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What Makes Us Unique?

I am far from the first person to wonder what the answer might be. The idea we are special certainly isn’t new; the core curriculum gives us plenty of arguments to back up that idea. From Aristotle to Kant to yes, even Darwin, our greatest thinkers have always believed that human cognition is unparalleled in the universe. So here we stand, at the top of the food chain, looking down at the rest of the animal kingdom and wondering; are we actually unique, or just egocentric?

Neuroscience might finally give us that answer we crave. For a field younger than some of our parents, it has managed to begin the daunting process of untangling the web of neurons in our brains, while giving us Buzzfeed-worthy headlines along the way. Neuroscience has a way of getting up in every other field’s business, with a reach that’s far exceeded standard academic discourse – perhaps that’s why I’m so hopelessly fascinated by it.

Like an angsty teenager, this young field has a tendency to argue and frequently change its mind. Unlike a teenager, when new research dethrones one theory and crowns another, the public often loses faith in our credibility. After all, we once believed the heart was the seat of all intelligence, and the brain was nothing more than a simple regulator. How can we be expected to really know anything at all?

As scientists, we learn to accept this inherent instability, the sobering truth that we’re wrong far more frequently than we’re right. But as scientists, it’s also on us to explain why our work, even in its failures, is important. Perhaps more importantly, we do not work in a vacuum, and this field is poised to understand how we think and how we live. For all of humanity’s success in conquering the world, our species now stares down threats primarily of our own making. What better way to approach these issues than through understanding who we are and what makes us tick? After all, most of our salaries come from you, the taxpayer – ultimately it is up to the public to see the value in what we study.

This column is an attempt to use powerful discoveries about our brains to propose science-backed solutions to wider social issues. Neuroscience is an ever evolving, consistently contradictory, frequently flawed, and ultimately and beautifully human pursuit of the kind of knowledge we like best: knowledge about ourselves. While it’s not perfect, it’s hard to deny that studying our brains might provide some valuable insight into our uniquely human problems.

Uniquely Human runs alternate Mondays. Questions, comments, concerns, and thoughtful dialogue are always welcome.

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