Thursday, November 03, 2005

Neuroscience and public policy

fMRI image of activation in the primary visual cortex
It’s hard to get one’s mind around abstractions. It is particularly tricky with those ideas that don’t have good equivalents in the physical world. Such concepts, like how to treat digital knowledge, are now at the heart of our culture. Our inability to think about them intuitively means that politicians, citizens and business people have the wrong instincts when trying to solve the problems associated with them.

Lakoff and others argue that we can only understand things to the extent that we can model them on what we can do with out bodies. Here’s an excerpt from New Scientist:
“George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, believes we can only understand infinity based on what we can do with our bodies. More specifically, he says we deal with the headache of infinity by drawing on our familiarity with repetitive and iterative motions - walking, jumping and breathing, for example.”

“We use similarly physical metaphors when discussing abstract concepts such as economic policy: phrases such as "France fell into a recession" or "India is stumbling in its efforts to liberalise", for example. So if our minds grasp abstract concepts of economics in terms of what our bodies can experience, are our bodies also the way we can understand the infinite?”

“Lakoff, Núñez and Narayanan speculated that the structures in the brain that control body movements might also be used to handle all abstract concepts.”

I would love to see experiments that present subjects with mental challenges that have lesser or greater physical analogs to see how the brain deals with them. I suspect that some business, policy or life questions are intrinsically harder to think about than others, and experiement should help us to predict where to be most wary of our innate cognitive inadequacies. There is already a great deal of knowledge about the human failings in making business judgments described by the field of behavioural economics.

I believe intellectual property is one such intrinsically difficult topic, because sharing it doesn’t diminish ownershihp; in economic terms, it’s ‘non-rival’. Digital media have brought us to the point where intellectual property is free of physical wrappers, and their non-rival nature is unavoidable. I suspect that non-rivalrousness is deeply unintuitive because the physically world is intrinsically rival; our bodily metaphors, and thus our ability to think according to Lakoff et al., fail us.

Many of the anguished expectations that activists have about how digital media should behave are associated with the attributes of physical objects: “I’ve bought that album on a vinyl record, the music came off this record, therefore I own the music in the same way I own the record; I bought this album from iTunes, it’s music just like the earlier stuff, I should own it the same way I owned the vinyl record.”

More generally, I suspect our brains have difficulty with the notions of contract, particularly when the objects being traded aren’t physical. A license (“a bundle of rights and obligations between people with regard to things”) is much harder to think about, for me at least, than a trade of physical goods. Problems arise when metaphors are extended beyond their physical basis. In a recent paper, Hatfield and Weiser argue that applying a property rights model to wireless spectrum is much harder than commonly supposed.

I don’t believe the problem lies with abstractions. There are many intangible things that have normal rival properties, like shares in a company or the value of a brand. We are evidently able to think about abstractions like number and money. However, goods that are inexhaustible and infinitely copiable (like software) present problems because they don’t have physical correlates.

There are many things I find hard to grok, but that may just be me; we need experiments to see if any of these difficulties are intrinsic to human nature. Some concepts whose difficulty may be quantifiable by observation:

  • Non-linearity, that is, our inability to grasp the properties of non-linear growth (e.g. the fabled reward requested by the inventor of chess, and Kurzweil passim)
  • Physical interpretations of quantum mechanics, eg the “action at a distance” of the EPR paradox
  • The gains of trade, which arise from the knowledge that one can trade with another

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