isomorphism, even though you did not explain it exhaustively.  I wonder if it similar to the isomorphism in abstract algebra that basically means two elements sharing the same properties and processes.  If indeed it is, I can appreciate its logic in relation to culture as I believe that a culture is a result of change and recycling-- meaning, old culture and new culture are isomorphic in many ways, and as the new becomes old, a new one that is also isomorphic (maybe  a recycled one) emerges.

Thank  you, again.      

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