Neural Hacking, Handprints, And The Empathy Deficit

When I worked as a journalist at the science desk of the New York Times, our editors were constantly asking us to propose story ideas that were new, important, and compelling. The potential topics in science news are countless, from genetics to quantum physics. But if I were at the Times today, I’d pitch three science stories, all of which are currently under the collective radar, and each of which continue to unfold and will have continued—and mounting—significance for our lives in years ahead.

For one: Epigenetics. Once the human genome was mapped, the next step has been figuring out how it works, including what turns on and off all those bits of genetic code. Here, everything from our metabolism, to our diet, to our environment and what habits we learn comes into play. A developing story here will be neuroplasticity, a case in point of epigenetics. First considered seriously a decade or so ago, neuroplasticity—the brain’s constant reshaping through repeated experiences—presents a potential for neural hacking apps. As neuroscientists like Judd Brewer at Yale and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin have shown, we can choose which elements of brain function we want to strengthen through sustained mind training. Do you want to have better emotion regulation, enhance your concentration and memory, or become more compassionate? Each of these goals means strengthening distinct neural circuitry through specific, bespoke mental exercise, which might one day become a new kind of daily fitness routine.

The second: industrial ecology as a technological fix. This new discipline integrates fields ranging from physics and biochemistry to environmental science with industrial design and engineering to create a new method—life cycle assessment (or LCA)—for measuring the ecological costs of our material world. LCA gives a hard metric for how something as ubiquitous as a mobile phone impacts the environment and public health at every stage in its life cycle. This methodology gives us a fine-grained lens on how human activities degrade the global systems that support life, and points to the specific changes that would bring most benefit. Some companies now are using LCA to change the ways their products are made so that they replenish rather than deplete. As work at the Harvard School of Public Health illustrates, this means using LCA to shift away from the footprint metric, how much damage we do to the planet, to the handprint, measuring the good we do—how much we reduce our footprint. A news peg: companies are about to release the first major "net-positive products," which, analyzing their entire life cycle, replenish rather than deplete.

Finally: the inverse relationship between power and social awareness, which integrates psychology into political science and sociology. Ongoing research at the University of California at Berkeley by psychologist Dacher Keltner—and at other research centers around the world—shows that people who are higher in social power, whether through wealth, status, rank or the like, pay less attention in a face-to-face encounter to those who hold less power. Little attention means little empathy or understanding. The resulting empathy deficit means that those who wield power, such as wealthy politicians, have virtually no sense of how their decisions impact those with little power. Movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the failed Arab Spring can be read as attempts to heal this divide. This empathy deficit will drive political tensions far into the future. Unless, perhaps, those in power follow Gandhi’s dictate to consider how their decisions affect "the poorest of the poor."