Cognitive Neuroscience: The Next Big Boom?
The brain as we know is quite a complex organ in terms of how it functions; resulting in a multitude of behaviours in everyday life. Not only does it receive incoming information from the surroundings and makes sense of it (perception), but it also integrates our past experiences across different sensory modalities, is involved in planning future actions as well as helps us distinguish different facial features.
These are only a few of the never ending functions of the brain. Even the lay man who does not understand the individual workings of the neurons across synapses at the microscopic level would also appreciate the afore-mentioned fact that the brain is truly a complex organ, vital in shaping human experience. In my opinion, awareness about the workings of the human brain in particular is still in its infancy. Yes, thanks to certain medical television shows, increased as well as reliable neuroimaging techniques and dedicated researchers, we now know more about the brain than ever before.
However, the current knowledge we possess about the brain not only needs to be disseminated to the wider population in a way that they understand, but the process of acquiring scientific knowledge in the field of neuroscience needs to be augmented – both in terms of quantity and quality. At least this stands true for Pakistan.
Unlike in Pakistan, researchers in Europe and indeed across the globe are coming up with radical projects to map the human brain. Their aim in a nutshell – by mapping the human brain, one could potentially understand the complexities of the human mind and thus human behaviour. The Human Brain Project (HBP) is one small example where top researchers are pooling in resources and collaborating to ‘simulate the actual working of the brain’.
I would also like to add that when spoken about neuroscience broadly, the public generally understands the field as an exclusive hub that involves and caters to patients with brain lesions, haemorrhages or strokes. This is clearly not the case as known to those of us who understand the totality of the field. Thus, it becomes even more important to highlight why cognitive neuroscience, a specialised sub-field of neuroscience, that attempts to explain human cognitions with underlying biological and neural correlates of behaviour, might be the next big boom. Here are some of the reasons:
1. Understanding neuro-degenerative diseases: This is aligned with most people’s ideas about neuroscience dealing with patients who have some form of brain disability and so I decided to highlight this before mentioning some other, less known application. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases are all affecting human lifestyle drastically. Cognitive Neuroscience does not only promise to understand the onset and progression of such diseases, but also hopes to design early diagnostic and intervening mechanisms which in turn would change the lifestyle of people who are potentially susceptible to such disorders, positively.
2. Helping childhood development and education: The field of educational neuroscience is gaining in popularity and it seems that brain development is closely related to how students perform not only at school, but also their outlook and beliefs about people and their subsequent behaviours. Even certain skills such as increased auditory abilities, verbal and motor skills, etc are linked to the extent to how and when the brain develops. Thus, by understanding the brain of the developing child, researchers can help educators and parents on how to nurture a child’s environment appropriately in order to aid development.
3. Shaping Behavioural Economics and Marketing: There are many ways in which our brains deceive us and distort existing information in the outside world. Visual illusions, biases in memory and incorrect probability estimations are amongst the list. Effective advertisements make use of these short comings of the human brain/mind in order to maximize product sales.
Furthermore, cognitive neuroscience in the future aims to explain how decisions made in the finance and economic world could be related to brain stimulation and arousal. For example, oxytocin, a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain is thought to play a vital role in trust and bond formation. In addition, several studies have now found that by just looking at a picture of the human brain (fMRI scans for example), people are more likely to believe that subsequent information provided to them comes from a more reliable and credible source, irrespective of the content.
4. Offering insights into psychopharmacology: Using medications to alter our experiences and behaviours is now becoming a well-established fact. Anti-depressants/psychotics and tranquillizers are all used to regulate chemical imbalances in the brain. Latest research in this arena is interested in enhancing memory by chemical means. Cognitive Neuroscience techniques can be used to monitor the success rates of newly developed mood-altering medications as well track the long-term effects (both positive and negative, if any) of these chemicals on the human brain, and thus on human behaviour.
Thus, I believe the aforementioned facts about neuroscience make it an ideal candidate to be the next big boom in medical and scientific research. Please bear in mind that these facts are only a small glimpse of the real life applications of neuroscience. There might be a few who would go as far as saying that cognitive neuroscience and neuroscience in general is already the big boom in scientific research. In either case, the aim to understand one of the most complex designs of nature should be appreciated and given due credit. Let our cognitions begin the neuro-scientific boom!
Cabeza, R., Nyberg, L., and Park, D. (2005). Cognitive Neuroscience of Aging: Linking Cognitive and Cerebral Aging. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Carlson, N. (2011). Foundations of Behavioral Neuroscience. Boston, MA: Pearson.
McCabe, D., and Castel, A. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107(1), 343-352.
Parrott, A., Morinan, A., Moss, M., and Scholey, A. (2004). Understanding Drugs and Behaviour. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley.
Sala, S., and Anderson, M. (2012). Neuroscience in Education (electronic resource): the good, the bad and the ugly. Retrieved from http://lib.myilibrary.com/Open.aspx?id=389396 on 4th February, 2013.
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