From forensic MRI scans to neuromarketing, our advancing understanding of the brain will transform society. Here are six examples.
In science and in the popular imagination, the brain has become sexy. Our brains are being observed, modulated, and augmented in ways we only used to dream (or fret) about. Advanced neural imaging tools are opening new windows into our thinking minds. Standing outside these windows, and excitedly peeping in, are researchers and representatives from almost every domain, endeavor, discipline, or practice with a stake in human behavior. From finding the most appealing magazine covers, to lie detection in the courtroom, to the feeling of spiritual oneness with the universe, few activities stand outside the ever-widening gaze of neuroscience.
Here are six domains that are most ripe for transformation by our increasingly brain-centered world. These neurocentric industries are only a few of the many others to choose from, and I’d love to hear what industries you think will be transformed by neuroscience. So please add them in the comments.
1. Neurocentric Health
From the clinical setting to everyday wellness, neuroscience is poised to change the way we practice medicine and understand health. As William Reichman, President and CEO of Baycrest, a research hospital based in Toronto, describes it, the brain will be to the 21st century what the heart was to the 20th. Over the past century, our increased understanding of our cardiovascular system both improved medicine and revolutionized our daily habits and behaviors, from what we eat to how we move. So it will be with the brain. As we begin to understand the vital role our brain plays in our overall health, not just our mental health, we are discovering new behaviors and regimens that will keep our brains, and therefore our bodies, healthy and happy.
Psychopharmaceuticals and cognitive fitness tools, like those being developed by Posit Science, Luminosity, and many others, will drive the neurocentric health market in the near term. Increasingly sophisticated neuromodulation, cognitive prosthetics, and neurofeedback technologies will move from the lab into mainstream clinical practice over the next few decades.
2. Neurocentric Education
In most schools today, the gulf between how educators think we should learn and how we actually learn is abysmal. We train kids in a factory setting as if they are going to go on to factory jobs, with very little attention paid to how minds develop and how to optimize the way a brain absorbs and retains new knowledge and skills.
Neuroeducation is a movement to incorporate insights from neuroscience into education in order to maximize the brain’s capacity to learn. Some are simple changes to educational programs, like moving the school exercise period to the morning in order to increase brain function. Some are curious, like those at Roland Park Elementary, which has introduced classical music and the scent of peppermint into the classroom. Others are more fantastic, such as stimulating the brain with high-powered magnets to increase motor-skill acquisition.
3. Neurocentric Law and Order
Cha-CHUNG. Before long, we will be using neurotechnology to enforce and adjudicate the law. Today, individuals have an unprecedented capacity to inflict wide destruction. The relatively wide access to powerful weapons has reduced the gap between violent intention and action. Thus, our socially ordained “keepers of peace” will be persuaded to try to pre-empt violence at its source: the mind.
To facilitate the neurocentric approach to justice, a generation of new mental surveillance tools will begin to be utilized, such as so–called “brain fingerprinting” and the No-Lie MRI. These technologies purport to provide absolutely reliable lie detection. Brain scan evidence in the courtroom has, however, been a tricky subject. No case in the United States has allowed brain scan lie detection to be used as evidence. In India, however, a recent case used an EEG of the defendant to show that she had “experiential knowledge” of events only the murderer would know.
Neuroscience is impacting our understanding of moral reasoning and judgment as well, and may begin to play a role in understanding criminal intention and responsibility. Neural imaging technologies stand to be a very controversial—and radical—new development in law and law enforcement.
4. Neurocentric Marketing
When neuroscience is employed in the redesign of the venerable Campbell’s soup can, we know we’re on to something important. Not surprisingly, amongst all the neurologisms that have sprung up in the last few years, "neuromarketing" has received the most attention. Why? First of all, follow the money. It’s hard to get an accurate accounting, as many companies don’t publicize their neuromarketing research, but we know millions of dollars have been spent on neuromarketing research in academic institutions and neuromarketing consulting start-ups around the world.
Second of all, follow our fears. Neuromarketing, in the popular imagination, is yet another powerful enemy in our battle against temptation. We are evolutionarily designed reward-seekers, and these predispositions make the temptation of food, sex, or material goods hard to resist as it is. If marketers can bypass our neural control systems (or hijack our free will), then we are certainly doomed!
However, although some might foresee the end of willpower under the onslaught of direct-to-brain marketing, the reality is more complicated. Seeing the expression of desire in brain readings does not always translate to predictable purchasing behavior. The brain-behavior link is complex, and even with powerful new tools to image and find neural correlates of desire, neuromarketing may be useful, but it is no more terrifying, or terrifyingly effective, than a good focus group, or a good Don Draper.
5. Neurocentric Design
Designers are in the business of making functional and beautiful artifacts for our lives, and function and beauty can both be understood neurologically. Experience and culture “tune our neurons,” creating patterns of likes and dislikes that can be both surfed and shaped by designers.
Nowhere is this need for neurocentric design attention more evident than in the way we deal with our information and communication machines. Information hygiene is vitally important, yet most of us are clueless about it. For people working in the military and national security, the ability to process mass amounts of information in a timely and effective manner can be matter of life and death. The U.S. Department of Defense has been working on a series of technologies called Augmented Cognition. These tools use neurofeedback to curate the information ecology of the user, reducing content when a user’s brain is too overwhelmed or overly-taxed to process information.
6. Neurocentric Futures
Finally, a bonus “industry,” and the one in which I live and work: foresight and futures studies. Neurocentric futures research is needed because humans have had a very hard time imagining and acting on alternative futures. In many ways our biological brains are stacked against us. We envision the future within the same cognitive frameworks, and brain regions, as our past experience. This makes sense evolutionarily. The lion that ate your friend a year ago will probably try to eat you if you get too close today or tomorrow. But in times of accelerating change and increased uncertainty, where the past is not as useful to understanding a complex and abstract future, our cognitive biases and neurological limitations can lead to personally and socially negative outcomes, as our collective response to climate change illustrates.
A movement of futures research and media techniques, going by the names of experiential futures, design fiction, ambient foresight, and human-futures interaction is attempting to correct for the limitations in how we think about the future. Futurists are designing experiences that bring alternative futures into the present through objects and imagery that we might see in the future, and through participatory scenarios that create a brief scene or lived experience from a possible future.
And we can imagine a future in which the distinct neural patterns of effective foresight can be observed and reproduced reliably, with the hopes that this knowledge can lead to better decisions today, and a better world for current and future generations.
A Neurocentric World?
Any word with the suffix –centrism must be parsed carefully. While our focus on how our brains work, and how to make them work better, will open up entire new vistas for looking at our personal and global challenges, it might also blind us to other avenues of exploration and lead to a false sense of security in our chosen direction. The potential of neuroscience to transform our lives for the better is enormous, and we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. I count myself as a passionate advocate for neuroscience, but we all must keep a critical eye on the claims being made and the values that are driving this explosion. The brain is sexy right now, let’s keep it from getting slutty.
Jake Dunagan is a research director at The Institute for the Future.
Illustration by Claire A. Thompson.