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Brain economicsTempo di lettura stimato: 5 min

Articolo in lingua inglese


Just as explorers set sail to map new worlds, neuroscientists pledge to map the brain, trying to chronicle connections and deduce how they works. But depending on the property we look at, the maps can end up quite different and neuroscientists cannot even agree on how many areas are in it.
What surely neuroscientists agree is that brain must be considered it in its entirety: a vast and interconnected whole, the most complex system in the known universe.

This result has implications in many other branches of knowledge, even economics.
The axiom that it was rationality to guide consumer behaviour has been questioned by this kind of studies, just as prices and allocations emerge from the interaction of two processes, supply and demand, it is now widely held and proven that emotions and cognition both guide decisions. In fact, both the decisions that do not produce the best possible experience and the incorrect predictions of future feelings disprove the theory of rational choices.
These implications are really important because they imply that if we take into account how the brain affects the decisions we can have a more accurate economics and consequently we could design economic policies that can help us to live in a better world.

One of the most fascinating discoveries of the last thirty years has been the so-called “unconscious cognition”, an unconscious that makes cognitive thinking but acting without having full consciousness of it. Daniel Kahneman, with the support of  influential euroscientists has indeed identified two systems in our brain. The system “one”, that is to say the cognitive unconscious, which is fast, as a kind of automatic pilot that performs several functions at once, it works with little effort, and leads us to carry out the majority of the actions we perform daily.
The other part, that is the system “two” is rather slow, it requires more cognitive effort and represents rationality and therefore it embodies the part that makes us take economic decisions, maximizing our utility.
The system one is very adaptive, it makes us interact with others considering their emotions.
However, the “unconscious cognition” is not always that useful to humans, for example when making economic decisions.
Every day we make “cognitive mistakes”, but once we realize that our decisions may be influenced by adjusting automatic mechanisms of system 1 we face a dilemma: whether to protect or not the individuals from their mistakes. If our rationality has systematic bugs, then it is legitimate to intervene so that individuals do not end up exploited because of the whims of their System 1 or the laziness of the 2.
The presence of a “gentle push” to “do the right thing” may be essential.

The emotional feelings and the fluctuating mental states that heavily affect the economic decision are observable, measurable thank to the new instruments like the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) that shows the activity of the brain areas during its operation.

This new approach can introduce new variables into old patterns, correcting assumptions, enriching the explanatory power and improving the predictive possibilities.
Some important scientific propositions have been made thanks to this new technology. I would like to examine in depth two of them which according to my opinion can have mutual implications and could be a starting point to deepen and understand human emotions and how they interfere with their daily choices: the “Theory of mind” (ToM) and the “Mirror neurons”.
Both of them have the same approach of “System 1”, ToM and mirror neurons are intuitive, impulsive, associative, automatic, unconscious, fast, ecological and economic.

The Theory of Mind is the ability to perceive or understand our own and others’ mental states, thoughts, beliefs, arguments, inferences, emotions, intentions and needs based on the observation of the behaviour and the context of meaningful inference and this is proved by a group of brain regions in human cortex that selectively and specifically underlie this mechanism.

The inference system is important since it allows to give a meaning to the behaviour and predict such behaviour.
We can assume that there are brain regions specifically implicated in attributing mental states, but these brain regions are not part of the observer’s own motor system. The ToM network is completely distinct, anatomically, from the brain regions implicated in action execution or action perception.

On the other hand,

the “Mirror Neurons” are a specific class of neurons that allow to physiologically explain our ability to position ourselves in relation to others. They are activated not only when we perform a particular behaviour but also when we watch others doing it.

The man therefore recalls in his mind the action that has seen, mentally miming it and especially meaning it.
The mirror neurons are activated not only by the action but also by the language: for example, when a person hears phrases describing actions, it feels like if it were he to accomplish it.
In addition to these implications, some experiments show that these kind of neurons play an important role with regard to empathy and they should turn on when we look at a person who feel a specific emotion.
Although the two aspects above have different reasons and values, their functional properties have not yet been investigated within a common task, therefore a future work should investigate tasks in which both ToM and the mirror system are involved in studying the mechanisms which generate empathy or feelings like regret, fear or self-confidence and how these states of mind can spread out from one person to another affecting the community as if it was connected by a big network.
Researches in this multidisciplinary way, in which a good part is occupied by neurobiology, may identify the mechanisms that lead the emotions of a person, to affect those around him.

It is hard to see in a different way from how we see, it is difficult to decide differently from the way we decide, it is difficult to behave differently from how we behave, but if we get to know how our brain works, the mental traps and limitations of our rationality, we could turn them into strong points and create choice environments that help us to live in a better world and a new economy on a human scale that takes into account the way we function [Matteo Motterlini, 2014].

Recommended readingThinking, Fast and Slow, trad. di Laura Serra, Pensieri lenti e veloci, Milano: Mondadori, 2012