The (Much Anticipated) Dawn Of Understanding

In neuroscience, few single discoveries have the ability to stay news for long. However, in the aggregate, all lead to the emergence of perhaps the greatest developing news story: the widespread understanding that human thought and behavior are the products of biological processes. There is no ghost in the machine. In the public sphere, this understanding is dawning. 

Consider the recent sea change in public opinion on homosexuality—namely the growing consensus that sexual orientation is not a choice. This transformation suggests that the scale is tipping from ancient intuition to an appreciation of biology with its inherent constraints and promises.

Every year, neuroscience reveals the anatomical and functional brain differences associated with expressing a given trait or tendency, whether psychopathy, altruism, extroversion, or conscientiousness. Researchers electrically stimulating one brain area cause a patient to experience a strong surge of motivation. Zapping a different area causes another patient to become less self-aware. Disease can disorient a patient's moral compass or create illusions of agency. Environmental influences, from what we eat to who we see, provide inputs that interact with and shape our neural activity—the activity that instantiates all our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Finding by finding, the ghost in the machine is being unmasked as a native biological system—like a drawn-out ending of a scientific Scooby Doo.

Lest we think science has effectively communicated the biological basis of human behavior, consider this: It is one thing to convince people that sexual orientation is not a choice. It is quite another to convince people that the dichotomy of biology versus choice made no sense at the start. Who, but the unmasked biological system, is doing the “choosing”? Choosing whether to take medication is as much a biological phenomenon as the disease to be medicated. Choice is simply a fanciful shorthand for biological processes we do not yet apprehend. When we have communicated that—when references to choice occupy the same rhetorical space as the four humors—we will be poised to realize public policy in harmony with a scientific understanding of the mind.