In today’s column, David Brooks reports on the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society’s conference last week in NYC. He says about the crack young neuro-scientists there, “When you spoke with them, you felt yourself near the beginning of something long and important.” Let’s hope so. But let's not lose our heads yet.
While the kinds of studies these guys conduct will stir up interesting clues and insights about what makes us tick--and what sometimes makes us explode, and what sometimes makes us blow other people up--and that is thrilling, unless you’re trying to raise funds for your own research, it seems best to resist irrational exuberance about the value of consigning various brain states to emotions and behaviors. Brooks suggests that “this work will someday give us new categories, which will replace misleading categories like ‘emotion’ and ‘reason.’” Maybe. Maybe not.
He gives the example of Saaid A. Mendoza and David M. Amodio of New York University, whose work shows that reminding people to be fair may correct for reflexive prejudice that occurs in as little as 170 milliseconds in the anterior cingulate cortices when people racially discriminate. But what does that tell us that we don’t already know? That we should remind ourselves to be fair? Okay. And where would we be left if the study showed us otherwise? Would we give up trying to teach journalists to be fair, to compensate for their own prejudices? Would we stop bothering to try to make our kids aware of their biases?
Brooks is right to be enthusiastic. Neuroscience is in a thrilling stage. Absolutely. But it would be a big mistake to bank on the idea that the study of brain states will show us a way toward solving the crisis in the Middle East, or toward solving the social injustice we've come to take in stride here in the US. We can't just blame those problems on our brains. Nor are we likely to find ultimate solutions there. Brains don't go to war, people do.