8 June 2018

The plastic brain as a new moral compass

Anyone who walks into a bookstore cannot miss it. The shelves are full of popular scientific books about our brain. They offer a wealth of useful knowledge, from insights into the adolescent brain to tips for keeping the aging brain healthy. Our brains are not only an exciting area of research, but it also seems more and more that they influence how we think we should live. Ties van de Werff (FASoS) devoted his PhD research to this.

Good work

Work is a next phase of life in which the plastic brain plays a major role. In today's society, work is a pivotal point in the lives of many adults; it offers income, gives structure to the day, creates social status and is a welcomed conversation topic during drinks and at parties. When it comes to this, we do not come across the old Greeks because they were absolutely not fans of the concept of work. Self-discipline was a virtue of vital importance to many Greek philosophers, but work was not; that was for slaves. “At this point, self-help books by neuroscientists refer back to Buddhism”, Van de Werff says. “Many people experience stress at work. Mindfulness is currently the magic word for dealing with it.” With the help of neuroscience, meditation is first stripped of its Buddhist roots. Brain coaches then recommend mindfulness as brain training, a cure for stress and a source of creativity. And not only that—a mindful brain also paves the way for a social work culture and a better balance between work and private life. “Well, this is a pretty neo-liberal window dressing”, says Van de Werff. “For stress at work, there is a very suitable solution for every individual. And that apparently lies in brain training. Then you view the problem of stress at work very individualistically; this is in line with a way of thinking in which working people are primarily factors of production. In any case, in the mindfulness approach I don’t really see adaptation of the workload as a possible solution to the problem.”

Good aging

Neuroscientists also stir the pot when it comes to aging. From brain gymnastics   to training for a marathon at an old age, everything is done in order to keep the brain healthy, helping to prevent neurodegenerative diseases through lifestyle changes and keeping you feeling forever young. “However, that hopeful piece is only one side of the story of aging”, says Van de Werff. “Illness, suffering, dealing with one’s fate, and ultimately death are parts of aging that you see little of in the self-help books by neuroscientists.” Is the knowledge of the plastic brain a modern panacea? It is not that bad now, Van de Werff finds. “Popular books about the plastic brain are simply about how we have to exercise to live well. This is actually virtue ethics, and that is valuable. The Greeks dealt with this using philosophy; we now fall back on the plastic brain. In this sense, the brain is made valuable for what we already know. And neuroscientists might occasionally be able to account for this a little more. Facts about the brain don’t speak for themselves. Ultimately, valorisation of knowledge, assigning value, also has to do with ethics.”

By: Mark van der Linde (text) Leo Caillard (photography)