Saturday, October 09, 2004


Per Steven R. Quartz, Associate Professor, Division of Humanities and Social Sciences at the California Institute of Technology and a member of the Computational and Neural Systems program; also Director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory:

Studies of our biological constitution make it increasingly clear that we are social creatures of meaning, who crave a sense of coherence and purpose. Yet, our modern way of life seems to provide fewer and fewer opportunities to engage in the group life that satisfies these human needs—indeed, many of its structures and institutions stunts these very needs. In addition to these obstacles within the design of modern life, it's my hunch that modernist culture is based on a profoundly mistaken view of human needs. The upshot is a deeply flawed view of human happiness as the private pursuit of self actualization. The implications are profound, and range from an enormous cost in public health terms to more and more social conflicts, terrorism being just one manifestation of these.

As science advisor, I would initiate a program at the intersection of science and culture to investigate what modern brain science reveals about human needs and how such an understanding can be applied to create both ways of living and a culture that better satisfies them—for lack of a better word, I'd call this "neurosociology."

I think we will find that the staggering advances in brain science reveal human needs to be vastly different from the modern view—for example, that we aren't the asocial, consumptive selves Freud thought we were, but instead are deeply social and need not only to belong but to identify with groups and purposes larger than ourselves.

This initiative would attempt to use this new knowledge to design ways of living that provide more opportunity for real meaning and social engagement that the human brain requires—from how we ought to think about the design of communities, the workplace, learning institutions, and entertainment and leisure. This initiative would also have to focus on a deeply troubling problem: although science is the engine of our society, its core values and insights have had only a weak influence on our culture. This is a troubling gap: for science, and therefore, our civilization, to sustain itself, we require a culture that is built on the core values and insights of science itself, one that endows human life with the meaning we all crave. Aligning the design of life and a sustaining culture with the human needs that brain science is beginning to reveal would, I think, have a profound impact on many of the most troubling social dilemmas we face.

To sum it up, I would recommend the creation of a new science of human flourishing and significance, a nascent neurosociology, whose goal would be a happiness worth having.


Gvande said...

Take a look at the sense of connectedness described in the site It's about connecting with nature as well as other humans.

David D. Franks said...

I thoroughly agree with the position that we have misinterpreted happiness. See "The Pursuit of Happiness" by myself and and Susan Heffernan in Emotions in Psychopathology Ed by Flack and Laird 1998 Oxford. Also the important documentary, The Century of the Self which among many things opposes the the notion of self fulfillment and the narcissistic therapies in the close of the past century.

For connections with Nature see The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.