University of Vermont

The Honors College

Summer 2010 Faculty Seminar: Neuroscience Comes to the Honors College

Summer 2010 Faculty Seminar

When the first President Bush declared the 1990's the "Decade of the Brain", the idea was "to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research". It worked. Two decades and hundreds of articles and books and PBS specials later, the American public is inarguably much more aware of the fascinating work being done by neuroscientists worldwide. But were those "consumers" equipped to deal with the science? Are the scientists?

These were the questions underlying the sixth annual Honors College Faculty Seminar, held from August 16-18 and led by Professors Bill Falls and Donna Toufexis, of UVM's Department of Psychology. Both Falls and Toufexis are biobehavioral neuroscientists and part of UVM's impressive cluster of scientists from across the campus who are conducting cutting-edge research on the brain. Both of them are endowed with a strong philosophical streak, a propensity to ask tough questions about the kinds of research they and others do on the brain. When the Honors College approached them to organize a seminar on neuroscience, they jumped at the chance to engage non-scientists in the discussion surrounding the science. The seminar that arose from their planning, "Neuroscience beyond biology and medicine: the role of neuroscience in non-science disciplines," was organized around the following questions: How is the human brain unique from the brains of other species? How is the human brain organized and how does human behavior emerge from this organization? How does the evolution of the human brain provide new insights into the arts and humanities, as well as theories of business and law? What is the relationship of the brain to emotion and how might this influence cognition? What are the neurophysiological underpinnings of creativity, culture, religion and ethics? Does neuroscience provide an opportunity to create testable hypotheses in the arts and humanities?

On the first day of the seminar, faculty participants from across UVM (from Philosophy to Mathematics, to Anthropology, to Psychiatry, to Community Development and Applied Economics, to Engineering) spent the day learning some of the science. In presentations from members of UVM's neuroscience group and in the anatomy lab itself, where faculty participants held and prodded actual human brains, it became clear that science has some very powerful instruments for mapping and describing the brain and brain function.

But back to the first question: is science equipped for that knowledge? That conversation - many different versions of it - consumed the next two days. If neuroscientists can understand how the brain forms and stores memory, for instance, can it then be said that science has cracked open the mystery of memory? Will we, in other words, know everything we need to know about memory - not just how we remember, but why? The answer is, of course, no, and it is the reason why the Decade of the Brain will likely never be over. Science itself, as one of the participants said, can't tell us all the answers. In order to get to the areas of the brain that you can't see under a microscope - memory, consciousness - you need the right questions, and philosophers, artists, historians, anthropologists (just to name a few) are the ones who will ask those questions. Science needs those questions, and in turn, the philosophers need the scientists to help them ask the questions. Indeed, if this faculty seminar came to any conclusions over the three days of exceedingly stimulating conversation, it was about the absolute necessity of a fully integral interdisciplinarity as we go forward into the next decades of the brain. Neuroscience, it was decided, can indeed shed some interesting light on things like creativity, culture, religion, and ethics. But from those disciplines come some similarly powerful rays of thought for the scientists. The seminar concluded by looking forward to enhanced conversations across campus between what C.P. Snow a long time ago termed "the two cultures."

Last modified September 29 2010 01:55 PM