Slate special on neuroscience

Slate has just released a special series on the brain – taking a critical look at some of the most recent developments in the field and asking researchers how neuroscience has changed their life.

There’s a wonderful article by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnick on getting past the hype surrounding mirror neurons – which are being used to explain almost every form of human behaviour despite the lack of evidence.

A host of brain researchers note how neuroscience has impacted on their day-to-day life and changes the way they see the world.

Most strikingly, Christof Koch notes that his research into consciousness convinced him to become vegetarian as “mammals can consciously experience the pains and pleasure of life”.

There’s also a few articles on cognitive enhancement: notably, one on the history and myths behind popular ‘brain supplement’ ginkgo biloba and another on neuroplasticity and the new craze for ‘brain training‘ programmes.

Neurotheology, the neuroscience of religious and spiritual experience, also gets a look in with an article examined the development of this new discipline and another on whether technology could induce spritual experiences via the brain.

I have to say, the article on the ‘five biggest neuroscience developments of the year’ is a bit ropey.

For example:

2. The neural alteration of morality. Six people with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were presented with moral dilemmas (e.g., would you smother a baby to prevent bad guys from finding and killing people in hiding) and were found to be two to three times more willing to kill than people without brain damage. The advertised conclusion is that such willingness to kill is objectively immoral. The feared conclusion is that if brain design determines what’s moral, you can change morality by changing the brain – and once technology manipulates ethics, ethics can no longer judge technology.

In fact, we’ve known for a very long time that brain damage can make people less moral, as the case of Phineas Gage suggested, and modern studies of ‘acquired sociopathy’ have reported.

It’s also interesting that the study in question found patients with ventromedial brain damage were actually more moral in utilitarian terms.

They were less swayed by the normal emotional response to making decisions that required trading off considerations of group welfare against emotionally negative behaviours (for example, having to sacrifice one person’s life to save a number of other lives).

Whether this is less moral, depends on your moral framework.

Generally, though, the series is well worth checking out and has some fascinating insights and commentary.

Link to Slate special series on the brain.

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