Brain Research: Improving Global Harmony
16 November 2007
I'm honored to be here, and to participate in this opening of the 8th Olympiad of the Mind on "Brain Research: Improving Global Harmony". My thanks to the STEPS Foundation, and to Epi Haidemanakis, for bring us together. As a touchstone for this gathering, I'd like to offer the words not of a scientist, nor a technologist or economist or politician, but rather a poetess, the American Emily Dickinson, from nearly a hundred and fifty years ago ...
The Brain is wider than the Sky
For put them side by side
The one the other will contain
With Ease and you beside.
For reasons yet to be understood (and that would make a good doctoral thesis), Dickinson anticipated by over a century and a half our contemporary understanding of the brain. "The brain is wider than the sky" because in important senses, we conceive the sky and, in conceiving it, bring its particular form into existence. We likewise bring into existence in their current forms science, technology, economics, and politics. And ourselves. The promise inherent in this is that we, our brains, have the wherewithal to conceive, within larger limits than we often think, not only new technologies but new sciences, new economic and political systems, and new selves.
We are appropriately reminded, both by history and by contemporary headlines, that new knowledge brings with it both possible solutions to old problems and ... new problems. That can't but be the case with research on the brain. I'd like to think though that research on the brain, as suggested by Emily Dickinson, is a special case, one where the new knowledge is not primarily about things "out there" but things in here. It is new knowledge about ourselves, and so has great potential for helping us not only to better understand ourselves but to expand our conceptions of what it is to be human. Inherent in that, I would like to believe, is an enhanced recognition of and attention to our own abilities to create both solutions and problems. And a greater understanding that knowledge itself does not assure human well-being. Knowledge is not itself a solution to human problems. It is a tool, one that look all tools can be used foolishly or wisely.
I very much look forward to hearing, over the next two days, the range of new knowledge we have and can expect to have about the brain/ourselves. And I encourage us all to hear it not only as possible solutions to existing human problems but, even more importantly, as ways to reimagine ourselves, to alter our own brains, so as to enhance the capacity of brains, our own and those of all humans, to conceive and participate in shaping new and richer futures for humanity.