BIAS & NEUROSCIENCE
Our memories and our beliefs are a major part of who we are - they can be a major part of our very identity.
We must be aware science has confirmed that our thoughts and behavior can be surreptitiously biased by others
The brain remembers sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and very precise body movements. Together with its pre-wired instincts and individual features it can integrate and organize those memories to produce long-lasting personal skills, insights, emotions, comprehensions, opinions, and beliefs. How it does all this is one of the most fascinating scientific topic imaginable.
A new generation of cognitive and behavioral neuroscientists have recently developed techniques to manipulate memories and modify behavior. They address practical issues such as people’s fear of heights or spiders, the identification of potential false memories in criminal trial witnesses, effective marketing strategies, and the modification of harmful memories in patients under psychological care. Neuroscience is also looking into other areas, such as: childhood development, mental health, human interactions, creative thinking & decision making, rewards & punishments – the list is long and it certainly includes getting to the bottom of human biases. These are all essentially positive developments, but as with all altruistic technological advances there resides the possibility for biased and malevolent interests.
Neuroscientific techniques have been developed, with both animals and humans, which can effectively change behaviors. The technologies include various types of neuroimaging (including fMRI and MEG), genetic RNA splicing, direct memory manipulation, drugs, and direct wired lasers (optogenetics). Yet despite these achievements the complexity of the brain renders its overall functionality a mystery to scientists. Pioneer neurobiologist James McGaugh of University of California, Irvine believes “the brain is the most complicated and interesting structure in the universe.”
Memories can be exploited as experiments now confirm that remembering something is a creative process that tends to select what to remember. Recollections have been shown to be somewhat plastic: each time one accesses past impressions they are recreated before being refiled. What has not been determined is the degree of variation that individuals have with respect to these matters.
It has been known for well over a century that some people could be conditioned, and their behavior modified, without their knowledge. But the science has moved well beyond the reflex conditioning of Ivan Pavlov (of dog fame), the hypnosis of Mesmer (as in “mesmerize”) and the propaganda (public relations) of Edward Bernays. Research confirms that straightforward social pressures and the repetition of a simple word or phrase will cause many people to accept an idea as being a fact – even when it is inconsistent with common experience. Marketers rely on this by repeating their advertisements; just as certain cultures and religions did so in the past.
The manipulation or biasing of human thinking and behavior is a recognized ethical problem. The question is: should a modern society accept that those with social influence have the right to surreptitiously affect its citizens' ways of thinking? If one’s current beliefs are in harmony with those ideas then the question may seem to be of little importance. But social power can, and likely will, change in time and one’s current opinion could then be deemed “inappropriate”.
A recognition of the way human biases work is the best way to address the issues raised by the Brave New World* of Neuroscience. This could be the number one social issue of our time.
* The 1931 novel by Aldous Huxley that shows the perils of reproductive technology, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning.
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