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Neuroscience is expanding massively. There is much fear that this will somehow herald a new social determinism, an anti-progressive agenda where people are marked out as winners and losers by the kind of brains they possess. The comparison case is genetics (although obviously neuroscience is not separate from genetics). After the genome was mapped, all sorts of anti-progressive implications floated around for a while – refusing life insurance to people with ‘bad’ genetic profiles and so on.

Does neuroscience have anti-progressive implications? I’m going to argue in as far as the facts are so far in, no, not at all – quite the opposite.

First, let’s define progressives along with my Chief Executive as: ‘enthusiastic believers in the capacity of human beings to collaborate to achieve qualitative advances in individual and social welfare.’ I would argue that the three major paradigm-busting discoveries of neuroscience are consonant with progressivism thus defined.

1) That many of our decisions are not made self-consciously (within our conscious control) but are made by our brains for us. There is a wealth of research on this now, but the seminal studies were carried out by Benjamin Libet. The basic idea is that we think we decide on an action but in fact our brains have already embarked on executing it before we become aware of the action taking place.

2) That the production of neural pathways (neurogenesis) is possible in adult humans and that neurogenesis is developmentally retarded by the wrong kind of environments. These two discoveries were made by Elizabeth Gould in the course of her work on the relation between neurogenesis and environment/experience. To be fair, these findings are not rock solid yet. The experiments have only been carried out on higher mammalian brains rather than human ones, but nevertheless, the findings look liklely to be true.

3) That decision-making cannot be funded by reason alone. Rather, the emotions are central to the making of decisions, as well as to following social conventions, possessing a sense of personal future and acting on moral principles. The work here that is important is by Antonio Damasio who studied the way brain lesions that knocked out emotional responses also impaired the ability of subjects to make plain old rational decisions (like where to go on holiday, or where to go shopping).

1) Might be thought to imply anti-progressive characteristics. Why? Well if our unconscious/semi-conscious decision-making processes are fixed then we are in trouble. This is because useful as these processes are, they are often simplistic and crude. But in fact, these processes are not fixed but are responsive to training. We can reflect on our unconsicous prejudices and reconfigure the processes involved.

2) Gives the lie to the idea that our brains fix our abilities completely from an early age (they do to a certain extent, but only a certain extent). It also reinforces the progressive point that material and social well-being when missing really do disadvantage children and young people.

3) Corrects the somewhat fuzzy but popular idea that if our minds are our brains then emotions and feelings somehow drop out of the picture (that we – that is, the agents who make decisions – are somehow purely self-interested rational creatures only concerned to maximize our own utility, possessed of nothing more than mechanical and cold reasoning powers).

So there’s my pitch for the idea that the three major discoveries of neuroscience can go hand in hand with progressivism. The century of the brain can very well be the century of real social progress also.


Happy New Year from the Social Brain!


Here at the RSA, we like to be optimistic. We even like to be optimistic about the potential of human nature – something that is deeply unfashionable these days. By a slightly circuitous route I’m going to argue here that we can be quite optimistic about 2009 and beyond, because we can be optimistic about human nature in general.


My boss, Matthew Taylor, has spoken about the fact that the conception of the self (and concomitantly of agency) we have inherited from the Enlightenment, is no longer tenable given what we know about how people think, feel and act. Experiments like those carried out by Benjamin Libett have exposed as myth the idea that all our decisions and actions flow from an adjudicating and executive self. Much of what we think, say and do is actually triggered by sub-personal psychological mechanisms. And cases like that of Phineas Gage, made popular by Antonio Damasio, have shown us that despite the myth of a logical, purely rational self, when we do make self-conscious decisions, these are only possible because our emotions are fully integrated with our rational powers (emotions make possible the appearing salient of one choice over another, and thus the very possibility of making a decision at all). Moreover, behavioural economics (and recent events) have given the lie to the Chicago School conception of ‘economic man’ as the right one to understand economic agency.


This might seem to put the RSA in a bit of a pickle. We are an institution with its roots in the Enlightenment, and proud of this fact too. So how can we be optimistic about human nature in the classical Enlightenment sense, if the Enlightenment self has been exposed as fraud?


Matthew Taylor also blogged a while ago about Zadie Smith’s quite excellent article in the New York Review of Books. In the article, Smith discusses lucidly, honestly and eloquently the fact that many writers are committed to a form of expression (lyrical realism) which is still wedded to the Enlightenment conception of the self ( a self from which nothing is hidden from view, as it were). Smith likens this form of expression to neural pathways we are stuck in – engrained grooves of thinking and feeling that are familiar and comfortable but which don’t accurately represent how we actually experience the world. Being stuck in these grooves is not good for literature because part of its remit is to give expression to the latter.


Smith admits she is partly guilty of conformism to lyrical realism. But she points to another style of writing,  citing Tom Mcarthy’s Remainder as its apogee. This form of expression eschews the full transparency and authenticity of the Enlightenment self, and (somewhat ideologically) commits itself to depicting where the latter comes up short (where it is not transparent to itself, where it is inauthentic). I have my own reservations about this particular literary approach (it is set up almost wholly in opposition to lyrical realism, so to my mind is still beholden to it). But I accept wholeheartedly that what we want from our writers in the twenty-first century is, well, an honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a self in the twenty-first century.


Remainder sets to that task with iconoclastic relish and much dark humour. But perhaps rejecting the Enlightenment self needn’t go hand in hand with its nihilism? Perhaps it can go hand in had with a continued optimism about human nature?


How so? Experiments in neuroscience on brain plasticity suggest that neural pathways can always be reconfigured – that the grooves we think and feel in are just that, rather than fixed routes. So we are perfectly capable of reshaping our imagination, of thinking and feeling differently where need be. In the current economic climate there is much pessimism. But why? Surely, the credit crunch, despite its obvious immediate hardships, is also a great opportunity? It’s a chance to reassess what’s important. Moreover, the conception of self and agency that is emerging from the rubble of the Enlightenment notion of authenticity is not necessarily inauthentic and nihilistic. For it turns out that being a self is a far more social affair than we took it to be. How we perceive ourselves, what makes us happy and contented, the very content of our minds, all this is determined by things and others external to ourselves. But why is that a problem? Why does that make us inauthentic apart from in terms of a rather crude opposition to classical Enlightenment authenticity? Surely being a thoroughly socially and environmentally embedded self means only that the world is open to us in a different way than we previously thought, rather than not open to us to understand and work with in a positive way at all? In fact, the chances of bringing about lasting social progress on this new conception are better not worse, because it pictures us change-makers as social creatures dependent on our environments. And we need to think of ourselves more like that, not less.


So that’s my pitch for optimism in 2009. We have a chance to change things, we are perfectly capable of changing things, and the way in which we can change them is actually better than the way the classical Enlightenment conception of the self promised. So it’s Enlightenment social progress without the Enlightenment self. It’s an optimism about the potential of human nature without the Enlightenment conception of that nature.


All we need now is a political class with the vision to see this.

A recent post by Jonah Lehrer brings to the fore the positive and negative aspects of our brains’ unconscious cognitive processes. He talks of how our dopamine neurons drive us to find patterns of regularity in the world around us. For a language-using, tool-using animal, the ability to detect patterns in things is obviously enormously important. It is by recognising patterns that we can employ words, both verbally and graphically, and it is by recognising social patterns of behaviour that we can engage in sophisticated forms of cooperation. Finally, it is by recognising causal patterns in nature that we can develop sophisticated future-directed methods and stategies for sustaining and protecting ourselves.

But there is a downside to this sub-personal tendency to find patterns in things. We see order in randomness – we see things that are not really there. Jonah uses the example of stock markets; traders employ all sorts of complicated models to predict them, but these are often next to useless. However, I don’t think this is a particularly good example, as the desire to find patterns in stock markets is probably driven by the desire to make money, rather than the feeling of reward that pattern-finding simpliciter yields.

What interests me here is the double-edged nature of decision-making that is informed by pattern recognition and that is driven by dopamine neurons. On the plus side we take a joy in capacities that are so important for us: locating patterns of regularity in an overwhelmingly complex natural world; locating patterns of meaning in an overwhelmingly complex social world. In my opinion, the joy we take in music, poetry and the arts is deeply rooted in our pattern-finding capacities. A perfectly crafted three minute Motown song might lay down a pattern we find very easy to follow but now with heightened emotional intensity. A Bach fugue might thrill us with the excquisite nature of its counterpoint variations on a theme – taking our natural ability to detect increasingly fine-grained patterns of similarity and difference to new heights. A Mondrian painting might distill down the essential elements of landscape and our subjective view of it. And, even a conceptual work like Robert Rauschenberg’s telegram to the Galerie Iris Clert draws a pattern holding between things that we perhaps haven’t seen or thought about before.

Art is a wondeful example of the double-edged nature of our enjoyment in pattern-finding. On the one hand, we revel in tracking the patterns it traces out – that is, we revel in the familiarity of certain patterns like the human form, but also in testing our skill in tracing complex or unusual ones. On the other hand, some art actually disrupts our pattern-finding abilities – stops us from staying in familiar grooves, creates a dissonance that stirs us to try to understand anew. Adorno wrote about this latter kind of possibility for art, citing the compositions of Schoenberg and Berg as examples of art that disrupts our usual cognitive patterns and forces us to pay close attention to the precisie material structure of the object we are engaging with.

I think there is a kind of joy in both these forms of aesthetic pleasure because they tap into three levels of pattern-finding that we excel at as human-beings. At the frist level, there is the unconscious pattern-finding that serves us so well as natural and social animals. The reward at this level is a kind of comfort in familiarity. At the second level, there is the joy in tracking complex unexpected patterns. The sense of reward here is not so simple – it is a reward that engages our conscious brains; we become aware of our abilities to track patterns because they are pushed to their limits and also because we notice unusual or unexpected ones. To a certain extent, this kind of feeling of reward helps us hone the unconsicous level of pattern-finding that informs simple decision-making. But it also enables us to make decisions that engage far more complex data. Finally, at the third level we are forced to reflect on our pattern-finding capacities per se – we reach a meta-cognitive state where we realise that we are constantly imposing patterns and that there are inherent dangers in doing this. In other words, at this level we actually cognise the double-edged nature of our dopamine driven pattern-finding capacities – we see that they enable us to track features of natural and social reality, yet we also see that in constantly employing this capacity we may in fact be simply imposing form rather than discovering it.

The lessons from this three-level view of pattern-finding and decision-making are the following. Our unconscious cognition can aid us greatly and in many situations should be trusted and not reduced to more self-conscious cognition. But this level of cognition needs to be trained and honed. It needs to be informed by experiences and learning that constantly calibrate its tendency to simplify – we need to be continually open to the new patterns around us. And the aesthetic pleasure taken in art can help us here. But lest we become self-satisfied about our honed capacities, we need to, if we can, reach the meta-cognitive level where we come to see that pattern-finding per se has a double nature – the wonder of our tracking patterns in the material world and the delusion of our imposing patterns that aren’t actually there.

I think there is a joy in exposing this delusional tendency. It is the joy of being – or aiming to be – both an embodied creature connected up reliably through perception to the world, and a self-critical and rational animal capable of reflective insight into its own cognitive predicament.