Reflection on the past semester of teaching

One of the interesting things about teaching in an undergrad cognitive neuroscience course is how students’ perceptions of the field change over time. At the beginning, many come to the course with the impression that the field is so far advanced that we are on the brink of being able to “read minds.” By the end, most are far more skeptical, which is a good thing overall. It means that we are achieving one of our teaching goals, which is to encourage students to critically evaluate claims based on neuroscience.

But does it also mean that some leave the course disillusioned with the entire enterprise? It’s conceivable that some students do a full 180-degree turn and go from thinking that neuroscience can tell us everything about brain and mind to thinking that it tells us absolutely nothing — it’s worthless. I don’t know how many students feel this way, but as I see it there are two ways of responding.

The first is to succumb to a sort of epistemic nihilism regarding neuroscience: we know nothing about the how the brain works and we never will. Abandon all hope ye who enter here, for there is nothing to be gained. The second approach is to acknowledge our profound ignorance and to continue inquiring. The first approach is defeatist and cripples intellectual growth; the second accepts research as a creative process, which is often messy and haphazard. The first approach is easy (maybe lazy even); the second is hard.

Perhaps we need to encourage students to do more than just be skeptical about neuroscience. Once they get into the habit of being skeptical it becomes all too easy to lazily dismiss any and all findings as rubbish based on even the most superficial of flaws — I see it all the time in lab reports. Although skepticism is essential to good scientific practice, it needs to be complemented by creativity as well. We need students to be able to generate ideas and to figure out ways of testing those ideas. So this study sucks, but how would you do better? So this method is flawed and the inferences based on it are dubious, but what methods would satisfy the question? Heck, what is the question?

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