Turn on the news, pick up a paper. Chances are you will see a story or headline about displaced peoples, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants escaping undesirable if not intolerable conditions in hope of a better life. The movement of people across the globe has its roots in the very origins of our species—when our ancestors left Africa about 60,000 years ago. The motives behind human migrations, and their ongoing effects, are arguably as complicated and fascinating as they are empowering and sometimes devastating.

We don’t know what drove early humans to migrate over vast distances, to traverse enormous tracts of unexplored land in search of new territories to call home. Less mysterious, but no less astonishing, are the motives of modern people who risked crossing vast bodies of water without knowing what lies on the other side, or if there would even be an “other side.” We do know that many of our recent migrations were (or became) indelibly tied to slavery, persecution, ethnic cleansing, poverty, crime, and war. We also know that migration deeply affects the indigenous inhabitants who already live at the migratory “destination” points. Sudden clashes of people, cultures, and resource consumption—use can stir fear and tribalism among groups; foment violence, segregation, or forced assimilations; and introduce new, often decimating diseases into unprepared populations. But human migrations can also result in positive, mutually beneficial effects stemming from cultural, intellectual, and genetic exchanges between groups and individuals. The manner in which post-migration integration occurs—how it divides or even splinters society at the destination—often depends on abstract measures, such as tolerance, as well as metrics related to male/female population composition and sexual practices of the mixed society, which leaves a genetic imprint among subsequent generations.

Framed against the often volatile social and political backdrop of our species’ long history of migration, The Human Mind and Migration project will investigate the neurobiology of our migratory behaviors and experiences. It will explore, specifically, the neurobiological roots at work when humans confront foreigners, strangers, or others perceived as categorically different from themselves; and the neurobiological mechanisms at play when defining group boundaries. The topic, while orbiting within “neuro/bio” circles, is deeply intertwined with human social behavior; thus, the project will also span the very broad range over which sociality operates in humans and contributes to our successes, and failures, as a species.

We will start by delving into the prehistoric origins and motivations for human migrations. From these beginnings, modern-day crises of migration will become the focus of the project. Unifying these topics will be the human brain and its genetic instruction book, which encodes the formation and function of this organ in collaboration with powerful environmental influences. Together, this combination of genes, brains, and environment constitute the core ingredients and evolutionary forces that shape our species. By better understanding the migratory impulse—its neurobiological and social constraints—we will position ourselves to better understand our past origins and anticipate our future destiny.


In recent years, a rich vein of materials has begun to develop aiming to examine analogous questions about the nature, causes, effects, and malleability/fixity of human migratory patterns. An emergent interdisciplinary field known as Migration Studies has gained traction in some academic sectors, as evidenced by books like Biological Aspects of Human Migration (Cambridge UP, 2009) and journals like Migration Studies (Oxford UP), now entering its sixth year of publication. A much longer intellectual-symbolic tradition comes into view if we take into account artistic projects, reportage, and memoirs addressing or incorporating the migratory experience. Drawing on work in the humanities, social, and natural sciences, the foundational scholarship and intellectual capital reflected in these prior efforts of research and reflection will inform our own. But we also want to break new ground and make research more accessible to the public at large.

Above all, we hope to further coalesce, but also expand the envelope of, the research, thinking, and insights culled from work already done at the intersections of migration and the human mind, brain, and body. Perhaps most crucially, we want to make otherwise esoteric research, along with responses from artists and citizens of the world and our own fresh explorations of these topics, more accessible and meaningful to mainstream lay audiences. Considering the present historical moment and its sociopolitical and environmental cocktail of problems related to migration—from the consequences of climate change to chronic loggerheads in public policymaking, from the effects of globalization to rising housing prices, from ecological depletions to the ongoing threats of human warfare and potential nuclear catastrophe—it is more urgent than ever to provide platforms for meaningful broad-based engagement to take place. We want to help translate and bring into sharper view the rich insights and knowledge being produced in more remote corners of the intellectual/artistic landscape, so that the 7 billion homo sapiens presently living (and migrating) on earth can imagine the most optimal and realistic future for themselves and the planet.

Central Questions

Working questions will range widely but should include the following:

  • What do we mean when we talk about “migrations”?
  • How do migrations relate to human nature and the mind’s adaptive mechanisms for exploration/risk and nesting/safety?
  • Are human (or other mammal) brains getting rewired in nontrivial ways upon experiencing migrations?
  • If our brains are pre-wired in certain ways to act on ancient impulses inherited (genetically or culturally) from our hominid ancestors,
    how do we intervene now to arrange our present and future living spaces to optimally accommodate those impulses?


About the Neuroscience Research Institute (NRI) at UCSB

The NRI is an interdisciplinary research unit of the University of California, Santa Barbara, dedicated to revealing basic biological processes in neuroscience. Its mission is to foster knowledge and understanding of the nervous system by serving as a center for scientific research breakthroughs. The NRI is composed of a group of investigators and affiliate faculty from departments in the mind and brain sciences, social sciences, and humanities, whose collective goal is to create an intellectual atmosphere conducive to exploration at the frontiers of human knowledge—where disciplinary boundaries disappear. NRI investigators recognize that the interests of neuroscience extend broadly across various research scales and foci: from repair and prevention of human disease to the principles that underlie the earliest nervous systems; from the biochemical, cellular, and molecular building blocks of the brain to the emergent systems of human mind that arise from the workings of these elemental parts.