Neuroscience - the scientific study of the brain

Your guide to neuroscience

More often than not, neuroscience is used as an umbrella term that covers various branches of biology, including physiology, anatomy and cytology. Other aspects of it include molecular and developmental biology. These days, complex computer modelling and aspects of psychology are just as likely to be included in neuroscience as are studies of the physical and chemical aspects of the nervous system. The earliest investigations into the brain date back to ancient Egypt and many physicians consider it to be one of the last remaining big challenges for medical science.

 What is cognitive and behavioural neuroscience?

 Much of neuroscience is concerned with the way cells in the nervous system function and how neural circuits are formed in a physical sense. However, this is no longer the only approach to the discipline. Cognitive and behavioural neuroscience is more focussed on the psychological aspects of neural circuitry, such as how repeated behaviour might form certain brain networks. This is an expanding area of neuroscience which links in with social studies very closely, albeit from the point of view of brain function. Essentially, you might boil it down to how the way cognitive functionality impacts on the physical aspects of the brain and, conversely, how the physical make up of the brain impacts on cognitive functionality.

What neuroscience says about free will

Some scientific papers have been published which suggest that free will is something of a hoax that we have invented from inside of our own brains. According to such neuro-scientific work, the parts of our brain that deal with decision-making and moral responses tend to operate in much the same way from person to person. Understandably, such studies have led scientists to question the validity of the concept of free will at all. While the jury may still be out, it is certainly the case that some scientists have been able to predict responses from people they have been studying, just by examining parts of their brains' physiologies. Although the ideas such research throws up are certainly noteworthy with respect to free will, nothing has yet been published which definitively overturns the concept.

Can neuroscience explain consciousness?

The idea of consciousness being determined by neuroscience is one that is related to the question of free will. The concept of consciousness from a neuro-scientific point of view is that it is the brain's ability to perceive something outside of itself somehow. Given that the role of consciousness in human thinking is itself a hotly debated area, neuroscience alone cannot yet explain it fully. That said, strictly physiological explanations of consciousness are possible even if they are not yet completely understood.

What can neuroscience tell us about morality?

If the brain's physiology is responsible for the way we think, then our psychologies and, therefore, our behaviours may not fit the traditional model that, for example, legal judgements on criminality are made on. If criminals behave as they do because of the physiology of their brain, then the question of whether or not they are responsible for their actions can be reasonably put. However, mainstream opinion still agrees that people are accountable for their own moral decision-making in most cases.

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Although humankind has been using techniques that may be described as biotechnological for centuries, the term itself only came into common usage in the early part of the twentieth century. In the past, biotechnology might have involved things like artificial selection processes for improving the ability of certain crops to survive, for example. Then, there is hybridisation, a way in which people have made entirely new sub-species for themselves. These days, biotechnology includes all sorts of molecular-level processes to engineer the biologies of both plants and animals. It covers bio-manufacturing, bio-engineering, medicine production, gene therapies and food production, among many other aspects.
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