2003 : WHAT ARE THE PRESSING SCIENTIFIC ISSUES FOR THE NATION AND THE WORLD, AND WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE ON HOW I CAN BEGIN TO DEAL WITH THEM? - GWB

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Neuroscientist; Associate Professor of Philosophy, Caltech; Coauthor, Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are
Neuroscientist

Dear Mr. President:

First, I should start off by endorsing virtually all the recommendations you have received so far. I would add another recommendation, which I believe addresses a fundamental, but ironically largely ignored, problem facing us today. Let me put the problem this way: why is it that in an age of unprecedented material wealth, a billion dollar self-help industry, and an economy designed to feed not stomachs but lifestyles, more and more people are depressed and go through life listlessly, with little sense of purpose or meaning? Why in the absence of such meaning do some people turn to destructive ideologies, whose manifestations in terrorism are all to real (I think a cult model is the way you should be thinking about terrorist organizations, by the way)?

Studies of our biological constitution make it increasingly clear that we are social creatures of meaning, who crave a sense of coherence and purpose. Yet, our modern way of life seems to provide fewer and fewer opportunities to engage in the group life that satisfies these human needs—indeed, many of its structures and institutions stunts these very needs. In addition to these obstacles within the design of modern life, it's my hunch that modernist culture is based on a profoundly mistaken view of human needs. The upshot is a deeply flawed view of human happiness as the private pursuit of self actualization. The implications are profound, and range from an enormous cost in public health terms to more and more social conflicts, terrorism being just one manifestation of these.

As science advisor, I would initiate a program at the intersection of science and culture to investigate what modern brain science reveals about human needs and how such an understanding can be applied to create both ways of living and a culture that better satisfies them—for lack of a better word, I'd call this "neurosociology."

I think we will find that the staggering advances in brain science reveal human needs to be vastly different from the modern view—for example, that we aren't the asocial, consumptive selves Freud thought we were, but instead are deeply social and need not only to belong but to identify with groups and purposes larger than ourselves.

This initiative would attempt to use this new knowledge to design ways of living that provide more opportunity for real meaning and social engagement that the human brain requires—from how we ought to think about the design of communities, the workplace, learning institutions, and entertainment and leisure. This initiative would also have to focus on a deeply troubling problem: although science is the engine of our society, its core values and insights have had only a weak influence on our culture. This is a troubling gap: for science, and therefore, our civilization, to sustain itself, we require a culture that is built on the core values and insights of science itself, one that endows human life with the meaning we all crave. Aligning the design of life and a sustaining culture with the human needs that brain science is beginning to reveal would, I think, have a profound impact on many of the most troubling social dilemmas we face.

To sum it up, I would recommend the creation of a new science of human flourishing and significance, a nascent neurosociology, whose goal would be a happiness worth having.

Steven Quartz
Neuroscientist
Division of Humanities & Social Sciences, and Computation and Neural Systems Program
California Institute of Technology
Coauthor (with Terrence Sejnowski) of Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are.