Brussels, 10 Jan 2006
Having sequenced the human genome, and following recent advances in other areas such as neurobiology and cognitive science, the time is ripe for a Europe-wide 'human mind project' to carry out interdisciplinary research on exactly what it means to be human.
This is the conclusion reached by a high-level expert group set up to examine the scientific opportunities resulting from advances in our understanding of the human mind. This group was established through the European Commission's PATHFINDER initiative, part of the New and emerging science and technologies (NEST) activity of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). According to the expert group, a human mind project will profoundly affect the way we live our lives, and could have an impact in the 21st century comparable to that of Darwinism in the 19th century.
'For the first time, scientists are now in a position to start piecing together the various parts of the jigsaw to reveal the full picture,' states the report. 'What we need now is a powerful new collaboration between natural and social scientists, a 'Human Mind Project', to pull together and extend the tidal wave of research in this area.'
The expert group, chaired by Keith Stenning from the University of Edinburgh, UK, accepts that researchers from the natural and social sciences have not always seen eye-to-eye. However, according to their report, 'who we are and how we think and behave, is intimately bound up with our evolutionary history and our present physical, social and cultural environment. Only by weaving these together will we start to get a clear view of the rich fabric of our existence.'
The human mind project will pose a very different challenge to that of the human genome project, argues the group. That endeavour was mostly technical, but as many of the problems and opportunities facing humanity cannot be met with technological fixes alone, we must also find ways to change our thinking and behaviour. 'An increased knowledge of the human mind will give us the power to make these changes,' the experts believe.
The report goes on to highlight some of the recent breakthroughs upon which the human mind project will be built, and outlines five broad thematic areas within which research is likely to focus. These are: the genetics of human cognition, the developing mind, the process of thinking, motivation and decision making, and cultural context. Within these areas, scientists might seek the answers to questions including just how our species evolved and sustains such an extraordinarily complex mind, how experiences influence the development and ageing of the human brain, what motivates people to cooperate with or disregard others, and what behaviour is part of our culture and what is part of our nature.
There are several possible ways of achieving the required integration of scientists from different disciplines. One option, for example, would be to establish new research institutes along the lines of the successful Max Planck institutes, but given the expense and relative inflexibility of this approach, the group concluded that this option would best be considered at a later date.
The experts' proposed course of action is to begin with a series of conferences, or discussions within conferences, on the subject of 'what it means to be human' in order to spark interest in the human mind project. Once enthusiasm grows, interdisciplinary summer schools could be held, before establishing grant-funded research projects that bring together researchers from several disciplines and at least two EU Member States.
In assessing the potential impact of such a programme, the expert group accepts that it will generate anger and alienation in some quarters, 'particularly among the increasingly vocal minority who reject Darwinian theory altogether'. Recognising this, the report highlights the pressing need for scientists involved in the initiative to engage with the public, choose their objectives wisely, and not allow their findings to be distorted.
These findings themselves will have an impact in almost all areas, according to the report. For example, a better understanding of how children learn can be used to put education systems on a more scientific footing, while a deeper knowledge of our shared evolutionary history and common human nature could make citizens more tolerant of people with superficial differences and ease the tensions caused by immigration and racism.
In the private sector, meanwhile, companies trying to create a thriving corporate culture will benefit from research into how the most successful human cultures handle information, motivate individuals to work together, and create rules that reinforce our better nature.
Last but certainly not least, according to the expert group, findings from the human mind project will help us to come to terms with some of the most pressing issues humanity faces today. 'A better understanding of the human mind and why we have evolved to think in certain ways will help us come to terms with globalisation, demographic transition and even issues such as political corruption and conflict resolution. Research findings coming out of the Human Mind Project will also suggest ways in which we can change our behaviour so as to tackle global warming and to live peacefully in a world of growing demand and shrinking natural resources,' it concludes.