Student Discussions

Below you will find an archived list of discussion responses from current students in the Neuroscience & Public Policy Seminar (NTP660). If you would like to see a list of our upcoming seminars, please see our events page.

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Martyn Pickersgill: Neuroscience and the Governance of Family Life, February 1, 2018

February 1, 2018
Paul Bach-Y-Rita Memorial Lecturer
Martyn Pickersgill, Wellcome Trust Reader in Social Studies of Biomedicine, Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences & Informatics Edinburgh Medical School, University of Edinburgh
Neuroscience and the Governance of Family Life

Benjamin Glad:

One of the aspects of Dr. Pickersgill’s talk that I appreciated the most was his discussion of the general use of the brain (less so neuroscience) to further policy agendas and, at times, misrepresent research. In particular, I think an important question he asked is whether attaching neuroscience research, or simply images of the brain, to policy, outreach, and intervention provides something unique or more acceptable to non-scientist consumers than other forms of science. What is it about the brain that consumers find more appealing and “definitive” than other areas of scientific research? I think that the “curb appeal” of research involving the brain can certainly be harnessed to the benefit of funding important projects, shifting scientific findings from journals into the public consciousness, and crossing the research-to-practice divide in the implementation of evidence-based interventions and public policy that represents the best available technology from multiple fields.

Alternatively, the misuse of neuroscience research also has the potential for extremely deleterious effects. For example, could we get to a point with neuroscience research where decision makers misrepresent the research to further agendas designed to systematically disadvantage certain groups? The old debate about IQ, race, and sex comes to mind – it seems that, under the right social conditions, decision makers could “cherry pick” some of the related research to create policy that disadvantages certain groups (e.g., African Americans, women) simply because it is easy, without context, to put two brain images side-by-side and let public perception of brain research and confirmation bias lead the way. Is this apparent public bias toward research involving the brain (Ramani, 2009) something we need to be focused on actively combatting for fear of misuse or using to our benefit to move good science from the lab into social consciousness?

References: Ramani, D. (2009). The brain seduction: The public perception of neuroscience [Letter]. Journal of Science and Communication, 8(4), 1-8.

Julie Gocey:

Dr. Pickersgill stated that people tend to “authorize” neuroscience that aligns with their own experiences and not the reverse. The lay public, and non-scientists in various fields, tend to accept information that fits easily with their beliefs or that “just makes sense.” On one hand, it seems a bit shocking to think that experiences and beliefs authorize how science, specifically neuroscience, is used to inform policy and practices, but at the same time, there are many examples of this in health and educational practices. The photos of the two different brains that were only labeled well enough to show dramatic differences in brain size and equating the difference in size due to a nurturing environment vs. neglect. It was pointed out that many people do not understand what questions should be asked or how this type of presentation is misleading.

During the first class meeting, we discussed whether it is primarily the responsibility of the scientist to translate research into meaningful information, or whether our media and education systems should be doing a better job of educating consumers on scientific information. In my opinion, Dr. Pickersgill’s talk reinforced the idea that public acceptance of scientific findings and support for policy development is complicated. It is not as simple as assuming scientists must be careful about the information they present. Journalists (in theory) have an ethical obligation to verify the headlines and articles they promote and to correct misleading information when needed. Our education system has allowed a high percentage of adults to leave public school having only a basic level of literacy, and it is more important that ever that scientific literacy be included in our education systems from elementary through college levels. An open, ongoing conversation seems to be the best way to address the disconnect between science and policy.

Ruben Gur: Some Big Data and some Small Data on brain behavior, law and society, February 22, 2018

February 22, 2018
Paul Bach-Y-Rita Memorial Lecturer
Ruben Gur, Professor, Departments of Psychiatry, Radiology & Neurology
Director, Brain Behavior Laboratory and the Center for Neuroimaging in Psychiatry
Professor, Departments of Psychiatry, Radiology & Neurology; Director, Brain Behavior Laboratory and the Center for Neuroimaging in Psychiatry Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
Some Big Data and some Small Data on brain behavior, law and society

Isabelle Gallagher:

Ruben Gur’s seminar not only left me with a whole lot of first-hand insight of the history of neurobiology that I have not learned in the classroom, but also left me thinking of the future of neurobiology research and clinical implications. Gur’s ending theme was the current study of the Death Penalty and investigating brain damage as a mitigating factor. So far they have found that there is hyperactivity in the frontal cortex but hypoactivity activity in the limbic system. This is interesting because I feel like this can annote to the mechanism between rash decisions and explain to an outsider, “why would someone do such a thing?” However, I am interested to see what clinical implications such discoveries would hold for psychiatry, clinical psychology, and neurology. Is the future of mental health going to switch from self-reported/peer-reported measures or will it transition to biomarkers and brain patterns?