What is neuroscience?

by Professor Usha Goswami FBA

12 Nov 2020

Neuroscience is the science of the brain and the nervous system. Our brains are super complicated. To understand this complexity, there are many types of neuroscience. Neuroscientists study how brain cells signal to each other, for example which chemicals they use; they study how brain cells connect to each other, for example by sending small electrical pulses; and they study whole systems of brain cells at work, for example looking at connected activity in the visual areas of the brain, the auditory areas of the brain and the thinking areas of the brain. Neuroscientists also study how the brain evolved, how cells in the developing brain differentiate themselves into, say, visual versus auditory brain cells, and how brain cells know where in the brain to go in order to do their designated jobs.

The kind of neuroscience that is perhaps most relevant to those of us at the British Academy is cognitive neuroscience. Cognitive neuroscientists are interested in what happens in the brain when we have emotions, or thoughts, or when we create art, or music, or when we read and write. Any one of these human abilities and skills is an incredibly complex topic of study, yet incredibly rewarding. How can a person create a new poem or paint an image that has never been seen before? Multiple brain mechanisms are involved, and individual differences in neurochemicals can also play a role. For example, some of the most creative artists have been quite unhappy people, and the link between creativity and mood disorders is an intriguing topic in neuroscience. Cognitive neuroscientists also study these questions developmentally. Before you can write a great novel, you need to learn to read and write, and to read and write, you need to learn to speak. How do babies learn language and how do children learn to read? These are questions studied by developmental cognitive neuroscientists. So – all the things that make human beings human are topics of study in neuroscience.

A two-month-old infant looking into the camera with a dummy in their mouth, wrapped in a striped blanket. They're wearing a neurological device on their head to measure their brain activity.
A two-month-old participant in the ERC "BabyRhythm" language acquisition project at the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, Cambridge. The experiment uses an electroencephalogram (EEG) to study brain activity while infants listen to nursery rhymes.

When a baby is conceived, they comprise just a few cells, but by the time the baby is born, there are over 100 billion cells in the brain alone. Even a newborn baby has more computing power than the most powerful supercomputer. Not only do they have their 100 billion brain cells, babies are estimated to grow another million brain cells every minute. This means that there are trillions of potential connections, offering enormous learning potential. But babies don’t need special environments to learn. Developmental cognitive neuroscientists try to understand how looking at, touching, smelling, tasting and listening to the world around them enables babies to create an encyclopaedia of everything they experience and store it in their brains.

Neuroscientists have shown that our experiences present predictable statistical patterns. For example, if we see a footballer kick a football towards a net, one prediction is that she may score a goal. The brain automatically records all these probabilities and patterns, based on experience, thereby creating knowledge structures that become predictive. Eventually our brains expect the world to be a certain way. Neural engineers try and understand how brains achieve this expertise by modelling their learning mechanisms. We all get irritated when predictive spelling on our mobile phones goes wrong. But the fact that our phone can predict what we are saying and type out what we are speaking has been made possible by computational neuroscience. However, the child's brain also develops internal systems like a conscience, hope, empathy and an imagination. How the brain achieves computations like these is currently not understood. Neuroscience still has a long way to go in contributing to our understanding of human wisdom.

Usha Goswami is Director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience, and a Fellow of St John’s College at the University of Cambridge. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2013.


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