In about over an hour, I’ll be hopping a bus with my friend to the Sacramento airport so that we can fly over to San Diego – this year’s (in case you haven’t heard already) official host city for the SfN annual meeting. Also known as: 30,000+ neuronerds conglomerating in a convention center to discuss all things brain science. Really. All things science – including not only the science itself, but about how this science affects society. Every year, the society hosts a session called the “Social Issues Roundtable” – in an effort to encourage dialogue on the very issues that directly impact the public.
A few years ago, the topic was “Genes for Mental Disorders and Functions: Implications for Society”. The panelists explored various questions, such as: what does genetics imply about individual personality traits and tendencies? And should harmful actions stemming from genetic tendencies be punished in the same way as those who do not share the same “genetic susceptibilities”? How do we, as a society, operate to hold people responsible for their actions? The following year, the topic was Neuroethics and the Burden of Nervous System Disorders. This year the topic is Child Poverty & Human Capital. That there are numerous ways in which science impacts society is incontrovertible.
As our scientific understanding of ourselves, and the world around us, increases so too the questions we must face as a society. So last week, when Ira Flatow of NPR’s Science Friday posed the question(s): “Can science shape human values? And should it?” My knee-jerk response was: “but of course!” After listening to the one-hour dialogue between the panelists, though, I realized that it’s not quite so straightforward. While science can shape human values, it doesn’t have to. Knowledge is power, to be sure. Yet knowledge by itself doesn’t do much to change what individuals fundamentally value, that is morality per se. Personally, I think it has a lot to do with what kind of reasoning (emotional or logical) appeals most to an individual.
In the end, it’s up to us to decide what laws to adopt based on our most current understanding of how the brain works. It’s up to us to decide both how and what to teach our children based on our understanding of human psychology and of how the brain learns most effectively. It’s up to us to decide what judgments to trust (and mistrust) based on our understanding of the many ways in which our brains can “trick” us into thinking we understand an aspect of reality, when truly, we are only “seeing” the reality that is filtered by our own unique algorithms and biases.
However I do think it’s worth keeping in mind that there is one inevitable consequence of doing neuroscience research: the more we learn about the brain, the more we do learn something about ourselves. To steal from the words of Colin Blakemore: “The brain struggling to understand the brain is society trying to explain itself.” In fact, I’m pretty sure that this was why I was so drawn to the study of the brain in the first place. That the understanding of how things work on the smallest of scales can shed light on complex phenomena such as human behavior is frankly, astounding.
So whether you’re a scientist who performs research simply because you’re curious and want to know why or whether you’re a public citizen who realizes that scientific progress can influence the way we view ourselves and our place in the world or whether you’re a cross between the two please do carry on. The questions that lay before us are limitless. As it should be.