The Neuroscience of Niceness

By Neuroskeptic | August 12, 2009 8:20 pm

The Templeton Foundation is offering $4,000,000 to fund research into “Positive Neuroscience”. The idea seems to be put some neuro into Positive Psychology. Aspiring neuroscientists are invited to submit proposals for

…projects that apply tools of neuroscience to positive psychological concepts in the following core areas:

Virtue, strength, and positive emotion: What are the neural bases of the cognitive and affective capacities that enable virtues such as discipline, persistence, honesty, compassion, love, curiosity, social and practical intelligence, courage, creativity, and optimism?

Exceptional abilities: What is special about the brains of exceptional individuals and what can we learn from them?

Meaning and positive purpose: How does the brain enable individuals and groups to find meaning and achieve larger goals?

Decisions, values, and free will: How does the brain enable decisions based on values and how can decision-making be improved? What can neuroscience reveal about the nature of human freedom?

Religious belief, prayer, and meditation: How do religious and spiritual practices affect neural function and behavior?

All good and important things, no doubt. But does neuroscience have anything to say about them?

It may not do. Neuroscience has nothing useful to say, for example, about driving a car. If you want to learn how to drive, you get in a car and practice. Now, there must be some biological processes going on in your brain as you to learn how to drive, but we don’t understand them, and this doesn’t stop us doing it.

So while there must be a “Car Neuroscience”, it’s irrelevant to cars. And the neuroscience of good and exceptional behaviour may be irrelevant as well, if good and exceptional behaviour is something you learn. Genius, as we know, is 99% perspiration. The answer to the question – “What is special about the brains of exceptional individuals” – may be, nothing.

In fact, there surely are neurological correlates of at least some exceptional abilities. For example, it is hard to deny that autism is a neurological condition, or that people with autism sometimes (although not always) show incredible “savant” abilities. Rain Man is fiction, but that kind of thing does happen.

But researching the neural basis of talent and achievement might not be as nice as you’d think. There are shades of phenology in the idea. Worse, if there’s a “neural basis of the cognitive and affective capacities that enable virtues such as discipline, persistence, honesty, compassion…” etc, there are certainly going to be genes which affect the function of those neural circuits. If you discover the “good” genes, might you not start to wonder if society would be better off without the “bad” ones…?

Personally, I’m not too concerned by this kind of speculation. There are plenty of worse things happening in the world than hypothetical future eugenics programs. But many people do worry about this kind of thing: declaring something to be a kind of eugenics is a popular way of ending arguments. It’s interesting that by stressing the positive, happy, niceness of their program, the Templeton Foundation feel able to propose something that, looked at from another angle, has deeply un-PC implications.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: genes, neurofetish, politics
  • dearieme

    I wonder what would have happened to eugenics if Hitler hadn't given it a bad name. After all, many of the most PC, progressive people were pretty keen on eugenics, and eugenic sterilisations continued in Sweden into the 70s.

  • Yigal Agam

    Very nice post. I at least hope that social/emotional neuroscience will become more rigorous due to the bad publicity it has received recently.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Good question, dearieme. It's easy to forget how popular eugenics was. Countries without direct experience with Hitler, like China, seem to be a lot more open to the idea than we are.

  • Aaron

    I am incredibly hesitant about the motivations behind the Templeton Foundation's eagerness to find such answers.

    It honestly wouldn't surprise me if they said something like “oh, look, this part of the brain deals with kindness.. oh and look, it kind of looks like the same area lights up when people pray..this looks like religion and kindness have a strong correlation”.

    Forgive my misgivings but the Templeton Foundation is nothing but 'dodgy' to me.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Aaron: Mmm, I wouldn't be surprised either.

    Maybe I should raise my concerns with Dawkins, and see if he'll give me $4 million to use fMRI to prove God doesn't exist…

  • Joel

    I think it is a great idea, although I've heard that Martin Seligman is a psychologist who doesn't actually have that strong of a background in neuroscience… I'm somewhat less skeptical of affective neuroscience as being the new phrenology, while some of the techniques (fMRI in particular) have come under attack for statistical distortion, the field itself is fledgling and promising in terms of what it can tell us about emotional and mental hygiene. If that is what Seligman is proposing here, I see no harm in it, the paradigm is still too murky though and if they are going to do this, they need to focus on strengthening the terminology, literature and methods and not making it too messy or new agey…

  • Neuroskeptic

    Joel: I agree, I have no objections to the science in theory. I think affective neuroscience is a great enterprise.

    But my worry is that this program will set out with a lot of presuppositions, rather than being a genuine search for truth.

    The Templeton Foundation, after all, have a specific (religious) agenda.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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