Here's a more-or-less random collection of headlines about neuroscience from the last month alone: "Neuroscience discovers 5 things that will make you happy;" "Now, find your life partner through neuroscience!;" "Creative block? Here's the neuroscience of how to fix that."
No other field of scientific inquiry, it's safe to say, inspires so much attention from such diverse fields of interests. Why do everyone from entertainers to economists, among many others, look to neuroscience for clues on how to do their jobs more effectively? The answer is simple: it's because neuroscience studies the brain, the most complicated and least understood of our organs, the operating system that controls everything we say, do, feel, and think.
As a neuroscientist and brain surgeon, this surge of interest in my profession delights me. I am thrilled for the broad interest in the work that my fellow neuroscientists and I do every day. But this interest is only the first step: because brain science is relevant to each and every one of us, it's vital that we make the study of cognitive function a priority for everyone, from scientists to athletes and from parents and educators to patients.
"...it's crucial that we all have at least some understanding of how our brains work, what causes them to slow down or deteriorate, and what we can do to keep our minds agile and in optimal shape for as long as possible."
While not everyone need dedicate their lives to unfurling the mysteries of the human brain, it's crucial that we all have at least some understanding of how our brains work, what causes them to slow down or deteriorate, and what we can do to keep our minds agile and in optimal shape for as long as possible. Researchers and public health advocates, after all, have succeeded handsomely in making heart health a priority for millions of Americans, ushering in better diets, medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol, and higher awareness to the importance of exercise, and other welcome measures designed to keep our hearts healthy and pumping. It's time we did the same with our brains.
The first step, then, is just to start a conversation. This week, I am proud to host a leading interdisciplinary brain health summit at the Ohio State University, bringing together football players, pilots, surgeons, engineers, psychologists, artists, and many others curious about the machinations of our minds. I am particularly excited about the summit's keynote speech, an address by Arianna Huffington about the importance of sleep and its effect on brain health. It's a perfect example of how questions we all struggle with privately--how much we should be sleeping, what we can do to get a better night's sleep--deserve our immediate attention. Other issues on the agenda, from the role our brain plays in stress, anxiety, and inflammation causing disease to to the lessons neuroscience can teach us about optimizing cognitive function and athletic and military readiness, to fostering a robust and diverse society, have just as universal an appeal.
"It's time, then, to get familiar with our brains."
But as thrilling as academic conferences may be for those of us in the field, they are not likely to have much impact unless everyday Americans joined in on these conversations, looking at their own lives, raising their own concerns, and educating themselves and their families about brain health and performance. This means going beyond the headlines and learning a little bit about how our brains work, how it impact our bodies, and how to keep them in top shape. It's not easy, by any stretch, but precedents abound: Most Americans, after all, have taken the time and the effort, over the last three or four decades, to educate themselves about nutrition, so that they could better nourish themselves and their loved ones, as well as about exercise, so that they could better keep fit and in shape. Concepts that would have been completely foreign to our grandparents--gluten, for example, and what it does to our bodies, or the gluteal muscles and how to work them--are common knowledge to many of us. It's time, then, to get familiar with our brains. Those of us who research it for a living can help, as can a very wide array of popular books, websites, newspaper articles, interactive software, etc. But the first step, that of growing interested and taking the time and making the effort to learn more, is for each of us to take.