BRAIN Initiative: Obama's Initiative Launches the U.S. Into 21st Century Neuroscience


Economics is all about efficiency. Economics studies how people make choices, because we only have a finite amount of resources, and we want to make the most out of those resources. Since the onset of industrialization in America, technology and scientific innovation have proven to be monumental factors that make us better at being productive.

The fact we know from history is that science and technology together improve the capacity of the human species. This sort of academic progress leads to rocketing gains in human productivity. In short, we can learn from looking at history something about today's policy: President Obama's BRAIN initiative is precisely the approach needed to groom America for an increasingly globalized economy. 

Think of the Industrial Revolution. The cotton gin. The first factories. Steam engines. Mass production. The rise of the automobile. The first airplane taking flight in Kittyhawk, North Carolina. The push for technological advances in the face of foreign threats (WWII, the space age, the nuclear age). The platform you are using to read this article, the internet.

Whenever progress is made in some laboratory, classroom, or library couch, society reaps massive benefits. Norman Borlaug, for instance made advances in agricultural outcomes that are estimated to have saved more than one billion lives worldwide.  

The positive externalities resulting from scientific research cannot be underscored enough. When's the last time you washed your hands? This basic hygiene practice simply didn't occur to people until Joseph Lister's discovery of antiseptics in 1867. Neither the medical field nor society at large can be grateful enough for this breakthrough.

This historical path traces up to an intriguing point: What will be the next "big thing?" What will be the next "antiseptic," the next "method of mass production," the next "internet?"

Larry Swanson, president of the Society For Neuroscience, calls the BRAIN initiative "tremendously positive" for neuroscience. Why should we care about neuroscience? Not only is it instrumental in battling psychiatric medical conditions (which appear to be an epidemic in modern America), but it helps us find out more about what makes us human beings — our consciousness.

Neuroscience is helping making breakthroughs in fields of economics, psychology, and even morality. Paul Zak, a brain researcher from Claremont McKenna, showed that oxytocin infusion ("the moral molecule") with male test subjects "increases generosity in unilateral monetary transfers 80%." Zak also observed an increase in charity donations of 50% when subjects had oxytocin flowing through their blood.  

What makes this kind of research extraordinary are its implications about how we make decisions. Zak found that moderate levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine were most associated with improved outcomes in situations involving risk (as opposed to high or low relative levels of dopamine). This neural-psychological connection is screaming with applications: Zak's research found the most successful Wall Street investors to be individuals with a genetic predisposition for moderate dopamine levels.

Correlating, or possible predicting, success in a given profession based off one's unique neurotransmitter profile could enormously alleviate concern revolving the choice of occupation. The potential to put more workers in places where they'll be doing what they're good at is necessary for a more efficient economy. 

Obama's BRAIN initiative contains the professional, political, and academic foresight necessary from a modern leader. The medical implications as far as psychiatric diseases speaks for itself, as simply the lessening of psychological conditions in the U.S. will boost worker productivity. The potential to learn about our best assets as humans, our brains, is unlimited.

Consider the Mozart Effect: Kids that listen to this type of classical music perform significantly better on IQ tests than their music-less peers.The more research we have about the brain, the better we can get at researching the brain. The potential for discovery about something so unknown — our own brains that let us read sentences like these — is unlimited.

The BRAIN Initiative is not just significant in the tangible results. It represents America's continued dedication to be on the cutting edge of science and technology, an attribute that has historically underpinned our success as a nation. Neuroscience is not just a medical discipline, but one that literally underpins every human discipline. By learning more about the brain, we learn about chemical influences on our behavior, therefore learning more about ourselves. The president's commitment to science in this initiative will not go unnoticed.