2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Neuroscientist; Professor of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA; Author, Mirroring People
Neuroscientist; Director, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab, UCLA

Neuroscience Will Change Society

Some time ago I believed that a book could radically change society. I guess my belief was an extreme form of optimism. One of the books I thought could change society was Anti-Oedipus, the book that was written some thirty years ago by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychiatrist Felix Guattari. At some point, I can't even figure out when, I must have lost my belief in the power of books in changing society. But, the good news is that my belief is coming back. It is coming back in a slightly different form. What I am optimistic about is that neuroscience research will make our society a better one.

I spent the last 20 years doing neuroscience research. To make a long story short, 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 through the activities of the third culture. 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.