The century of the brain?

November 15, 2011 by
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 


Yesterday I posted on my favourite subject – the social aspiration gap. The question being how do we enable people to be the people they need to be to create the future they say they want? One consequence of this citizen-centric way of thinking is that policy makers need to think more deeply about human nature; what is it that makes us behave as we do?

Another prompt for this debate has been the decline – hastened by the 2008 economic crisis – of homo economicus; the idea that human behaviour can be sufficiently explained on the basis of utility maximising individuals operating with perfect information in a free market. Instead a combination of disciplines including social psychology, behavioural economics, neuroscience and anthropology have offered a more complex, subtle, reflexive model of human nature. Human beings are deeply social, innately capable of collaboration and altruism, predictably irrational (to use Dan Ariely’s phrase) and occasionally deluded. We are the only species than can think about thinking but we have prehistorically evolved brains trying to cope with a world that has arguably changed more in the last hundred years than the previous 200,000.

A great insight about the modern condition, offered by among others Anthony Giddens, is that we are increasingly reflexive. By this is meant that we tell ourselves a story about ourselves and that, rather than deferring to our fixed place in a religious or monarchical world view, we want to be the author of that story. I have suggested that in the 21st century we will add a new dimension of thinking: neurological reflexivity. The idea here is that in thinking about thinking we are aware of, and adapt to, our cognitive frailties. One concrete example of this is stickK.com which is helping thousands of people deal with innate human short-termism by encouraging them to pledge a sum of money (it works best if it is to a cause they don’t like) to be paid at the moment they break a self-improving pledge.

When I deliver speeches I often ask audience members whether they would like to be better people. I then advise them not on any account to buy self-help books – which are directed at their conscious will power (despite their ubiquity there is no evidence such books work). Instead, I urge, choose better friends and their virtuousness will soon rub off on you (which is, by the way, why surveys show religious people tend to be happier and more altruistic than poor atheists like me).

I am partly sharing all this with you because this seems to be a week for recapping on some core ideas but also as a plug for the first of my three part radio 4 series on brain and society ‘Brain Culture’ which goes out this afternoon at 16.00.         

By the way if you want to get more deeply into the topical and sometimes heated debate about brains and behaviour I can recommend this appropriately thoughtful pamphlet by my colleague Dr Jonathon Rowson.

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Comments

  • Pamela

    Brain Culture – good programme.

    Don’t think neuroscience should or could replace judges but I do hope that brain scans can be used to diagnose and offer solutions to help disfunctional young people and offenders to retrain/rewire their brains. I agree with the headteacher who believes that the active presence of the neuroscientist in schools really makes a difference.

    Politicians may be the hardest to persuade because of cost. But if we get education right and if there really is a choice in education (my child needs a brain scan/ help from an expert rather than exclusion) potentially children will leave school better people and better educated and savings will be made down the line (from NHS A&E, invalidity allowance, unemployment benefits the list goes on).

    And if neuroscience can not only shed light on the adult brains of offenders but offer restorative measures (a cure or coping strategies) to diminish incidence of reoffending, again, communities would be better places and savings of all the above would be made again.

    It seems to me that this latest breakthrough in neuroscience gives us all an opportunity to understand behaviour better.