behavioral economists would rather first figure out what behavior is actually like. “Our view is to say, let’s find scientists who have been thinking about how brains actually work … and ask them for some help,” Camerer said. “It might be that even though, mathematically, there are lots of possible alternative models, the psychologists say, ‘oh, it’s this one.’”3
Of course, there was a time—as in Freud’s day—when psychologists couldn’t have provided very reliable answers to the questions about brain processes underlying human behavior. But with the rise of modern neuroscience, that situation has changed. Human emotions, for instance, are no longer as much of a mystery as they used to be. Scientists can now peer inside the brain to observe what’s going on when people experience contempt and disgust, fear or anger, empathy and love. Not to mention getting high on drugs. The driving forces of human decision making can now be traced to signals traveling between specific brain regions. Consequently human behavior, economic and otherwise, can now be analyzed in terms other than the economist’s “rational” and monetary notion of utility. In fact, it now seems likely that the brain measures utility not with dollars, but with dopamine. And that’s just one of the insights that the new discipline of neuroeconomics is providing into human economic behavior.
I had encountered a few papers on neuroeconomics, but really didn’t get the big picture until 2003, when I visited Read Montague’s laboratory, at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. His “Human Neuro-imaging Laboratory” is a cutting-edge model of advanced technology in the service of science, with 100 or so computers, walls lined with plasma screen monitors, and state-of-the-art brain scanning machines. Montague explains it all with the speed of a Pentium processor, emphasizing the power of this new science to grasp human behavior in a precise way.
“We’re quantifying the mind and human experience,” he said. “We’re turning feelings into numbers.”4