The growing importance of Neurosciences in an interdisciplinary world
A series of articles have been circulating on the Internet in the last few weeks, raising important and critical questions about Neurosciences, and whether they actually bring anything new to social sciences in practical terms. In a recent article in the New York Times by Alissa Quart entitled Neuroscience Under Attack, the author seems to conclude that much of this is due to “reductionist, sloppy thinking and our willingness to accept seemingly neuroscientific explanations for, well, nearly everything.” In the field of law in particular, there have been confusing attempts to try and apply Neurosciences in disparate ways. “Neuro-law” seeks to understand new brain models in terms of criminal intent (mens rea) and moral responsibility.”  People, it would seem, appear to be less receptive to mitigating circumstances when explained in terms of psychological factors (e.g., a person having suffered from child abuse) as opposed to in neurobiological terms (e.g., an area of brain malfunction compared to the average norm). Blame and responsibility are more easily allocated to people having suffered difficulties than to people whose brains can be demonstrated to have impaired mechanisms. Why should this be the case? Concerns are also raised regarding modern society’s attempts to use Neurosciences to develop shortcuts (e.g., stereotyping of “left-brain” v. “right-brain” people – see our Newsletter #1) and bullet-point headlines leading to teachings from other disciplines being overlooked, in particular certain so-called “soft sciences” such as psychology, which have always had an uncomfortable relationship with other social sciences, such as law. Neurosciences have been used to discuss at what age (if any) a foetus can feel pain or develop a consciousness, leading Prof. William Egginton to explain in another New York Times article that “[W]hile neuroscience may or may not be able to tell us something about the development of fetal nociceptive capacity, it has nothing to say about the fundamental question of what counts as a full-fledged person deserving of the rights afforded by a society.” In a recent lecture at Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation, some academics queried whether neurosciences have anything new to bring to understanding conflict and violence or when teaching mediation and negotiation pedagogy.
While there is a danger that Neurosciences are being overly generalised, oversimplified and used ubiquitously to re-explain all forms of human behaviour, the problem lies in how this field is being misused and misunderstood. Even if it does not add much more to what psychologists have known for many decades (which is contested by some), we need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
First of all, Neurosciences do provide profound new insights and understandings of human behaviour, drawing together what is already known in new ways. Concepts of reactive devaluation, loss aversion, confirmation bias, can all be perceived in a new light when revisited from a neurobiological perspective. Although many neuroscientific tools and data are still primitive, and we are only able to guess from fMRI and other images as to what really be going on in the brain, understanding different neural networks and how they can metabolize oxygen and glucose differently in short bursts of time depending on how information has been formulated or perceived can provide new insights for all of us: insights into ourselves, how we view others, how we tend to interact with others, our negotiation patterns, and how we tend to behave in positions of conflict.
The second key benefit of Neurosciences, as we see it, is their ability to bring together, compare and integrate knowledge from many different fields. This integrative and interdisciplinary approach is a positive and growing trend, bringing new ideas and cross-pollination across different fields. For example, a recent conference in Los Angeles entitled “Culture, Mind and Brain” brought together people who are not used to working together: anthropologists, human genomics specialists, social psychologists and neuroscientists. Neurosciences provided an important new prism for these separate disciplines to compare their respective beliefs and findings. The Swiss Interdisciplinary Centre for Affective Sciences (CISA) with whom we have the pleasure of collaborating also brings together disciplines such as neuroscience, law, philosophy, linguistics, chemistry, economics, music, fashion and other disparate and seemingly unrelated fields, that find they have much in common when reviewed from the perspective of emotions in the brain.
That integrative approach is precisely at the origin of Neuroawareness. Although we are not sure how things actually occur in the brain, we try and integrate Neurosciences based on empirical research into our daily practices, allowing this knowledge to evolve, merge and complement what we have already understood in many applied fields, such as in negotiation, mediation, leadership, diversity management, human resources, motivational behaviour, coaching, decision-making, etc. From our assessment of the broad range of literature in the field and having trained over 170 professionals, we have identified 10 neuro-principles and critical junctures (for instance 7 in the case of ADR/negotiation and 5 in personal development) that we think provide important new tools and insights for practitioners and all sorts of professionals. We believe that creating bridges through the Neurosciences and trying to “connect the dots” can help us to be more mindful of things that otherwise we may not be aware of and thus open new opportunities of professional and personal development.
We invite you to enjoy the New Year while reflecting on this approach, and contact us should you wish to discuss any of these ideas further !