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Decision Making and the Brain

Decision Making and the Brain

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On Thursday, January 20, neuroscientist Paul Glimcher of New York University and Rob DeSalle, curator of Brain: The Inside Story, will discuss the interdisciplinary field of neuroeconomics and how the brain enables humans to evaluate decisions, categorize risks and rewards, and interact with each other. Glimcher, whose books include Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain and Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis, recently answered a few questions about the discipline.

What is neuroeconomics?

Neuroeconomics is a highly synthetic and interdisciplinary effort to understand how both humans and animals make decisions.

What role does neuroeconomics play in our daily lives?

Decisions — the events that neuroeconomists seek to understand and predict — are embedded every aspect of our lives: what to have for breakfast, who to marry, or where to invest our retirement accounts. We make these choices effortlessly, but how? Over the last decade the basic outlines of the answer to that question have begun to become clear and the answers are surprising, exciting, and at times even troubling. It now seems clear that every day, at every action, our brains unconsciously compute and store the values of every event that befalls us. So I would have to say: neuroeconomics is our daily lives.

Tags: Brain

Follow the Thread: A Mandarin Coat

Follow the Thread: A Mandarin Coat

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In 1901, budding anthropologist Berthold Laufer sent a brilliant blue silk robe he had bought in Shanghai to the American Museum of Natural History with a simple note: “Coat of a mandarin, for the summer.”

Within a few years, fakes would flood the market, says Curator Laurel Kendall, chair of the Division of Anthropology, but the time and place of this purchase indicates that it is “the real thing,” a coat that could only have been worn by a scholar-advisor to the Imperial Court during the Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1911.

Part of the Museum’s extensive collection of textiles, this coat exemplifies the rigidly defined rules of Imperial Court dress in which an elaborate system of colors and motifs telegraphed rank. The dragon, for example, is the ultimate “yang” or male symbol, and a sign of the Emperor’s power. The water represented at the bottom of the robe reflects the legendary role of dragons in East Asia’s traditional agrarian societies as denizens of lakes, rivers, and seas who once a year ascend to the heavens to bring on the rain. Overall, the decoration suggests a mandarin of the fourth to sixth rank.

Laufer, who would go on to become the premier Sinologist of his generation, was sent to China by Franz Boas, then director of the Museum’s Anthropology Division and the acknowledged father of the field in America. Boas had secured a grant of $18,000 (about $400,000 today) from New York banker Jacob H. Schiff to cover Laufer’s expenses for three years to gather “collections which illustrate the popular customs and beliefs of the Chinese, their industries, their mode of life.” Laufer set about buying the stuff of everyday life, completing what is still the most extensive ethnographic collection from pre-revolutionary China in North America.

“Nobody was doing that kind of work at that time,” says Kendall. “He gave us a picture of daily life…And that’s us! We’re all about the time capsule, the trunk in the attic, trying to imagine how people lived.”

Go behind the scenes of the Division of Anthropology’s ethnographic collections on February 24 on a Members-only tour.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the magazine for Museum Members.

Tags: Anthropology

Brain Tweetup Roundup

Brain Tweetup Roundup

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“Tweeting is a lot like the nervous system,” Curator Rob DeSalle told the crowd that gathered on Wednesday, January 12 for the first-ever Tweetup at the American Museum of Natural History—a comparison all the more appropriate coming from DeSalle, who curated the Museum’s interactive exhibition Brain: The Inside Story.

The evening kicked off with an after-hours tour of the exhibition, where Tweeters got a look inside a dancer’s brain, tried connecting neurons, and attempted to speak foreign languages. There was also time to talk with DeSalle and co-curator Joy Hirsch.

After refreshments, tweeters headed behind the scenes to learn about the brains of other creatures from Museum scientists and to get a peek at Museum collections. Christine Johnson, a curatorial associate in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, discussed group decision-making and chemical triggers in ants. Ronald Clouse, a post-doctoral researcher, presented specimens of crustaceans and a few echinoderms while discussing how some of these simple organisms make sophisticated decisions.

To see all the tweets about the event, look for the hashtag #AMNHTweetup or check out the photos on Flickr-and stay tuned for information about upcoming Tweetups at the American Museum of Natural History.

Tags: Brain

Brain Beat: Animal Brains

Brain Beat: Animal Brains

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By examining the neural wiring and structure of animal brains, researchers can gain insight into the workings of the human brain, sometimes described as the world’s most complex structure. (The 100,000 neurons of a fly’s brain are easier to track and catalog than the human brain’s one hundred billion.) In the Museum’s current exhibition Brain: The Inside Story, visitors can learn more about the difference — and similarities — between human and animal brains.

Visitors will have also have the chance to view and compare the brains of different animals on Saturday, January 15, at the family-friendly program BRAINFest! The Museum’s Sackler Lab will offer kids and families the chance to learn about how genes work in the brain and look at neurons under a microscope.

In the meantime, check out these recent stories on animal brain research that also provides insight into the human brain.

Tags: Brain

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