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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Join the Revolution

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Last week, during a trip to Chicago, I visited with high school students at Jones College Prep. Jones is a magnet public school attracting outstanding students from every economic bracket across the entire city. Meeting with the AP Biology class was the best hour of my week. I heard great questions (“How do we know that every brain cell has the same DNA?”), great suggestions (“Let’s change the way we talk about mental illness.”) and great ambitions (“I want to study medicine and public health and psychology.”).

Listening to these students and their aspirations, I was both inspired and troubled. Inspired by their enthusiasm and dreams; troubled that, for them and for students across the country, science is a subject not a career. Science is a requisite course for medicine, nursing, or pursuing an allied health profession, but science is not what you do when you grow up.

There are several reasons this should bother all of us. First, we are not doing that great at even mastering science as a subject. The most recent reports of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) compared the educational achievement of 15-year-olds across 65 countries. American students finished 17th in science proficiency and 25th in mathematics, far below where we should be if we are to lead scientific progress in the 21st century. The United States clearly needs to improve science and math education.

But the bigger problem is something educators call scientific literacy. Science teaches us how to analyze data, separating information from marketing. A few basic principles that are the bedrock of scientific thinking, like “correlation is not causation,” are sadly missed by high school and college graduates who thought that science was learning facts and not learning a way of thinking. Scientific thinking might not be good for some of our nation’s commercial interests, from selling lottery tickets to marketing medicines, but it is good for our nation’s future, especially if we are to compete successfully against those 16 countries who appear to “out-educate” us in analytic thinking.

If we need science as a subject to help us compete, we need science as a career to help us ask questions. This is the big secret that no one is telling our best students: science is fundamentally about questioning our assumptions. Great science questions our biggest assumptions about our place in the universe, where we came from, who we are. Our greatest scientific discoveries are important precisely because they overthrow the dominant paradigm. For adolescents questioning authority and seeking identity, who could ask for anything more?

And now more than ever, we need this kind of science from our next generation. In an age of crowd sourcing and social networks, we need to remember that the essence of science is questioning what the crowd believes and what all of us assume. This kind of science is disruptive because it is counter-intuitive. We perceive the world as flat and the sun revolving around the earth. Crowd sourcing leaves little doubt, but thankfully science reveals a different, if unpopular, truth. A recent revival of Brecht’s wonderful play about Galileo, an especially unpopular scientist, captures this: “The purpose of science is not to open the door to an infinitude of wisdom but to set some limit to the infinitude of error.”

If the last few centuries have led to a revolution in our understanding of our place in the universe—outer space—all the indications are that this century will revolutionize how we understand our minds—inner space. Which is why you should know that this is Brain Awareness Week (BAW), the 13th annual science and health education fair that is happening nationwide, March 12-18. Neuroscience is changing the way we think about ourselves, overthrowing many of the facts we have all been taught about the brain and the mind. Just a few new insights: brain development continues through age 25, new neurons are born throughout life, the cortex looks busiest at rest, and the brain organizes the world in a way that our minds might never have suspected. My favorite, of course, is that mental disorders can be studied as brain disorders. To paraphrase Freud, who said that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious, today we can travel the brain as the royal road to the mind.

Want to know more about Brain Awareness Week (BAW)? It is sponsored by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit partnership of government, scientific, academic and volunteer groups dedicated to advancing education about the brain. Check out their website or the Society for Neuroscience website, look at our educational materials for children and adolescents, or link up with a neuroscience program at your closest university. Neuroscience is the revolutionary science of today, questioning the big assumptions about who we are. Neuroscience is not only changing the way we think, it is changing the way we think about thinking. As the students in Chicago discovered, neuroscience is not just a subject, it is a career and, right now, it is launching a revolution which may, in time, “set some limit to the infinitude of error.”