Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

The Top 10 Challenges for Brain Science in 2013

2012 was a big year for brain science, and 2013 promises to be even bigger.

1. Figure out what fMRI can truly tell us about our brains.

This debate has been simmering for more than a few years now, and yet the studies claiming "definitive evidence" based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans keep rolling out. We need a pause and reflect moment. There's little question fMRI is valuable, but too many disparate forces are out there spinning brain scans in too many ways. Perhaps one solution, or start of a solution, is a summit hosted by a credible, well-respected institute or organization to gather the best of the best minds in the field to establish a game plan moving forward.

2. Determine what role, if any, neuroscience should play in the courtroom.

I wrote about this in a recent Slate article, and to me it's one of the biggest challenges ahead not just in 2013 but for years to come. At this point, we cannot expect the technology to serve the interests of criminal justice; it's simply not far enough along. This is another topic ripe for a summit. The momentum is pushing brain science into the judicial sphere and the outcomes could be frightening if we don't get ahead of the curve.

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3. Continue crafting a constructive consilience between disciplines.

I personally feel like this is an area where substantial progress has been made, and should continue to be made. Neuroscience, behavioral science, evolutionary biology, economics, engineering, and even the humanities have all come to the proverbial table in the last few years. More of the same, with more players coming to the party, can only help build out what is already an enormous wealth of knowledge about how our minds work.

4. Produce more applicable knowledge and less curious meanderings.

Admittedly, I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to choosing the "curious" for my ink, and I don't think that's always such a bad thing. But to the extent that the field can offer solid applicable knowledge, I think that's where the priority should be. Again, what is truly "solid applicable knowledge" is frequently debatable (see #1 above), but every year the field--and by that I mean the interdisciplinary field (#3)--has more to offer the public.

5. Try to fight the urge to spin off more headline pablum like "Brain Porn."

I'm not saying there isn't a role for this level of criticism. The brain scan circus has brought it on, and much of the criticism is deserved. But I think turning "brain porn" critiques into a media franchise can only get us so far. How about we spend more time trying to solve the problems and less time concocting clever catch phrases?

6. Shine the light on how far the forces of marketing have exploited brain science advances (this is a genuine public service).

I just finished reading Douglas Van Praet's "Unconscious Branding", and it left me with this imperative engraved in my psyche. What I like about Van Praet's approach is that he's not trying to sell a new formula for huckstering brain science -- he's telling it like it is, and I highly recommend anyone who wants to know where the brain science-marketing connection sits today to check out this book. I am an unwavering advocate of making sure people understand how the forces of marketing are using the field to sell more products. Please don't get me wrong: there's nothing wrong with sales or marketing--but forewarned is forearmed in all walks of life.

7. Join forces with more public health sources to engender broader awareness of critical issues.

This also touches on marketing, because in this case advances in brain science can help inform public outreach campaigns to reach more people and influence behavioral change. Whether it's about smoking, clean air, contaminated water, energy conservation, the benefits of exercise, or any of the other thousands of possible topics, there's a critical role for the interdisciplinary field to play to achieve real change.

8. Put the brakes on "building a brain" -- we already have plenty of them.

Not a lot to say here, except that in my opinion we have enough to do with respect to figuring our how our organic brain works without spending massive resources on trying to recreate one. First of all, we're no where even close to doing so. Even the most advanced computers are barely cockroaches compared to what we carry around in our heads. On top of that, I haven't heard many reasonable arguments as to why we're even trying, except that it's a mountain to climb. Fair enough, but some mountains are best reserved for future climbs while we focus on the ones we're already striving to ascend.

9. Turn the corner from "what's wrong with our brains" to "what we can really do about it."

Cognitive bias is covered. Sure, there will always be more to explore, but I think we're far enough along that we can focus less on what's wrong and more on how we can deal with it.

10. Keep the pressure on devising new drug therapies for brain-based diseases.

Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and many many more. This isn't a one-year challenge--but every year is critical for making additional progress to save lives.

You can find me on Twitter @neuronarrative and at my website, The Daily Brain

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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