Sunday, November 19, 2006

Reptilian brain a barrier to investment?:

Jonathan Clement of the Wall Street Journal, picked up by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, advises that

We're pretty good at gathering berries and catching fish. But this mutual-fund thing is really messing us up.

Investors often make foolish financial decisions, and lots of folks are trying to figure out why. Specialists in behavioral finance have sketched out some of our more persistent mental mistakes. Neuroeconomics is looking at how the brain functions. Happiness researchers are trying to understand why our rising standard of living hasn't made us happier.

Now, some experts are turning to evolutionary psychology. Why do we make so many financial errors? Maybe, deep down, we're just cavemen and women.

Do you get the impression you have heard all this before?

Some people may find it meaningful to believe that if they spend when they know they should save, their caveman genes, which generate a caveman psychology, are to blame.

Are specific genes ever identified? Are they rigorously shown to be critical? Aw, that would probably just spoil the fun.

But it gets better.

The article introduces Terry Burnham, author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains and co-author of Mean Genes, who identifies the "lizard brain" as the source of shopaholism:
There's the analytical part, which is the part that calculates that we need to save $542 a month for retirement. And then there's what Mr. Burnham calls the 'lizard brain,' which includes the instincts that helped our ancestors survive. And the lizard brain says its' better to consume, so let's take that $542 and go shopping.

Most of the article is just a rehash of evolutionary psychology's just-so stories: Whatever you do now, no matter what it is, helped your cave ancestors survive. I've been intrigued by evo psycho in recent years, because it is completely unscientific, yet it pretends to the trappings of science.

What many people don't understand, however - and I certainly didn't until I read philosopher David Stove - is how much modern materialism depends on the nonsense of evolutionary psychology. That's the reason it receives attention it does, not because it really originates in genetics.

In any event, in real life, you would be poorly advised to just write off that primitive lizard brain. As I wrote elsewhere,
Neurologist Paul MacLean first proposed in 1970 that the human brain has three parts, each one of which grew on top of the other, over evolutionary time:

- the reptilian brain (includes the brain stem and cerebellum)
- the limbic brain, associated with mammals, is responsible for emotions. It contains such structures as the amygdala and the hippocampus.
- the neocortex is best developed in primates and is associated with abstract thought, imagination, consciousness, and language.

This "three brains" hypothesis sounds neat — three nested brains — but it does leave the reptile without the ability to feel emotions other than aggression or perhaps fear.

Clearly, "lizard" brain is a publicist's rendering of reptile brain. However, people who work with wild reptiles, find that they are capable of a range of emotions, and are smarter than this neat three-brains scheme suggests.

Their main intellectual handicap, I am told, is actually their exothermic (cold-blooded) metabolism. The reptile can think well enough to serve his turn, just as he can move quickly enough, when he is warm. Coldness brings on silence and inertia.

Here is the best investment advice I can think of, in this context: Don't invest in a large carnivorous lizard. Just when you think that, since he is perfectly happy to be inert for months, he may as well become a nice pair of shoes and a handbag, you will find that the cat is missing and the reptile has a furry mouth. So much for the superiority of the mammalian (limbic) brain.
My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, which keeps tabs on the intelligent design controversy.