Neurological Foundation - Chair of Neurosurgery

Hardwired for morality

June 2012

Hardwired for moralityDr Dirk De Ridder



CUTTING EDGE: Dr Dirk De Ridder is moving his family to Dunedin in January 2013 to take up the Chair in Neurosurgery position.
Like all neurosurgeons, Dr Dirk De Ridder was initially attracted to the neurosciences because of his fascination with the brain.

But 12 years ago, when new and exciting neuromodulation research became available, his interest in the "central controller" widened from surgical technique to a study of grey matter as a moral guide.

He leapt on the research and began dreaming of putting it into clinical practice, he says.

"Of course [surgical technique] is extremely important, but you get used to everything – but that is also when I started to become very interested in trying to [better] understand the brain, rather than just operating on it.

"Understanding how the brain works is only something that is very recent."

He set up a separate unit at the University of Antwerp and the university's hospital in 2004 and 2005, to translate the new knowledge into clinical practice, writing his PhD thesis on a Darwinian neurological approach to tinnitus – the hearing of sounds that are not present.

"It may seem strange, but the idea was simple," he says.

He connected his research in phantom sound or pain – when the brain receives messages of feelings in limbs that have been severed or amputated, or sounds after loss of hearing – with the brain's certainty that God exists.

"In hearing loss the brain can fill the missing sound. You can feel pain in fingers of a hand you don't have any more. In the same way there is the perception of a presence – fill in this space with God or Yahweh – which varies depending on things like education, family."

God might be a phantom sense of loss, traced neurologically, but the pursuit of a higher being is also what prevents chaos, he says.

It's not a new idea.

Morality as a neurological development was a concept put forward by Charles Darwin in 1871, Dr De Ridder says, as an evolutionary way of allowing people to co-exist without killing each other.

"[It is] basically a way of permitting more and more people to live together," Dr De Ridder says.

"If we go one step further we can say morality is based on what is good and what is bad. Religion is the next step. You create a god that can be an external judge, to judge who has done good and who has done bad.

"This is even a more powerful way of controlling society, as has been said by Napoleon and other rulers – `if God doesn't exist, he should be invented'," he says.

So what is the use for this kind of research?

"You could say it was for philosophical [studies], but it could be more," he says.

If there is a better neurological grasp of how morality and religion evolves, it could be used to better understand political and religious climates, he says.

Dr De Ridder says that while his side project will continue – he still needs to come up with a model for the concept – part of the attraction of taking up the Chair in Neurosurgery position at Dunedin was the promise of building up a new unit once again but in fresh territory.

"Coming to a big established centre is usually a lot easier because everything is up and running and you just fit into the schedule. But that doesn't give the pleasure of creating something.

"This just fits with my personality. Trying to build up something is satisfying."

Dr De Ridder – who will move with his wife and two sons to Dunedin to take up the position in January 2013 – says that on visits to New Zealand he has been struck by the "sheer beauty" of the country, the friendliness of the people, and the proximity of wild places that he is looking forward to exploring.

An avid snowboarder, he is also looking forward to spending more time on the water, he says.

On many levels, it will be a leap into a new frontier.

"To create this [neurosurgery] unit in Dunedin and Christchurch, would demonstrate it is possible to have a nicely functioning unit with two nodes. It basically has the advantage of becoming a bigger group so [neurosurgeons] can subspecialise better – for better treatment [of] people of the south and the South Island.

"It seems very promising."

- © Fairfax NZ News