Caveat lector: This blog is where I try out new ideas. I will often be wrong, but that's the point.

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Neuroscience, culture, and the public trust

Every year, the Society for Neuroscience holds a "Social Issues Roundtable" at their annual conference. Social issues in neuroscience are near and dear to me, and so this year I took a stab at submitting a proposal.

What better place to talk about these issues than at a conference of 35,000 neuroscientists?

Sadly the proposal (below) was rejected. The program had five speakers, consisting of:

  • Carl Zimmer (New York Times science writer extraordinaire)
  • Sally Satel (Psychiatrist and author of, most recently, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience)
  • Vaughan Bell (Clinical psychologist, science writer, blogger at MindHacks)
  • Jeni Kubota (Neuroscientist studying stereotype and prejudice change)
  • David Higgins (Science fiction scholar, head of Science Fiction Literature (SF) for the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts)

Note I did not include myself on the panel. I would have simply moderated.

Despite being rejected, I still think it's an important topic. So I'm looking into the possibility of hosting something anyway, either as a satellite to SfN, or at my university (UC San Diego).

If this sounds interesting or intriguing, please let me know!


The Decade of the Brain. The $300M+ BRAIN Initiative. The public looks to neuroscience for answers about mental illness, cognitive decline, law, and disease. Society's expectations are shaped by media representations—from The Matrix to Malcolm Gladwell—which give an unrealistic view of both the certainty and capabilities of neuroscience. In this program we examine the effect of the dissonance between societal expectations and the nuances of scientific research on the public trust.

This roundtable aims to foster communication between media experts and creators, primary neuroscience researchers, mental health professionals, and culture studies researchers. This communication will focus on the bi-directional role between neuroscience research and the popular media and press, and how this affects the public trust. Specifically, there are three central themes we will explore:

  1. Why does neuroscientific research so readily capture the public attention?
  2. How do recurring themes of popular press accounts of neuroscientific research affect the public trust in the research? Examples of such themes include appeals to new research having "implications toward a cure for", e.g., autism, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, etc. while never fulfilling those promises.
  3. How is neuroscientific research and funding affected by shifts in the public interest, from Matrix-like brain- computer interfaces to current trends in Big Data?

By addressing these issues and opening the dialog between neuroscientists and the media, we as a society can better understand how neuroscience is perceived in modern society and the role that we play as guardians of the public trust.

The 2013 BRAIN Initiative put neuroscience back into the forefront of the public’s awareness. Similarly, the release of the much-maligned DSM-5 and Thomas Insel's official statement on behalf of the NIMH on supporting RDoC have led to a resurgence in discussions surrounding our understanding of the biological basis for mental illness. Finally, neuroscience-based bestselling books abound: Grandin's ”The Autistic Brian", Ariely's "Predictably Irrational", and Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow".

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