‘Young sciences’ delve into the mysteries of the brain

Martha Farah

photo credit: Candace diCarlo

Martha Farah says that in “young sciences” like psychology and neuroscience, “you can never be on intellectual autopilot.”

“Every day you are thinking hard about what the right questions are to ask, how you can possibly answer them, how various kinds of data relate to the theories being tested, what a correct theory might look like,” she says. “None of this can be taken for granted in cognitive neuroscience.”

The Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences in the Department of Psychology, Farah has spent much of her career studying one of the ultimate mysteries of the universe: understanding the mechanisms of vision, memory and executive function in the human brain. Currently, she is looking at the social implications of this work.

At Penn since 1992, Farah founded the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience in 1999, a multidisciplinary facility dedicated to understanding the neural bases of human thought. The Center is home to faculty from the School of Medicine, the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Farah says cognitive neuroscience has made “amazing progress” since its birth in the early 1980s.

“Obviously, the human brain is complex and we have only scratched the surface of understanding it, but the field has clarified many aspects of the brain functions underlying human thought, emotion, development, personality and so on,” she says. “We have a fairly good idea about some of the basic ways that the brain ‘divides the labor’ of thinking, feeling and so forth. We have identified some of the relatively independent processing systems within the brain, which work together to enable normal cognition and affect.”

In the last decade, Farah says there has been a “real sea change” in how neuroscience is being put to use, which inspired her and her colleagues to create the Center for Neuroscience & Society, a research and teaching hub that addresses the ethical, legal and social implications of neuroscience. It includes faculty and students from departments spanning SAS, Medicine, Law, and Engineering and Applied Science.

“Right up to the turn of this century, there was basic neuroscience—aimed at understanding how the brain works as an end in its own right—and there were biomedical applications of neuroscience,” she says. “In the last few years, a third kind of work has emerged: nonmedical applications of neuroscience.”

Joe Powers, executive director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society, says the institution focuses on the societal implications of advances in neuroscience.

“And by that I mean how does neuroscience affect virtually all disciplines, from law to medicine, to engineering, to marketing and business practices?” he says. “How are advances in neuroscience—be they neuro-technology or neuro-pharmacology or neuro-imaging—impacting those areas of society?”

Powers says neuro-imagining is giving researchers more and more insight into the brain and “mind,” oftentimes allowing them to see the brain working in real time.

In law, neuro-imaging is being explored for lie-detection technology. In marketing, he says it is being used to understand customer’s preferences “on an almost subconscious level.”

“Certainly philosophy, which has long discussed aspects of the mind and the mind-body connection and the nature of the mind, now has neuro-imaging to add to some of the rich discourse that has been written for years and years,” Powers says. “So you can see that our understanding of the brain is really influencing and shaping and challenging so many disciplines.”

Entering college, Farah always assumed that she would become a scientist. She went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study chemistry, but says that “somewhere along the line I realized that the messy, immature sciences like psychology and neuroscience are in some ways more real science than the established ones like chemistry.”

When she entered graduate school in the late ‘70s—before cognitive neuroscience became a major field of study—she says psychologists who were interested in the mind believed the relationship between mental and brain activity would not yield to scientific study in our lifetimes. 

As a cognitive psychology grad student, Farah tried to take a neuro-anatomy course, but she says her advisor would not sign off because he believed, like the rest of the field, that the brain was of no practical relevance to understanding cognition.  

“It turns out that psychology and neuroscience were more ripe for integration that people had thought,” she says.

Originally published on September 30, 2010