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Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics (Bradford Books) [Paperback]

Paul W Glimcher
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

15 Oct 2004 Bradford Books
In this provocative book, Paul Glimcher argues that economic theory may provide an alternative to the classical Cartesian model of the brain and behavior. Glimcher argues that Cartesian dualism operates from the false premise that the reflex is able to describe behavior in the real world that animals inhabit. A mathematically rich cognitive theory, he claims, could solve the most difficult problems that any environment could present, eliminating the need for dualism by eliminating the need for a reflex theory. Such a mathematically rigorous description of the neural processes that connect sensation and action, he explains, will have its roots in microeconomic theory. Economic theory allows physiologists to define both the optimal course of action that an animal might select and a mathematical route by which that optimal solution can be derived. Glimcher outlines what an economics-based cognitive model might look like and how one would begin to test it empirically. Along the way, he presents a fascinating history of neuroscience. He also discusses related questions about determinism, free will, and the stochastic nature of complex behavior.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 395 pages
  • Publisher: MIT Press; New Ed edition (15 Oct 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262572273
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262572279
  • Product Dimensions: 22.7 x 16.2 x 1.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 563,145 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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" Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain is a worthwhile book." William H. Redmond Journal of Economic Issues "The book is an absorbing introduction to the emerging field of neuroeconomics, which combines economic concepts with the study of brains and behavior in humans and animals. Decisions, Uncertainty and theBrain makes a strong case that the marriage of neuroscience's history and of philosophical implications of neuroeconomics." Kenneth Silber Tech Central Station "The book is an absorbing introduction to the emerging field of neuroeconomics." Kenneth Silber Tech Central Station "This book will surely ignite discussion and soul searching among serious neuroscientists..." P. Read Montague Nature "This book will surely ignite discussion and soul searching among serious neuroscientists." P. Read Montague Nature

About the Author

Paul W. Glimcher is Associate Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at the Center for Neural Science, New York University.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Intro, but I wanted more 24 April 2008
This book constitutes an incredibly good review of the history of neuroscience from Descartes, Pavlov and early theories of the brain and reflexes to more modern interpretations of the brain, neurons, neural networks, etc. It introduces the idea of neuroeconomics in a manner suitable to the layperson. If that is what Glimcher was setting out to do, then this book has achieved exactly that.

However, I believe that as a discussion of 'decisions and uncertainty' the book could have used more formalism in expressing some of its arguments, specifically in possible theories of how and why things work in the way proposed by the author. Admittedly, I could be asking too much of the field at this point as it is still in its early stages of development, but occasionally I wanted more than anecdotes and discussions of papers that the author and his co-workers had written. Again, maybe I am expecting too much, but I had thought that Neuroeconomics had accomplished more.

Thus, in my 'layperson' hat, I think the book was great. It revealed a lot of theory that I would not likely have read otherwise, though being interested in and having read of specific individuals previously.

However, in my 'economist grad student' hat, I wanted something more. It definitely warrants more research. Moreover, the fact that the book supports inter-disciplinary research and the rigour of it generally far outweighs these slight shortcomings.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Rolf Dobelli TOP 500 REVIEWER
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. We recommend this solid, layman's introduction to neuroeconomics and a remarkable series of discoveries.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Leaves the best till last... 16 Aug 2010
By Entropy
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I found this book to be a real slow-burning pleasure to read, partly because (unlike many) it becomes ever more interesting as it reaches its conclusion The combination of the visceral descriptions (and awesome monkey graphics) of the experimentation that underpins this field of study, combined with the wide-ranging philosophical narrative and the interesting synthesis of economic theory with biological models of evolution and cognitive neuroscience mean that you will not be left short of new ideas to mull over.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good first effort towards integrating neuro and econ 3 Sep 2003
By Richard L. Peterson - Published on
One of this book's greatest gifts is to clearly explain how our thinking about our thinking (neuroscience) has evolved over the past 2000 years. This book makes a significant contribution to the readers' historical understanding of psychology, philosophy, mathematics, and game theory.
One weakness of the book's approach is the lack of references to affect (emotion), which is suggested to have an impact on human utility and probability estimations in (Loewenstein, Loewenstein, Weber, & Welch, 2000), (Slovic, Finucane, Peters, and MacGregor, 2002), and (Knutson and Peterson, 2003). In fact, Glimcher states: "Neuroeconomics provides a model of the architecture that links brain and behavior. Mind, though it may very much exist, simply does not figure in that equation (p343)."
The author's conclusions are limited to a logical, computational frame of reference - a form of computational behaviorism. This style certainly has applications within limited experimental games, but it is doubtful that it will provide significant insight into the workings of complex dynamic systems, such as the financial markets, without incorporating symbolic psychological concepts (such as affect).
This book is an excellent introduction to the field of neuroeconomics. Glimcher's exposition of the evolution of neuroscientific thought is fascinating and worth savoring. Glimcher's discussion of game theory is fascinating, but applications to real-world environments are not directly posited.
The latter half of the book, while intellectually interesting, reads much like an expanded academic journal article. Glimcher explains his lab's experimental trials and tribulations in much of the second half...
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Neuro and economics, not neuroeconomics 20 July 2003
By Mathew Holden - Published on
Deisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain feels undigested, as if the author crammed in the library for a month and wrote a book on his notes.
Part I covers the neuro-, Part II covers the -economics, but instead of Part III, covering neuroeconomics, there's a 17-page-short chapter called "Putting It All Together."
For most of the book, things don't merge. For example, chapter 5 describes important experiments by Newsome and Shadlen that are not really neuroeconomics. Four seemingly tacked-on paragraphs at the end of the chapter argue that neuroeconomics has something to say about the experiments. But it's not clear what that is, and it's not clear why Glimcher didn't choose a more obviously relevant example.
A more general problem is that Glimcher argues throughout that current approaches to neuroscience are all reflex-based, and we need a major paradigm shift to make any more progress in brain research. But the examples he gives that employ his new paradigm seem to be well within the realm of normal cognitive neurophysiology. For example, the Ciaramitaro et al. attention experiments described in chapter 13 are elegant, but don't come across as paradigm shifting, in either the chapter, or the original Vision Research paper. Neuroeconomics comes to seem like just another tool in the toolbox, instead of a big new theory.
It may be that there is no Part III because the science has not yet happened. In which case, not writing more about it was a good thing to do. Parsimony is a virtue, but if there is not enough of a story to tell, I would have liked to see the author present his ideas about the major problems for the field, a Hilbert's 23 for neuroscience in the 21st century. Instead chapter 13 gives us four toy problems in primate physiology.
The best parts of the book are the history. Some of the stories are familiar, but most are not, and all are told engagingly. Although they don't really come together into a cohesive whole, they are interesting on their own, and a reader with a detailed knowledge of the field can connect most of the dots.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thinking Outside the Black Box 20 July 2003
By Sooty Mangabey - Published on
70 years ago, behavioral economists were trapped outside the black box for the same reasons everyone was: science couldn't see inside the brain directly. Like behavioral psychologists, they decided to make a virtue out of a neccessity and ignore the black box.
Now behavioral economists can look inside the black box, but most choose to ignore it, perhaps because the learning curves on physiology and imaging are so steep.
Glimcher argues in this wonderful book that neuroscientists are unwittingly trapped inside the same black box, and need a way out. Maybe they can befriend those behavioral economists. Consider this book an arranged date that will hopefully turn into a long marriage.
It is rare for a book aimed at the public to be written by a young and active scientist. The obvious comparison is Spikes, by Reike, et al. But whereas Spikes was too mathematical for the general reader, Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain never gets
boring. It describes fascinating experiments, both 100 years old and being done right now. Experiments that you've never heard of, but you should. Best of all, it describes them passionately and non-scarily.
More importantly, Decisions points throughout to directions for future research, rather than only describing past experiments.
Don't be fooled by the book's elegance. It is meticulously crafted to be enjoyable to the lay reader but also highly rewarding someone more familiar with the research described. In short, a masterpiece.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Selective, incomplete, and oversold 22 May 2011
By whiteelephant - Published on
It begins with the subtitle "The Science of Neuroeconomics" - what does that term even mean? As far as I can tell, Glimcher never defines it. Somewhere along the line he does tell us, as if it's a novel insight, that the purpose of the brain is 'decision making'. Now, if we define decision-making as selection of behavior from multiple options, this is as obvious as saying that the function of the heart is to circulate blood. In studying 'neuroeconomics', Glimcher is really just studying neuroscience - how the brain controls behavior. The term is nothing but fancy repackaging for the business/econ crowd.

If it were just the term, I could easily forgive the oversell. However, Glimcher recounts an entire selective history of neuroscience to convince you that he is part of a group of scientists who are radically changing the way we think about ourselves. Glimcher first introduces Descartes' dualism with which to anchor his book. Various figures are introduced, culminating in Sherrington, who shift neuroscience to a deterministic, reflex-oriented framework (strangely, he never once mentions the name Skinner). While a few early 20th-century neurophysiologists are introduced who challenged these theories of sensory-driven reflex-like behavior, he then skips over half a century of neuroscience and psychology to inform us that certain recent models still have a 'reflex-like' flavor. Ignored is the entire cognitive revolution, and the foundation of cognitive neuroscience. David Marr is the lone exception, introduced as a prophet, apparently the first and only person to propose that the brain should be studied based on its computational goals.

Okay, I should forgive the simplification of history, right? It is set up to aggrandize 'neuroeconomists', but then again to some extent it is deserved - there was a revolution in decision-making research in the 1990s. So perhaps the most galling feature of this book is that Glimcher doesn't even address much of this work. How can you write a book about decision-making in 2003 without reference to reinforcement learning, the basal ganglia, and dopamine? Okay, in fairness it gets one measly page towards the end (as an example of 'neuroeconomics' applications), but the experimental focus is all on the parietal cortex, which Glimcher happened to study.

In addition to being selective and incomplete, Glimcher has a habit of making vague and tenuous connections. For example, he introduces Godel's incompleteness theorem, and makes vague allusions to it being somehow related to nondeterministic behavior. While he appears to be channeling Penrose, he never does pin this point down, so it is unclear exactly what he is saying. Similarly, he likes to make a big deal about 'Bayesian' approaches, while demonstrating only that probabilistic approaches are necessary. He claims that 'classical monism cannot explain nondeterministic behavior', and seems to be claiming that the mere introduction of probability into behavior radically revamps neuroscience (it doesn't - one can imagine reflex-like circuits that are probabilistic). Don't get me wrong, there appears to be a deep connection between many of these concepts - but Glimcher does not make that connection in this book. The book is ultimately far too bold for what it presents.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Groundbreaking thesis 2 Feb 2007
By J. Gordon - Published on
This book is much more than its title. It provides a fascinating history of neurobiology and probability/game theory, leading up to the thesis that the brain is a Bayesian probability calculator and game-theoretic randomizer.

The Bayesian part refers to the ability of the brain to combine current incoming sensory data with current priors to estimate probabilities relevant to current decision-making. The game-theoretic randomizer part refers to the fact that to succeed in the evolutionary game, an animal, say a caveman, needs to act somewhat unpredictably so as not to be eaten by a predator. If the caveman were totally predicable in his/her actions, then an evolutionary adversary could predict what he/she was going to do, and use that information to defeat him or her. This is consistent with optimal strategies which are derived through game theory a la von Neumann.

The science is not certain how the brain accomplishes this (yet); however, it appears to be through parts of the brain continually estimating likelihoods, with thresholds that, when exceeded, result in actions on the part of the individual.

I am very happy that I saw this book in the MIT Press display at the ASSA conferences this January, and that it had a cool-looking illustration on the cover, or I probably wouldn't have bought it. I highly recommend it.

In the interest of completness, I should mention some of the things I didn't like so much. First of all, I wish that Glimcher had mentioned the research of DaMasio, who wrote a fascinating book named "DeCarte's Error". In that book DeMasio presents a thesis that emotions pay a key role in decision-making. As pointed out by other reviewers, Glimcher doesn't even mention this line of research. Secondly, the book was a bit dry and academic in tone from time to time, but that is a small complaint given how interesting the content was.
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