THIS week was different.

If you turn to this column expecting to find some thoughts on how the Scottish economy might develop after independence, then you will be disappointed.

I spent Monday and Tuesday in Panmure House, Adam Smith’s last home. Nearly 15 years ago, Professor Keith Lumsden persuaded Edinburgh City Council to sell it to Heriot-Watt University. By 2018, the university had converted it into an excellent space for small meetings and was trying to work out how best to use it.

While taking the first steps in that process, the pandemic struck. The symposium which took place this week was the first event to fill Panmure House for more than two years. It brought together philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, finance theorists, investment practitioners, and economists.

That mix of backgrounds, with almost every speaker in the symposium a leading expert in their discipline, was the first way in which this meeting was unusual. Academics do not often go outside the comfort zone of their own discipline.

When economists were talking, I was entirely comfortable. The philosophers and psychologists tended to order their thinking in ways which I could follow. But the neuroscientists’ framing of problems made no sense to me at all.

Set against the usual way of doing academic research by incremental additions to knowledge, this was courageous. From time to time, I encounter an economist who has come up with an entirely new way of thinking about the economy. Many of them have gone on to win richly deserved Nobel Prizes.

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This week’s symposium was another of those moments when I simply had to accept that much of what I thought I knew might be wrong and that I should needed to look at the subject through fresh eyes. The specific question we were considering was whether financial markets have minds, separate from the minds of traders. Behind that was a question about how we might best define a cognitive economics.

Of course, we were not the first people to think about this. Meeting in Adam Smith’s former home, we had to recognise that he had already said much which was directly relevant to our discussions. Interwar economists, notably Frank Knight in Chicago, and John Maynard Keynes, understood very well that we needed to draw on psychology. Friedrich Hayek also developed important insights into the role of cognition in economics.

More recently, fundamental research on the principles of behavioural economics has been rewarded with two Nobel Prizes and governments have applied behavioural insights to policy development, using the techniques of nudging people to change their behaviour.

The biggest successes are supposed to be in encouraging people to acquire the habit of long-term saving. But when you see the nutrition “traffic light” labelling on food in a supermarket, that is supposed to nudge you into choosing green, and avoiding harm.

Our meeting was enlivened by Gerd Gigerenzer, the German psychologist, who is probably the foremost critic of behavioural economics. He proudly reminded me that the German government does not have a “nudge unit”. Instead, it has put its efforts into encouraging “boosting”.

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Where nudges try to guide people, almost unconsciously, into making decisions which are supposed to be in their best interests, “boosts” introduce people to fast and frugal heuristics – straightforward ways of making choices, so that people learn how to choose more wisely.

Elon Musk claims to apply Gigerenzer’s “one good reason” approach to hiring staff, only choosing people whom he admires.

For the symposium, it was important that people engaged with the world through cognitions which form in their minds, so that we are all conscious of the world around us. Yet, we do not know where our minds are – or even if they truly exist, even as we find it entirely natural to talk about having minds.

Presuming that minds exist, some psychologists have suggested that it is possible that when minds come together, they create an extended mind, which is more than the collection of individual minds.

The proposal that financial markets might have a mind is an interesting hypothesis which might help us to understand how market participants behave.

For the academic participant in the symposium, some properties of human minds seemed to be easy to rule out within the market mind. No-one thought that there was evidence of markets, especially financial markets, having intention. It seems impossible that we might rely on the market mind to solve the problems of climate change by channelling investment funds into the new economy. The market is not a planner.

Panmure House, Adam Smith's last home

It also seems to be a very high hurdle to think of knowledge being created at the level of the market, separate from the knowledge of market participants. The market does not create the prices at which people trade.

But academic scepticism met the lived experience of investment professionals, all of whom were quite certain that the market has mood, with periods of exuberance, and depressive anxiety. Some talked about the somatic effects of making decisions – often the result of making the difficult decision to go against the market mood.

After discussion which ran on for 48 hours, we paused, uncertain what, if anything, we had concluded. But I have rarely been at academic meetings where such large and deep questions could be pursued. We certainly agreed that it had been a truly fascinating experience, and that we should do it all again.