Connectomes and Humanism

What does it mean to be human?

There is a wonderful Ted talk by Sebastian Seung who is a neuroscientist. His talk is about connectomes. A connectome is the total set of connections your brain’s neurons have with each other. It’s basically a map of how your brain talks to itself.

The theory is that your neural connections impact your memory and your emotions and it’s where all your thinking and experiences are processed. You are your connectome. Here is the video of his talk video.

I think he makes a very good case for us being our connectome. But how does this impact what it means to be human and how we see ourselves as Human.

For a Humanist, I don’t think it impacts much. Most of us are already aware that we are a big bag of chemicals and gooshy matter already and that there is a good possibility that consciousness is an artifice of how our brains function, calling into question just how much we are “consciously” in control of our behavior. This impacts the concept of free will directly.

This matters because Humanism, as a philosophy, is dependent on the existence of free will. No free will, no personal responsibility. No personal responsibility, no one needs to even try to be moral.

And yet, the experience of consciousness is pretty darned compelling and it certainly seems as if we have free will. And most of us can override our instincts well enough to behave morally when it really matters or when we really make an effort.

The important point for us humans who are trying to be good moral people is that our connectome is both genetically created and changeable. It is both a product of nature and of nurture.  In other words, we are capable of learning.

And this is great news for those of us striving to be better people. Through practice, we can learn and create new ways of thinking and being through changes to our connectome. It isn’t easy and it doesn’t happen automatically, but repetition strengthens the connections that lead to behavior and thus, the more we practice being good, the easier being good becomes.

Yes, you are your connectome. Your job is to use your brain’s connectome effectively.

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