Neuroscience in the Real World

Neuroscience was born from a simple question— how does the brain work? — and its applications originally focused on the diagnosis and treatment of neurological and psychiatric diseases.  But neuroscience “has rappelled down from the ivory tower and eloped from the hospital ward,” said Martha Farah in her William James Award Address at the APS 21st Annual Convention. Although they remain important in the health field, studies of the brain have also contributed to a host of enhancement techniques used outside of the medical realm.

In her talk, “Cognitive Neuroscience in the 21st Century: From Lab and Clinic to Home, School and Office,” Farah said that neuroscience is now at the point “where it can give us the tools to deal with a wide array of problems in our society that boil down to trying to understand, assess, predict, control, or improve human behavior,” referencing students, busy professionals, aging boomers, criminals, and soldiers as a few examples of people using neuroscience in their daily lives.

We see the application of neuroscience in seemingly inconspicuous places. Healthy people use medications intended for patients with cognitive disabilities in an effort to take their fully functioning brains to an even higher level. On some college campuses, Farah explained, as many as 25 percent of students without ADHD use drugs like Ritalin or Adderall to enhance their attention. This trend is not only reserved for students. Our society is living and working longer. In the current state of our economy, where jobs are few and far between, older generations are sold on memory boosters to compete for and maintain their employment. Furthermore, medications originally developed to prevent narcolepsy are increasingly used among long-haul truck drivers, jet lagged travelers, and soldiers on battlefields. Farah suggests that these pills now serve as the ultimate, albeit unhealthy, time management tool, helping some balance their work and personal lives.

The same neuroscientific research that made these medications possible has led to vital insights into the mechanisms of behavior. Like something out of a science fiction movie, scientists are learning how to predict behavior and actions by looking at the brain with fMRIs and EEGs. Advertising and marketing has long relied on behavioral science and now, with the help these new technologies, scientists can take a snapshot of our brain while we look at certain products in an effort to predict what we are going to buy.

Over the past decade, these technological advances in brain imaging have created a surge in neuroscientific applications for the educational world. A long-debated issue in early education is determining when a child is ready to learn to read. If you try to teach a child too early it can be a painful process for both the child and the teacher. Educators have established effective behavioral methods used in the classroom to assess a child’s readiness to read, but now neuroscientists can improve on this prediction by examining a child’s brain in response to phonological tests. This evidence, coupled with the teacher’s behavioral approaches, may alleviate the anxiety that arises with late readers.

Whether you’re interested in looking at brain function for personal enhancement, profit, or education, Farah said that, “as we find out more about the brain and the processes that underlie the smallest of behaviors, our view of humanity changes.” For the more spiritual among us, reducing a human to a completely physical system may conflict with the idea of mind-body dualism, what philosopher Gilbert Ryle dubbed “the ghost in the machine.” Challenging the idea of a soul may lead neuroscience to become the next branch of science to have a sticky relationship with religion, Farah cautioned.

She also noted that neuroscience may conflict with our ideas of personal responsibility and free will. If everything we do is physically caused by the brain and our brains are determined by our genes and environment, how can we be held responsible or given credit for what we do? When we break laws, how should we be held accountable? The judicial system has embraced and continues to benefit from neuroscience. When sentences are considered for violent offenders, judges can mandate the alteration of perpetrators central nervous systems through chemical castration for sex offenders.  Farah suggests the law should move away from retribution and toward incentives for good behavior, what legal scholars refer to as“forward looking” penal codes.

“It’s looking like neuroscience is poised to influence our lives in many more ways than it has in the past,” says Farah, and this calls for an increase in public “neuroliteracy.”  Between new technologies that will change the way our society operates, and the new “neuroscience worldview” by which we see ourselves as physical mechanisms, neuroscience can be expected to bring both challenges and rewards.

Observer Vol.22, No.10 De, 2009

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