In search of the God neuron

Steven Rose examines the latest theories about the human brain in The Guardian:

God Half a century ago, passionate to study the brain, I began my graduate research in a gloomy, red-brick building in south-east London – the Maudsley Institute of Psychiatry. In the biochemistry department I was rapidly disabused of any idea that my research might lead to a greater understanding of how the brain could be “the organ of mind” – and still less that it might provide any help for the hospital's patients, whom I could dimly see through my laboratory windows. Neurochemistry meant grinding rats' brains up and extracting their enzymes; neuroanatomy was about cutting thin slices and staining them to be viewed under the microscope; neurophysiology was sticking minute electrodes into nerve cells and checking their electrical responses. To articulate the thought that this might tell one anything about “higher nervous functions” was strictly out of bounds. A dozen years ago, I heard a young American physiologist describe the study of consciousness as a “CLM” – a career limiting move. No topic for a young and ambitious neuroscientist, best left for those old enough to be experiencing the “philosopause” – said to affect scientists who had run out of research steam.

How times have changed! What was once dangerous territory is now the hottest theme in brain research. The subtitle of Semir Zeki's excellent new book is Love, Creativity and the Quest for Human Happiness. David Linden's is brasher: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God. Richard Joyce goes even further in claiming that our very morality is an evolved property of the brain. The rupture with the past is striking. From the ancients to the 20th century, it was philosophers who speculated about how the mind and brain might work. Now it is neuroscientists who are displacing the philosophers and theologians and telling us how we must behave. Three hundred years ago, David Hume argued that one could not derive an ought from an is, but now we are being told that our “oughts” – our moral feelings – are indeed “ises”, genetically and developmentally incarnated in our brains. Whole new scientific disciplines – neuroeconomics, neuroethics, neuroaesthetics – are emerging. No wonder that an issue of Science, timed for November's US election, claimed that brain imaging could identify voting intentions.

More here.