Welcome to a Brave Neural World

Confronting the Revolution of Brain, Mind, and Society

Posted Jul 28, 2009

I'd like to start this blog with a prediction: in a few years and with some historical perspective, I predict we will realize that the first decade of the twenty-first century produced the most profoundly far-reaching scientific revolution in history. This revolution will not come from massive particle accelerators. Nor will it come from telescopes scanning the deepest regions of space - its insights are not about the smallest bits of matter or the origin of the universe. As significant as those insights will undoubtedly be, the revolution I have in mind is taking place within brain imaging centers across the world. Its insights are about us - what it means to be human, to have a feeling, to make a decision, to live with others, and to construct social and moral orders unlike anything seen in the history of life. Researchers were investigating these problems long before the first decade of this century. But something quite unexpected began happening a few years ago. Researchers in fields traditionally far away from brain science - such as Economics and Political Science - and brain scientists began a conversation. They found deep commonalities beyond the surface differences of their disciplines and began the collaborations that underlie the revolution I am writing of. As I'll explore in this blog in the weeks and months to come, these collaboration are linking our individual and collective decision making to underlying brain processes. In so doing, they are uncovering the clues that tie together brain, mind, and society and are creating the foundations of a new understanding of ourselves and society. Ready or not, this revolution-in-the-making is moving us quickly toward a Brave Neural World.

By a Brave Neural World I mean a world in which social policy, social institutions, and enterprises are informed and influenced by the insights of this new brain science. Consider an early example in terms of social institutions. In 2005, the Supreme Court overturned the juvenile death penalty (Roper v. Simmons). Their ruling was based in part on evidence from this decade's advances in understanding adolescent brain development and decision-making - evidence that wasn't available in 1989 when the Court upheld the juvenile death penalty in Stanford v. Kentucky. Many legal scholars worry that Roper v. Simmons opens a virtual floodgate of brain-based standards of legal culpability and point to the increasing use of brain imaging among the evidence now employed by defense attorneys. In fact, there is a potential torrent of brain science findings regarding responsibility, culpability, and the mechanisms underlying our decisions. Legal scholars and brain scientists meet frequently now to confront these new possibilities, knowing that many of our most basic intuitions regarding free will and responsibility - the foundations of the law - may be incompatible with the results of brain science (more on this in a later post). 

These findings extend far beyond the law. After all, politics and social policy - from our basic political leanings to the minutiae of legislation - has always rested on assumptions about human nature. The ultimate end of political theory is to deduce the social institutions and policies that underlie the best arrangement for human beings (the ideal state). But to do so requires a conception of human good - perhaps measured as happiness, well-being, or flourishing - and a theory of what social institutions and policies maximize that human good. That, in essence, is a theory of human nature. A not-altogether inaccurate way to view history is as the unfolding of successive calamities brought about by massive social experiments based on flawed assumptions about human nature (Marxism pops to mind as a ready example). A central question I will explore in this blog, then, is this: Does this century's new brain science promise a better understanding of human nature - the biological and cultural forces that shape it, how it colors our wants and preferences, how it shapes private and collective decision making, how emotion and reason interact in our response to incentives, prohibition, and social norms? Will it better inform our political life and underlie better social policy?

Then there's the possibilities new brain-based technologies themselves creates. Over the last few years, I've started receiving calls from public defenders interested in the possibility of using brain scanners as lie detectors. While I'm not directly involved in this, I know of at least three companies developing brain imaging lie-detection technology. It's not unreasonable to suppose that brain-based technologies may replace biotech as the next wave of startups. Could a prospective employer in the future request your neuro-profile, or an insurance company scan your brain for your risk attitudes? A few years ago, I did conduct some experiments looking at brain reactions to advertising, such as movie trailers. After conducting this research, I found myself named in an open letter to John McCain (then chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee) requesting an investigation of "neuromarketing." Since I never heard from the committee, I suppose they weren't convinced by the letter's warning that the technology might be used by Michael Moore to bolster his box office numbers. But clearly there are looming ethical issues to consider as both brain imaging and an understanding of human decision-making grow in sophistication and increasingly find their way into advertising, marketing, and political campaigning. Again, more on this in later posts.

If some of these possibilities strike you as more than faintly dystopian, you'll have recognized my intention in the unsubtle allusion to Aldous Huxley in the title of this blog. There is no doubt that the emerging insights of brain science (and those we can't yet fully foresee) could create a technocratic nightmare of control and manipulation. The only potential remedy I can see against such a possibility is to have open forums of exchange like this one to think critically - and with some foresight - about these emerging possibilities. And for every dystopian possibility, the emerging science of brain, mind, and society also holds enormous potential for improving the human condition and for making better individual and collective decisions. So, ready or not, social policy can no longer ignore brain science. Welcome to a Brave Neural World.