« Productivity and Unit Labor Costs | Main | Kenneth Rogoff: Hedge Fund Transparency »

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Using Self-Interest to Explore Consciousness

What is consciousness? Neuroscientists are borrowing from economists to find out. Here's the introduction:

Introduction by David Dobbs, Editor, Mind Matters:  Consciousness -- the awareness of perception, sensation or thought -- presents one of neuroscience's most slippery problems. How do we become aware of something? When can we be said to be aware of something? Being tired and being conscious of being tired are two different things; how does one become the other?

Philosophers, having debated these heady questions for centuries, have recently been joined by neuroscientists determined to test them with replicable measurements of awareness. In the paper described here -- "Post-decision wagering objectively measures awareness," published in Nature Neuroscience on 21 January 2007 -- the authors, Navindra Persaud of the University of Toronto and Peter McLeod and Alan Cowey of Oxford University, made a splash... In a set of experiments drawing equally on Oliver Sacksian neurological anomalies and Friday night poker, Persaud and colleagues manage to test awareness of knowledge that the subjects don't even know they have. ..[A]s our experts Christof Koch and Kerstin Preuschoff write, applying this tactic to awareness appears to give consciousness researchers a much-needed but elusive tool -- a way to assess consciousness without disturbing it.

Here's a few passages relating to economics, but the core of the argument and discussion is in the linked article:

Measuring Consciousness: A Neuroeconomic Gamble Pays Off, by Christof Koch and Kerstin Preuschoff, SciAm: Much of what we do goes on outside the pale of consciousness -- whether we adjust our body posture or decide to marry someone, we often have no idea why or how we do the things we do. The Freudian notion that most of our mental life is unconscious is difficult to establish rigorously. While it seems easy to answer the question "Did you (consciously) see the light turn on?", more than a hundred years of research has shown otherwise. The key problem is defining consciousness such that it can be measured independent of the internal state of an individual's brain while still capturing its subjective character. ...

In "Post-decision wagering objectively measures awareness," Persaud, McLeod and Cowey introduce ..[an] objective measure of consciousness that exploits people's desire to make money. This method is adapted from economics, where it is used to probe a subject's belief about an event's likely outcome: people who know that they have information are willing to bet on it, that is, they are willing to put their money where their mouth is. ...

Persaud and colleagues use this sort of wagering to reveal consciousness or lack thereof. ... The wagering techniques used by Persaud, McLeod and Cowey rely on people's instinct for reaping a profit. Compared to forcing subjects to become aware of their own consciousness -- and in the process perturbing the very phenomenon one wishes to measure -- wagering provides a more subtle way to assess awareness. This is an exciting and revealing new way to study awareness and consciousness. From such small steps comes progress in answering the age-old question of how consciousness arises from experience.

    Posted by on Tuesday, March 6, 2007 at 04:55 PM in Economics, Science | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (1)


    TrackBack URL for this entry:

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Using Self-Interest to Explore Consciousness:


    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.