Could we create a perfect society by tweaking two areas of the human brain?

Want to create an egalitarian utopia? A rigid hierarchical hellscape? (Or an egalitarian hellscape and hierarchical utopia, depending on your politics?) You might just need to stimulate or suppress two crucial parts of the human brain.

We've long since outgrown the idea that the mind is an ephemeral presence that can't be tampered with physically. The brain itself is a physical object, that is subject to physical interference.

Your brain has the ability to recover and re-make connections — but take out a section of your brain, and you won't be able to perform certain mental functions, any more than you could walk if someone snipped your Achilles' tendon. Mental processes have a physical root. The only thing that continues to surprise us is what aspects of personality seem to be confined to one specific area of the brain. And right now, it looks like there is one area of the brain responsible for building egalitarian societies.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the insular cortex are areas that are associated with egalitarian behavior in personal relationships. They light up when people behave altruistically, in reciprocity for kindness done by others, and when people have a negative reaction to inequality. They've been tested on a one-to-one basis, but never in the context of an entire society. Until now.

In a recent study, scientists slapped fMRIs onto subjects and had them build model societies, with people interacting via computer. Each 'player' was given money, and saw a screen which displayed the income of everyone, including themselves. They were playing with actual money, and they were allowed to keep the money that they didn't give away, so there was no reason not to grab everything they could. They could, though, choose to pay a fee to make everyone else's income more equal.

Could we create a perfect society by tweaking two areas of the human brain?

Participants were also asked to fill out questionnaires with questions like, "Our society should do whatever is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed," or "This country would be better off if we worried less about how equal people are." Finally, the participants played a game, in which they wondered whether or not to split money with an anonymous person. When people acted in an egalitarian way or stated egalitarian beliefs, the vmPFC and the insular cortex lit up. Something in that part of the mind either helped or made people value egalitarianism.

So we have specialized sections of the brain that spring into action when we're ready to be egalitarian and compassionate. This doesn't mean that these areas of the brain are put into use very often. Everyone has biceps, but we're not all lifting weights. And all through the world, people have the same brains, but form societies that have very different levels of egalitarianism - or even with ideals of egalitarianism.

There's no guarantee of egalitarianism even when this area of the brain is put in play. There's a difference between beliefs and reality, after all. Throughout history, people have told themselves they are treating other people perfectly fairly, when it's clear in retrospect that they weren't. Separate but equal is a phrase that springs readily to mind. It would be interesting to see the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the insular cortex team up with whatever part of the brain offers rationalizations.

Still, it's unsettling to think that a future regime, with sufficient technology, could dampen our capacity even to desire fairness in a society. There have been plenty of ways to dampen the desire for an society of equals over the years, but never before have they been physical.

Then again, this knowledge poses an interesting theoretical problem. I'm American, and America has at least ideals of egalitarianism in society. Everyone should get a vote, everyone should get treated equally in a court of law, and everyone should have a shot at winning enduring ignominious fame via reality TV show. What if a similar technology could be used to push these sections of the brain into activity all the time, making us truly practice what we preached? Let's bypass all the practical problems that could crop up, and just say it worked. Is it just as unsettling to think that a future regime could someone stimulate the capacity for desiring fairness in a society? How fair is it to force people to be fair? Would it technically be allowed, as long as everyone was subjected to it?

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