[Marxism] The Economics of Brains

Mike Friedman mikedf at mail.amnh.org
Sun May 15 08:59:04 MDT 2005

The following is a Guardian review of neurobiologist Steven Rose's new book,
The 21st Century Brain: Explaining, Mending and Manipulating the Mind. Rose 
is a Marxist who collaborated with Kamin and Lewontin in writing "Not in 
Our Genes." A previous book, Lifelines, deals with reductionism and 
determinism in biology. He takes on neurogenetic explanations for all kinds 
of social behavior.


The 21st Century Brain: Explaining, Mending and Manipulating the Mind
by Steven Rose

Just why are we suddenly spending so much money on studying the brain? Is 
science making its final push to crack the riddle of human consciousness? 
Or is the answer rather more sinister?

In the 1960s, Yale University neuroscientist Jose Delgado stood in a 
Spanish bullring clutching a radio transmitter in one hand, a toreador cape 
in the other. The bull came charging. But Delgado had implanted a set of 
electrodes in the centre of its brain. A single push of a button brought 
the bull to a halt. A second saw it meekly turn and trot away.

As Steven Rose, director of the brain and biology research group at the 
Open University, notes, this was not the bravura performance of some lone 
scientific crank. Delgado was part of a generation of mind researchers who 
felt they were close to control over the brain. Leucotomies - the cutting 
of swaths of connections in the frontal brain - were already standard 
practice for dealing with mental patients. Prison doctors were writing 
enthusiastically about the possibility of similar surgery on the emotion 
centres to tame their more violent inmates. Memos put the cost at just 
$1,000 an individual. Together with the rise of new drugs and sophisticated 
psychological conditioning techniques, many like Delgado hailed the coming 
of a technologically "psychocivilised" society.

It didn't happen then, but could it happen now? Neuroscience has been 
talked up as science's final frontier. Huge amounts of money have poured 
into the field as the 90s decade of the brain became the 2000s decade of 
the mind. But, asks Rose, are we funding "interesting" research for which 
later we will be paying the consequences?

The question is trickier than it seems. First there is the issue of whether 
we will ever actually know enough about something as complex as the brain 
to be able to control it in any practical sense. As Rose reports, research 
has been stepped up to an industrial scale in recent years. With the market 
for drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin hitting nearly $50bn a year, 
experimenters are flush with funds. Good grief, even car companies such as 
DaimlerChrysler are buying multimillion-pound brain scanners so their 
marketing teams can discover what turns on the grey matter of customers! 
And yet, says Rose, all this clever neuro research is being done using 
almost laughably crude models of the brain.
The brain is commonly treated as some kind of computer or information 
processing system - a bit of machinery that can be tinkered with once we 
have the blueprint of its circuits. However, Rose argues that the brain is 
something organic, holistic, a living system. So it needs to be explained 
in terms of theories that deal explicitly in meaning and mindfulness, such 
as, for example, the "autopoietic" or self-making approach advanced by the 
Chilean pair of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. An autopoietic 
system is one organised to respond to the world. Prod it and it will react 
homeostatically, striving to reach a new accommodation that preserves its 
integrity. There is a global cohesion - a memory of what the system wants 
to be - that reaches down to organise the parts even while those parts may 
be adding up to produce the functioning whole.

Rose cites his own research on the neurochemistry of depressed patients. A 
mechanical view of brain function says a chemical imbalance at nerve 
junctions causes the blues. Simple as that. So plug the gap with another 
chemical like Prozac. But experiments by Rose showed that psychotherapy - 
treating the mind - could also restore the neurochemical balance to normal. 
More troublesome still for reductionist thinking, he found that people 
working under stress, such as a group of nurses, had the same neurochemical 
profile as the depressed while feeling perfectly cheerful. Thus there was 
no simple chain of cause and effect linking events on the cellular and the 
psychological level.
This complexity moves Rose to dismiss much of the current wide-eyed 
enthusiasm for mood controllers, cognitive enhancers, memory boosters and 
other promised forms of "mental ... Viagra". Repeatedly he calls it selling 
snake oil. We just don't understand the brain well enough to fix it in 
reliable ways, let alone crank up its performance.

So the brain is too complex to control. Yet Rose is then faced with the 
uncomfortable paradox that crude measures often do in fact work. As an 
autopoietic system, the brain may be unpredictable in its responses, but it 
still does react somehow, even when prodded with a remarkably blunt 
instrument like a massive jolt of electricity or a kick of toxic molecules.

Rose looks at a variety of therapies that shouldn't help, but do, such as 
the electro-convulsive treatment used for depression and the amphetamine 
Ritalin - an upper - given to hyperactive kids to calm them down. As he 
says, many times a drug is developed for one reason, only to turn out to be 
a useful treatment for something entirely different. For instance, there is 
the famous case of chlorpromazine, originally meant as an allergy drug but 
which became the first effective tranquilliser for schizophrenics.
This is the uncomfortable truth. Neuroscientists might be mostly shooting 
in the dark with their crude knowledge of the brain, but if they scatter 
enough shots, occasionally one may hit the mark. There really is no telling 
what some lab somewhere might come up with, even if we can be sure they 
won't understand why their fix works.

The second question Rose explores is how we will make use of the new 
technologies of the mind. Will they be used for good or ill? Surely taking 
control of a population is now only some mad scientist fantasy?

Again Rose points to a paradox at play. During the cold war 60s, it may 
have been possible to dream about imposing measures on society for its own 
good. But we would say that in today's more open and individualistic world, 
the take-up of mind technologies would come only as a matter of consumer 



At 11:37 AM 5/14/2005, you wrote:
>Message: 11
>Date: Sat, 14 May 2005 10:15:48 -0400
>From: Les Schaffer <schaffer at optonline.net>
>Subject: [Marxism] The Economics of Brains
>To: Marxmail <marxism at lists.econ.utah.edu>
>Message-ID: <42860814.2020609 at optonline.net>
>Content-Type: text/plain; format=flowed; charset=windows-1252
>there is a move afoot to patch up traditional economics theory,
>replacing the "rational human being" with a more complex model that is
>also in tune with today's neuroscience. here is a review article i found
>at Technology Review several weeks ago. i enclose it in its entirety, as
>i assume there are others here who would be interested in taking a swat
>at this approach.
>for myself, i much appreciate a lot of the correlations that
>contemporary neuroscience has shown us between human behavior and brain
>excitation states. however, even as pointed out below, there is little
>causative connection being made yet. the approach outlined here is one
>of continued focus on the individual player, sans class -- indeed, sans
>collective behavior of any kind. the individual here is less "rational",
>more adaptive, capable of passion and error and addiction. but homo
>economicus is still wandering aimlessly around in the marketplace,
>smelling trouble, spending in fear, but never quite making the abstract
>connections amongst the economic players and their classes that might
>explain why something seems so amiss. and connections is something that
>contemporary neuroscience, after all, tells us our brains are so
>exquisitely fashioned to produce.
>neuroecon also has a snazzier look, smelling more scientific (who can
>argue with MRIs?) and is more fund-able as a technology. see the section
>below on use of parallel-processing for making predictions from an
>adaptive markets hypothesis of value to brokers. should capture a
>venture capitalist or two.
>i have an easy time imagining an "socialist neuroecon" that might
>include this stuff in some fashion. but i also fancy that if brother
>Karl were around today and wanted to write a "Critique of Political
>Economy", he'd smack this one out of the ballpark.
>les schaffer
>The Economics of Brains
>By Gregory T. Huang
>MIT Technology Review
>May 2005
>     Articles reviewed:
>     "Addiction and Cue-Triggered Decision Processes", B Douglas Bernheim
>     and Antonio Rangel, The American Economic Review, December 2004
>     Neuroeconomics: How Neuroscience Can Inform Economics", Colin
>     Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Drazen Prelec, J. of Economic
>     Literature, March 2005
>     Neurally Reconstructing Expected Utility, Brian Knutson and Richard
>     Peterson, Games and Economic Behavior (in press)
>     The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis: Market Efficiency from an
>     Evolutionary Perspective, Andrew W. Lo, The Journal of Portfolio
>     Management, 30th Anniversary Issue, 2004
>     Separate Neural Systems Value Immediate and Delayed Monetary
>     Rewards, Samuel M McClure, David I Laibson, George Loewenstein, and
>     Jonathan D Cohen, Science, October 15, 2004
>Traditional economic theory assumes that human beings behave rationally.
>That is, that they understand their own preferences, make perfectly
>consistent choices over time, and try to maximize their own well-being.
>This peculiar assumption has its roots in dusty essays like "Exposition
>of a New Theory on the Measurement of Risk" (from 1738) by Daniel
>Bernoulli and scholarly tomes like Theory of Games and Economic Behavior
>by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern (published in 1944). The idea
>has some validity: traditional economic theory is good at predicting
>some market behaviors, such as how the demand for products like gasoline
>will change after a tax hike. But it's not very good at describing
>more-complex phenomena like stock-price fluctuations or why people
>gamble against the odds.

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