Even people who do not use illicit drugs or get shot in the head have to contend with the
reality that some of the decisions cooked up by the brain’s frontal lobes may lead them astray. A specific site within the prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) is, in fact, among the suspects in the colossal global economic implosion that has recently rocked the globe.
The VMPFC turns out to be a central location for what economists call “money illusion.” The illusion occurs when people ignore obvious information about the distorting effects of inflation on a purchase and, in an irrational leap, decide that the thing is worth much more than it really is. Money illusion may convince prospective buyers that a house is always a great investment because of the misbegotten perception that prices inexorably rise. Robert J. Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale University, contends that the faulty logic of money illusion contributed to the housing bubble: “Since people are likely to remember the price they paid for their house from many years ago but remember few other prices from then, they have the mistaken impression that home prices have gone up more than other prices, giving a mistakenly exaggerated impression of the investment potential of houses.”
The illumination of a spot behind the forehead responsible for a misconception about money marks just one example of the increasing sophistication of a line of research that has already revealed brain centers involved with the more primal investor motivations of fear (the amygdala) and greed (the nucleus accumbens, perhaps, not surprisingly, a locus of sexual desire as well). A high-tech fusing of neuroimaging with behavioral psychology and economics has begun to provide clues to how individuals, and, aggregated on a larger scale, whole economies may run off track. Together these disciplines attempt to discover why an economic system, built with nominal safeguards against collapse, can experience near-catastrophic breakdowns. Some of this research is already being adopted as a guide to action by the Obama administration as it tries to stabilize banks and the housing sector.