Neuro-psycho-economist, but the mindset of a historian?

The new book of Paul Glimcher is out. Glimcher (based at NYU) is the promoter of neuroeconomics, a young field which studies the neural basis of decision-making.

There are few, if any, consensual historical narratives on neuroeconomics. Glimcher and co-authors wrote a short historical piece two years ago, but in my opinion it tried too hard to gather all possible antecedents (experimental eco, behavioral eco, signal theory, cognitive psycho, brain imaging, etc, etc) to give a comprehensive view.

And this is why I like Glimcher’s books. To convey an interest for neuroeconomics, he proceeds to re-read and interpret the long history of science in biology and medicine, pyschology and economics – if I remember well, his book of 2003 went back as far back as Gallienus, and evoked the writings of Pascal, Bernoulli, Laplace, …
Same deal for his new book: we are told the recent history of choice theory in neuroscience, psycho and eco. This exercise permits him to show that the separate disciplinary views on decision-making each suffer from espitemological deficiencies which could be remediated by making them dialoguing. And this is not a rapid rhetorical brush in the first chapters, before proceeding to “really interesting analytical stuff”. I mean, I am at page 188 and we just arrived in the late 1990s, when the first papers in the neuroscience of vision introduced economic variables in their experiments (uncertainty, intensity of reward).
Glimcher is trying hard to break the Chinese walls separating neuroscientists, psychologists and economists. The title he chose for the book suggests that he cares specially to reach economists – because they are the most insulated, I’d bet. But as an unwanted by-product, he makes neuroeconomics very interesting to historians of science too!

2 thoughts on “Neuro-psycho-economist, but the mindset of a historian?

  1. I like film reviews (a lot) and a concept that fascinates me in them is to distinguish movies with or without “weight”. I wonder if one can say the same about these “foundations” books. Not only are they stretching back to touch canonical figures but they add “weight” to an approach by showing depth, lateral connections as well as vertical (geneological) connections.

  2. In this case, the canonical figure is Samuelson: but the reference to him by Glimcher is not cosmetic, since the subject matter of the book is precisely about using and revisiting concepts of utility, choice, etc. which were set in place by Samuelson in particular.
    The second intended effect of this reference is to make economists itch I guess: what, a neuroscientist who dares comparing his theoretical contribution to Samuelson? How does he dare? But precisely, I suppose that Glimcher is after such a strong reaction. Economists have not paid a lot of attention to neuroeconomics until now, but certainly they should – argues Glimcher with such a title.
    Personally, I find this book extremely stimulating – and I am sure many economists would be fascinated by it.

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