Neuroeconomics. An Emerging Field of Theory and Practice

By James Giordano, Roland Benedikter and Nadia Flores

This article gives a short, introductory overview of basic aspects of the emerging field of neuroeconomics, as a contemporary approach to economic theory and practice. In many ways, neuroeconomics can be regarded as a new, multi- and inter-disciplinary orientation to economic thinking that interweaves the current international renewal of the economic sciences, in particular the “new experimentalism”, and the most recent technological advances in brain research, ecology and environmentalism. Also, the field integrates aspects of trans-culturalism and social anthropology. Given that recent progress in neuroscience and neurotechnology may profoundly modify globalized human culture (and perhaps human behaviour, if not identity), neuroeconomics can be considered as an experimental field that is closely related to the most avant garde developments in the applied sciences. Thus, it has potential to become an important pillar of a broader, and more differentiated post-crisis economic theory that looks beyond neoliberal reductionisms, and is oriented toward multi-dimensionality, integration of different scientific insights, sustainability and an applied, more realistic humanism.


Introduction: The Current renewal of economic thinking

In essence, modern economics can be seen as a fourfold endeavor that can be defined as the mechanisms and systems of selection, use, and practical administration of

1. resources by

2. human beings

3. within an environment

4. through labour and its respective organization.

These four dimensions constitute specific social forms and mechanisms, which then generate variable collective meso-habits or “cultures”, which in the era of globalized modern technology, are closely related to and interwoven with each other (probably more than in any previous epoch of human history). In light of this, one problem of traditional economic theory is that it was widely focused on the first and fourth dimensions, namely, 1) on the extraction and exploitation of resources (with the leading resources changing over time, and currently shifting from oil to renewable energies and precious metals, thus changing a whole cultural history of oil addiction and its widely ramified effects); and 2) on the social and political effects of labour organization as it has existed since the industrial revolution.

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Fundamentally, the majority of economic theories of the past 300 years have concentrated on the mechanisms, laws and “meso-cultures” of these two dimensions and their complex interrelation: be it the early liberal, capitalistic approaches or their apparent historical antipodes – the Marxist theories and movements. As both of these were of bourgeois 18th and 19th century origin, they tended to neglect anthropological and environmental issues in their attempts to understand the basis and activities of modern economy, and how economics creates societies with respective cultural and political identities. A notable exception are the very early writings of the young, still somewhat Hegelian Karl Marx, which have a strong anthropological, yet idealistic flavour, compared to, for example, his rather famous passage “…let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings,” from the text “Comments on James Mill” of 1844, which like most of his work of the period, concentrated upon themes of alienation.1

In contrast, current economic theory has assumed a trajectory that expands the older, “classical” twofold approach, towards a new, fourfold one. We posit that this expansion was borne out of necessity, and manifests potentially far-reaching consequences. Most initiatives toward a more inclusive and timely economic theory attempt to actively bridge insights from the economic sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and, increasingly – albeit somewhat incipient – the natural sciences, with particular emphasis upon neuro-cognitive studies. Given that economic actions are exerted by biological organisms embedded within their environment, i.e., within a systemic relationship that unavoidably constitutes an ecology on an increasingly global scale, it becomes critical for any contemporary economic theory to understand how humans intuit ecological circumstances to allocate those resources that are necessary or desirable for both individual and social survival and flourishing. This becomes particularly important in times of global environmental crisis, growing overpopulation, global cultural – and thus consumptional – assimilation, and the need for new resource efficiency.2

In recognition of the bio-psychosocial realities of the human being and human interactions, any meaningful attempt at such an approach must include anthropological, environmental and socio-cultural dimensions, so as to assume an appropriately multi-dimensionality, and inter-disciplinarity that aims to experimentally broaden the limits of “classical” and “pure” economic thinking. Therefore, the need to consider how neural substrates and mechanisms contribute to (if not subserve) decision-making becomes evident; and this has led to the development of the new, interdisciplinary field of neuroeconomics.

Neoclassical theory remains lacking when describing actual human behavior. Hence, any conclusions based upon such a theory are often erroneous.

A (very) short history of neuroeconomics

The field originated in the 1970s when economic models began to merge with ideas from psychology and – at least rudimentally – social anthropology, to form behavioral economics.3 By the end of the 1990s, the obvious limitations, if not frank flaws, of neoclassical economics dictated the development of a more comprehensive approach that could account for bio-psychosocial variables operative in oftentimes non-rational decisions and actions toward acquiring and distributing limited resources.4 Currently, neuroeconomics can be considered to be a growing, but still experimental, pre-normative and descriptive discipline, and a set of practices that engage neuroscientific approaches to assess and inform assumptions about economic decision-making.5,6 In this way, neuroeconomic analyses may be able to contribute to, and compensate for limitations of neoclassical theory, and may be of current and future value in defining, guiding and perhaps predicting economic activities in the social sphere. Yet, the science is nascent, and the social milieu large; thus we must ask: In which sense? And how, exactly?

Neuroeconomics can be considered to be a growing, but still experimental, pre-normative and descriptive discipline, and a set of practices that engage neuroscientific approaches to assess and inform assumptions about economic decision-making.

The Neoclassical view of rational decision-making

Rational choice theory, a cornerstone of neoclassical economics, remains a fundamental mathematical tool for describing how decisions ought to be made. This approach is based upon a view of the human as “homo economicus”- a “rational, self-interest guided, unemotional utility maximizer”.7 However, theoretically rational behavior does not always occur; therefore while humans can be perceived as homo economicus under particular conditions, these certainly are not universal. Indeed, the assumptions of neoclassical economics do not obtain the irrationality and emotionality of real human actors. In discussing these issues, Kahneman states, “…most judgments…and choices are made intuitively,”8 and not in a deep, contemplative manner as suggested by Smithian theory. The role of emotions in making judgments and decisions is conspicuously absent in the homo economicus approach. This means that neoclassical theory remains lacking when describing actual human behavior. Hence, any conclusions based upon such a theory are often erroneous. This notion is further supported by the fact that emotions are frequently unconscious, yet can strongly influence and direct behavior.9 In other words, some judgments based on emotions arising from previous experiences are not able to be rationalized because they are not apparent to the decision-maker.

Therefore, a more realistic and integrative model that accounts for biological, psychological, social and cultural aspects of human experience (all of which are partly conscious, and partly unconscious in structure and pattern) has been proposed by Cañadas and Giordano.10 In this model, biological elements include “predispositions, tendencies, and substrates that establish mechanisms and baselines in decision-making”. The psychological element reveals “positive and negative neuro-cognitive and emotional responses to both the biological and environmental condition”; and the socio-cultural element entails “…effects incurred by factors of the external environment”, including the artificial “second natural habitat” of human beings, which is culture.10


Expected value as a decision-making algorithm

According to Pascal, economical expected value (EV) described th

e tendency of any rational being to take a certain action based on its probable outcomes, in accordance with the equation:

EV (A) = P (O1) * G (O1) + …+ P (On) * G (On)

Here, the expected value action A is equal to the summation of the probability of an outcome P (On) times its value, or gain G (On), for all possible n outcomes. Expected value is a means with which to examine possible courses of actions, and choose the best suitable courses, and as such provides a decision-making algorithm. Although descriptive, the EV algorithm in our view fails to define how decision-making might occur in practical reality. While the science remains somewhat immature, a theoretical construct of decision-making has been offered by Sugrue and colleagues.6 In their model, decisions consist of 1) “value transformation”, or the processing of environmental input into a meaningful interpretation, 2) “decision transformation,” or a deliberation on available data or interpretations, and 3) “action implementation,” or the pre-motor signals attributed to the choice made.6


Putative neurobio- and psychosocial mechanisms: A Basis of economic trust?

As Sugrue et al. have noted, the schema is incomplete, in that it does not consider in detail those neural networks that may be involved in decision-processing. It is crucial to recall that the EV equation consists of gains, and the probability of the occurrence of such gains. Knutson et. al. have identified brain networks that are putatively associated with these components.11 According to their studies, anticipated gains seem to involve limbic mechanisms of behavioral activation and reward, inclusive of activity of the nucleus accumbens, while the probability of EV seems to involve the medial prefrontal cortex.11,12

Psychologically, “yoking” anticipated gains to expected or experienced probabilities seems to co-establish a basis for decisional trust. Kenning and Plassman maintain that a mathematical-economic model of trust can be quantified by the equation:

þ * G > (1 – þ) * L 5

where p is the probability of perceived gains G, and L is perceived losses. This equation can be reduced in terms of expected value of the gains versus losses, such that:


This experimental equation relates expected value – an economic decision-making concept – to trust. Its fundamental premise seems to be: If the expected value of “gains” outweighs that of “the losses”, then the decision involves a sense of “trust”. It could be posited that a combined, interdisciplinary and integrative neuro-bio-psycho-social model of trust in economics should be constructed so as to better qualify, quantify and understand the specific ecology, as well as the complex psychology of economic decision-making within the relationship of the individual, and environmental, cultural, and social contexts. We opine that this explicitly experimental (i.e.- heuristic) neuro-bio-psycho-social model of trust encompasses at least seven dimensions:

• a neural level that proposes the neural networks involved in ecological/economic decision-making;
a biological attribute that describes the evolutionary and developmental bases–and relevance–of decision-making and trust;
an anthropological component that defines and describes the collective meaning and basic value of trust for human beings as a self-conscious species among other (conscious) species;
a psychological aspect that provides a definition of trust pertinent to the specific cognitions, emotions and character of an individual;
a philosophical dimension that regards the rational dimension of trust in the sense of an in-depth scrutiny of causes and origins as related to effects;
a social level of influence, that describes the dependent inter-relations with others, and the respective past and present experiences of these inter-relations;
a culturo-civilizational characteristic that portrays the consequences and importance of trust as an accepted collective form of behavior and value over time.

Overall, this multi-dimensional, and thus potentially integrative approach combines neuro-biological, social, and trans-cultural dimensions of decision-making and trust into a “stratified image” of the human being and its behaviour(s).13 Important to this paradigm is the need to characterize the interaction of physical, psychological, cultural, and even spiritual cognitions that establish various decisions, and which relate decisional-actions and outcomes to evaluations of trust.

At this point, let us briefly apply some of these dimensions, and assess their (probable or potential) inter-relation. In principle, neural networks of trust relate present circumstances to prior experience in order to formulate a value and validity alignment. These cognitive and emotional formulations entail anthropological, philosophical and social assessments, and are affected by culturo-civilizational paradigms that reflect biological and psychological needs, and desires. From this, a probability function (or contingency) is assessed to form a tentative belief about one’s imminent action. The likely final step is to detail and solidify this mental process into a reliable set of expectancies and contingencies that allow intuitions about various activities, outcomes and reliabilities.8

An expected value judgment occurs both at the value and validity alignment process, and when contingencies are evaluated. The decision-making process, i.e., where values and probabilities must be evaluated from input and then processed to form a choice or action-guiding belief, can also be regarded as an individual or collective “lead story” or “paradigm”.14 In this context, the constructivist (or “postmodern”) approaches that were dominating the social sciences – including various aspects of economic theory – and the humanities from the 1990s until the mid of the 2000s may be viable.15 Yet, any orientation to an encompassing constructivist approach cannot – or should not – disregard an evolutionary component, as it is important to consider how and why such cognitions and actions were established, preserved and modified in relation to human ecology over time. In this light, neuroscientific studies suggest that trust allows agents to cooperate and hence enhance their ability to survive and reproduce,14 maximizing “genetic fitness even though myopic self interest suggests cheating.”16 Zak and Knack delineate a model that correlates one’s affinity of another’s well-being to the magnitude of genes shared.15

Thus, trust, together with cultural, social and spiritual components, may have probably also a “bodily” unconscious, often culturally removed, but evident evolutionary component that sparks its existence and vitality. As Rousseau et al. have noted, mechanisms and patterns of decision-making, and operational definitions of trust seem to pertain to “individual, group, firm and institutional” activities that sustain elements of survival, and flourishing, in and across environmental circumstances and contingencies.17 It could be argued that at least in principle, one’s decision to act based upon any of the seven levels of trust is fundamentally the same: Since an initial component of decision-making is reliant upon subjective experience, interpretations and belief(s), it is probable that environmental factors are assessed to form a “common reward currency.”

The psychological aspects that define trust reflect an “individual characteristic”18 that render a “gain” type value judgment, which is subsequently incorporated to latter elements and stages of the decision-making process.

From this perspective, the seven dimensions of trust render the same types of “reward currency”6 to be evaluated. Reasons to trust (at any level) vary individually, but may be uniformly surveyed through an expected value judgment – through the aforementioned decision-making algorithm. Therefore, the psychological aspects that define trust reflect an “individual characteristic”18 that render a “gain” type value judgment for the individual, which are subsequently incorporated to latter elements and stages of the decision-making process.

This concept is supported by Adolphs who has claimed that, “…it is not only the features of the stimuli that are driving the judgments made, …but also the personalities and autobiographies of the judgment-makers that matter.”19 This infers that cause and effect parameters of decision-making and trust are established in social, i.e., behavioural and cultural environments.15,16 As Castelfranchi and Falcone rightly state, “trust is one of the pillars of society…no social exchange, alliance, cooperation … is possible without trust.”13 Moreover, trust leads to economic growth.15 Thus, the cognitive processes that establish values and expectancies, and codify prior experiences to direct decision-making exert social effects that massively impact the conduct of economics and communal life, as Karen Cook has recently noted.20

What does this imply?


Brain, bias and behavior: Toward a prudent neuroscience of, and for economics?

Recently, Mercier and Sperber have commented on the role of reason in human cognition, emotions, and social behaviors.21 From an evolutionary-developmental neuroscientific view, this comports well with a bio-psychosocial model of both individual and cultural cognitive capability, and with decision-making relevant to the production, acquisition, distribution and use of various ecological resources (i.e. economics). As a species, humans tend to augment existing biological capabilities and skills, and compensate for those that are lacking. In this way, there is benefit in the ability to engage particular cognitive capacities that obtain both individual resources, and enable some form of stable social interactions.22

Any genuine iteration of economics as a human endeavor would need some account of substrates, mechanisms and variable effects of emotional influence upon the cognitive functions operative in decision-making processes relevant and relative to ecological resources.

This supports what we have referred to as Anselm’s Paradox. Simply stated, humans believe in order to understand, rather than understand things in order to form beliefs about them.23 The root of the paradox lies in the process of rationalization: despite apparent reasoning, humans remain wedded to fundamental beliefs that shape the way reason is engaged and employed (including beliefs about the power of reason itself). Decision-making is subject to emotional influence, and thus decisional reasoning processes tend to be “skewed” by resonance or dissonance to emotionally-valent ideas or beliefs. This may provide some relative survival benefit: having opinions and knowing likes and dislikes (based upon experience, or in some cases what has been tutored) can serve to guide ways to intuit situations and make – what is perceived to be “rational” – decisions about what is held and valued to be good or bad. Such emotional flavoring of cognitive processes seems to be inherent to reasoning to work through problems, and decision-making in a variety of ecological and economic situations. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio asserts that in many cases a “…reduction in emotion may constitute an… irrational behavior.”24 Therefore, any genuine iteration of economics as a human endeavor would need some account of substrates, mechanisms and variable effects of emotional influence upon the cognitive functions operative in decision-making processes relevant and relative to ecological resources.

As Christian Smith has claimed, human cognitions and actions are based upon and predicated by beliefs – including a belief in the capacity for, and solidity of reason.25 However, reasoning as an individual and group process may often advance biases that can both initiate and be used to justify depriving resources form, and/or more overt forms of aggression against those who do not share – or are the object of – particular biases. Such insight to the ways that humans perceive, recall and relate to environmental experiences and interactions, establish expectations, and generate notions of good and bad, and right and wrong, all influence decision-making, will be decisive for the future of neuroeconomics, as a discipline, and economics as a set of activities and practices. More specifically, this approach to understanding the neurobio-psychosocial basis of human interaction (with environments, resources and species) is an important focus of neuroethics – at least in its so-called “first-tradition” – what we have referred to as “neuro-ecology.”26,27,28

The most current instantiation of the tools engaged to enable and embellish biology, social interactions, and ability to understand and control the world at-large is science and technology; and like any tool, these too reflect “builders’ bias” in the way they are developed and employed.29 Despite certain Pollyanna-ish claims to the contrary, science – including neuroscience – is based upon and articulates a set of beliefs, and is neither a value-free nor an unbiased culture. Its saving grace, however, is its methodology, which when scrupulously applied and adhered to, dictates and enables particular controls for bias, and other threats to validity and reliability.30 Most importantly, (good) science is dialectical and presents reasoned perspectives precisely with the aim of incurring arguments that function in the iterative refinement of ideas and concepts (viz.–“facts”) toward the achievement of (at least temporary) truths. So a neuroscientific understanding of reason that comports with an evolutionary bio-psychosocial view could be important to gain insights to human cognition, emotions, and actions – including those that have economic relevance and influence.

(Good) Science is dialectical and presents reasoned perspectives precisely with the aim of incurring arguments that function in the iterative refinement of ideas and concepts toward the achievement of truths.

Conclusion and Outlook: 21st Century neuroeconomics looking upon the young Karl Marx?

In summary, neuroeconomics is an emerging field that employs neuroscientific and neurotechnological approaches to interdisciplinary socio-economic theory and practice at the interplay of social, political and cultural innovation. Can its findings contribute to a renewal of contemporary economics in a neo-humanistic, more empathetic, and at the same time more realistic approach? Can this orientation offer a practical path toward realizing the ideals so eloquently stated by the young Karl Marx, as depicted at the beginning of this essay? We must ask whether – and how – neuroeconomics could become one factor among others in developing a more down-to-earth approach to human decision-making and resource engagement that maintains fundamental connections to the questions that classical anthropology poses to humanity and human culture – Why, where from, where to, who – and now, “how”?

We must ask whether – and how – neuroeconomics could develop a more down-to-earth approach to human decision-making that maintains fundamental connections to the questions that classical anthropology poses to humanity – Why, where from, where to, who – and now, “how”?

To some, these elements and approaches may seem overtly naturalistic or even Darwinistic, and to others they may seem to be opposed to a sound humanism. Yet, we offer that the findings of the new natural sciences and their technologies cannot be ignored if inter-disciplinary economic theory is to advance. Economic theory must integrate objectivism and materialism with a newly developing insight to the importance of neurobiological basis of the human mind. In this sense, we believe that, a bit paradoxically, the work of the young Karl Marx might provide the emerging field of neuroeconomics some needed support – and direction – in its discussion of the “object” of modern economy:

“The object cannot be seen as merely an ‘object’, but only as a social product. As such it is not merely something which affects the ‘thought’ in my head or yours, but which is a link between us and everybody else… Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and the other person.”31

The materialist doctrine concerning the (economic) changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men, and that the educator must himself be educated…”Karl Marx

“The chief defect of all previous materialism… is that things, reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism the active side was set forth abstractly by idealism—which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such— …does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. Hence (it) does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’ activity. The materialist doctrine concerning the (economic) changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men, and that the educator must himself be educated. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood as revolutionary practice.”32

Could there be a better description of – and direction for – what neuroeconomics might achieve in the years ahead?

About the authors

James Giordano, PhD, serves as Director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington VA, USA, and as 2011-2012 Fulbright Professor of Neuroscience, Neurotechnology and Ethics at the Human Science Center, Ludwig Maximilians Universität Munich, Germany.

Roland Benedikter, Dr. Dr. Dr., serves as European Foundation Fellow, in residence at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies of the University of California at Santa Barbara with duties as the European Foundations Research Professor of Interdisciplinary Political Sociology, and as Long-term Visiting Scholar 2009-13 at the Europe Center, Stanford University.

Nadia Flores, PhD, Department of Economics, University of Colorado, Denver, CO.


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