The field of neuroeconomics has been attracting a certain amount of popular press, and also generating a growing number of book and special issue publications. Both of these drive appetite for illustrations. And people sometimes seem very keen to distinguish their illustrations from the general sorts of “pictures of brains” that go with other publications about neuroscience. So what are they to do?
It turns out that a fairly common approach is to throw together something that superimposes images of brains and images of cash, or that show brains and cash in some kind of interaction.
It takes only a little thought to see that some of the images are actually pretty silly. My reading (about common currencies) keeps taking me to places where I see these things, and so I’m going to start collecting them and posting them here. If you run into an image that you think belongs in the gallery, please either comment below or email me. (I’d also really welcome pointers to good images relating to the idea of value representation in the brain, such as the Society for Neuroeconomics logo below. This gallery is not just a Hall of Shame.)
Category 1: Brains or skulls with money on or in them
It is common to think that different motives can compete, and that that individual ones can differ in how motivating they are. At different times people have been tempted to use different metaphors to express this. When Newton was a relatively fresh and salient inspiration, it was more common to use the term ‘force’ to describe what motives had, and what some of them had more of. I’m not sure when it became popular to describe the process of deciding between competing motives as a kind of ‘weighing’, but I’d guess it was when balance scales were part of everyday experience. These days the fashionable metaphors are economic, and specifically related to cash. This is part, I think, of why ‘common currency’ talk is increasingly popular.
Exhibit 1.1: A skull with a hand holding a fan of cash in it.
It's not clear what to make of this. What controls a hand sticking out of the spinal column? Who or what might see or interact with the money?
Exhibit 1.2: Synapses forming a suggested dollar sign
This is the rather cool logo of the Society for Neuroeconomics. I like that the dollar sign is suggested and entangled rather than superimposed.
Exhibit 1.3: Clunky dollar signs on a murky brain
This one is a 'bottom of the barrel' FAIL on the APA website. It's pictures like this that made me think of posting this gallery.
Exhibit 1.4: Single clunky dollar sign on a murky brain
Exhibit 1.5: Skull looking at a dollar bill
So this is basically exhibit 1.1 above, but with the hand and the bill outside the head.
Category 2: Money with brains on or in it
Showing cash in or on the brain can suggest the idea of brains processing representation states related to value or utility. So some category 1 pictures can sort of make sense. The converse idea, that there might in any sense be a coherent metaphor where there are little brains in the cash, is rather farcical. This does not prevent some designers from adopting it, and some editors from approving it. Here are a few examples.
Exhibit 2.1: Dollar bills with heads and brains on them
This (the logo for a project on the "Neuroeconomics of controversial food technologies") really speaks for itself. But what is it saying?
Exhibit 2.2: One Dollar bills with one brain on it
The brain in this money is glowing. Maybe it was bitten by a radioactive banker, or something.
Category 3: Brains and money in some kind of interaction
Exhibit 3.1: The weighing metaphor, with brains and cash
This is pretty odd if you think about it. Unless your concern is the price of brains. Which I suppose it might be, if you were an economically active zombie. But if the brain is in the scale, then it isn't doing the weighing, or reading off the values. So what or who is? Maybe there are little brains inside brains, and the little brains do all the processing. (The same picture also appears on the cover of the important collection "Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain" edited by Glimcher, Fehr, Camerer and Poldrack. [Publisher link.])
Category 4: Miscellaneous
Exhibit 4.1: Head chart
So here's a quite fetching little image. There's no cash in the skull, or bits of brain somehow stuck onto the cash. But there's a data line of some kind that looks price-like, and with an arrowhead suggesting a projection beyond where the data runs out. It makes much more sense to think that brains represent costs and/or returns, and projects trends, than to think that they've got little banknotes in them.