Scientists have advanced brain research deep into territory usually occupied by philosophers. Can their findings act as a guide to public policy?by Dan Jones / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
In August 2009, the Royal Society—Britain’s most prestigious scientific society—convened a meeting of the country’s leading brain scientists. Gathered round the table were ten experts in areas ranging from neurophysiology and neural plasticity to neural hermeneutics. For some time, those studying the brain have revealed a marvel of evolutionary engineering. But now something else is happening: business and the military are looking to apply this research for their own ends, while politicians, science writers and journalists are making ever bolder claims for what it tells us about human behaviour. “There are so many speculative claims being made about the implications of neuroscience—for economics, for politics, for behaviour change—that we decided to pull in the experts for a reality check,” explains James Wilsdon, director of science policy at the Royal Society.
The meeting discussed an unpublished paper from the Royal Society’s science policy centre, which surveyed the frontiers of contemporary neuroscience to identify a host of ethical and public policy dilemmas: the role of brain science in education, in the application of justice, and even in warfare (see boxes overleaf). Brain science is beguiling, promising to reveal previously hidden insights into what makes us tick. But how has this once obscure area become the most talked about scientific endeavour in the last two decades? And does it genuinely offer the radical insights into human behaviour and social organisation that its enthusiasts claim?
The 21st-Century Brain
Neuroscience could have immense practical implications in coming decades. Advances in understanding basic biological and functional attributes of the brain could help treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as staving off the cognitive decline typical of ageing. Some fixes will use drugs, but others could deploy devices implanted directly into the brain, or worn on the head. Headgear using brain-machine interfaces can already detect electrical activity in regions of the brain responsible for motion and has, for example, been used to enable paraplegics to control a computer mouse by thought alone. In April 2009, biomedical engineer Adam Wilson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison used this method to send a message on Twitter without lifting a finger. In February this year, Adrian Owen, assistant director of the Medical Research Council’s cognition and brain sciences unit at Cambridge University, reported that a patient thought to have been in a persistent vegetative state for five years had answered “yes” to questions by imagining playing tennis, thereby lighting up a zone of his brain.