Nikolas Rose on the Public Brain

The Human Brain Project is a rather enormous EU funded project, funded to the tune of €1.3 billion over 10 years, looking at future neurosciencefuture medicine and future computing. It aims to overcome fragmentation within neuroscience, synthesise existing data sets and produce a platform to make this openly available to neuroscientists worldwide:

It doesn’t take much reading around the project to realise that it has some pretty big social and ethical implications. So it’s reassuring to find Nikolas Rose, critical sociologist par excellence, on the steering committee of the social and ethical issues part of the project. It’s also interesting to learn that 3-5% of the funding is set aside to fund these activities. Rose spoke recently to USAPP about the project and related issues:

I think it’s difficult to talk about the way in which the Human Brain Project in and of itself has captured the popular imagination. It’s in early stages, it’s not clear how many people are aware of what it is doing and when people are aware of what it’s doing they tend to misunderstand. The Human Brain project is largely a data integration project, it’s largely trying to pull together data from a whole range of different sources, it is doing much more than just creating a computer model of the brain. People have concerns about modelling the human brain in a machine, worries about free will and worries about creating conscious computers and so forth, which are probably not the key of issues that are going to be raised by the HBP. More generally though, it’s undoubtedly the case that at the moment, at least in Europe and America and similar developed societies, the brain has become a fascinating object for public debate. Brain-based explanations of everything are becoming increasingly prominent in the media and also in the commercial field— you should buy brain gyms to train your children, brain foods, you should do Sudoku or brain exercises to ward off dementia etc. I don’t want to say this is just a facile fascination with the brain, which I think would be a trite conclusion: I think we are seeing the beginnings of a different way of thinking of the role of the brain in individual and collective life. When I started my 10 years of research on the social implications of neuroscience – for the book called Neuro that was published  a little while ago— I hypothesized that that psychological explanations of human behavior might soon be completely displaced by brain based explanations of human behavior.  My research didn’t find this, but it did show a growing belief in so many fields that our mental states are underpinned in some fundamental ways by our brains, by our neuro-biology.  The nature of our brains is now considered to have huge implications for who we are, individually and collectively, and on our conduct and our capacities. This is becoming rather a pervasive way of thinking, and I think it’s the emergence of that way of thinking, rather than the implications of any one piece of research or any one project like the Human Brain Project, that is important.  That is really the phenomenon – the change in the kinds of creatures we think we are, and all the implications of that change – that one has to try to understand. 


Categories: Rethinking The World

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