Royal Society – Brain Waves: Neuroscience, Society and Policy

The Royal Society has just put out the first module of its Brain Waves project, which provides a primer on the state of art in neuroscience and how neuroscience intersects with society. The ten essays cover a range of relevant topics for neuroanthropology, with an introduction written by Prof. Colin Blakemore.

The first section covers the scope and limits of neuroimaging, neuropsychopharmacology, neural interfaces, consciousness, and reward.

The second section focuses on neuroscience and society, with takes on benefits, risks, neuroethics, and governance.

All the essays, which generally range from 8 to 12 pages and are written in clear prose and have citations for further exploration, have been written almost entirely by prominent British experts. They are freely available as pdfs.

I’ve just started to explore, and based on the quality, I am sure to look at them all. Wolfram Schultz’s essay on Reward, Decision Making, and Neuroeconomics is obviously one that immediately caught my eye. Steven Rose’s Risks raises some of the critical questions relevant to many anthropologists.

But off the bat I’m interested in Wolf Singer’s A Determinist View of Brain, Mind and Consciousness. Singer contrasts his determinist view (in my eyes, more of a materialist view) against common assumptions people have. Since higher mental functions are based in neuronal processes like everything else, this conflicts with intuitions we have about free will and raises ethical issues.

What is interesting, then, is that his determinist view of the mature brain is: (1) genetics, (2) epigenetics and development, and (3) lifelong adaptation of the brain to experience. This is not quite the hard-core determinism of the past!

However, in Singer’s determinism, thought (or mental processes) are only the consequence of neuronal processes, not the cause, so thought cannot shape neuronal functioning on its own. Moreover, he assumes all functions in the brain are determined by brain structure and connections between neurons. So no interactive view of the brain here. And very reductive, not just in terms of grappling with how to do science (we only study neuronal functioning) but that this then encompasses thought and mental processes as well.

So a provocative essay, and he lays out his evidence and the implications he sees from this view in relation to popular cultural views on self, free will, and the legal system.

Link to The Royal Society’s Brain Waves Module 1: Neuroscience, Society and Policy.

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2 Responses to Royal Society – Brain Waves: Neuroscience, Society and Policy

  1. Joel says:

    But off the bat I’m interested in Wolf Singer’s A Determinist View of Brain, Mind and Consciousness.

    Interesting “Bioethics” implication: Why would one neuronal mixture, try to persuade another deterministic material being about neuronal detachment from personal volition?


    Jim McGuiggan, audio message, “two bags of chemicals).

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