How Neuroscience Helps Us to Understand Human Nature


In a study that we just published, we see the progression of activations in the brain when you register experiences of pleasure. It all starts very early on in fractions of a second. By 500 milliseconds, which is half one second, you are having a complete feeling state. All of this is happening very, very fast. Neurons are nerve cells that fire in 5 milliseconds. Half of a second is an eternity from the point of view of the brain. But in our subjective time it’s extremely fast.

Some of the most interesting emotions have to do with social, or so-called moral, emotions. If we are really going to be active in education in a globalized world and promote a state of peaceful coexistence, a state where creativity really can be liberated in a world that is filled with conflict and with difficulties of all sorts — from social difficulties to the difficulties that come with a highly broken financial and industrial world — we’re going to have to do something that goes beyond increasing knowledge, efficiency and skills.

We need to be able to educate citizens that are a tribute to humanity and make humanity better. Can you do that just by knowing a lot? No. Can you do that by just being efficient, or by being a mathematical prodigy? No. Can you do that by being a fantastic and capable engineer who will develop new technological capabilities? No.

We need something else, something that has to do with how you behave in a society. Because then you have a chance of capitalizing on all those wonders that we need to develop with our basic intellectual capabilities.

In other words, you need something that has to do with the way you function emotionally and socially. Much of what you do in society depends on a number of emotions that curiously have forerunners in non-human species. For example, in higher primates such as chimpanzees, dolphins, or even wolves, you can find the beginnings of some behaviors that more or less classify for moral emotions, and certainly classify as social emotions.

We share with other species such things as indignation and compassion. Most characteristically human are shame, guilt, contempt, admiration, and awe. I’m not aware of any chimpanzee that has admiration or awe for other chimpanzees or for us. Although, there might be. I’m ready to be told otherwise and I’ve been surprised many times.

Whether they have a forerunner in prior biology or not, the important thing is to realize that much of what we can achieve comes from education in, and application of, a set of emotions that has been the source of much of our justice system. For example, when we have shame or guilt, we do that naturally, spontaneously, because we know that we have violated a rule that we should not have violated.

Why is that homeostatic? Why does that help life? Because that will help us correct our behavior and will help the overall behavior of society. The same is true of contempt and indignation, which are a way in which we blame someone else for having violated a rule. Here we have two emotions that are fundamental for a healthy society. And we have compassion, which allows you to understand others and act to help alleviate their suffering. Finally, emotions such as admiration and awe allow us to admire and therefore administer rewards to someone who has done something outstanding, either by relieving the suffering of someone else, which one could call admiration for virtue, or someone who is highly skilled and has shown virtuosity.

The important thing for you to remember is that emotions are biological processes that are fundamentally about governing life, and administer either punishment or reward. If you’re happy, if you’re leading a great life, then you are administering rewards to yourself.

If you do not lead that great life and you break norms, you are administering punishment that can come in many forms. And the marvelous thing is when those emotions start projecting on another — when you have compassion and help someone else, or when you show admiration and reward someone for a good that has been done.

In a study that is ongoing in our lab, our group has been able to contrast brain states when you’re having admiration for virtue, when you’re having compassion for social pain, when you’re having compassion for physical pain, and when you have admiration for skill. These things are fundamental in our understanding of what human beings are. They are fundamental in the organization of a culture and the means to improve it. They are the means to have a better life, and are related to different brain states.

It will be more possible as the years continue to have an even better picture of what is going on. The ramifications are that you can devise protocols and means to bring out these states, either by an appropriate educational system, or an appropriate way of living or, as I mentioned early on, the appropriate molecules that need to be there in order to help these systems.

I’m not talking about science fiction scenarios. I’m talking about something as simple as appropriate nutrition, which is absolutely fundamental to such a process.

I think we are at a bit of a crossroads in science. We have for the first time the possibility of not only using brain science to treat immediate neurological disease, which is going to be one of our main missions, but also of understanding more about human nature. And, by so doing, feed that information into every walk of life, most particularly into education. One of the prerequisites to having a healthy society is to have a society that is educated.

But that education, again, is not just about knowledge and skills. It’s about knowledge, skills, and a set of attributes and behaviors that defines a citizen. This is not an easy thing to do because we fundamentally have two natures. We have a nature that we inherited through our genes. It is sometimes very rough. We also have a nature that we have been creating. It is still a work in progress. It is the nature that comes from a culture.

Cultures can be good or bad. They can go wrong, and sometimes they do so in atrocious ways. We have a lot of possible conflict. We need to try to solve that conflict. We have a lot of risks but at the same time we have something that is very interesting. We have a measure of control. In other words, it’s really for us to lose. We have the ability to win this, or at least to make the game in our favor. We have the potential to improve the state of social affairs.

This article was originally a lecture given at the Fourth International Brain Education Conference held at the United Nations. It has been edited for length.

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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