>Royal Society essays on neuroscience

>Just published, this is a collection of essays that together provide a primer of current developments in neuroscience and highlight interesting issues and questions for society and policy.  The essays, authored by leading experts in neuroscience, bioethics, and science and technology policy, review the state of development of neuroscience and neurotechnology – such as neuroimaging, neuropsychopharmacology, and neural interfaces – and discuss the translation of this knowledge into useful applications. The authors discuss their own views on how developments might impact on society, examining some of the opportunities and risks, as well as the ethical questions and governance issues.


>The power of convergence

>A new model for scientific research known as “convergence” offers the potential for revolutionary advances in biomedicine and other areas of science, according to a white paper issued today by 12 leading MIT researchers. The white paper says that the United States should capitalize on the trend of convergence — which involves the merger of life, physical and engineering sciences — to foster the innovation necessary to meet the growing demand for accessible, affordable health care. 

Over the weekend I have been reading Mitchell Waldrop’s excellent book Complexity: the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos which tells the story of the establishment of the Santa Fe Institute in the early to mid 1980s. It is the story of how a few brilliant minds recognised that the future of science was in the study of complexity and that it required a multi-disciplinary approach from physics to biology to maths to computer science to economics (and more). One of the big constraints these great minds saw was how funding and academic progress was only available to people who stayed within the confines of existing disciplines. The second constraint was how much science was reductionist – drilling down in greater and greater detail and specialism rather than understanding how different fields could work together. Sound familiar? Judging by the convergence article many of these barriers still exist and people are still fighting to break through them.

>Is there a genius in all of us?

>An interesting short article on the BBC website challenges the notion that our personality is innate and touches on much of the recent work about neuroplasticity and how the brain can be shaped. These articles often introduce the idea of neuroplasticity and then go on to talk about how children have the potential to be geniuses but there is less discussion about how much an adult brain can change and how much effort is required to make this happen. Examples where people’s brains have been damaged and adapt are often cited but of course these happen through necessity. The example cited in the BBC article is the usual one of the changes in London cab drivers’ brains as they learn The Knowledge. What we know about this is that they put a lot of time and effort into this learning, and the interesting question for me is how prepared are people at work or in life to put in the amount of effort that is needed to change the brain this way. Dr Anders Ericsson’s work suggests that people need to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in something.

I had an interesting conversation with Paul Brewerton at the Strengths Partnership yesterday about how the ideas of neuroplasticity fit with strengths focused development and one thing that they have noticed is that people with a self-improvement strength are much more prepared to try and fix weaknesses because they are energised by the process of developing something new and hence happy to put in the effort, whereas those who don’t have this strength find the idea of building on their existing strengths much more appealing.

>Be in two places at once

>According to the New Scientist, firms in the US and Japan are already selling robot avatars that allow office workers to be in two places at once. So 2011 could be the year when many of us find ourselves sitting across the desk from an electronic colleague.

>The Innovator’s DNA

>A major new study involving some 3,500 executives has highlighted the key skills that innovative and creative entrepreneurs need to develop. The six-year-long research into disruptive innovation by INSEAD professor Hal Gregerson, Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University and Clayton Christensen of Harvard, outlines five ‘discovery’ skills you need. But, says Gregersen, you don’t have to be ‘great in everything.

So what are the five skills:
– Associating: seeing patterns in seemingly unconnected data or situations
– Observing: spotting emerging, weak signals
– Experimenting: to see what will work
– Questioning: showing curiosity about everything
– Networking: meeting a range of people to be exposed to ideas and resources 

Read more at the Insead website here.

>The Five Habits of Highly Effective Hives

>For millions of years, the scouts on honey bee swarms have faced the task of selecting proper homes. Evolution by natural selection has structured these insect search committees so that they make the best possible decisions. What works well for bee swarms can also work well for human groups. In Harvard Business Review, Thomas Seeley helps us learn from the bees five guidelines for achieving a high collective IQ.

>Brain is not fully mature until 30s and 40s

>There is a lot of debate about how much the brain changes after our early adulthood. The strengths world suggest that it is pretty much fixed and that success is best achieved by building on those things that are already strengths for us enhancing existing neural pathways, whilst evidence from neuroplasticity indicates that the brain can undergo quite radical changes if we put sufficient effort into the change. In an interesting addition to the debate Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a neuroscientist with the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London says that brain scans show the prefrontal cortex (responsible for high cognitive functions) continues to change shape as people reach their 30s and up to their late 40s. Read more here.

>You Can’t Multitask, So Stop Trying

>Based on over a half-century of cognitive science and more recent studies on multitasking, we know that multitaskers do less and miss information. It takes time (an average of 15 minutes) to re-orient to a primary task after a distraction such as an email. Efficiency can drop by as much as 40%. Long-term memory suffers and creativity — a skill associated with keeping in mind multiple, less common, associations — is reduced. See Harvard Business Review article for more detail:.Harvard Business Review

>Social networking affects brains like falling in love

>Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has discovered, for the first time, that social networking triggers the release of  the generosity-trust chemical in our brains.
See the article here