Brains Scans Predict Behavior, Chisel Away At Individuality?

Brains Scans Predict Behavior, Chisel Away At Individuality?

The usefulness of fMRI scans in predicting and manipulating our thinking and behavior may have large social and religious impacts down the road.

Our brains, once thought to be the greatest mystery of our humanity, are now becoming a roadmap by which we can be understood, even predictable. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI scans, are real-time measurements of the activity within our brain. Researchers have used these types of scans to determine our thoughts, teach us through brain-wave manipulation, and now it seems they can even predict our behavior. Although brain science is managing to unlock many of the secrets about human thinking and behavior, it begs the question, “Are we losing something in return?”

Scientists at Dartmouth College conducted a behavioral study using 58 incoming freshmen women and fMRI scans. The women were weighed beforehand, and then sent through the fMRI scanner while being shown various images of people, animals, landscapes, and food. The researchers logged the various ways in which their brains would :light up” based on the different images they were seeing, and then sent them on their way. Six months later the women were asked to come back and take a survey based on their behavior over the preceding months. What they found was that the fMRI scans of various areas of the brain were highly predictive of behavior. Those women whose brains were highly active in the nucleus accumbens (the “reward center” of the brain) when they saw images of food were more likely to gain weight. Those women that lit up at images of sexual themes were more likely to be sexually active.

There have been a number of studies, involving other parts of the brain, that have shown that brain scans can predict behavior. Scans of the self-awareness center have found that these types of brain imaging exercises can even be more predictive of a person’s behavior than the actual person. Likewise, scans of an individual’s frontal cortex can actually predict pessimism and optimism. The Dartmouth team’s focus was primarily on how physiology and environmental triggers can effect “willpower”, or our conscious attempts at modifying our own behavior. The results show that behavior is powerfully innate, and requires conscious effort to change it.

On a deeper level, however, the more accurate and incisive these kinds of studies become at predicting and manipulating our thinking and behavior, the less we seem to have of our own innate selves. It’s discouraging to think that our minds, the motherboards of who we are as people and what we do as individuals, might come down to a series of electrical impulses and chemical cocktails. Simply tinkering with those formulas might be able to change who we are as individuals, and the more we understand about how to do that, the less we seem to be innately and even spiritually human. Perhaps, in the future, spirituality will simply reflect these advances in physiological understanding, reframing people less as pseudo-magical manifestations and more as carefully constructed biological computers. Of course, where does morality fit in a world measured simply in chemical reactions and complex compounds?