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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Sacha Bourgeois-Gironde said:

Money, OK!

It is a big problem for me to know which notion or role of money, if any, I have stylized, and which of these possible notions or role-candidates is reflected in our neural data. Is it store of value, of mean of exchange? Definitely not unit of account, I think. An answer to this may help to know which of rival nice heterodox conceptions of money my data would tend to support, if it can be the case. Because those heterodox views have somewhat lost track of these functional aspects (in terms of economic roles here, not in my otherwise neuroscientific use of the term, but is there a correlation between the two that I expect to show?).

Thanks, Sacha, for your unfailing openness and willingness to engage with others. It is an instructive pleasure to have you with us here. As your host I would not want to trap you. It may be that you mistake my confusion over how to compress the many arguments I would like to introduce to our conversation for deviousness. From your opening gambit -- if we are playing a game -- I take it that a focus on the functions of money might help us find common ground past the fog of my words. If you equate money with a concrete medium of exchange and possibly a store of value, but rule out unit of account (and means of payment?), that certainly simplifes the issue, but it also makes it difficult to engage with the history of money as many specialists see it.

I don’t know to what extent heterodox views such as Aglietta and Orlean’s rely on clearly analyzed data and precise background hypotheses or if it is purely speculative.

This the core of our methodological differences. I believe that their work is based on serious research that might qualify as science in French or Wissenschaft in German, but not as their narrower English counterpart. Calling it speculative may be a bit extreme. Twenty years of scholarly seminars on money add up to more than that, more than the research that supports most economists' belief in the barter origins of money. But your rigorous experiments do generate a "harder" kind of knowledge and what interests me is the possibility of dialogue between hard and soft approaches, since both sides could benefit.
 

Testing a model such as Kiyotaki and Wright presents the other advantage to address your question on intrinsic value of coins, since we can use either really arbitrary fiat monies, or money that have acquired value through efficient rounds of exchange without being supported by any intrinsically valuable support. Your point on Simmel suggests fascinating extensions and ramifications. If it is the case that by being disconnected from intrinsically valuable support, a collective or even individual emphasis will be put on institutions defining and supporting money, the question is to understand if he meant that we were ready to “discover” money behind its metallic, precious, intrinsically valuable materializations, and why we needed them in the first place. Now I envision an experiment in which conflicts between intrinsic value and conventional value could be implemented (with in the background the issue of “valeurs refuges”, especially meaningful, indeed, in global contexts).

This is a productive example of where such a dialogue might lead and I am grateful for it. If money is both a thing and an idea, it is difficult to observe the operations of hidden social insitutions. As Durkheim pointed out, "the non-contractual element in the contract" is largely invisible. This is partly because of the occlusion brought about by the centrality of private property in our thinking about economy. I don't know how social considerations might be brought into experiments where individuals are physically detached from society. Hence the value of the barter origin myth for economists -- primitive barter assumes the private property complex as original and therefore natural. All that is missing is money. But anthropologists, historians and philosophers have long thought that individuation is a historical process, not an original condition.

Finally, this relates to your last question: money as word / money as language. The conventional aspect of money is tantamount to connecting an item to a language. Or, more deeply to the a priori form of communication, universality and systematicity we may perceive as being immediately associated with a cultural item (in my case money and monetarily validity). How neuroscience can reveal those a priori forms of sociality, language, configuration of the universe (in terms of space and numbers), how these a priori forms of sensibility (which correspond to functional constraints in the brain when speaking of cultural artifacts, but to functions tout court when speaking of space and time for instance and the way brains encode them) is at the core of the neuro-anthropology project I feel associated with myself.

Now that is really exciting! Brain functions and money functions investigated together. I hope that we might explore whether any of this could be taken up here at the OAC. We should find time to discuss that before the seminar closes.

 

 

Dear Izabel,

Thanks for this whole set of remarks. It makes me think a lot about brain and exchanges, markets, in a way that has not been addressed to my knowledge in the more confined joint-fields of neuroeconomics and experimental economics. In fact I have been thinking for a while about what I call "economic emotions". I have a paper, but it is in French in the Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales..., bearing this title: "les émotions économiques", in which I speculate (once again, it is a bad habit of mine) on "paleo-affectivities", whether we can reconstruct social emotions of our paleolithic ancestors. I give this twist on neuroeconomics that would like to make it an archeological tool, as it transpires maybe in my section on tools in this seminar paper. Now, what I would suggest, would you be interested in such things, would be to measure emotions (in a physiological way, by SCR measures, no brain imaging) to compare levels and types of emotionality in "primitive" vs monetary exchanges. It would be interesting also to know when by introducing bargaining (as actually most experiments in economics do through their choice of games) we do not necessarily introduce emotions in monetary exchanges. It is precisely through bargaining games that neuroeconomics has sought to show the presence of emotions in trade, but it in fact, in your terms, tends to transform a monetary exchange into a deal, while it would have been preferable not to mix things and separate costs and profits on one side and deals and bargain on the other. 



M Izabel said:

I really find this interesting:

"How neuroscience can reveal those a priori forms of sociality, language, configuration of the universe (in terms of space and numbers), how these a priori forms of sensibility (which correspond to functional constraints in the brain when speaking of cultural artifacts, but to functions tout court when speaking of space and time for instance and the way brains encode them) is at the core at the neuro-anthropology project I feel associated with myself."


The MIT Learning and Memory group led by Earl Miller came out with a study about the "primitive brain" being smarter than we think.  The group concluded that in the process of learning, the striatum of the basal ganglia had more rapid change than the prefrontal cortex that slowly absorbs what is learned.  Forgive me if my memory of what I read in  a science magazine years ago fails me.


The roles of basal ganglia include eye movement, retinotopy or spatial organization, motor control, and motivation in behavior.  Wikipedia has the following as the functions of the cortex:

"This brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making and moderating correct social behavior.[1] The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals.[2]"

My understanding is that this is the reverse of the common notion that we learn the rules or ideas first before the stimulus or artifacts.  One has to stop on red because that's the rule.  For someone who does not know the rule, the first learning experience is the visual mapping of a stimulus or the spatial observation of an artifact before the rule or idea.  Another good example is observing and eating a Fuji apple and realizing that since it looks and tastes like a Washington Delicious that I have tasted before, therefore it is an apple.  I find this reverse process interesting in the study of language and meaning in relation to behavior and cognition, but I cannot really think of its simple application outside of neurolinguistics or psycholinguistics.

I find the primitive brain/mind/mentality of Levy-Bruhl more suited in a culture-centered anthropology.  The amygdala being primitive and emotional and the neocortex being logical can be an evolutionary model  we can use  in tracing the emergence of myths and rituals and even church and religion.  I also find the model useful in understanding the transition of exchange from the primitive economy (barter/trade/credit without money)  to the use of money.  In primitive exchange, the concept of profit is not well developed.  I used "is" because there are still cultures that engage in barter and trade without using money and without thinking about profits but deals.  A profit is logical while a deal is emotional.  

Back home in the Philippines, a farmer,  for example, trades his four-pound chicken with his neighbor's worn shirt.  He does not  think of numbers or costs.  The question he thinks of is whether it is a good deal.  This is where visual mapping and motivation come first.  Is the shirt still wearable?  How about its color and design?  Does it look good on me?  These are questions usually asked by emotional shoppers.  Logical shoppers calculate and think how he can save.  The interesting point in this example is why the farmer can easily trade his chicken for a shirt since he can sell it and by a new  shirt.  The answer, I think, is his culture that is more emotional than logical.  Besides, dealing with his neighbor is more  personal than with a merchant in the next town who does not even know him.                


Dear Huon,

I must say that I am feeling tonight very happy and honored that this seminar with 4 people, and maybe precisely because I had to deal and concentrate on the issues raised by no more than 4 other researchers, has led to this level of questioning. I could not expect much better!

So, first, thank you for your clarification. I think that you are perfectly right is saying flatly that with my colleagues we showed that an abstract property of monetary stimuli was dealt at a certain speed and a certain way and this does not relate in any direct way to the prevalence of any a priori concept of money. It is another question that I alluded to in one of my recent posts about how the functional structure of the brain determines our experiment of space, time, numbers, which may be considered a priori forms of our experience of the internal or external world. But I do not need to get into that broadest issue (Dehaene does) when talking about money. We have, as you rightly say, synthetic objects, symbolic artifacts as I also call them, presenting "symbolic affordances" to certain neural circuits, rather expected to deal in the way they displayed here with ecological items.

About your question on brain lesions and money, I plan to run an experiment about money recognition with patients suffering from prosopagnosia. If the fusiform gyrus hypothesis I propose is correct, we should observe consequences on money recognition by those patients.

As to blind persons, the suggestion you make is extremely interesting. I have to think about it. Compensatory processes taking place, how to deal with automatic money categorization in that case. An interesting issue to pursue at a conceptual and empirical levels together if you wish.


Huon Wardle said:

Sacha, I have found all your responses very helpful. Thanks. I wanted to press a few points. To me what is very interesting is the general finding that a synthetic object - call it 'coin validity' - can be registered nearly immediately by the brain; or perhaps the central difference "valid coin/non-valid coin" can be registered in this way; I am not sure which is the better way of putting it. Actually, the fact that it is coins is rather irrelevant except that we can dispose of some crude ideas and replace them with a nuanced historical-social view of what is going on. What is helpful here is the recognition that synthetic objects of that kind are very immediate and real and that our world is made up of potentially an infinite number of these objects.

I want to push a couple of points to see what you think. First, I don't think the results are showing us a priori processes in the sense that you can point to a bit of the brain and say 'look; that is what is generating this'. the scans and electrical measurements are showing that recognition has taken place at a certain speed and is connected to a location in the brain,  but not more than that. But that is interesting in itself. Then there is the interesting link with a part of the brain associated with physiological needs.

Minimally, we would note that the entire brain is required to know about money. Obviously, money is not just coins and of course, a blind person can recognise money and money-use quite effectively; so it is not just about visual perception. Based on the recycling idea, is there any evidence that, e.g., if that part of the brain is damaged then people's recognition of coins or perhaps use of money is then impaired?

Dear Keith,

Many thanks for your comments. I am nearing potential connections too and starting to foresee pinpointed overlaps. Like, among other things, when you say: " I don't know how social considerations might be brought into experiments where individuals are physically detached from society. " I could make two opposite answers here. One is to say, precisely, we need this detachment, to look for features in abstracto, as I did. That's my instinctive move. You stylize a situation in which the "thing" prevails over the "idea" and the reverse (used tokens in exchanges or other functions) and (institutionalization of money through a simulated central bank, etc). Then you put emphasis, different levels of information on the thing aspects (actual exchanges through well materialized monies) or the idea aspect (creation of money by designated mechanisms, institutions, individuals). Your variable of interest could be how people save that money, use it, falls into "money illusions" biases, things like that. You want to see an impact of the things (its use) vs the idea on people's behavior, when following my first impulse. But this sort of experiments has little value (this sort, not all sorts, some can be self-contained) if not coupled with actual field experiments, run by a researcher like you, who has studied perceptions on the field. How the visibility (or the ideas we form about monetary institutions) affect our perception of concrete coins or bills. This is a field inquiry.


But to go again to my central theme that you beautifully sum up: "Brain functions and money functions investigated together", this invites, in particular, how trying to see how money functions connect in the brain, in terms of actual connectivity : unit of accounts (numbers), medium of exchange (value attribution, categorization), store of value. You precisely want to know whether this Aristotelian functional conglomerate is biologically realized in terms of connectivity between neural substrates that may underpin those separate functions. My proposal is still put naively here, but it relates with Huon's point about the neuroscience of synthetic objects.


Keith Hart said:

Sacha Bourgeois-Gironde said:

Money, OK!

It is a big problem for me to know which notion or role of money, if any, I have stylized, and which of these possible notions or role-candidates is reflected in our neural data. Is it store of value, of mean of exchange? Definitely not unit of account, I think. An answer to this may help to know which of rival nice heterodox conceptions of money my data would tend to support, if it can be the case. Because those heterodox views have somewhat lost track of these functional aspects (in terms of economic roles here, not in my otherwise neuroscientific use of the term, but is there a correlation between the two that I expect to show?).

Thanks, Sacha, for your unfailing openness and willingness to engage with others. It is an instructive pleasure to have you with us here. As your host I would not want to trap you. It may be that you mistake my confusion over how to compress the many arguments I would like to introduce to our conversation for deviousness. From your opening gambit -- if we are playing a game -- I take it that a focus on the functions of money might help us find common ground past the fog of my words. If you equate money with a concrete medium of exchange and possibly a store of value, but rule out unit of account (and means of payment?), that certainly simplifes the issue, but it also makes it difficult to engage with the history of money as many specialists see it.

I don’t know to what extent heterodox views such as Aglietta and Orlean’s rely on clearly analyzed data and precise background hypotheses or if it is purely speculative.

This the core of our methodological differences. I believe that their work is based on serious research that might qualify as science in French or Wissenschaft in German, but not as their narrower English counterpart. Calling it speculative may be a bit extreme. Twenty years of scholarly seminars on money add up to more than that, more than the research that supports most economists' belief in the barter origins of money. But your rigorous experiments do generate a "harder" kind of knowledge and what interests me is the possibility of dialogue between hard and soft approaches, since both sides could benefit.
 

Testing a model such as Kiyotaki and Wright presents the other advantage to address your question on intrinsic value of coins, since we can use either really arbitrary fiat monies, or money that have acquired value through efficient rounds of exchange without being supported by any intrinsically valuable support. Your point on Simmel suggests fascinating extensions and ramifications. If it is the case that by being disconnected from intrinsically valuable support, a collective or even individual emphasis will be put on institutions defining and supporting money, the question is to understand if he meant that we were ready to “discover” money behind its metallic, precious, intrinsically valuable materializations, and why we needed them in the first place. Now I envision an experiment in which conflicts between intrinsic value and conventional value could be implemented (with in the background the issue of “valeurs refuges”, especially meaningful, indeed, in global contexts).

This is a productive example of where such a dialogue might lead and I am grateful for it. If money is both a thing and an idea, it is difficult to observe the operations of hidden social insitutions. As Durkheim pointed out, "the non-contractual element in the contract" is largely invisible. This is partly because of the occlusion brought about by the centrality of private property in our thinking about economy. I don't know how social considerations might be brought into experiments where individuals are physically detached from society. Hence the value of the barter origin myth for economists -- primitive barter assumes the private property complex as original and therefore natural. All that is missing is money. But anthropologists, historians and philosophers have long thought that individuation is a historical process, not an original condition.

Finally, this relates to your last question: money as word / money as language. The conventional aspect of money is tantamount to connecting an item to a language. Or, more deeply to the a priori form of communication, universality and systematicity we may perceive as being immediately associated with a cultural item (in my case money and monetarily validity). How neuroscience can reveal those a priori forms of sociality, language, configuration of the universe (in terms of space and numbers), how these a priori forms of sensibility (which correspond to functional constraints in the brain when speaking of cultural artifacts, but to functions tout court when speaking of space and time for instance and the way brains encode them) is at the core of the neuro-anthropology project I feel associated with myself.

Now that is really exciting! Brain functions and money functions investigated together. I hope that we might explore whether any of this could be taken up here at the OAC. We should find time to discuss that before the seminar closes.

 

 

It's funny how participation has worked out. Before the seminar I approached a number of people interested in this broad field and several said they would join in. Some even became members for the first time. The fact that the few of us have achieved a cozy conversation may be a deterrent to newcomers. All four of us are old hands at the OAC with many appearances on our pages. Something has definitely happened to inhibit posting comments here. I know that many people are reading this exchange. But I would like to encourage any interested lurkers to join in. It's not too late. This is a fascinating and original topic. We can't exhaust all the possibilities and any new perspective or question is more than welcome.

Well, Sacha, it looks as if the audience died on us. But that does not detract from the excellence of your paper and your wonderful cooperation in answering our questions. I have learned a great deal from this seminar. I am sure that many others have too and will do so from reading this thread in future. I look forward to continuing our conversation. Thank you.

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