Brain science starting to impact varied fields

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - It used to be that only doctors were interested in brain scans, searching the images for tumours, concussions or other health problems hiding inside a patient’s skull.

An undated image of the human brain taken through scanning technology. REUTERS/Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara/Handout/Files

More and more, though, images showing neurons firing in different areas of the brain are gaining attention from experts in fields as varied as law, marketing, education, criminology, philosophy and ethics.

They want to know how teachers can teach better, business sell more products or prisons boost their success rates in rehabilitating criminals. And they think that the patterns and links which cognitive neuroscience is finding can help them.

“Suddenly, neuroscience is seen as a source of answers to these questions,” said Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“Neuroscience has gotten to the point now, in 2009, that it can actually explain many different types of human behaviour that 10 years ago, certainly 20 years ago, it was nowhere near explaining,” she told Reuters at a recent seminar explaining the latest progress in brain research for non-scientists.

Much of this research focuses on brain scans, especially by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which produces images showing the areas of the brain where neurons fire as the patient reacts to stimuli or thinks about something.

Activity at certain points, such as the amygdala where fear and anxiety are processed, sometimes shows connections in a person’s behaviour that are not visible from the outside. Brain scans also show some of the neural bases for emotions and such complex reactions as love, empathy and trust.


Neuroscience has attracted strong interest in the legal profession, where it can challenge fundamental notions of guilt, responsibility, intentions and testimony.

Law professor Deborah Denno said the United States legal system assumed the brain had a kind of on-off switch while neuroscience shows it has varying levels of consciousness.

“Now it’s all or nothing -- you’re either conscious and guilty or not conscious and innocent,” said Denno, who teaches at Fordham University in New York.

“I think that neuroscience should be relied upon much more in criminal law to make our understanding of thought processes more accurate and hopefully more fair.”

Studies showing that brains don’t fully mature until a person reaches 21 years of age or older have prompted Jennifer Drobac to ask whether it’s right to consider youths adults at 18 or try some youths under 18 as adults.

“The law is a blunt instrument. Where do we draw the line?” asked Drobac, a professor at Indiana University Law School.

With questions like these becoming more frequent, a network of scholars launched the Law and Neuroscience Project with a $10 million MacArthur Foundation grant to study how to integrate the insights of brain research into the legal system.

“Judges are already confronted with this and we don’t have a clear sense of what’s happening there,” said project co-director Owen Jones, a double professor of law and biology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Boston defence lawyer Ruth Greenberg said few judges now accepted it: “Someday it will change our field, but in terms of reliability, all these imaging things don’t pass the test yet.”


Rommel Salvador, a University of Washington business professor, said brain studies were showing that emotions and unconscious assumptions competed with rational thinking much more than first thought when it came to making moral decisions.

“When we have scandals like Enron, the typical business school response is to say we’ll educate the future managers. But how does that education correspond to what we know about how people actually decide?”

Gal Zauberman, marketing professor at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, said studies with brain scanning images were getting more frequent in articles in the Journal of Consumer Research that he edits.

Neuroscience research is also having an impact on more scholarly fields such as religion studies and philosophy.

John Teehan, professor of religion at Hofstra University in New York, believes evolution shaped human brains to see the world in certain ways and respond morally. These responses can help explain questions of religious ethics and violence.

“A lot of the teachings and general moral thrust we see in the Bible fits with what cognitive science teaches us about the way people think,” he said.

Editing by Paul Casciato