Scientists from the Human Connectome Project have just published results of a brain scan study which maps pathways in the brain and relates them to personality and behaviour (preview of article here, nature.com write up here, SingularityHub write up here). They were surprised by what they found. From SingularityHub:
The result was stark and stunning: the brain connectivity patterns could be aligned in a single axis, where one end was associated with positive traits — such as more education, better memory and physical performance — whereas the other with negative ones, such as rule-breaking and poor sleep quality.
The upshot, in the words of Marcus Raichle, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, is that with one scan (from nature.com):
You can distinguish people with successful traits and successful lives versus those who are not so successful
A quick caveat is appropriate now. Whilst the research looks solid it is early days in this field and the sample size is in the mid-hundreds. Lots of other studies are underway which will generate a lot more data in the coming years. The new data may or may not support these conclusions. The best guess at this stage though, is that it will.
Moreover, the relationships observed are correlations between patterns of neural connectivity and positive and negative behaviours. It’s not clear yet whether there is a causal relationship such that one causes the other, and if there is which way it goes. It could be the brain patterns cause the behaviour or that the behaviour comes first and the brain patterns emerge later,.
This research interests me because it raises the possibility of uncomfortable Minority Report scenarios where individual’s future potential is determined from a brain scan and life possibilities are opened up or denied to them according to how they score. This hits right at the heart of difficult questions about free will vs determinism and nature vs nurture.
On the other hand, if the causal relationship turns out to be that the behaviour comes first then this technology opens up the possibility of measuring progress as we seek to ditch negative behaviours and adopt positive ones. That could help parents choosing which school is most appropriate for their children or individuals in selecting careers where they will thrive and be happy.
As with all new technologies these brain scans have the potential for good and the potential for bad. Our opportunity (responsibility really) is to evaluate them objectively and encourage the positive side. That encouragement will mostly take the form of education and government policy. A knee jerk reaction of trying to put the genie back in the bottle is unlikely to be effective and misses the opportunity to focus on making the best of what’s coming.