The human brain is like an iceberg. It is estimated that only five per cent of mental activity is concerned with conscious thought. The remaining 95 per cent gets on with the job, and needs no help from us. And so our newspapers publish intriguing stories about how our brains have developed to respond automatically to our experience.
It’s in the news because the neuroscientists are examining how different parts of the brain, either alone or in conjunction with other parts, react to different stimuli. To take a simple example, our brains fire up when we hear the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, because music speaks directly to the amygdala – an almond-shaped part of the brain which responds to emotion.
These nuggets of human behaviour become available because methods of scanning the brain have become common. No need to ask your opinion, for we can talk directly to your brain. Although the answers may not be sophisticated they are at least direct. You cannot plausibly claim that Beethoven means nothing to you if your brain response gives you the lie.
But there are problems. Neuroscience is a subject of immense importance: full of promise and full of threat, and we are still only at the threshold. It would be a pity if our grasp were restricted to the party pieces which take up a couple of column inches in our newspaper.
And they are party pieces, because it is a strong temptation for neuroscientists, dependent on reputation for their funding, to get noticed for this often rather superficial work. In fact, at this early stage, relatively few new insights have emerged. Much of what is being confirmed about human nature now through neuroscience has been known for a long time through observation and studies. Try Plato’s dialogue Gorgias or Aristotle’s Rhetoric.
An important issue of concern relates to the opportunities which arise for manipulation. The simplest of examples will face you the next time you are confronted with a purchase priced at £5.99. Can’t fool you, of course: you know immediately that that is really £6. But that’s your rational brain. Your deeper brain evaluates prices from the left digit, and you buy.
Now, imagine that commercial offerings, from shops to advertisements, have all been designed, with the help of neuroscience, to sneak around our rational defences and trigger our subconscious responses. Imagine further that at election time our candidate has been briefed on what to wear and what to say by neuroscience rather than through his own judgment. Welcome to our world! It has been like that for years. It’s just that we are about to become much better at it.
In my example I used the term “manipulation”, but was I manipulating you? Is there a difference between manipulating people and handling people? After all, both words come from “hand” (Latin: manus), yet the emotional load is different. And I chose the one that I wanted so that I could trigger my intended emotional meaning in your mind.
I take you right back to the Canadian federal elections of 1974 for another example. In this study we may not be surprised that the candidates previously judged to be attractive gained two and half times as many votes as the unattractive. But we may wonder why 73 per cent were quite unaware that their votes had been influenced by appearance, and 14 per cent refused, when challenged, to entertain even the possibility of that influence.
Of at least equal importance to us are the issues which this knowledge raises about our free will. Were these Canadian voters free when they chose the attractive candidate without knowing why? Is a woman free when her sexual choices may be at the behest of her monthly cycle? Are your charitable gifts free when your emotions have been hooked by a subtle advertisement? If it is true that some 95 per cent of our choices are sourced through influences of which we are not aware, what price the virtuous life?
In these contexts we must also consider a subject which I have mentioned from time to time. We have to take seriously the integration of body and soul. So there are questions here too. We want to know why God has intended us to evolve with our great intelligence, yet allows the larger span of our minds to be beyond our conscious control.
We also want to know why, if every aspect of our thought and response is traceable to brain functions, we have any need for a spiritual soul. It is true that the neuroscientists have not yet run to ground freedom of the will or moral obligation or consciousness. But they have solved so many earlier mysteries, that we might expect them to succeed with these as well.
In this column I have done no more than sketch in some introductory aspects of neuroscience, and I have raised more questions than answers. But I am planning in future columns to look further at some of these issues – because they take us deep into the heart of God’s gift of human nature.
My next column on neuroscience will examine just why it is that around 95 per cent of our responses have to be directed by our subconscious minds. There are very good reasons for this being so, and their discovery can give us a whole new view of human nature – and very useful one, too. You may never be the same again. I give away no secrets if I tell you that I will begin with considering a bowl of water.
Meanwhile, come and contribute to Secondsightblog.net. Your searching questions or objections will be invaluable.