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Discovery
Unlocking the Secrets and Powers of the Brain

Leading minds in neuroscience discuss what we know about how our brains work and where the field is headed

A real scan of a human brain.

Neuroscience researchers are beginning to unravel some of the mysteries of how our brains work.
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June 15, 2009

The human brain is a three-pound paradox: We use it every moment of our lives, yet so much about our brains remains a mystery to us. How do our brains make decisions? Why is it so easy to remember the words to our favorite childhood song, but we forget important passwords? Can someone really read your thoughts?

Four leading neuroscientists and psychologists discussed these and other brain research questions at a forum held at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pa., last winter. More than 15 video clips from that event and other interviews with these experts are now available online. They describe how recent advances in science and technology are making it possible to unravel some of these mysteries while showing us just how complex our brains really are.

Award-winning author, blogger and Discover magazine columnist Carl Zimmer moderated the panel discussion which featured:

  • Daniel J. Levitin, James McGill Professor of Psychology at McGill University and author of the bestselling book "Your Brain on Music";
  • Michael Gazzaniga, director of the Sage Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California and author of the new book "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique";
  • Rebecca Saxe, Carole Middleton Career Development Professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT; and
  • Samuel Wang, associate professor of neuroscience at Princeton University and author of "Welcome to Your Brain."

In addition to presenting insights from their work, the experts also provided a unique perspective on the advances being made in the field of neuroscience and the many exciting and challenging implications they hold. For example, if brain scans can tell whether a person is lying, or if types of violence and criminal behavior can be traced to specific abnormalities in the brain, what does that mean for our justice system? As Gazzaniga puts it in one of the videos, "Is neuroscience painting a picture of the nature of the human condition in such a way that concepts of punishment take on new meaning?"

Saxe takes this thought further by exploring what cutting-edge neuroscience can tell us about why ordinary people can participate in extraordinarily cruel behavior, like that put on display at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The experts also challenge our common perceptions about how our brains work. Have a hard time making up your mind before you weigh all your options? It turns out, according to Wang, that your brain may have already made a decision without you knowing it, and all your deliberations are for naught. Wang also dispels the common myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains--we use almost all of it at some point.

In other videos, the panelists delve into what the brain can tell us about the nature of being human. Levitin points out that even though we think of our lives as being defined by what we do, our brains actually spend a great deal of effort preventing us from making other choices. "So much of what makes us human is inhibiting action," he said. "That's counterintuitive."

The panel at the Franklin Institute was the beginning of a series of events produced as a partnership between Discover magazine and the National Science Foundation to explore the biggest questions in science today. Excerpts from the event and interviews with the panelists are available in the February 2009 edition of Discover.

--  Dana Cruikshank, National Science Foundation (703) 292-7738 dcruiksh@nsf.gov

Investigators
Javed Aslam
Samuel Wang
Daniel Rockmore
Michael Gazzaniga

Related Institutions/Organizations
Dartmouth College
Princeton University

Related Programs
Cognitive Neuroscience
Perception, Action & Cognition
Methodology, Measurement, and Statistics

Related Awards
#9978116 The National FMRI Data Center
#0347719 CAREER: Optical approaches to Synaptic Learning Rules

Total Grants
$5,812,408

Discover Magazine's Carl Zimmer gives an overview of neuroscience today.
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In this interview, Discover magazine's Carl Zimmer gives an overview of neuroscience today
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MIT professor Rebecca Saxe discusses the challenges and promise of neuroscience today.
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MIT professor Rebecca Saxe discusses the challenges and promise of neuroscience today.
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Professor Michael Gazzaniga discusses the impact of neuroscience and the legal system.
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Professor Michael Gazzaniga discusses the impact of neuroscience and the legal system.
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Sam Wang of Princeton University discusses the top challenges in neuroscience.
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Sam Wang of Princeton University discusses the top challenges in neuroscience.
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Sam Wang discusses how our brains process information and command it to memory.
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Sam Wang on vision, the brain and memory.
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Daniel J. Levitin discusses the role of music in making our brains retain important information.
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What can music tell us about memory?
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Michael Gazzaniga talks about where our consciousness may come from in the brain.
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Where is consciousness in the brain?
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Rebecca Saxe talks about the emerging field of social neuroscience.
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What is social neuroscience?
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Rebecca Saxe explains social cognition in greater detail.
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How do we know social cognition exists?
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Daniel J. Levitin discusses how our brains create and observe art forms such as music and dance.
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The Artistic Brain
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Sam Wang talks about how we make decisions and how sure are we that they are the right choice.
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How Do We Make Decisions?
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Rebecca Saxe discusses where morality exists in the brain and if it is a biological process.
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Morality and the Brain
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Professor Michael Gazzaniga discuss the impact of neuroscience and the legal system.
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The Impact of Neuroscience on Our Sense of Justice
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Rebecca Saxe discusses how our brains determine the right course of action and reject the bad ideas.
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How the Brain Works
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Michael Gazzaniga discusses whether brain structure makes some people pre-disposed to violence.
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Violent Pre-dispositions and Subliminal Messaging
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Daniel Levitin discusses how we make decisions, will power, and changing our behavior and actions.
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How Thought Becomes Action
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