Is Rewiring Your Brain The Answer To Ethics?

Ignoring developments in neuroscience means ignoring an opportunity to improve ethical behaviour.

Inside The Brain

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Image: Canva

Physiologically, our brains are the legacy of ancient times, when survival was paramount, and acting before thinking was necessary. We have the brains of ancient cave dwellers still inside us. Even with all our disputes, follies, and tribal differences, what we are is what brought us here, and we may indeed still destroy ourselves. This raises the sobering question: Could a re-engineered human brain perform better?

In this article, I argue that ignoring developments in neuroscience means ignoring an opportunity to improve ethical behaviour.

What does research into the brain tell us about the origins of ethics?

In the struggle between cultures, ethical codes have evolved through the interaction between brain and culture, and no major world religion has ever prospered by tolerating its rivals. Even when two armies blessed by priests clash, one army still loses.

In Darwinian terms, the urges of the individual are sin while those of the group are virtue. However, we need both to survive, and evolution has endowed us with an intelligence high enough to judge and manipulate the tension generated by that dynamic relationship between cooperation and defection. We generally agree that this is the source of our ethics.

A new field of neuroethics, which combines the study of perception, learning, memory, and recall, the four major functions of the human brain, is emerging to reunite ethical and social concerns with neuroscience.

Have we the ability now to rewire brain circuits to change ethical behaviour?

The short answer to this question is yes. By looking at how the brain works, neuroscience has revealed some of the mysteries of our feelings, particularly compulsive ones. Additionally, nerve circuits within the brain are controlled by a variety of processes such as impulse control.

This is arguably an essential facet of morality, allowing us to plan, initiate, organize, and most importantly, inhibit…

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Inside The Brain

Professor Billy O'Connor. Neuroscientist. Medical Educator. University of Limerick Graduate Medical School