As reported in the Guardian, Neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have managed to fool people that they inhabit another physical body. The experiment involved an optical illusion which convinced subjects they were inhabiting the body of a dummy across the room. The illusion was so powerful that subjects flinched when the dummy was threatened with a knife and even felt they were ‘shaking hands with themselves’ (not quite sure what this really means!) when they walked across the room and shook hands with the dummy. The neuroscientists concluded that the proprioceptive sense of self (the sense of inhabiting one’s own body) is generated by the way the brain integrates multisensory perceptual signals (our sense of inhabiting our own bodies is a kind of ‘trick’ the brain plays and be manipulated).


Jonah Lehrer reports in his blog that there is a strong correlation between lower IQ and a dietary lack of iodised salt. He also reports that there is a strong correlation between high levels of lead and lower IQ in children (lead is often found in old paint in the USA and lead-painted apartments are often occupied by the poor). These two findings suggest that disadvantage in the poor may be much more grounded in environmenntal factors than previously thought.


Jonah also reports on a study that claims that happiness is something not only possessed by individuals but networks of people as well. Apparently happiness clusters around groups of happy people and its waxing and waning is far more reliant on factors external to individuals than previously thought – it spreads like a contagion amongst groups and this probably has an evolutionary basis in securing social bonds.


Finally, the Neurophilosophy blog reports on a study which shows that the brain’s response to fear is fine-tuned by culture – that basic responses are hard-wired but that these are calibrated by cultural factors.


This apparent ragbag of studies expresses in several key ways how brain science might effect the way we understand ourselves in the twenty-first century:


(1)   Our sense of ‘self’ is in part generated and sustained by multiple sub-personal physiological mechanisms, so that it no longer seems possible to think of ourselves as wholly self-directing and autonomous (as Descartes, Kant, Sartre et al thought we should).

(2)   Disadvantage, especially historically entrenched disadvantage, may well in part be grounded in environmental factors beyond the control of individuals (such as where they live, how much they have to eat, what they have available to eat). Is it still possible, in light of this, to expect individuals to drag themselves out of disadvantage by willpower alone? Shouldn’t we at least be focussed on alleviating environmental determinants of disadvantage first?

(3)   The whole ‘self-help’ approach to mental well-being that goes hand in hand with a certain form of individualist capitalism seems to misunderstand how people actually become happy. Happiness seems to be a largely socially embedded and constituted phenomenon, so that learning how to be happy involves learning how to maintain emotional connections to others (so that one’s happiness depends on relations, not intrinsic individual properties).

(4)   Despite what neruobiology might tell us, neuroscience does not fund determinism. There are certain hard(ish) limits on cognitive-emotional processes, but within these bounds, how we behave, perceive ourselves, that’s all up to us. Elisabeth Gould’s studies of neural plasticity also support this view of the brain as not only determining us, but something the functioning of which we can to a certain extent determine ourselves.


The overrall conclusion then is that ‘we’ are far more determined by extrinsic factors (both social and natural) than previously thought. So where appropriate we need to learn to work with the hard(ish) constraints our brains place on us. But within these constraints, we have the abilities to calibrate ourselves and our world to reflect the values and ideals we hold dear. And the hard constraints aren’t all bad – that we can only be properly happy by learning how to thrive in emotionally attuned networks is a constraint that’s just fine with me.