Break-throughs in brain science - RSA

Break-throughs in brain science


  • Social brain
  • Cognition

Elizabeth Gould’s talk here last night was succour for those who yearn to return to a time when the RSA’s events were more expertise and less opinion. We had asked Elizabeth, the winner of the 2009 RSA Benjamin Franklin Medal and the scientist who proved that the adult mammal brain generates new neurons, to focus on the implications of her work for society. She did a bit of this in the Q and A and in a short interview I did with her (see below), but like many scientists she preferred to stick to the facts in her talk.

This is worth hearing or watching for several reasons, including fascinating insights into the process of scientific discovery. As often happens when science makes a leap forward, Gould made her discovery by accident because something else she was observing didn’t make sense; how was it that an animal brain which had something removed ended up over time weighing as much as one which had not. In common also with other 'discoveries', it turned out that individual scientists had made the case for adult neurogenesis in the past, but in the face of prevailing orthodoxy their work had been ignored or explained away. I suspect that in his lecture tonight on neuroplasticity Norman Doidge will similarly highlight the way that for years - before the evidence became irrefutable - evidence for plasticity was ignored by the neuroscience establishment.

Gould’s work has excited people ranging from developmental psychologists to social policy analysts because it shows that adverse circumstances inhibit the capacity of the brain to generate new neurons, something which in turn seems to reduce resilience and the capacity for learning. The implications for social policy and the case for action to address poverty and exclusion seem powerful.

But the picture is complex. There are three important qualifications to the core finding that aversive circumstances and events do inhibit neurogenesis:

1. These circumstances have to be severe and continuing. One-off events do have an effect on the brain (as does all experience) but not, on their own, a long lasting impact on capacity

2. We are good at adapting. Even if something bad is happening to us we adjust or alter our expectations so that the impact on us is reduced

3. Damage to our neurogenerative capacity can be reversed. Although – obviously – the worse the damage, and the later the remedial intervention, the harder it is

After the lecture we retired for dinner with a number of experts in neuroscience, behavioural science, and even a philosopher of mind. Conversation turned to our Social Brain project, and in particular to our attempt to develop an accessible synthesis of recent insights into the brain and behaviour.

Getting to stage one in the project is proving tough and we faced more hard questions last night. One guest questioned the possibility of integrating neuroscientific knowledge with psychology and sociology. Take a chair; we can think about it aesthetically, functionally or at the level of its physical properties but why would we integrate these levels? Why would anyone thinking about how a chair looks, or what it does, need to know about the molecular structure of the metal from which its legs are made? We may know that everything in our universe is ultimately made up of some combination of four particles but what use is that knowledge to anyone but those interested in the big bang?   

These are big questions and ultimately I am a bear with a small brain (there I go again talking about myself and causing hilarity in IPPR!). But what does seem powerful in current conversations about the brain is the capacity to move backwards and forwards from examining behaviour to exploring the processes of the brain. The emergence of new disciplines (like neuroeconomics and social neuroscience) that cross the boundary between natural and social science provide more opportunities to spot things that don’t add up. And as Elizabeth Gould reminded us last night this is often the starting point for new discoveries.

Here is my interview with Elizabeth .

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