Building a Cross-Cultural Definition of Neuroscience

By Natalia Velasco

Image courtesy of Pixabay
The first time I heard the word “neuroscience,” I was sitting on the couch of a College Counselor’s office, and it was narrowly explained to me as an intersection between Neurology, Biology, and Psychology. Neuroscience is one of the fastest-growing research fields on a global scale; the number of both published papers and highly-productive core neuroscience journals continues to increase linearly each year. The number of subfields has also expanded and diversified, all incorporating technology in increasingly complex ways to approach scientific inquiry through different levels of analysis, from synaptic to behavioral. This expansion has triggered many ethical questions that are essential considerations for all scientists who seek to understand the brain that is closely intertwined with our “humaneness”. As with the pursuit of Universal Human Rights, neuroethics must consider multicultural perspectives when posing these complex questions, which is why it is vital for future neuroscientists to acquire global views of science in order to begin to answer them.

It was in this context that I found myself starting to explore the world of neuroscience and the career paths that could stem from these studies. Reaching out to professors and researchers in my area turned out to be a practical resource to obtain advice and learn about the Mexican neuroscience scene.

Most of the professionals in the field, I noticed, had gotten involved through their backgrounds in biology, psychology or neurology and had pivoted towards more specialized brain research. A frequent topic of inquiry in Mexico was, unsurprisingly, mental health issues and perceptual disorders; these often go undiagnosed and untreated, like widespread dementia in the aging population, ultimately causing patients to be misunderstood. These critical challenges can explain the increasing prevalence of neuropsychology research in the country.

Mexican culture has strong family values, where we prioritize taking care of those members who are the weakest; the decreasing stigma about mental health has led scientists to seek to study how to best help these patients. From this perspective, neuroscience’s purpose is solving social problems, focused on understanding patients with mental health issues or deviations from “normal” brain functioning; these characteristics define neuroscience in Latin America.

This definition, however, found itself challenged when I moved to the United States to start my studies at Minerva Schools of KGI. This unique program allows me to study in seven global cities while working towards an undergraduate degree in “Cognition Brain and Behavior.”

My journey started in San Francisco, a city that is considered a mecca for accelerating ventures and a petri dish for innovation. In Silicon Valley, the questions that neuroscience is posing are entirely different. An important topic that is echoing in companies is Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is closely related to computational neuroscience. In this way, computational scientists are collaborating with neuroscientists to understand human cognition, and how that can be replicated by algorithms. Advances in topics like Deep Learning and Neural Networks give rise to important questions about the ethics of machine learning, and how “smart” we want to make our machines. Another controversial application of neuroscience is neuromarketing, where the neural responses to market stimuli are used to understand and influence human behavior. Neuromarketing and AI are just two applications of brain science that are being harnessed by a variety of industries at all levels, from startups to full-blown corporations.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In the US, studying the brain is not isolated from the capitalist free market, and companies are excited to use and develop this research in innovative new ways. This difference is perhaps reflected in the generous funding to research centers and institutions: $950 million invested by the NIH in 2018. In Silicon Valley’s definition, the study of neuroscience is closely intertwined with technological advances and has the purpose of understanding how neural networks give rise to emergent properties, like behavior and cognition.

This semester, I moved to Seoul to continue my studies, being in Asia for the first time in my life. Although similar in its fast paced and innovative characteristics, the neuroscience scene in Korea has also shown me a novel angle of neuroethics. The Korean Brain Initiative explicitly states that “study of the mind and brain is the last frontier in science,” and there seems to be a scramble for groundbreaking scientific advancements. This was evident at the 10th IBRO Neuroscience Congress, where academics met to present and exchange ideas. The deep appreciation for thorough empirical research and academic rigor emphasized how neuroscience should be treated as a “hard science.” The scholastic attitude is perhaps created by the abundance of higher education institutions producing research yearly. Whichever the reasons are, the role of neuroscience is conceived to serve as a critical point for humanity’s understanding, with an exciting view of the future.

It might be too early to say how, if at all, studying in Asia will help mold my own definition of what neuroscience should strive to be, but I have and will continue to task myself with discovering and understanding this scene during the semester that I get to be in its midst.

I am incredibly lucky that my university allows me to study neuroscience in different countries; and as I continue my journey, I hope that visiting new cities will allow me to build an even more complex definition of what neuroscience is, and what its purpose should be. Still, there are more ways to give students global perspectives, starting from early bachelor’s levels, such as research internships abroad, ethically and socially diverse students and faculty at universities, and even engaging in international collaborative research. This will train young scientists to work together even when their research partners might not only have a different background or approaches but different fundamental ideas about what the moral limits of research should be.

Creating this generation of globally aware neuroscientists will move the community to pursue ethical and innovative neuroscientific research for the greater benefit of society.

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Natalia Velasco is an undergraduate student at Minerva Schools of KGI, a new university with a curriculum designed around the science of learning that takes students on a “Global Rotation” through 7 cities. She is mainly interested in the cognition and behavioral aspects of the field, and want to explore how the intersections of neuroscience and social innovation. She is also a leading member of the Feminist Coalition (FEMCO) at Minerva and enjoys spending time outdoors.


References
  1. Brief summary of Korea Brain Initiative. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.kbri.re.kr/new/pages_eng/sub/page.html?mc=3186.
  2. IBRO2019. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ibro2019.org/.
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  7. Savage, N. (2019). How AI and Neuroscience drive each other forwards. Nature, 571(7766), 17. doi:10.1038/d41586-019-02212-4
  8. Wolpe, P. (2019). Neuromarketing and ai-powerful together, but needing scrutiny. AJOB Neuroscience, 10(2), 69-70. doi:10.1080/21507740.2019.1618414
  9. Yeung, A., Goto, T., & Leung, W. (2017). The changing landscape of neuroscience research, 2006-2015: A bibliometric study. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 11, 120-120. doi:10.3389/fnins.2017.00120

Want to cite this post?

Velasco, N. (2020). Building a Cross-Cultural Definition of Neuroscience. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2020/01/building-cross-cultural-definition-of.html

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