Why Americans resist neuroscience more

Science has a special online feature this week on behavioral science. One of the articles is a review by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg (a fellow SymSys alum!) presents some interesting evidence about how dualistic ideas about mind/brain are present from an early age. They state:

Another consequence of people’s common-sense psychology is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain (5). This belief comes naturally to children. Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving deliberative mental work, such as solving math problems. But preschoolers will also claim that the brain is not involved in a host of other activities, such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother, or brushing one’s teeth (5, 17). Similarly, when told about a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, they believed that you would get a very smart pig, but one with pig beliefs and pig desires (18). For young children, then, much of mental life is not linked to the brain.


For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls (20, 21). What’s more, certain proposals about the role of evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging in criminal trials assume a strong form of dualism (22). It has been argued, for instance, that if one could show that a person’s brain is involved in an act, then the person himself or herself is not responsible, an excuse dubbed “my brain made me do it” (23).

The authors conclude that adult resistance to science is strongest in fields where scientific claims are contested by the society (that is, contested by non-science alternatives rather than by scientific uncertainty). They claim that this accounts for the difference in the United States (versus other countries with less vociferous advocacy of non-science) in the resistance to the central tenets of evolutionary biology and neuroscience.

I think this says something important about science education, namely that it should start earlier in life. And there’s no reason that neuroscience should be left as a “college-level” subject. I think modern neuroscience has progressed to the point where we can confidently teach some basics at a high-school or earlier stage. Judging from my own experiences, I think the desire to learn about neuroscience is certainly there in younger children.

Braintool.org: Accelerating basic-science neurotechnology

Braintool.org is a project, recently launched by Dejan Vucinic at the Salk Institute, which acts as a Wiki for the basic-science neural tools field. I highly encourage people to contribute, and to make use of, the information. Topics of note include:

  • Tissue preparation and surgery
  • Labeling cells
  • Extracellular electrode recording
  • Stimulation and remote control of neurons
  • Electroencephalography (EEG)
  • Optical microscopy
  • Optical functional imaging
  • Electron microscopy
  • Functional magnetic imaging (fMRI)

In its own words, Braintool “contains hands-on advice, contributed by experts, for the practicing experimental neuroscientist. Here you will find information that often gets buried into obscure methods journals or into the invisible Supplementary Materials section of published articles.” Let’s face it — there is almost an infinite amount of work to do on the brain, and if we don’t leverage our technological innovations towards great progress, we are never going to understand the whole thing. Start accelerating neuroscience now!

— posted by Ed

Human 2.0: New Minds, New Bodies, New Identites

The MIT Media Lab is holding a conference on May 9th, “Human 2.0: New Minds, New Bodies, New Identites” which will launch a number of new initiatives centered around the goal of inventing a better future via direct engineering of the human. Amongst these things will be the initiation of the MIT Center for Human Augmentation, and the launch of a number of novel applied Neurotechnology Projects.

Guest speakers on May 9th will include MIT professors (Roz Picard, Hugh Herr, myself, etc.) and many acclaimed speakers such as Oliver Sacks and John Donoghue. Registration may be close to being full, but it will be webcast.

More information at:

— posted by Ed

competition: single-neuron prediction

Gerstner‘s group in Lausanne, Switzerland has announced a competition to predict the electrical behavior of individual neurons in two respects:

1) predict the timing of every spike that a neuron emits with a precision of 2ms.
2) predict the subthreshold membrane potential with a precision of 2mV for arbitrary input.

Details on the competition, including the dataset (released 16 March 2007), are here.

Note that the first prize winner receives:

– 4 nights of hotel in Lausanne at the Lake Geneva, June 23-27.
– Free participation in the Quantitative Neuron Modeling workshop June 25/26
– 35-minute-slot for talk as an Invited Speaker in the workshop.

get coding.

(posted by Dave Matthews)