Dignity Neuroscience

Dignity neuroscience is animated by the premise that universal rights are rooted in human brain science. We articulate domains of intrinsic human dignity which ground universal rights in international law. This framework provides a space to investigate the importance of human rights as they relate to and are supported by empirical findings in human neuroscience, biological sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Research in human neuroscience indicates that upholding human rights is critical to the healthy brain development of all individuals. Universal rights outlined in existing treaties and covenants – including the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948- comprise five categories: (1) agency, autonomy, and self-determination; (2) freedom from want; (3) freedom from fear; (4) uniqueness; and (5) unconditionality; these categories also include protections for vulnerable populations. Dignity neuroscience articulates the evidentiary support for protection of human rights across these domains, which are necessary for the healthy neurological functioning and flourishing of all individuals in our society.

The dignity neuroscience and dignity science initiatives provide a multidisciplinary space for students, faculty, scholars, and community members to support and foster universal human rights and the concept of intrinsic human dignity. This framework impacts multiple spheres of influence including work, school, family, communities, nation, online spaces, and our interconnected world.

Upcoming Events:

  • April 5, 2024: Keynote speaker, URI Neuroscience Symposium, George and Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience, Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program
  • June 20, 2024: Keynote address, American University of Paris, Summer Institute on Human Rights.
  • Coming Soon: SciToons (YouTube). “Dignity Neuroscience and Human Rights”

Dignity neuroscience: universal rights are rooted in human brain science

Paper, Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences; Tara L. White, Meghan A. Gonsalves

Representations of the neural structures and circuits that support five major concepts underlying most universal rights declarations:

Agency, Autonomy, and Self-determination

The domain of agency, autonomy, and self-determination refers to the ability to shape one’s own choices and action in the world, independent of outside influence. These capabilities are protected by the universal rights to life, liberty, security, freedom of movement, thought, and expression. Deprivation of these rights affects brain areas involved in human learning across motor, perceptual, attentional, cognitive, and emotional dimensions.

Freedom from Want

Freedom from want includes avoiding privation of the basic requirements for human life, health, and flourishing. This domain relates to and is protected by rights to adequate living, education, and physical and mental health, including the right to freedom from poverty and destitution. Deprivation of these rights is associated with the reduced volume of brain structures involved in learning, memory, and the regulation and processing of emotion, and can contribute to the chronic activation of stress responses.

Freedom from Fear

Freedom from fear encompasses protections from violence inflicted by childhood maltreatment, intimate partners, and exposure to war. This domain is supported by universal rights to freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment as well as rights to life, liberty, and security of person. This domain also informs protections for those most at-risk for maltreatment such as women, children, vulnerable populations, wards of the state, and victims of intolerance and discrimination.  Deprivation of these rights during childhood is tied to deficits in the development of impulse control and affective processing. In adulthood, such deprivation also affects brain areas involved in emotional processing, planning, attentional control, learning, and memory. War-related fear can lead to trauma in brain systems involved in stress, attention, negative emotion, and physical danger, with the potential to affect neural development across generations.


The domain of uniqueness refers to and honors the uniqueness of every individual.   Every person is born with a distinct genetic and epigenetic landscape.  These individual genome-level differences are amplified throughout the course of life by “noisy” processes of human neural development, environmental influences, acquired neuronal mosaicism, and modularization of gene expression within the human brain. Uniqueness is protected by universal rights to economic, social, and cultural engagement, which facilitate the free and full development of each human being’s unique personality and capacities. Deprivation of uniqueness impinges the functioning of brain areas involved in healthy neural development, flourishing, and well-being.


The domain of unconditionality comprises the foundation of secure attachment and human bonding. Unconditionality relates to the universal rights to freedom, dignity, equality under the law, and the right to a nationality. The rights in this domain are particularly pertinent for migrants, refugees, individuals seeking asylum, and stateless individuals. Deprivation of unconditionality affects brain areas involved in goal-directed behavior and reward learning, as well as social, emotional, and cognitive function. Deprivation of these rights can also obstruct processes involved in the rapid recovery of physiological homeostasis after exposure to stressful events.

Papers, presentations, and media coverage

Find out more about Dignity Neuroscience research and media coverage