Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Neuroscience and personhood

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

The eternal Nature Vs Nurture debate keeps re-surfacing in many different ways. Is social behaviour determined by our biological architecture or is it a result of the social, cultural, and political environment we are exposed to? Is the human brain pre-programmed with genetic circuitry or can it be trained to adapt to social influences?

The escalating interest in neuroscience in the last decade has put the spotlight on the brain, its intricate pathways and its sophisticated signalling systems that control physical and emotional responses. Graphic full-colour images of the brain are now ubiquitous in the media.

But is the proliferating coverage of neuroscience in the popular media radically changing the way people think of notions of Self or personhood? In other words, is the public engagement with neuroscience making significant changes in the way people think about the brain and its influence on the complexities of human agency? This is a topic that Cliodhna O’Connor and Helene Joffe grapple with in their forthcoming article on “How has neuroscience affected lay understandings of personhood?” in Public Understanding of Science.

In a thorough review, O’Connor and Joffe conclude that the propagation of radical neuroscientific explorations has come through “in ways that perpetuate rather than challenge existing modes of understanding self, others and society”. This is because “people selectively attend to and interpret science in ways that cohere with their pre-existing values, identities and beliefs.”

In the course of their review, the authors touch upon what they call the “philosophical battle” between conceptions of every human being as a “free agent” and conceptions of a human whose character, behav­iour and life-course are pre-patterned by their biological constitution”. The latter conceptions, the authors say, paint “neuroscience research as the definitive refutation of the notion of free will, which is cast – in Nobel Laureate Francis Crick’s words – as ‘no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’.”

Talking of Francis Crick, news has just come in of the decision of his family to sell his Nobel medal and give the proceeds to research institutions – see LiveScience. Crick, of course, was not only credited, with his colleagues, of mapping the structure of the DNA but also for his discovery of the molecular structure of nucleic acids and the role this structure played in the transfer of information in human beings. 

Commenting on the news of the sale, blogger Grant Jacobs, in the blog Code for Life, draws attention to one other item for sale – a letter written by the Nobel Laureate to his 12-year-old son to explain the Double Helix structure of the DNA. “It’d be interesting to see his efforts at science communication from the time of suggesting the model for the structure of DNA”, Jacobs says. It would indeed. As James Borrell says in his blog on How to communicate science and not be boring: “There’s a saying that if you can’t explain your research to a child, then you don’t understand it well enough yourself.”