Yes, you’ve heard it before: science is cool and fun and the brain in particular is a wonder of the Universe, it’s what makes us humans, so that’s why we should all care to learn about it as much as possible. But while for some people it might be extra fun to read about the columnar organization of the visual cortex, unless you work in the field, chances are that this little bit of information has no bearing on your day-to-day life. So then why should you care about neuroscience at all? It turns out there are a few practical reasons for that.
You pay for it
All scientific fields receive funding from the government. While private companies and non-governmental organizations combined provide up to 60% of the scientific funding, almost half of the money is provided by the government (depending on the country, there might be some variations). Neuroscience is no exception to this. Because this money comes from taxpayers, it is important to keep yourself informed about how it is spent, much the same as you would when it comes to money allocation for other projects, such as the building of a new park or a new highway.
Furthermore, with big pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer or Amgen pulling out of neuroclinical research due to failures in finding cures for debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, it is important that the government steps up and continues to fund both basic and clinical neuroscience research. This will help us understand the nervous system better and come up with more successful treatment options, which will hopefully bring back investments from large companies. At the same time, the government is more likely to tackle challenges if they are of large public concern, so that is why it matters that you show an interest in these issues.
You might have to vote on it
Another reason why you should care about neuroscience is related also to public involvement. In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of commercial neurotech companies. By that I’m referring to companies which focus mainly on developing EEG and brain stimulation devices for the general public. At the moment, there are virtually no laws regulating how these companies should be treating the neural information which is being collected from the users. Moreover, most people are unaware of how important this information is. However, as the world is becoming more aware of the importance of privacy, it is not far-fetched to imagine that the same will happen when it comes to brain data. And in that context, it will be important to have a good understanding of what those data are and what can be done with them. That way, you will be able to make an informed decision when it comes to voting on such matters and not be misled either into supporting over-regulation and stifling progress due to fear or into trivializing the importance of this information and allowing companies to exploit data your data for profit.
Your health depends on it
We all know that misinformation is everywhere nowadays, in particular with respect to scientific information. Add to that the complexity of the brain and the fact that neuroscience is a relatively new science and you will end up with a ton of myths and wrong information. But while believing that listening to Mozart will make you smarter (spoiler alert: it doesn’t) is pretty much harmless, other pseudofacts could have more significant negative consequences.
For example, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) has shown some potential in improving memory consolidation in humans in controlled lab settings. One commercial tDCS headset, on the other hand, actually impairs working memory, as one study from 2016 shows. Think about it like this: a defibrillator will save your life if used properly, but it might kill you if you start to randomly zap yourself. Basically, it doesn’t mean that the method itself is dangerous, but using it without having proper information about it is.
So there you have it: some reasons to care about neuroscience in addition to the classical “the brain is cool” one.
1. Sørensen, P. S. (2007). Resource allocation to brain research in Europe. European journal of neurology, 14(6), 597.
2. Steenbergen, L., Sellaro, R., Hommel, B., Lindenberger, U., Kühn, S., & Colzato, L. S. (2016). “Unfocus” on foc. us: commercial tDCS headset impairs working memory. Experimental Brain Research, 234(3), 637-643.