Sunday, February 22, 2009

In praise of women

A friend recently wrote to me, to enquire what I thought about an article which has apparently appeared recently and which describes differences between male and female brains. Apparently when females undertake judgments of beauty, both of their cerebral hemispheres are engaged whereas in males it is the right hemisphere alone that is engaged.

I have not been able to trace this article but recall having seen another article along somewhat similar lines many years ago, which again purported to show that, in females, both hemispheres are engaged when undertaking certain tasks whereas males use one hemisphere alone for the same task.


One conclusion from such studies is that male and female brains are different, which of course in a sense they are.

Another conclusion is that women need both hemispheres to do what men can do with one hemisphere.

To which I would like to add a speculation: that women do many things better than men, precisely because they use both hemispheres and are thus more engaged with the task.

If my speculation has any merit, then it makes sense to engage women a lot more in many areas of our lives than we actually seem to do, even in the most advanced societies. It is in any case their right, since they gain to lose as much as men when wrong decisions are made.

Consider our present economic plight. I have seen a most interesting documentary produced by It is in five parts and is entitled Frontline: the Meltdown. It is well worth watching.

One of the striking things to emerge from this documentary is that there is only one woman among the leading personalities who have dealt with economic crisis, one woman alone (I exclude the women who were being interviewed about their views). The documentary does not make this point, but it became obvious when I viewed it.

One woman alone!

I wonder. If the effort had been more equitably distributed between men and women, and above all if there had been more women in powerful economic and financial positions, would we be in such a mess today?

Would women be quite so reckless in promoting debts which they know can never be repaid? How many, I wonder, of those who purchased mortgages which they knew they could never repay were women? I bet a minority. Would they have accepted complicated economic formulations prepared by mathematicians who do not understand economics and accepted by economists who do not understand mathematics?

Women, on the whole, have a better instinct to preserve and stabilize and hence their judgment in these matters is often better, unlike men who can be, and often are, reckless in these same matters. There lies one difference between men and women and the advantage lies with women.

Margaret Thatcher always insisted on running the economy as she would run the household as a housewife. Never spend beyond your means. I don’t think that male economists over the past 15 years would think like that. They certainly haven’t acted like that.

If such differences are traceable to differences in brain organization, then why not use that to advantage? In any case, given that women suffer as much as men from the economic downturn, and probably a lot more, why not at least make them share in the decisions? It is, I think, scandalous, that they have such a minor representation in deciding our affairs, especially our economic affairs.

And here is my favourite quote of the week. It comes from Paul Volcker. He is quoted as saying “Even the experts [economists] don’t know quite what’s going on”!!!

Did they ever?

And of course, the overwhelming majority of “experts” who got us into this mess are men.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Neuroeconomics…and greed

I am a fan of the discipline that has become known as neuroeconomics. It has enlisted gifted neurobiologists and is probing highly interesting questions such as the neural parameters of decision making, the representation of reward and the relationship of neurotransmitter activity to reward expectation. I am sure that it will continue to give us many insights into brain organization.

Yet there is a cardinal area which it seems not to have explored so far, namely greed. Greed is currently on everyone’s lips, for it is principally greed that has brought us to the current economic crisis, not economic policies; or, if it is economic policies, then it is economic policies governed by greed. It is a word on everyone’s lips except the economists.

Greed is defined in Webster’s dictionary as inordinate and reprehensible acquisitiveness. This is a neurobiologically interesting, and almost certainly wrong definition. To the practitioners of this greed, there is nothing reprehensible in what they have done or are doing. To those brilliant strategists who advised that a policy of selling mortgages to those who are unable to repay makes sound economic sense, there was nothing reprehensible in their advice. To those inept economic policy-makers, there is nothing to be ashamed of or to regret in what these policies have brought about, the ruin of many families and businesses. To those bankers who, brandishing the begging bowl for economic bailouts from governments, are now re-brandishing the begging bowl ever more insistently for bonuses, there is no feeling of shame, nor are they ashamed of the luxurious beachside conferences arranged in elegant resorts to discuss their bankrupt policies.

Nor is greed limited to them. It also characterizes, for example, those who signed on to mortgages which they knew they could never pay back.

Why should this be so?

I believe that like love and hate, greed probably has neural correlates; it is likely that, as with hate, the degree of activity in relevant brain area(s) will be found to correlate with the intensity of greed experienced. Greed is also probably regulated by neurotransmitters and the receptors for them. It almost certainly depends upon a host of other, as yet unknown, factors as well. But there is one neurobiological prediction that I want to make about greed now – namely that it de-activates those areas of the brain, if any, that control shame and regret and, up to a point, judgment as well.

We have found that the frontal cortex (along with some other cortical areas) is de-activated in those who are passionately in love. It is for this reason, that those in love tend to be less judgmental about their lovers. It is also probably for this reason that it is pointless to try to convince one who is deeply and passionately in love about the folly of their action. Hence, in Pascal’s words, “The heart has its reasons, which reasons knows nothing about”.

And this brings me back to greed. President Obama has now joined the swelling number of people who are angrily condemning the greed of bankers and the incessant demand for bonuses from those who have brought us to this economic abyss. These cries mean nothing to the greedy; they are of no avail. They do not see the shame and have no regrets. This is because, I conjecture, greed also inactivates those parts of the brain that control shame and regret. But, when inactivated, neither shame nor regret are felt. The greed system of the brain then operates uncontrolled according to its own laws, which is that of acquisitiveness, but one which is never seen as reprehensible. Hence the inadequacy of the dictionary definition.

Like love, greed also has its reasons, which reason knows nothing about.

I shall be interested to see if my predictions about greed and the brain come true.