On Neuroeconomics

by F.

Yes, this is being posted on 90% of the blogs in this universe. But it’s good stuff!

At the Center for Brain Imaging, I removed my belt and shoes and entered a room containing a big metal box, which measured about six feet by six feet by six feet, with a slim gurney protruding from one side. It was a magnetic-resonance-imaging machine, identical to those hospitals use to scan bodies for lesions and tumors. “As blood pumps through the brain, the oxygen it contains causes small changes in the magnetic field,” Sokol-Hessner explained. “The scanner can pick up on that and tell us where the blood is flowing. We get a picture of which parts of the brain are being used.”

I put on earplugs and lay back on the gurney. Sokol-Hessner and two lab assistants placed some foam around my ears and lowered a plastic grille over my face. In one of my hands they placed a metal console with two buttons on it. I felt my head and shoulders sliding into a long, cylindrical hole about a foot and a half wide. “Take a few deep breaths,” Sokol-Hessner said. There was a crashing noise—the sound of the magnet warming up. Struggling to fend off claustrophobia, I closed my eyes and counted to a hundred while the scanner took a picture. “How are you doing?” asked Sokol-Hessner, who had retreated to the control room. “Fine,” I lied.

My task was to consider a series of investment options that were presented on a small illuminated screen over my head. In each case, one of the options would be a fifty-fifty bet and the other would be a sure thing. The first scenario appeared on the screen: a possible gain of four dollars and a possible loss of two dollars versus a sure thing of zero, meaning that I wouldn’t win or lose anything. I had three seconds to make my selection. Two dollars didn’t seem like a lot to lose, so I pressed a button on the console to accept the bet. Somewhere in the next room, a random number generator was deciding whether I had won or lost. Then this message flashed on the screen: “You won $4.00.”

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