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Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain

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Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain

The Science of Neuroeconomics

MIT Press,

15 min read
10 take-aways
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What's inside?

The development of neuroeconomics: Was Descartes right – or does economics have a better way to explain behavior?

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Editorial Rating



  • Innovative


This book offers an outstanding survey of philosophy, psychology, brain science, economics, and the field that brings them all together, neuroeconomics. Paul W. Glimcher contends that Descartes’ deterministic theory that simple behavior operates according to reflexes is influential far beyond its merits. He describes numerous experiments that support a very different understanding of behavior, which says that organisms seeking to fulfill their own goals (mostly to perpetuate their genes) must “choose” behaviors that somehow account for risk and return. In other words, they maximize “inclusive fitness” under conditions of uncertainty. Laboratory experiments and field research by behavioral ecologists lend considerable support to this view. getAbstract recommends this solid, layman’s introduction to neuroeconomics and a remarkable series of discoveries.


Breaking Away from the Reflex

Scientists should be able to explain what happens in the brain and nerves to cause behavior. This is not a new proposition. René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, and Pierre-Simon Laplace all believed something similar. However, they belonged to a philosophical tradition of determinism, which held that any (or almost any) stimulus produced fixed and predictable outcomes. However, reality is not so simple. Organisms must deal with considerable uncertainty, and stimuli do not uniformly determine outcomes.

An organism’s task and goal is to maximize its “inclusive fitness,” that is, its ability to pass on its genes, whether by reproducing or by making it more likely that closely related organisms with the same genes will reproduce. Solving this problem requires the organism to deal with uncertainty, in effect, with issues of risk and return. However, risk and return lie within the province of economics. Economic theory, which can identify the action that maximizes an organism’s utility or its inclusive fitness, makes it clear that there is a ceiling on the utility that an action can produce. No entity can do better than to optimize its results...

About the Author

Paul W. Glimcher is an associate professor of neural science and psychology at the Center for Neural Science at New York University.

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