Brain-bending economics

By James Whitmore

Dr Elizabeth Bowman uses neuroscience to solve complex economic problems.

Dr Bowman.

Dr Elizabeth Bowman says she's always been a science nerd.

Growing up in Canberra, the capital city gave her access to volunteering opportunities at Questacon (the National Science and Technology Centre), and work experience at the CSIRO’s Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla, and the ANU’s Department of Nuclear Physics.

Her father was an economist in the Commonwealth Public Service, while her mother worked at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

“I'm feel like I’m an unreasonably lucky person, that I was in an environment where I was supported and had access to these things. Anything I wanted to try, any strange interest I developed was encouraged”.

She started a degree in aerospace engineering before deciding that science was a better fit. A memorable moment that made her want to do neuroscience was a major discovery of cells in our eyes that are involved in our sleep-wake cycle instead of vision, and that these cells were sensitive to sky-blue light.

“What attracted me was that concept that there were still discoveries being made. Researchers were still finding previously unknown things about the world”

Her PhD, which she was awarded through the University in 2013, was on eye movement, cognition, and functional brain imaging in young people at very high risk of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia.

“It always felt like a privilege to be able to put someone inside this giant machine containing superconducting magnets, and get images of their brain working. To be able to see even a little bit of what might be their mind.”

Living in Canberra, Dr Bowman was surrounded by science institutions such as the CSIRO's Deep Space Communication Complex.

Brains, Minds and Markets

Dr Bowman is now a Research Fellow at the Faculty’s Brain, Mind and Markets Lab (BMMLAB).

The BMMLAB does interdisciplinary research combining finance and economics, neuroscience and computer science. Dr Bowman's work focuses on complex decision making humans have to do daily.

To explain the lab's work, she refers to a puzzle economists call the "knapsack problem."

"Imagine you’ve got a bag in front of you, and a choice of items of different weights and values. The bag has a weight limit. Your job is to pack the bag without going over the weight limit, but maximise the value of the things you put in. How do you do it? How do you know when you have chosen the best combination of items?"

“The only way that you can know if you've gotten the optimal combination of items is if you compute all possible combinations of items and then compare them all to each other and then sort them in rank. Humans can't do this. That's over a thousand combinations if you start with only ten items.”

It's a simplified version of decisions people have to make every single day, including shopping at the supermarket, choosing health insurance, or making decisions about financial portfolios.

One of the things that’s unusual about the lab is its focus on empirical experiments.

“Often in finance and economics, the research mainly focuses on large historical datasets. And so doing these sorts of smaller, very focused, very controlled experiments is more unusual.”

Dr Bowman at ANU's Department of Nuclear Physics.

Next generation

Dr Bowman is also the laboratory manager, a job that involves supporting research students through ethics applications, participant recruitment and equipment management, a job she finds incredibly rewarding.

“I just get a little bit nerdily excited about the things they're measuring. They might be looking at how markets aggregate information, or how individuals find solutions to complex problems. We don't know what they're going to find. The undergraduate students, who at the start of the year had might have had no idea how to do experiments, generate this incredible flow of data that they need to analyse, and they can find results in their data that no-one has seen before. Seeing them develop those skills and have those experiences is really rewarding.”

“If I can help give them this foundation, and this new, fresh scientist can measure a thing that hasn't been measured before, then that's really satisfying for me.”

She also finds the same satisfaction in her own work.

One of the most important things she’s learned from being a scientist is that not knowing the answer at first is ok.

“Scientists can get very insecure about their knowledge. It's very common to feel like a big idiot all the time because you're always learning new skills. But there's the saying that, ‘If you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room.’ It's just the nature of the game because the answers aren't at the back of the book.”

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