In the past, when people had psychological problems, neuroscientists would often wrongly jump to the conclusion that something in the persons past was to blame. Nowadays, scientists know more than ever about the growing field of neuroscience. In The Brain-Mind Connection: A Quarter Century of Neuroscience , Beth Horning discusses the future possibilities for this growing field. According to recent statistics, over 90 percent of the neuroscientists who ever lived are living now (59), and more has been accomplished in the field during the past twenty years than the past two hundred.
Until recently, the brain could only be studied under extreme situations of illness when symptoms readily appeared. The public lacked interest in matters of the mind, which made neuroscience a difficult field to research. Not until the arrival of the positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) did the public give a second thought to brain activity. These tools gave scientists a way to visually track brain activity. PET scans, for example, helped disprove the theory that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a psychological illness where a patient is fixated to the anal stage of psychosexual development to hash out the barely remembered intricacies of their toilet training (61).
Many scientists have also pursued the field of neuroscience and have helped it become what it is today. One such example would be Francis Crick, who shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA. Crick was believed to be the only scientist in the entire field who had enough authority and influence to make consciousness a legitimate subject for science (62). Crick and Christof Koch, a colleague and neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, have been researching at the cellular level, studying the relationship between neurons and the signals they transmit to each other. Crick and Koch even believe that all feelings, emotions, and thoughts that a person may have are merely the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules (64). On the other hand, philosopher and cognitive scientist David J. Chalmers does not agree with their findings. He does agree with the fact that a materialistic approach explains the physical processes of the mind, but it does not explain why these processes are accompanied by subjective experience.
Modern pharmacology has also had an impact on how the brain and mind work. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps messages cross the synapse between neurons, has long been used to treat depression. This drug comes under many different names: Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil; but all of them keep neurons from using up too much serotonin. Prozac and the other antidepressants did not disturb the balance of other chemicals in the brain, thus making it easier for such a drug to quickly become over-prescribed. A majority of the patients responded extremely well, saying that it changed their lives. It seems as if Prozac has made these people rethink their entire lives. Yet others argue whether Prozac simply changed peoples personalities. These drugs may help people cope with stress too well, making it possible for them to never confront actual situations which need to change. Newly discovered information tells us that serotonin locks onto about fifteen different receptors on neurons, not just a few as thought previously. So now, neuroscientists are working on a new drug that could perform all the magic of Prozac, yet reduce the number of side effects.
Research has found that the brain may physically change in response to a traumatic event. Neurons may die, reshape, make new connections, or allow old connections to deteriorate. Technological devices are also looked at as a mixed blessing. For example, life support was invented to lengthen a person s life, yet at the same time, it is argued that life support merely lengthens the amount of suffering a person must go through before inevitable death. In this specific situation, brain imaging devices make scientists feel as if machines show and prove everything, when in actuality, these devices simply show statistical findings, not derived explanations.
The Nature/Nurture debate has also taken its effect. Neuroscientists argue whether background or biology control the nervous system. Martha McClintock, a biopsychologist at the University of Chicago, is directing a new institute that will investigate the ways people s behavior affects their biology and try to shed light on just how responsive to the environment the nervous system can be (79). Her previous research shows that smell can have a large determination of what messages the brain sends to the rest of the body.
The last quarter century has brought enormous amounts of attention to the field of neuroscience. If it was not for a few important key players and events, neuroscience may never have gotten as far as it has in society today. And although there will always be debates over certain issues, researchers will agree that the study of the brain will continue to intrigue people throughout the upcoming millennium.