The Electric Commentary

Thursday, April 20, 2006

I, Robot

Everybody has experienced a sense of “losing oneself” in an activity – being totally absorbed in a task, a movie or sex. Now researchers have caught the brain in the act.

Self-awareness, regarded as a key element of being human, is switched off when the brain needs to concentrate hard on a tricky task, found the neurobiologists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

The team conducted a series of experiments to pinpoint the brain activity associated with introspection and that linked to sensory function. They found that the brain assumes a robotic functionality when it has to concentrate all its efforts on a difficult, timed task – only becoming "human" again when it has the luxury of time.

That's from New Scientist, via Marginal Revolution.

And I should mention, MR blogger Tyler Cowen has a new column in the NYT today:

For the first time, economists are studying these phenomena scientifically. The economists are using a new technology that allows them to trace the activity of neurons inside the brain and thereby study how emotions influence our choices, including economic choices like gambles and investments.

For instance, when humans are in a "positive arousal state," they think about prospective benefits and enjoy the feeling of risk. All of us are familiar with the giddy excitement that accompanies a triumph. Camelia Kuhnen and Brian Knutson, two researchers at Stanford University, have found that people are more likely to take a foolish risk when their brains show this kind of activation.

But when people think about costs, they use different brain modules and become more anxious. They play it too safe, at least in the laboratory. Furthermore, people are especially afraid of ambiguous risks with unknown odds. This may help explain why so many investors are reluctant to seek out foreign stock markets, even when they could diversify their portfolios at low cost.

If one truth shines through, it is that people are not consistent or fully rational decision makers. Peter L. Bossaerts, an economics professor at the California Institute of Technology, has found that brains assess risk and return separately, rather than making a single calculation of what economists call expected utility.


  • This is no suprise, people are not geared to maximize individual transactions, they are geared to maximize over the long haul, either life span or evolutionarily.

    When I studied human behavior and we contrasted our field to economists, the main problem with economics for predicting individual human behavior was not that the human brain was irrational, but that each person's rational varied based on their past. Each person was like a combination of past experiences that gave their brains a different "outlook" or knowledge base. Adversion to risk, excitement, etc. all come from general dispositions that may be based on a "tainting" of the brain by past experiences or evolutionary strategies. "Tainting" is not to say it is bad though because it is moreso simply a general dispositions or tendency that may be very beneficial over a wide range of behavior, but imperfect for any individual transaction.

    Thus because people are repeat players in the game of life they have to adopt the most efficient life strategy first, and then figure out in which situations they need to alter their tendencies.
    Note: This also includes evolutionarily honed tendencies that may seem outdated in some modern scenarios.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 3:01 PM  

  • Cool.

    You're still wrong about Red Dog though.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 3:09 PM  

  • Hmm... if only I could figure out what tainted your brain to like that crap. At least in the case of my former roommate he liked it in part because I wouldn't drink it and he seemed to enjoy my wincing whenever he brought it out.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 4:47 PM  

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