Synapse 11: The far-reaching progress of neuroscience in the last two decades

Last week, Nature Neuroscience published an article reflecting on the past two decades of neuroscience according to an array of industry experts. One interesting perspective that I got out of this article was the concept of neuroeverything: how neuroscience has branched out of its own confines into other industries. 

When I started this newsletter, I made a promise to you, the reader, which was that I would do my best to avoid the cliché and pseudoscientific claims that are often found in popular media about psychology and neuroscience. Dubious claims such as how a brain training app can permanently alter your brain or how dopamine fasting can improve your productivity are ubiquitous around the internet. The truth is that much of how the brain works remains largely a mystery and inappropriate application of neuroscience can be a danger. This sentiment is shared by Dr. Farah when talking about Neuroeverything: 

The idea of neuroeverything understandably evokes eye rolls, within neuroscience and without. Many of these exuberant interdisciplinary connections will not turn out to be useful, but I believe that some will. Why? Because neuroscience is — in principle — relevant to any field that seeks to understand, predict, or influence human behavior.

Yet, despite these concerns, neuroscience has had a real, evidence-based impact on various industries. Below, I highlight a few of them: 


One of the most important decisions our criminal justice system must make is how long to lock a criminal in prison. In order to do this, we have to make a determination as to the likelihood of a repeat offense. Normally, this can be done by analyzing the criminal's behavior and psychology, but neuroscience has provided evidence of an objective biomarker for one's propensity to be arrested again. For example, one study found that low brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area thought to play a role in impulse control, doubled the risk of a rearrest within four years. Information like this can add to the total picture that a criminal justice system can use to appropriately punish people. 

The U.S. justice system has also determined that one's moral culpability has at least something to do with whether there is a mental illness at play—this is the classic "insanity defense." In the last two decades, neuroscience has introduced evidence for "irresistible impulse" as a possible grounds for a successful criminal insanity defense. Previously, insanity defenses depended solely on the M'Naghten rule which requires that an insanity defense proves that the perpetrator could not understand the nature of their criminal act, or did not know that the act was wrong, by reason of mental illness. However, research into the prefrontal cortex has shown that damage to this region can produce "an individual capable of differentiating right from wrong but who, nonetheless, is organically incapable of appropriately regulating their behavior." The potential for neuroscience to challenge our assumptions and intuitions about our agency over our actions is extremely interesting and something I'll be writing about in future newsletters. 


Neuroscience has also improved education--particularly with dyslexic students and the mathematically challenged. For example, neuroscience helped uncover the fact that dyslexia is less of a pure visual problem and more of a phonological problem. Neuroscience has also helped educators learn to teach dyslexic children by providing evidence that dyslexic kids learn to read in the same way as typical kids, but are simply delayed

Mathematical skills are critical to one's chances for earning potential, job opportunities, etc and neuroscience has helped our understanding of an innate "number sense" in humans—which is responsible for our working knowledge of numbers and their relations—located in the parietal lobe


For better or for worse, marketing has gotten a lot better at getting us to open our wallets with the help of neuroscience. For example, it has long been known that humans like faces, particularly babyfaces, but eye gaze research has advised that advertisers avoid putting baby faces face-on in the ad or else risk the viewer not engaging with the content of the add. 

Imaging studies have also revealed that people respond negatively to shiny packaging and has actually changed the packaging) of Frito-Lay to a more matte look. 

Neuroeverything... is a good thing? 

One of the things that excite me the most about neuroscience is how it is relevant to nearing everything that humans do. The brain is fascinating and is worth studying for its own sake, but there's no denying the tantalizing prospect of applying our knowledge about our minds to make our everyday lives better. So should we neuro...everything? Maybe not yet, but I'm excited to see where the evidence takes us.

🔗 Links

This week’s links are COVID-19 related!

  • This week, Cell published a review of the COVID-19 vaccines currently in development. A few important notes:

    • The development of a vaccine is currently being conducted extremely quickly but that is simply because the companies involved are taking on enormous amounts of financial risk not because they are throwing safety to the wind. Normally, companies wait for results from a study to determine whether continuing is financially viable, but this time, the need is so great that each of the leading companies is manufacturing the vaccine before it’s proven safe and effective so that it can be distributed as fast as possible.

    • Nine vaccines are currently in Phase III trials and the first results are expected by the end of October. All of them are of a type that protects only the lower respiratory tract. Thus, while the vaccines may prevent symptomatic disease, they may not prevent transmission of the virus to an unvaccinated individual

    • One should be cautiously optimistic about the world getting an approved vaccine by the end of the year. But the distribution challenges are enormous. Of course, the timeline of the end of the pandemic life-style has much more to do with when the last vaccine is administered than when the first is. Thus, people should care very deeply about how a vaccine is manufactured and distributed.

  • On the topic of vaccine distribution, below is a very good youtube video describing the logistical challenge of the COVID-19 vaccine

  • Tweet thread on vaccine efficacy (click or tap-on to view thread):

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