Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Neuroscience will change society

Interesting reflections by Marco Iacoboni, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, which have been mentioned a number of times in this blog:

"...a concept that emerges from recent neuroscience research is that humans are "wired for empathy". We have cells in our brains that make us understand each other in a simple, unmediated, automatic manner. But, if our neurobiology makes us wired for empathy, why is our world so full of atrocities?

The explanation for this apparent paradox is probably as follows. The neurobiological mechanisms that make us wired for empathy work at a pre-reflective, automatic, implicit level. Our societies are built on deliberate, reflective, explicit discourse. The two different levels of implicit and explicit mental processes rarely intersect; indeed there is evidence that they can often dissociate. This is probably why the massive belief systems—from religious to political ones—that operate at the deliberate, reflective level are able to divide us in such a powerful way even though our neurobiology should bring us together.

The good news is that the awareness of neurobiological mechanisms that make us wired for empathy is entering the public discourse.... This awareness won't go away and will seep through the reflective level of our mental processes. Indeed, people seem to have an intuitive understanding of how neural mechanisms for empathy work. It seems that people 'recognize' how their brain works, when they are told about it. People can finally articulate what they already 'knew' at a pre-reflective level. My optimism is that this explicit level of understanding of our empathic nature will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us."

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