I spent the end of last week in Washington, D.C. at a very rich conversation about "The Brain and Global Harmony
" organized by Epi Haidemenakis and the International S.T.E.P.S Foundation. Sixteen papers on basic and clinical neuroscience, neuroethics, social organization, and education provided the grist for extensive discussions of the significance of existing and ongoing research on the brain for humanity, ways one might like to see it go in the future, and steps that might be taken to take to influence future directions. Participants came from the United States, Greece, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Singapore. A set of international policy recommendations following from those discussions will appear in the near future on the S.T.E.P.S. website
Here I mention a few things that particularly struck me from the meeting, as a record for my own future thinking and for whatever use they might be to motivate further thought from others, including other meeting participants. Such thoughts are warmly welcomed in the public on-line forum area below
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A strong general sense of the meeting, drawing particularly from presentations by Martha Farah
and Jonathan Moreno
, was that research on the brain, like nuclear physics and molecular genetics, creates both opportunities and risks for humanity sufficiently great so that special attention needs to be paid to them, both by researchers and by the public at large. A new Neuroethics Society
is one way of responding to this, as is a new neuroethics website
A second general meeting theme, most specifically motivated by presentations of Monica DiLuca
, Norman Salem
, Heinrich Binder
, Christopher Evans
, and Barry Halliwell
, was the importance of assuring that studies of the brain further develop as an interdisciplinary enterprise, involving both basic and clinical investigators of the brain as well as other relevant disciplines. Associated with these conversations was particular attention to not only the existence but value of "neurodiversity", ie to the recognition that brains vary substantially and ought not to be evaluated by any single norm (cf Culture as Disability
website, Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical)
A third set of themes that emerged from the meeting has to do with education. The importance of assuring widespread widespread "brain literacy", and hence of paying special attention to assuring that brain research findings were widely disseminated in accessible forms was a general concern. In addition, presentations by Michael Zigmond
, Ron Hoy
, Martin Perl
, Leon Lederman
, Lauren Resnick
and myself particularly called attention to the significance of contemporary understandings of the brain for rethinking educational practices, both in the classroom and more broadly (cf Brain and Education
My own contributions focused on the internal variability and heterogeneity of the brain, and on its significance for continually creating and revising conceptions of humanness (see my introductory comments
, pre-conference paper
, and presentation slides
). The notion of the brain as a reviser and creator had strong resonances with presentations by Scott Kelso
on metastability as a basic operating mechanism in both the brain and social systems, by Theodor Landis
on reward, trust, and impulse control, by Christof von der Malsburg
on "group instincts" and how to get beyond them, and by Lauren Resnick
on "well structured talk".
For me, at least, what was particularly encouraging about the meeting was the way it exemplified the kind of creative richness that derives from both heterogeneity and engaged exchange. Under some circumstances, at least, humans from quite different backgrounds and with quite different perspectives are indeed capable (like the brain itself) of productive exchanges of stories that in turn yield new questions and new stories. And create good feelings in all as part of the process. No, of course it wasn't "global" harmony, but perhaps it was an illustration of the kinds of processes that could move us all more in that direction?
One that participants and others can build on for the future?