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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Neuroscience of Niceness


The Templeton Foundation is offering $4,000,000 to fund research into "Positive Neuroscience". The idea seems to be put some neuro into Positive Psychology. Aspiring neuroscientists are invited to submit proposals for
...projects that apply tools of neuroscience to positive psychological concepts in the following core areas:

Virtue, strength, and positive emotion: What are the neural bases of the cognitive and affective capacities that enable virtues such as discipline, persistence, honesty, compassion, love, curiosity, social and practical intelligence, courage, creativity, and optimism?

Exceptional abilities: What is special about the brains of exceptional individuals and what can we learn from them?

Meaning and positive purpose: How does the brain enable individuals and groups to find meaning and achieve larger goals?

Decisions, values, and free will: How does the brain enable decisions based on values and how can decision-making be improved? What can neuroscience reveal about the nature of human freedom?

Religious belief, prayer, and meditation: How do religious and spiritual practices affect neural function and behavior?

All good and important things, no doubt. But does neuroscience have anything to say about them?

It may not do. Neuroscience has nothing useful to say, for example, about driving a car. If you want to learn how to drive, you get in a car and practice. Now, there must be some biological processes going on in your brain as you to learn how to drive, but we don't understand them, and this doesn't stop us doing it.

So while there must be a "Car Neuroscience", it's irrelevant to cars. And the neuroscience of good and exceptional behaviour may be irrelevant as well, if good and exceptional behaviour is something you learn. Genius, as we know, is 99% perspiration. The answer to the question - "What is special about the brains of exceptional individuals" - may be, nothing.

In fact, there surely are neurological correlates of at least some exceptional abilities. For example, it is hard to deny that autism is a neurological condition, or that people with autism sometimes (although not always) show incredible "savant" abilities. Rain Man is fiction, but that kind of thing does happen.

But researching the neural basis of talent and achievement might not be as nice as you'd think. There are shades of phenology in the idea. Worse, if there's a "neural basis of the cognitive and affective capacities that enable virtues such as discipline, persistence, honesty, compassion..." etc, there are certainly going to be genes which affect the function of those neural circuits. If you discover the "good" genes, might you not start to wonder if society would be better off without the "bad" ones...?

Personally, I'm not too concerned by this kind of speculation. There are plenty of worse things happening in the world than hypothetical future eugenics programs. But many people do worry about this kind of thing: declaring something to be a kind of eugenics is a popular way of ending arguments. It's interesting that by stressing the positive, happy, niceness of their program, the Templeton Foundation feel able to propose something that, looked at from another angle, has deeply un-PC implications.

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