Brain Visions (EN)

Neuroscietific research aims to understand the workings of the human brain and mind. Like genetics, it tries to unravel the biological basis of human nature. Following the explosion of knowledge in the genetic sciences over the past twenty years, the same revolution is expected in the neurosciences and cognitieve sciences in the decades ahead.

Datum 18 augustus 2008
Toekomstonderzoeker Ira van Keulen


"The brain struggling to understand the brain is society trying to understand itself.” 
This quote, by British neurobiologist Colin Blakemore, contains an important message, namely that studying the brain basically means studying ourselves. The physical brain is the engine that drives the complex and highly developed human mind. Thanks to rapid advances in the neurosciences and cognitive sciences, we are coming to know more and more about how the brain influences the mind — and vice versa. And that is in fact the task that the brain sciences have set themselves for the decades ahead: to understand ourselves, from our molecular basis to our behaviour, via the neural level.

Blakemore’s statement also implies that our growing knowledge of the human brain will have all kinds of effects on society, more than any other scientific discipline has ever had. Although we do not yet have a ‘grand theory’ of the brain similar to the periodic table in chemistry or DNA in genetics, we can already play around with the pieces of the knowledge puzzle that we do possess. After all — as one of the participants in the STT Brain Visions project once commented — during the development of the automobile the horse still surpassed the car as the faster mode of transport for a long time. He wanted to point out that it is certainly not too early to consider how we might use our new neuroscientific knowledge, even if we do not yet fully understand the way the brain works. Our knowledge base in the brain sciences is expanding rapidly. Many discoveries — for example, mirror neurons, the brain as an automatic machine, and the far-reaching plasticity of the brain — are pioneering and will lead to many significant and socially relevant applications.

At the same time, it is useful for us to think about how we can use our knowledge of the brain to tackle existing social issues. For example, how can we, in our complex information society, use neuroscientific knowledge to develop interfaces that make optimal use of the potential and limitations of our brain (i.e. neuro-ergonomics)? Can we establish direct connections between our brain and our environment? Can we improve our teaching methods based on neuroscientific knowledge? And will those new methods allow us to tailor our teaching to individual pupils? Can we influence our eating habits through the brain, so that we can control obesity? And how does nutrition influence the way our brain develops? What should we eat if we want to function at our best? Can a person’s brain show us whether he is telling the truth? Can we predict criminal behaviour?

Proper, useful applied research obviously requires interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary cooperation, with neuroscientists from different backgrounds (neurobiologists, neurophysiologists, cognitive neuroscientists, neuropsychologists, etc.) collaborating with scientists in other disciplines and with practitioners in the field (government, industry, civil society organisations, etc.) to define and conduct socially relevant research. Applied research of this kind is already being carried out in the Netherlands in the field of health care, and more specifically in psychopharmacology. The Netherlands needs to concentrate on applied interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary neuroscientific research in a broader range of less obvious fields too, such as those explored in the STT Brain Visions project: nutrition, interface design, education and justice. The Netherlands is one of the international academic leaders when it comes to the brain sciences. Our challenge is to avoid the Netherlands’ usual innovation paradox — academic brilliance which is not exploited in applied research or practices — and to work on developing specific applications in this important field of science at an early stage.

STT’s mission — to identify and encourage opportunities for innovation in the Netherlands — has inspired the project Brain Visions to make the first move in considering long-term neuroscientific applications beyond the field of medicine. The result of this project is a network of people in the Netherlands who have challenged one another to think beyond their own (brain) science research and everyday practice. Their thoughts and ideas about how to apply our growing understanding of the brain are the focus of this book. It is the product of the unflagging efforts of a large number of enthusiastic people active in the brain sciences and related areas of application, and of the even greater efforts of project manager Ira van Keulen. We trust that this book will goad others to continue expanding our knowledge of the neurosciences and to study how that knowledge can be applied. We are facing far-reaching changes in our world image — and we must be prepared!


Neuroscientific research aims to understand the human brain and mind. Like genetics, it tries to unravel the biological basis of human nature. Never before did scientific research get so personal, however. The brain has slowly come to occupy a key place in the image we have of ourselves and will continue to do so.

Following the explosion of knowledge in the genetic sciences over the past twenty years the same revolution is expected in the in the decades ahead. According to Eric Kandel, one of many Nobel prize-winning neuroscientists, there is even general consensus in the scientific community that the biology of the mind will be to the 21st century what the biology of the gene was to the 20th.

Our growing knowledge of the brain has not failed to affect other scientific disciplines such as economics, ethics and even theology. For example, neuro-economics is a new subdiscipline based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI; see Appendix 1) research on the (until now neglected) effect of emotion on decision-making. Neuro-ethics is another upcoming field, which reflects on the ethical consequences of neuroscientific findings (and considers major issues such as cognitive enhancement and free will); it also explores the neurobiological basis of moral decision-making. Some neuroscientists even refer to the possibility of a brain-based theory of ethics [Gazzaniga, 2005] or the neuroscience of fair play [Pfaff, 2007]. Another example is neurotheology, which explores the neurological and evolutionary basis for subjective experiences categorised as spiritual (as some earlier geneticists did in looking for the ‘god gene’).

There is great interest in the public domain in the progress of neuroscience and cognitive sciences in general. And, as it turns out the traditional cognitive disciplines such as behavioural psychology have — in the wake of neuro-imaging research — also become the focus of renewed attention. New popular magazines on psychology are popping up and existing ones are gaining subscribers. Newspapers report recent findings in brain and research on a daily basis. Numerous websites, weblogs and television programmes explain scientific discoveries related to the brain and behaviour to the general public. All this public attention can be explained by the fact that neuroscientific findings are closely related to the self and the way we see ourselves. Our growing knowledge of the brain is also leading us to believe that ‘we are our brain’, a notion that is gaining credence in society. We increasingly view our brain, rather than our heart or our DNA, as the key and determinative fac-tor of our personality. At the same time, the idea that the human can be reduced entirely to brain functions has taken root, not only in academic circles but also among the general public.

One thing is clear: the brain is in the centre of scientific and public attention. That is precisely why the Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends (STT) has set up the Brain Visions project: to explore this imminent revolution in science and public thought. STT has placed particular emphasis in this project on how fundamental neurocognitive and cognitive research interacts with social issues. The main question therefore is: how and where can this growing knowledge of the brain be of use to society?

Because other research is already exploring neuroscientific advances in medicine in-depth, the STT project has deliberately focused on four other important areas of application outside the medical domain: food, man-machine interfaces (MMI), education and judicial practice. Inevitably, some of the examples given in this book are related to health, simply because most neuroscientific and cognitive research seeks to understand neurological and psychiatric disorders. Nevertheless, the key goal of the project (and this publication) is to show potential applications or opportunities for applied research in four — for some readers perhaps less obvious — domains outside health care. This chapter presents a selection from the many fascinating ideas — or ‘brain visions’ as we like to call them — circulating in academia and industry as to how we can apply our growing knowledge of the brain.

In the introductory chapter we summarise and reflect on the outcomes of the STT project. The following questions will be addressed:

  • What brain visions can we find in the fields of food, MMI, education and judicial practice (see sections 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and 1.5)?
  • What is the aim of fundamental neuroscientific and cognitive research in the near future? (see section 1.6)
  • To what extent are the neurosciences and cognitive sciences ready for applied research? Why are the expectations of research on brain and cognition so high? (see section 1.7)
  • What conditions must be in place for the neurosciences and cognitive sciences to continue academic progress and to produce socially and economically relevant applications? (see section 1.7).

[For a complete publication in pdf, see the top of this page]

Brain Visions