Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Social Insurance and aSTG

Lately I've been reading William Rosen's The Most Powerful Idea in the World, about the history of the steam engine. But that's not the most powerful idea: the notion that people have a right to profit from their invention is. (At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, this was a new idea.)

Rosen takes the time to explain the biology of how we get invention. In other words, when people have that eureka moment, what happening in the brain? The key, researchers Mark Jung-Beeman and John Kounios, found is that when there's a flash of insight, blood flows to the anterior Superior Temporal Gyrus (aSTG) in the right hemisphere. When you daydream, this is part of the brain that's responsible. Most of the time, the brain works to inhibit the flow of blood to this region. This makes evolutionary sense: daydreaming gets you killed because blood flowing to aSTG is blood that's not flowing to the parts of your brain which will tell you there's a lion about to kill you. This is also why you get flashes of insight when you're relaxing (taking a walk, in the shower).

So far, so good. But what does this have to do with social insurance? It occurs to me that if you are constantly concerned about survival, you have no time for flashes of insight (note to get these eureka moments, you also have to know the material...daydreaming is not a substitute for reading). I see this as a potential barrier for income mobility. If there's a safety net loose enough to encourage hard work but strong enough to allow people to relax everyone once in a while, then you're more likely to get new ideas (not just inventions, but things from small business ideas to solving everyday problems).

It should be stressed that this can easily be justification for more aid to the developing world and I tepidly agree. All things being equal, yes. But I must return to the thesis of Rosen's book: allow people to profit from their ideas. In the developing world, where it is nearly impossible to start a (legal) business, secure a loan, etc, having great ideas isn't enough to pull a country out of poverty.

But it's a start.